Monday, 31 December 2012

Bar 44 Tapas, Penarth - Spanish restaurant review

Reviewing restaurants is an undeniably subjective activity.

Whilst there’s often a consensus of opinion about a particular place, variations in food and service and differing tastes and palettes often result in drastically different conclusions. The contrasting views of Egg Wallace and John Letoad on Masterchef, and the varied conclusions of professional critics is evidence of this.

One of the difficulties of forming an opinion of a restaurant is that on a single visit you can only sample a small proportion of the menu. As a result, there’s every chance you’ve ordered the 3 worst or 3 best dishes on offer. Whilst it can be argued a top restaurant sends out food which is consistently excellent, in reality most places have a few duds and winners lurking somewhere.

One of the benefits of last weekend’s visit to Bar 44 Tapas Penarth with a large group was that I was able to sample almost their entire menu. As such, I’m pretty confident in my opinion that Bar 44 serves chuffing awesome tapas. In fact, whilst some of the dishes were blow your socks of brilliant, the worst dishes were ‘merely’ good.

On the Saturday night we visited, Bar 44 Penarth was absolutely rammed - drinkers thronged the bar and the restaurant was full. In spite of this, service was friendly, repeat drink orders were taken throughout the meal and our 20 or so tapas dishes were brought out in quick succession.

Essential dishes, to name a few,  include some wondrously crisp and fluffy triple cooked patatas bravas (£3.30),

moreishly rich ham and bechemal filled croquettas (£4.00),

pan fried goats cheese with chestnut honey and walnuts (£4.20),

slices of spiced morcilla (blood sausage) with a runny duck egg and piquillo peppers (£3.80),

a textbook tortilla (£4.00),

rioja poached chorizo with a pot of crispy bread crumbs (£4.00),

tender beef skewers served with a decadent Romesco sauce and a plate of medium rare Iberico pork fillet served with bacon infused lentils.

Even the olive oil served with the fresh bread was absolutely top dollar (£2.75).

The well prepared yet slightly un-inspirational chestnut mushrooms with garlic and fino sherry (£3.80) and a whole lemon sole a la plancha were the low points (£4.50) - relatively speaking of course.

On the booze front, a bottle of Ferran Adria designed wheat beer was one of the best I have ever tasted. Its lightness meant it lived up to its billing as a perfect match for tapas.

A pint of Estrella Galicia was highly drinkable yet run of the mill. Meanwhile, other members of the party did some serious damage to Bar 44’s extensive cocktail list.  

For dessert, a dish of Pedro Ximenez sherry and raisin ice cream was smooth and creamy with a gentle wallop of booze (£2.50).

A flourless almond and lemon cake was moist, citrusy and had a good density (£3.00).

A crema Catalana delivered everything you could want from a crème brulee – most importantly, a thin and crispy caramel top (£3.80).  

I summed up my review of Bar 44 Tapas Cowbridge by rueing the fact that their second outlet was set to open in Penarth and not Roath. I’ll take this opportunity again to implore Bar 44 to open a Wellfield Road branch…

The details: 
Address - 14 Windsor Road, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, CF64 1JH
Telephone - 02920 705497

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Lilo Express, City Road, Cardiff - The Cardiff Kebab Quest

Judging by the fact Lilo’s on City Road has expanded next door to form Lilo Grill House and Lilo Express, they don’t just have a cult following at the secondary school in Penarth where I used to teach. Furthermore, Lilo Express’s canopied ceiling and the hubbub of large groups tucking into huge plates of meat makes for one heck of an atmosphere.

Whilst my first escapade on the kebab quest was enjoyable, everything at Lilo’s is just a bit better. The meat is plumper and juicier, the bread softer and more elastic and the sauces less ambient…

We started with a plate of creamy and smoky baba ghanouj (£3.25) served with warm flatbread. It was good but could have done with a bigger hit of aubergine.

A decent banana and strawberry milkshake (£2.85) was of the milk rather than ice-cream based ilk.

Onto the kebabs -

The kebabs – Mixed Shawarma (£7.95) and Chicken shish (£7.95)

Meat – The excellent mixed shawarma comprised of oodles of shredded, aromatic, fatty and tender lamb and chicken. The equally generous portion of plump chicken shish was moist, charred and citrusy.

Bread – Superb warm, soft, bubbly and elastic bread.

Salad – A fresh yet run of the mill combination of lettuce, red onion, tomato and cucumber

Sauce – A soothing yoghurty mild garlic sauce and a potent chilli sauce

Other – Buttery rice with a scattering of lentils added some welcome padding. I was just a bit jealous of the neighbouring table who had ordered half and half.

The verdict – An excellent kebab. Some slightly more exciting salad would make it stellar.

The details - 
Address - 72-74 City Road  Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF24 3DD
Telephone - 029 2045 0089

Sunday, 16 December 2012

La Cuina, Cardiff Spanish restaurant review

A dearth of Spanish restaurants in Cardiff has transformed into abundance in a matter of months. Bar 44 Penarth, La Cuina and La Cha Cha are the 3 which I’m struggling to resist comparing to buses.

Safe in the knowledge that Bar 44 is a banker and with La Cha Cha sounding a bit iffy, it was La Cuina’s Catalonian focus which piqued my curiosity the most. Located on the site of the obsolete Patagonia, this delicatessen cum tapas bar cum restaurant has serious visual impact.

The simple & bold logo, grand window table, and chillers filled with pies, tortillas, meats and olives all serve as a siren’s call.

We visited La Cuina on a Friday night. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, there’s a set menu in action (1 course £18, 2 courses £23 and 3 courses £28). Their tapas menu is available during the day and on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

A mouthful of stonking chorizo bread set the tone for the win packed menu. It was the first time in ages that it’s taken me more than a minute to choose my evening meal.

Whilst the rest of the group knocked back a number of carafes excellent Catalonian house red, I had a beer (Catalonian I think).

Everyone was very impressed with their starters.

My salad of salty smoked duck breast was carefully balanced by soft sweet apple, rocket leaves and a pomegranate dressing.

Mrs G’s salad of poached pear and creamy Cabrales blue cheese was dressed with red wine, star anise and chilli.

The other starters of Welsh smoked halibut and sweet pimenton salad…

and slow cooked Catalan rabbit on toasted sourdough were rated highly.

Mains were decent but not of the same level as the starters.

My main comprised of a couple of decent sized pieces of well flavoured yet fairly dry pheasant, lonesome pieces of broccoli and cauliflower, and a roast potato. The highlight was an excellent sauce heady with anise and orange.

Whilst Mrs G’s Mari I Muntanya (Sea and Mountain) looked a little anaemic, it was the stronger of the two dishes. Moist chicken and tender prawns were bathed in a flavour-packed sauce of wine, tomato and onion.

Desserts were a mixture of excellent and average.

A moist orange and almond cake coated with glistening dark chocolate ganache was stunning.

A cheese selection of 4 interesting goats’ and sheeps’ cheeses was good too. It was just crying out for a little lubrication from some quince jelly or chutney.

A light yet flavour-lacking chocolate roulade with raspberry coulis was the weakest link.

Whilst our meal wasn’t a triumph across the board, La Cuina is dishing out food with exciting ingredients and interesting flavour combinations. There’s a sophistication to the dining space and warmth to the service which makes a return visit to sample their croquettas on a tapas night inevitable…

The details:
Address - La Cuina, 11 Kings Road, Cardiff, CF11 9BZ
Telephone - 029 20190265

La Cuina on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Fire Island, Cardiff Barbecue review, food blog

Update - Fire Island has now closed down

Cardiff is currently experiencing the biggest glut of new restaurant openings in a long time.  Over the last few months we’ve had Double Super Happy, Chapel 1877, Viva Brazil, La Cuina, Hide ‘N’ Sea, The Lansdowne, Cosy Club, Bill’s, La Cha Cha and Bar 44 Penarth.  

However, the arrival which has had me salivating with anticipation more than one of Pavlov’s dogs is Fire Island. Their description, “Craft beer, cocktails, wood smoked BBQ & Grill”, sums up the reasons.

Barbecue has been one of the major UK food trends of 2012. However, it’s something I know chuff all about. And, more than any cooking style it inspires a geeky fanaticism - obscenely long cook times, mystery rubs, secret sauces, and exotic wood mixes are all part its complexity. So, if I drop any BBQ faux pas, I can only apologise.

Fire Island is located in the former Glamorgan County Council Staff Club on Westgate Street. They’ve done a cracking job with the renovation and the New York warehouse feel is right on point.

So too is the house beer, Tiny Rebel BeatBox American Pale Ale. And, it’s an exclusive to Fire Island

Fire Island’s launch menu is reassuringly short, with a clear focus on BBQ. We were told, it’s going to get bigger and will include desserts. I hope it doesn’t get too much bigger as it reads pretty well already. In spite of this, the addition of desserts will avoid the necessity of a post-lunch cream tea in future…

With Rhys “the bottomless pit” as my dining companion, we thought it would be ill-mannered not to order 2 mains each; the danger of this being our food was nearly delivered to a nearby table of 4.

According to our friendly waitress, Fire Island has both a hot & a cold smoker and they make their sauces from scratch. Neither she nor I can shed any more light on Fire Island’s barbecue process.

The ribs were good. A dark smoky crust surrounded the firm & moist flesh of both half racks of baby back pork ribs (£7.50) and pork spare ribs (£8.00). The slather of sticky, sweet and tangy barbecue sauce also had us reaching for a forest’s worth of wet wipes. However, a portion of 4 ribs for £8 felt a little light.

Pulled pork (£7) was also delicious. Tender, lightly smoked shreds of pork were coated in some more barbecue style sauce. The generic crispy white roll did its contents a disservice.

Pretty much everything else can be described as a work in progress. Accompanying coleslaw and potato salad were light on flavour and seasoning.

Soft sweet potato wedges (£2.50) served with a dollop sour cream were highly troughable but needed a good crisping up and a shake of salt.

The biggest disappointment was saved for beef brisket slow cooked in Beatbox A.P.A (£8). It looked and tasted a bit school dinner; the slow cooking process imparting neither flavour nor tenderness.

So, how to sum our experience at Fire Island? Whilst lunch was hit and miss, the headline act (the ribs) were rather good. In fact, the prospect of a whole rack and a pint of Tiny Rebel is pretty tempting. It’s just the other details that need to get sorted as this new restaurant beds in.

The details:
Address - Corner of Westgate and Quay Street

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Kings Arms, Pentyrch, Restaurant Review

As soon as 1st December arrives, as far as I’m concerned, the month long festivities of Fatmas officially begin. The ritual consumption of mince pies, trimmings, chocolate, gravy, cake and meat lasts for 31 days and 31 nights.

In order to kick off the festive season in style, Mrs G and I visited the Kings Arms, Pentyrch to sample their Christmas menu.

I can’t think of a better exemplar of a country pub than the Kings Arms. Rather awesome Otley Ales are on tap, service is warm and friendly, the pub is divided into intimate rooms where you can cosy up by the fireside, and traffic permitting it’s only a fifteen minute drive from our house in Cardiff.

I began the meal by maintaining my 100% cracker win record for the last 5 years (if you want the secret drop me an email).

I then moved onto some gargantuan arancini. A crisp exterior gave way to a cheesy, herby but slightly dense risotto. A fiery red chilli crème fraiche and watercress salad provided an excellent counterpoint.

Mrs G opted for a very well balanced sweet potato, squash and coconut soup. It was earthy, creamy, peppery and sweet in equal measure.

For the main Fatmas event, Mrs G and I both opted for a roast dinner with all the trimmings. Mrs G ordered Welsh turkey breast whilst I had silverside of Breconshire beef. Both the aesthetically pleasing, epic-sized dishes were good but not without fault.

Whilst both meats were very were well flavoured, my beef was served well done and was consequently a touch on the dry side. Meaty sage and onion stuffing, crisp Yorkshire pudding, sweet red cabbage, new potatoes and buttered romanesco cauliflower were all major plusses. However, the shortcomings were slightly bland yet enjoyably thick gravy, un-crisp roast potatoes and overdone carrots.

Mrs G finished the meal with an excellent lemon and lime tartlet. Superb crisp pastry contained a runny, fragrant citrus curd. Whilst the clotted cream was a welcome addition, a chocolate coulis threatened to unbalance the dish.

For dessert I ordered a chestnut and whisky cheesecake, subtly flavoured with just the right amount of booze and nuts. Accompanying crystallised ginger added some Winter warmth. The very good pudding was let down by an all too familiar soggy biscuit bottom.

As far as Christmas menus go, the Kings Arms’ offering of £22.50 for 3 courses is rather good value. Furthermore, whilst the mandatory turkey with trimmings and Christmas pudding are all present and correct, there are a few less obvious dishes available which steer the menu away from clichéd chicken liver chocolate parfait bombe territory. 

Food was kindly provided free of charge by The Kings Arms

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

The Kings Arms on Urbanspoon