Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Ichiban, Japanese Restaurant, Cardiff review

For a cuisine of such seeming simplicity, the spectrum of quality of sushi available on the UK high-street is vast. The fine margin between garbage and quality lies in the detail. From my reasonably extensive sampling it seems that success lies in the use of exceptionally fresh, quality fish and moist, firm, flavoursome sushi rice.

At the cheap end of the sushi scale I’ve eaten the excellent from places such Japan Centre in London whilst I’ve also sampled the rather poor from the conveyor belt of mediocrity that is Yo Sushi. Ichiban serves up sushi which lies somewhere in the middle; it’s pretty decent but it’s not without its flaws.

We visited the Roath branch as it’s within rolling distance of home. The dining space is bright and clean, the serving staff were exceptionally friendly and efficient, and the beer and ice tea were cool and refreshing.

I started with some delicious unagi nigiri (£3.20). Moist, sweetly glazed smoked eel sat atop fresh sushi rice. The tempura roll was also pretty decent (£4.00) – the tempura king prawn at the centre of the roll was plump and juicy but the batter had lost a little of its crispness.

I then moved onto chicken katsu don (£7.50). Sliced deep fried breaded chicken and omelette lay on a huge bowl of sticky rice and stir fried onions. The dish was pretty tasty; the chicken was moist and the portion size was exceptionally generous. However, the batter on the chicken was on the soggy side and the flavours a little one dimensional owing to the dominance of the sweet onion. A good dash of soy and wasabi pepped things up no end. An accompanying bowl of some lovely miso soup came with the dish.

Mrs G started with a chicken salad (£4.20) - Fresh salad, moist shredded chicken and an enjoyable soya dressing with a good kick of wasabi.

She then moved onto some very good California rolls (£4.30) with the usual filling of avocado, cucumber, crab stick and mayonnaise and a rather pretty coating of caviar.

Her only disappointment was a tuna hand roll (£2.80). Although the tuna and sushi rice were fresh and well flavoured they were spoilt by a seriously leathery nori coating.

As with many other places the success of a meal at Ichiban depends heavily on the choices you make. Pick wisely and you’ll eat well. Just avoid the mediocre options…

The details:
Address - Ichiban Cardiff, 167 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, CF24 3NT
Telephone – 029 20463333

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Kings Arms, Pentyrch - Launch night

Last night I was invited along to the relaunch of The Kings Arms, Pentyrch. It’s recently been taken over by Otley, the award winning Welsh brewery, and they’ve completely refurbished the place. It’s got a proper cosy country feel to it but with a hint of swank.

We were treated to a beer tasting session with the knowledgeable and affable Nick Otley. My tipple of preference was the light & citrusy Croeso; a session beer of the highest calibre. The Thai-Bo was also rather delicious. Infused with lemon grass, lime zest and kaffir lime leaf it smacked of green curry; in a good way.

We ate from a barbecue menu which was put on especially for the launch. My Welsh lamb steak stuffed with black pudding and rosemary was tasty. Well flavoured lamb stuffed with a huge hunk of black pudding. The only downer - the lamb was a tad rare in the middle for my taste. It was served with a delicious tapenade and purple potato salad.

The normal summer menu has plenty of crowd pleasers on it too including 12hr confit shoulder of Breconshire lamb and Deep fried Pollack in Otley ale beer batter.

There’s not many decent country pubs so close to Cardiff and it seems like Otley might be onto something with the relaunched Kings Arms.

Food and booze were kindly provided free of charge by The Kings Arms

The details:
Address - Kings Arms, Church Road, Pentyrch, Cardiff, CF15 9QF
Telephone - 02920 890202
Web -

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Meating Place, Cardiff Restaurant Review - Searching for Cardiff's Best Burger

The Meating Place occupies the former site of Porto’s on St Mary’s Street and they’ve done one hell of job updating the old tatty place. Retaining the dark wood beams and furniture of Porto’s they’ve transformed the restaurant through the use of a few well placed mirrors, a scattering of spotlights, a white washing of the walls and the odd black & white photo.

When I set out for an impromptu weekend lunch with Mrs G, my mind was fixed that I was going to order a burger. One glance of the Express lunch menu later and my resolve was tested. Attention grabbing options included an open sandwich of salt beef, ox tongue, piccalilli and potato salad (£4.90) along with a rather bargainous 8oz rib eye steak with hand cut chips (£7.95).

In the end I successfully stuck to my guns and ordered the burger.

The Burger – The Meating Place, Flame grilled bacon and cheese burger

1. Is it as tasty as a Big Mac? Nearly but not quite.

2. How was the patty? Served medium to well done, the perfectly proportioned patty was well seasoned and still moist. The flame grilling of the patty added a welcome flavour dimension (flame grill is certainly one of the trump cards Burger King holds over McDonalds). However, the level of charring was pushed to the very limit of acceptability.

3. How was the bun? Lightly toasted this beautifully glazed bun looked the part. The very good white roll cosseted the burger perfectly.

4. How was the other stuff in the bun? A generous number of rashers of thick well flavoured bacon, oozing cheddar and a couple of slices of tomato. Conspicuous by its absence was a good smear of ketchup and mayonnaise. I’m of the opinion that if you expect the customer to sauce their own burger then condiments should be brought to the table or offered without prompting.

5. How were the fries? Excellent. Crisp and fluffy. Proper chips.

6. What was the price? £7.50 Very good for the quality of burger especially with the cheese, bacon and chips included in the price

7. How were the sides? 

Onion rings (£2.50) were excellent; crisp, sweet and salty. The extra drop of grease made them a close second best to Mimosa’s.

8. What about the other food?

Mrs G ordered some very good Artisan bread (£2.00) and marinated olives (£2.50).

Her main of Perl Las, pear and endive salad (£4.90) was also enjoyed. The mildly bitter endive leaves were well dressed and balanced perfectly by the sweetness of the shredded pear and salty creaminess of the Perl Las.

The dessert menu read exceptionally well too. My innovative sounding baked hazelnut and muscavardo sponge with dark chocolate sorbet (£4.10) thankfully tasted as well as it read. The nutty and sweet moist sponge was accompanied by a smooth, chocolatey and cleansing sorbet as well as some delicious crumbled caramelised nuts. The little smear of what I think was vanilla flecked cream was slightly overpowered by the other flavours on the plate.

Mrs G ordered a bowl of smooth and just the right side of subtle coconut sorbet (£3.00).

8. How was the service? Good.

9. So what's the verdict? As a sibling establishment to the impressive Potted Pig and North Star, it’s not surprising that The Meating Place is executing interesting food in a stylish atmosphere. The burger is certainly one of the better I’ve eaten in Cardiff but it’s still some way off  the utopian Cardiff burger I have in mind. Most importantly, The Meating Place is another good independent city centre restaurant to add to the short but growing list.

The Details:
Address: The Meating Place, 41 St Mary’s Street, Cardiff, CF10 1AD
Telephone: 02920 224757

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Angela Gray Cookery School, Llanerch Vineyard Review

I’d rate my eating skills fairly highly. Put copious quantities of food in front of me and chances are I’ll demolish it in a Man v Food style manner and then ask what’s for pudding. However, as far cooking skills go, I’m mediocre at best. My repertoire of evening meals could probably be counted on two hands and for this I blame a lack of time spent in the kitchen.

Fortunately, with a change of career on the horizon, I’m hoping to have more time to work on my culinary skills. I’m particularly keen to learn how to bake. So, when I was invited to attend a bread baking course at the Angela Gray Cookery School, I was there faster than you can say pain de campagne.

Llanerch vineyard, located a 20 minute drive from Cardiff in Hensol in the Vale of Glamorgan, is a haven of all things luxury. It comprises of a vineyard, boutique hotel, self-catering cottages, restaurant and the Angela Gray cookery school. For those of you unaccustomed to Angela Gray’s work, she has some pedigree in the food industry having presented numerous programmes for the BBC, written cookbooks and worked as a chef for the stars.

Courses at the school range from Saturday Kitchen demonstrations (£5) to 2.5 hour taster courses (£50) and 1 day courses (£150 approx) on topics as varied as French bistro, Asian salads, Lebanese food and Summer patisserie. Except for the Saturday kitchen, they’re not exactly cheap. However you are paying for a pretty high end experience; courses are run either by Angela or an external specialist, the cookery school kitchen is state of the art, class sizes are small (6 on my course) and there’s a workstation for each attendee ensuring an incredibly hands on experience. In the two and a half hour time slot we individually baked three recipes from scratch: white rolls, calzone and soda bread.

The evening taster course kicked off at 6:30pm, ideal for the post-work crowd. Armed with tins and tupperware I was ready to master bake. Angela provided clear instructions and a demonstration of each recipe as we went along. Then it was down to us to remember and carry out each step in a comedic Generation Game style manner (a print out of the recipe might have been helpful as an aide-memoire). My cack handed attempts at turning calzone dough with my knuckles and producing dough balls as smooth as a baby’s bottom were no match for the relative ease with which Angela performed these tasks.

First of all we made the dough for our white rolls which we knocked back on a couple of occasions throughout the evening and finally portioned and decorated with mixed seeds.

In between knocking back the dough for the white rolls we set to work on frying the onions and peppers for our calzone filling. After lightly frying, we added torn basil, parmesan, a sliced clove of garlic and half a mozzarella.

Next up was the soda bread. In my ignorance, I was unaware that baking soda rather than yeast is used as the raising agent for this loaf. It was remarkably simple to prepare. We chucked all the ingredients into a bowl, worked them together and then whacked it in the oven.

Finally we made the calzone/pizza dough, crammed the filling in and crimped the edges.

The results were all rather pleasing. By the time the course finished at 9pm I was ravenous. As I made the journey back to Cardiff, the scent of freshly baked bread filled the car. When I reached home I was ready to rip open the bread tins, stick my head in and eat from them like a pig in a trough.

The calzone packed with Mediterranean flavours was far better than the mutated Cornish pasties I’ve eaten from identikit chains such as Zizzi. The white rolls, not the most pleasing to the eye due to my useless kneading skills, were soft with the scattering of Fennel seeds providing an extra dimension of taste. Finally the soda bread, my least favourite partially due to the fact it was a little underdone in the middle, was moist and creamy due to the whole tub of buttermilk which went into the mix.

I’m sure by efforts wouldn’t trouble any of the finalists of the Great British Bake Off but I was proud of my achievements. It’s a sign of a good course that I feel inspired to get into the kitchen and do it again. So maybe next time I’m tempted to order a couple of Domino’s pizzas I’ll try and resist and make my own.

I was invited to the Angela Gray cookery school as a guest of Llanerch Vineyard

The details:
Address - Angela Gray Cookery School, Llanerch Vineyard, Hensol, Vale of Glamorgan, CF72 8GG
Telephone - 01443 222716
Web -

Friday, 8 June 2012

Sosban, Llanelli restaurant review

I’d been yearning to visit Sosban ever since I first heard about the ambitious project to convert an old hydraulic pump house on Llanelli docks into a grand dining space. With backers in the form of Welsh rugby internationals Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel and the highly regarded Welsh food writer and restaurateur Simon Wright (formerly one of the brains behind the brilliant Y Polyn) there was a lot to be excited about. Compounded further by the news that the former head chef of the highly regarded Galvin Bistro de Luxe would be taking the reins in the kitchen, I’ve been looking for an excuse to make the one hour drive to Sosban since it opened nearly a year ago.

Friends (Mr and Mrs B) visiting from London for the bank holiday and a trip to the Gower were the justification I needed. Having eaten a mediocre lunch at The Worm’s Head hotel with the dramatic Rhossili beach as a back drop, I crossed my fingers this wasn’t a portent of the curse of restaurants with a stunning setting and food which can’t live up to the billing.

The style of food being served at Sosban leans heavily on Simon Wright’s unfussy focus on flavour and Welsh produce. Prices hover on average around the £7 mark for starters, £17.50 for main courses and £5.50 for desserts. These are pretty serious prices and reflect the ambition of the food being served.

Taking a lead from Y Polyn, complementary bread and bottled tap water were brought to the table without prompting. Moist, olive oil packed foccacia style loaf was notably delicious.

I ordered a pint of the excellent Brooklyn lager (£4.00) whilst Mrs G ordered a strawberry bellini (£5.50).

To start I ordered mussels with cider cream (£5.50). Whilst most of the mussels were plump and juicy, a few on the edges looked a little tired, perhaps having sat on the pass for a few minutes too long.  The standout element on the dish was the excellent cream and cider sauce.

Mrs G ordered the poached pear, walnut and Perl Las salad (£6.50). A simple dish of classic flavour combinations was executed well. The portion size was a little on the small side.

Our friends ordered the Perigord duck salad (£8.00) and the Black Mountain smoked salmon with Monorbier asparagus (£7.50). Again with such simplicity there was no room for hiding. Whilst both dishes were greatly enjoyed, the duck was on the dry side and the 3 small spears of asparagus and small piece of salmon was on the meagre side even for the concave chested Mr B.

For main I ordered Gower slow cooked pork belly, braised cabbage and Madeira sauce (£14.50). Moist, flavoursome pork belly, smooth potato, perfectly cooked cabbage and a deeply savoury Madeira sauce were all on the button. Unfortunately the inviting looking crackling would have been more appropriately named chewing.

Mrs G’s dry aged steak was also very good but not without flaws (£19.50). Whilst the meat was well flavoured and accurately cooked to a medium-rare, it wasn’t the tenderest piece of steak I’ve ever eaten. What’s more the well seasoned chips lacked crispness and the smooth and fragrant pot of bĂ©arnaise sauce was on the stingy side. Mrs G requested some more and it was swiftly delivered to the table by the helpful waiting staff.

Mrs B ordered the roast rump of lamb, parsnip puree, potato gnocchi and spring vegetables (£17.50). Whilst this enjoyable dish looked pretty as a picture and the accompaniments were all precisely cooked, the lamb itself was unevenly cooked; some parts were moist and medium and other bits leant towards overdone.

Mr B ordered the Barbary duck breast, confit leg and sarladaise potatoes (£17.50). Confit leg was moist and flavoursome and the sarladaise potatoes were crisp and garlicky. The sauce however was a little one dimensional and the duck breast was under-seasoned.

The dessert menu at Sosban reads like a top ten of my all time favourite desserts. Notable highlights include creme brulee, rum baba and warm chocolate mousse with pistachio ice cream. 

I plumped for the lip coatingly gooey chocolate marquise flecked with crisp bits of after eight chocolate (£7.50). It was delicious. The homemade mint choc chip ice cream was the freshest I have ever tasted. The only low note was the shot glass of chocolate milkshake. Thin and lacking the ice cold malty goodness of America’s finest, it was a disappointment. 

A tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream (£6.50) was bang on; soft apple, crisp pastry, sweet caramel and smooth vanilla ice cream.

So too was a simple bowl of homemade pistachio and vanilla ice creams (£4.50) with an excellent shortbread biscuit.

The final dessert was a cherry cheesecake (£6.00); an elegantly simple combination of crisp biscuit base, cream cheese topping and poached cherries.

All in all we had a fantastic evening at Sosban. The atmosphere, service and building make it a perfect location for feasting and celebrating. It’s just a shame the food didn’t quite live up to the grand setting. It’s not far off, just a few tweaks and Sosban could be the destination restaurant its location deserves.

The details:
Address - Sosban, North Dock, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, SA15 2LF
Telephone - 01554 270020

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Ledbury, Notting Hill, London Restaurant Review

It’s recently been drawn to my attention by some of my friends that I tend to overuse superlatives and statistics in my blog posts. More often than not I’ll spew out ludicrous statements such as “it’s the best slow cooked chicken’s lip I’ve ever eaten” or “it was recently voted the best Bhutanese restaurant in Wales by the Women’s Institute”. Perhaps this can be explained by the Scientist in me; I like things to be concrete rather than wooly.

This brings me to the 14th best restaurant in the world, The Ledbury. Goodness knows how San Pellegrino has come up with such specific rankings of the world’s elite restaurants but if they could share their algorithm with me, it would make writing reviews a lot simpler.

Pointless rankings aside, The Ledbury is scarily brilliant. Brett Graham’s food is stunningly plated, mixes classic and modern flavours and textures, and most importantly is utterly delicious. Service at The Ledbury is the best I have ever experienced; slick yet friendly, laid-back and not overbearing. Finally, the atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious. The lack of dress code meant Gourmet Gilly and I wore casual clothing without feeling awkward or out of place. Twin sets and pearls sit side by side with string vests and joggers (that's an exaggeration).

In fact, The Ledbury is so good it’s a struggle to come up with any criticism of yesterday’s lunch. If I’m being exceptionally petty then the tap water was iced at the start of the meal but by the end it was room temperature. This minor imperfection is evidence of just how awesome our meal was.

Having luckily netted a last minute lunch time reservation, we opted for the exceptionally good value lunch menu (£30 for 2 courses, £35 for 3 courses). In contrast to the bargainous set lunch, the entry costs for the wine are a little steeper. £8.50 is the cheapest wine by the glass and £25 is the cheapest bottle (prices increase rapidly). I quaffed an excellent glass of Young Vines Riesling.

Amuse Bouche – Parmesan cream, poached asparagus and edible flowers in a wafer thin tart case. If these were available from the snack aisle of my local supermarket I’d eat a bag full.

Bread – Immense in both quality and quantity, every time I cleared my plate the bread guy returned to offer me more. Bacon and Onion Brioche was croissant-like. A brown sourdough roll and a brown roll with crystallised malt were warm and crisp; the perfect vehicles for generous slathers of melting butter.

Starter – Macaroni stuffed with quail, spring truffle and thyme with a veloute of parmesan. The combination of rich flavours steered away from heaviness and retained a light quality. I had to get some more bread to mop up the last of the veloute.

Starter – Salad of heritage tomatoes with lightly smoked cow’s curd, dried olives and green tomato juice. A menagerie of tomatoes, complex tasting plant leaves, and delicate pastry tubes stuffed with lightly smoked curd were capped off with black olive powder. This clean tasting dish was a contrast to the indulgence of mine.

Main – Crisp pressed suckling pig with creamed potato, mousserons and sugar snap peas. Categorically the best pork and the best crackling I have ever eaten. Whilst the flavoursome and moist belly pork fell apart simply by looking at it, the crackling was crunchy as can be and thin as a crisp. Meanwhile the creamed butter contained a small amount of potato in it , the mousseron  mushrooms added a  sweet, earthy note to the dish and a dark smear of chicory, Pedro Ximinez and liquorice added a sweet, smoky quality to the plate.  

Main - Roast turbot with asparagus, shellfish cream and Jersey royals. I’ve never tasted such a flavour packed shellfish sauce in my life (what's the running total of superlatives in this review?)

Dessert – Whipped Ewe’s milk yoghurt with berries, lemon verbena meringues and warm citrus beignets. Hot and cold, crisp and soft, creamy and watery, this was a dish of contrasts. In addition to the soft citrusy doughnuts, creamy yoghurt, strawberries, blueberries and crisp shards of meringue mentioned on the menu, a refreshing white chocolate sorbet added an extra dimension.

As Gourmet Gilly and I were both celebrating our birthdays, we were kindly presented with a couple of complementary desserts from the a la carte menu. In the interests of fairness I sliced each down the middle and got back to the business of eating.

Dessert – Brown sugar tart with poached grapes and stem ginger ice cream.  Stunning. Simple flavour combinations prepared to perfection.

Dessert – Mille-feuille of mango, vanilla and kaffir lime leaf. The crispest, finest, puff pastry I have ever eaten, layered with vanilla cream, perfectly poached mango and a fascinating, fragrant background note of kaffir lime leaf.

Coffee and Petit fours - Lemon Jubilee cupcake, chocolate truffle and mandarin jelly.

The Ledbury is worthy of all the accolades it’s had thrown at it. It can now add the accolade of the most superlative ridden review on this website to its collection. Brett Graham is clearly an absolute legend. In fact I’d probably go so far as to say he’s the 14th best chef in the world. 

The details:
Address - The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2AQ
Telephone - 020 7792 9090