Sunday, 26 February 2012

Coffee Barker, Cardiff Cafe Brunch Review

Where in Cardiff can you have a cup of coffee, a spot of brunch and then buy yourself a new pair of jeans to accommodate your recently expanded waistband? Coffee Barker, located at the rear of Barker Clothes (shifting trendy clobber since 1970) in The Castle Arcade, allows you to do just that.

It feels like I’ve become an interior design blogger such was the number of words devoted to wallpaper and light fittings in my previous review. Bizarrely, for the second time in as many posts I’m going to wax lyrical about exposed brick work, eclectic furniture and tasteful light fittings. Coffee Barker’s interior is cool. Enough.

Barker has recently received a couple of big accolades. A few weeks ago they won coffee shop of the year in the South Wales Echo Food & Drink awards against stiff competition such as Waterloo Tea Gardens and The Pot. Also for the last 6 months it’s been Mrs G’s favourite coffee shop in Cardiff. I’m not sure which is the bigger achievement?

Mrs G suggested that we try brunch as she’s already a regular for lunch when they do lovely sandwiches and jacket potatoes.  Barker’s brunch menu is brief but ticks all the major boxes; bacon, sausages, smoked salmon, eggs and toast. For those who are interested there are also a couple of healthy options like granola and porridge.

I went for the bacon, sausage and scrambled duck eggs on toast (£4.99) whist Mrs G went for the smoked salmon and scrambled duck eggs on toast (£5.99). Both very well priced. I washed this down with a delicious mixed berry smoothie and Mrs G ordered a latte.

My dish was pleasant. Whilst there was no doubting the quality of the perfectly cooked bacon and Cumberland sausage, the scrambled eggs were a little odd. A generous portion of rich, gooey, scrambled duck egg was mixed with a liberal amount of wholegrain mustard. In conjunction with a lack of seasoning it meant the dish tasted almost solely of creamy whole grain mustard. Why not just keep it simple and let the unctuous duck eggs do the talking?

Mrs G loved her dish (except for the burnt toast) and I guess this serves as a reminder of how subjective critiquing food is. In addition to the mustard, Mrs G’s eggs were flecked with a generous amount of finely diced smoked salmon.  In her opinion the mustard didn’t detract from the flavour of the scrambled egg.

Faced with such a huge selection of cake, I couldn’t help but order a slice. My coconut and jam sponge was a lovely retro treat. Moist sponge was capped with a thin smear of smooth jam and a scattering of coconut. I used to have this sponge served hot on an almost weekly basis at school with lumpy custard. One bite and the memories came flooding back.

Even though my eggs were a disappointment I’m sure we’ll be going back to Barker soon; either for coffee and cake or for another pair of jeans. If I carry on eating at this rate then I’ll need a bigger pair in a few months time.

The Details: Coffee Barker, 1-5 Castle Arcade, Cardiff, CF10 1BW
Telephone: 029 2037 1491

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Arboreal Cafe-Kitchen-Bar, Cowbridge Review

Mrs G and I are in the process of doing up our home. It’s been progressing at a snail’s pace due to a lack of funds, time and motivation. After 2 years we’ve only finished the dining room. The rest of the house is a jumble of second hand furniture, soiled carpets and peeling wallpaper. Our most well used piece of furniture, the sofa, has three wooden legs and a fourth made from the hardback autobiographies of C-list celebrities.

One day, I’d like to own a Chesterfield sofa like that in the bar area of Arboreal in Cowbridge. In fact I’d happily swipe all of their furniture, wallpaper and light fittings. Arboreal is the kind of place that makes you feel vicariously cool just from being there. Its design is an inspired mix of English country, shabby chic and Scandinavian minimalism.

I’ll stop harping on about the design now. The food at Arboreal is excellent too and fits perfectly with the look and feel of the space (sorry I said I’d shut up about that). Arboreal serves light, laid back, cross-cultural and clean tasting food with a few interesting flavour combinations. They let the ingredients talk for themselves. We visited in the evening when the menu consists of sharing plates, pizzas, starters, mains and desserts. However they’re also open for breakfast when they serve dishes like baked eggs with Serano ham and Hafod cheddar or lunch when they serve flatbreads filled with curious combinations such as Caerphilly cheese and purple sprouting broccoli. Arboreal also has an extensive cocktail menu if you just want to get smashed and have a few nibbles to go with your liquid supper.

To start, the 4 of us ordered a mezze platter for 2 (£14.50) and a smokehouse platter for 2 (£14.50). Both were delicious. Standouts of the mezze included a smoky roasted aubergine with pomegranate molasses and a palette refreshing taboulleh. The winners of the smokehouse platter included a flavour packed smoked haddock, mackerel and potato terrine and a smoked salmon, cucumber and dill mayonnaise crostini.

For mains I wanted to put the woodfired pizza oven, on view in the open plan kitchen, to the test. I ordered the Pizza Fiorentina (£10.50) which arrived with a perfectly runny egg on top. I’d have liked the crust a little crisper but that’s just a minor issue.

Mrs G ordered Sumac roasted salmon with roasted Jerusalem artichokes, melted leeks and lemon beurre blanc (£15.95). The Jerusalem artichokes were a welcome change from potatoes whilst the beurre blanc was rich and buttery with a good whack of lemon. It was a success.

Our friends ordered the braised beef chilli (£15.95) and the coq au vin (£15.95). Neither dish disappointed. The chilli was packed with hunks of tender beef in a winter warming spiced sauce whist the coq au vin was served with some seriously unctuous creamy mash.

Desserts kept up the high standard of the mains. My super rich chocolate and rum tart (£5.50) was balanced by a fragrant and slightly sharp passion fruit cream. Mrs G’s smooth vanilla cheesecake (£5.50) worked well with the accompanying boozy raisins and hazelnuts whilst our friends enjoyed their apple and frangipane tart with vanilla sauce and caramel (£5.50).

My only minor gripe with Arboreal is I feel some of their prices are a little steep. Granted they’re in Cowbridge so they can add a couple of quid to typical Cardiff prices. However, £15.95 for the student classic chilli con carne is still on the pricey side. In spite of this, Arboreal is the perfect place to spend a chilled out evening with friends in a relaxed environment. If good architecture and good food make you happy then Arboreal will put a massive grin on your face.

The details:
Arboreal, 68 Eastgate, Cowbridge, CF71 7AB
Telephone: 01446 775 093

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cocorico Patisserie, Cardiff Review

Cocorico is a French patisserie located on Whitchurch road. They make their own bread and pastries; the person who runs it wears chef’s whites and sounds like he has a French accent. It seems amazing doesn’t it?

I wanted to love Cocorico so much but in the end I just liked it.

So what is there to love? Their counter is stocked with enticing fresh cakes, pastries, pies and meringues. There’s nowhere else in Cardiff that offers such an exciting looking range of baked treats. The sandwich menu is filled with exciting combinations which are a change from the usual BLT.  Prices are reasonable too; sandwiches hover around the £3.50 mark and pastries around £2.50. Finally the bread really is outstanding. Crisp on the outside and pillow soft on the inside the baguettes really are the star of the show.

I guess this is where my quibbles with Cocorico begin. It shouldn’t be the case that the bread is the best bit of a sandwich. However my black forest ham, avocado & sundried tomato baguette and Mrs G’s chorizo and garlic mayonnaise baguette didn’t deliver on the flavour front. The garlic mayonnaise was too subtle and the sundried tomato hid in the background.

Black forest ham, avocado and sundried tomato baguette
Similarly my incredible sounding chicken, leek, sage and chestnut pie (I was still hungry after my baguette) didn’t quite hit the mark. Although the pastry was perfectly crisp and thin, the chicken was on the dry side and the sage and chestnut had gone AWOL leaving the rather less exciting chicken and leek to keep up appearances.

For dessert I went for the lime, basil and lemongrass tart. This was a big success. It was the only thing which lived up to its billing. Perfectly cooked pastry was slathered with an intensely flavoured lime, basil and lemongrass filling and topped off with a wonderfully soft meringue.

Mrs G opted for a chestnut cheesecake. Unfortunately it was a flop. Whilst there was no doubting its visual appeal, in reality it tasted like a plain cheesecake. The texture too was a little odd. It was colder and firmer in the middle suggesting that it may have been defrosted.

I’m convinced there are some absolute gems on the menu at Cocorico but I only found one of them. I’m sure I’ll revisit sometime but I’ll need some better recommendations on what to order. The search for my dream coffee shop continues......

The details:  
Cocorico Patisserie, 55a Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, CF14 3JP
Tel: 02921 328177

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Pony and Trap, Chew Magna nr Bristol, Restaurant Review

It’s questionable whether any restaurants in Cardiff are going to win a Michelin star anytime soon. So where are the closest Michelin starred restaurants if you fancy splashing out? If you’re prepared to drive for an hour there’s a wealth of options. The Walnut Tree is 35 miles away, The Crown at Whitebrook is 42 miles, Casamia is 41 miles, The Manor House is 53 miles, The Pony & Trap is 54 miles, Lucknam Park is 55 miles, Bath Priory is 57 miles and Whatley Manor is 61 miles.

Having visited the 4 restaurants closest to Cardiff on the list above (unfortunately 3 of them before I started the blog) it seemed only logical that Mrs G and I should visit The Pony & Trap in Chew Magna as a Valentine’s treat (really a notional excuse for us to splash out). Under the stewardship of the locally born Josh Eggleton, a former Gordon Ramsey College scholar who has spent time working at The French Laundry, The Pony has won and held a Michelin star for the last couple of years.

As Mrs G and I had travelled so far for our supper, we felt it only right that we opted for the tasting menu which we had to pre-book in advance. £45 bought us 7 courses (+ bread & petit fours). This is certainly one of the cheapest tasting menus I’ve ever encountered. The wine list too is rather phenomenal value and accessible to wine ignoramuses like me (detailed tasting notes accompany each entry). Mrs G and I started with an excellent fragrant Marsanne Viognier costing a bargainous £14.95 per bottle. A number of other excellent value wines by the glass kept us going throughout the rest of the evening.

The closest comparator to our meal at The Pony & Trap was our recent trip to Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers. Both pubs serve up Michelin starred food which demonstrate to the world the humble British pub can serve up more than just pickled eggs and mini cheddars. However in almost every regard The Pony beats The Hand hands down (I couldn’t resist the pun). Whereas the Hand & Flowers feels like a high end restaurant masquerading as a country pub, The Pony & Trap is a proper country pub that also happens to serve Michelin starred food (farting farmers drank ale at the bar whilst we were eating our starters). Whereas the Hand & Flowers crammed the punters in by adopting some form of table Tetris, The Pony provided space for you to move your elbows (we sat downstairs so I can’t comment on the upstairs dining room). Finally, The Pony’s food delivered on its 1 Michelin star. In contrast the 2 starred Hand & Flowers served us food which was 1 star at best.

A farting farmer
Amouse Bouche – Three spoons of various goodies kicked off the evening’s gluttony. These were some of the best appetizers I’ve eaten. Hazelnuts, blue cheese and lightly pickled vegetables were perfectly balanced, a scallop wrapped in bacon was precisely cooked whilst a spiced venison faggot with pumpkin puree was well seasoned and intensely gamey & offaly.

Bread – Olive focaccia with salted butter.

Second Course - Textures of Beetroot with Homewood Cheese, Apple and Toasted Pine Nuts - A perfectly balanced winter salad. The creamy goat’s cheese complimented the slightly sharp pieces of beetroot and apple. Pine nuts and red onion added an extra dimension to proceedings whilst the lightly pickled apple was a cider-like revelation.

Third Course – Full English Breakfast – A cooked breakfast like no other I have ever experienced. WOW. Soft poached hen’s yolk, homemade black pudding, crispy bacon, girolle mushrooms, fried potatoes and vinaigrette jelly cubes cut through the richness. If only I could get something this good from my local greasy spoon.

Fourth Course – Fillet of Sea bass with purple sprouting broccoli, brown shrimp & caper butter, pesto and celeriac puree -  It’s a bit of a cliché now on Masterchef when Gregg or John exclaims that a dish tastes amazing but the main ingredient is lost amongst the other ingredients on the plate. This was exactly the case here. Every flavour on the plate sang together in harmony except for the sea bass which was lost. This dish would have been just as incredible without the sea bass. In fact it was the broccoli which was the star of the show here; perfectly al dente with almost chargrilled like qualities.

Fifth Course - Breast of Wild Mallard and Confit Leg with Red Cabbage, Potato Cake and Blackberry Gel – The only disappointment of the evening. Whilst the soft, truffled potato cake was spot on and the accompanying vegetables and sauces cut through the richness of the meat perfectly, it was the mallard itself which was the real let down. The mallard breast was a little tough and lacked flavour. Meanwhile the confit leg was a challenge to eat without picking it up. When I finally got to grips with it, I struggled to find any meat worth eating without getting a mouthful of bone or gristle.

Sixth Course – Apple sorbet with granola – Delightfully fresh, a perfect palette cleanser.

Seventh Course – I’ve got a very big soft spot for the unstoppable trio of chocolate, peanuts and salt. Here they combined to produce an absolutely brilliant dessert. On top of a gooey chocolate brownie sat salted peanut butter mousse and glistening chocolate ganache. It’s the kind of dessert you can’t eat without getting it all over your face (ok maybe that’s just me). On the other end of the plate sat gingerbread, gingerbread ice cream and a sesame caramel tuile. This cleansing combination balanced the richness of the chocolate at the other end of the slate.

Petit Fours – A pleasant combination of chocolate flapjack and incredibly wobbly yet too subtle piece of lemon Turkish delight.

Looking at The Pony’s a la carte menu, starters begin around £5 and main courses around the £10 mark. I’d question whether there are any better value Michelin starred restaurants in the UK. Pony & Trap is well worth the trip from Cardiff. If you can’t be bothered to drive back after all that food (like us) then I’d recommend The Carpenter’s Arms for overnight accommodation which is a five minute taxi ride away. 

Our bedroom (number 12) at The Carpenter's Arms
The details:
The Pony and Trap, Newtown, Chew Magna, Bristol, BS40 8TQ
Telephone - 01275 332 627
The Carpenter's Arms -

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mr G's Soul Kitchen, Caribbean Restaurant Cardiff Review

*Update* - Mr G's Soul Kitchen has closed down

When I think of soul food I think of the food of the deep south of America – fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, meat loaf and ribs. Whilst some of these dishes are on the menu at Mr G’s Soul Food Kitchen (No not Mr G from Summer Heights High), the food they serve has more of a Caribbean slant.

However as Mr G says “Who says Soul Food has to be Southern American cooking? .....Cook that food with love and you have food for the Soul” And there’s no disputing their food is cooked with love. Mr G’s generous portions of flavour packed food didn’t just feed my soul. They gave it a hot water bottle, chauffeured it home and tucked it up for bed. Just the kind of thing you need on a subzero winter’s evening.

Located at the bottom end of Bute Street, Mr G’s is a couple of minute’s walk from the heart of the Bay. Escaping the bitter cold, the Reggae music playing on the stereo and the artwork of musical legends set the tone for what Mr G’s is all about. Their menu reads like a who’s who of Caribbean classics – Jerk chicken, mutton curry, curry goat, oxtail stew and ackee and saltfish. I found myself in the happy position of having to choose from a multitude of options which I wanted to eat.

For starters I opted for spiced lamb ribs (£3.95) whilst Mrs G (Don't confuse her with Mr G! ) opted for the spiced fish cakes (£3.50). Whilst there was a good half hour wait on the starters, the waiter was apologetic and explained the delay was to ensure the lamb ribs were cooked to perfection. They were worth the wait. Melt in the mouth lamb was coated in a slightly sweet and intense mix of spices. Mrs G’s fishcakes with sweet chilli sauce were a crisp, deep fried treat but were a little one dimensional in flavour. A little more of the advertised spicing wouldn’t have gone a miss.

There was only ever one dish I was going to order for main course and that was Jerk Chicken with rice and peas (£7.75).  Mrs G deliberated a little longer and in the end went for Mutton Curry with coconut rice (£8.50). The mains were dished up in exactly the way you’d hope for food of this style; no poncing around with small portions or painting the food on the plate.

My jerk chicken was moist and slathered in the familiar taste of Jerk; a spicy and sweet combination of spices, spring onions and scotch bonnet chillis. I’ve eaten plenty of Jerk over the years and Mr G’s is a pretty fine example. The only thing that would have improved the dish would have been the chargrilled taste of a barbecue. The accompanying rice and peas too were excellent. Perfectly fluffy rice and soft beans were packed with more flavour than you could imagine is possible from a bowl of rice. Creamy coleslaw finished off the dish perfectly.

Mrs G’s mutton curry was jammed with flavoursome pieces of meat which had fallen off the bones on which they were cooked. The dish reminded me how good mutton can be when treated properly. Once again the sauce was packed with a menagerie of spicing, including a fairly good whack of chilli. The accompaniments of lovely sticky coconut rice and more of that creamy coleslaw are also worth a mention.

I almost forgot to mention the side dish of fried plantains (£1.50) we ordered. It’s probably because we’d already devoured the whole bowl in the minute it took the waiter to pick up our main dishes from the kitchen. Crisp, salty and a little bit sweet they were seriously addictive. A far cry from the sad starchy equivalents I cooked for Mrs G on one of our first dates.

After all this we were too stuffed for dessert. Mr G serves the kind of food which makes you happy. I’d quite happily scoff a plate of their jerk chicken and wash it down with a couple of beers any day of the week. 

The Details:
Mr G's Soul Kitchen, 106 Bute Street, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, CF10 5AD

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Casanova Italian Restaurant, Cardiff Review, Food Blog

Spaghetti Bolognese; lasagne; garlic bread; pepperoni pizza and tagliatelli carbonara.

There’s no evidence of any of these Italian restaurant clichés on the menu at Casanova’s and this was the first of a number of signs that Mrs G and I were in for a treat......Other good omens included:

A couple of other Cardiff based foodies I’d spoken to over the course of last week were pretty vehement that Casanova is the best Italian restaurant in Cardiff.

The first page of Casanova’s menu announces with pride the quality and seasonality of the produce they use. Organic vegetables are supplied locally from St Hilary riverside market garden; Welsh salt marsh lamb is supplied by J.T.Morgan and fresh fish is bought in from Ashton’s

Finally from the beginning to the end of the evening the service we received was friendly and knowledgeable. One of the owners Luca spoke to us passionately about the business he has built up with his 2 Italian business partners since 2005 and the produce (salamis, wines, oils etc) they buy direct from suppliers in Italy.

Casanova's evening menu is £18 for 2 courses of £24 for 3 courses.

Amuse bouche – Artichoke puree – A dainty little bowl of smooth and earthy Jerusalem artichoke soup drizzled with truffle oil and crisp shoestring potatoes. A lovely start to the meal, this little mouth pleaser demonstrated we weren’t about to eat a bog standard Italian meal.

Starter - Pancetta Arrosto - Slow roast pork belly with black pudding, lentils, baked apple and rosemary oil. Every texture, flavour and aroma worked together perfectly. This is the kind of dish I wish I could knock up in my own kitchen; plenty of meat and bags of flavour.

Starter - Scallop served with chickpea fritter and fennel salad. The beautifully sweet scallop and sharply dressed fennel salad were a perfect marriage. The crisp chickpea fritter was good but I felt it overpowered the delicateness of the scallop. In my opinion another scallop wouldn’t have gone amiss too (especially in light of the £3 supplement on the menu for this dish).

Main - Lamb ragu served with Calabrian pasta and dried ricotta. A supremely meaty sauce scattered with chunks of lamb coated every orifice of the al dente pasta. The creamy dried ricotta was a nice change from the sometimes overwhelming parmesan.

Main - Cassuoela – A traditional Milanese stew jam packed with melt in the mouth pieces of pork shoulder, a coarse cut sausage (heavily seasoned with aniseed), slices of carrot and Savoy cabbage all brought together by a flavoursome vegetable and white wine stock. These humble ingredients combined to produce a dish of regal proportions. This is the kind of wintery comfort food I’d happily eat any night of the week in this frosty weather.

All in the name of reviewing we pushed through the pudding pain barrier.

Tiramisu – I’d heard great things about Casanova’s tiramisu and it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t on the menu but a brief enquiry later and a plate of the good stuff arrived. With sponge soaked with plenty of booze and quality coffee, rich shards of dark chocolate and plenty of cream and cocoa powder what isn’t there to love?

Torta Caprese –Crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside, this traditional Italian chocolate and almond cake reminded of a gooey chocolate nut brownie. It was served with a nutty chocolate sauce and smooth (homemade tasting) vanilla gelato. Bang on.

Maintaining a fairly low key profile in the Cardiff dining scene, it’s pretty clear Casanova are ticking over happily based on word of mouth. However, in my view they deserve a far higher profile than some of the more famous Cardiff Italian restaurants. If you want to eat some food a little closer to the kind of thing you'd get in Italy then I'd strongly suggest a visit.

The Details: 
Casanova, 13 Quay Street, Cardiff, CF10 1EA
Telephone - 02920344044