Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Smoke House, Pontcanna, Cardiff, BBQ restaurant review

The Smoke House in Pontcanna is the third member of Cardiff’s BBQ restaurant trinity.

Having already got my paws dirty at the awesome Hang Fire and the less awesome Fire Island, I’d been looking forward to completing the picture with a visit The Smoke House.

The experience was enjoyable but...

Whilst Smoke House’s exposed wood, chalkboard and grey toned dining space is gorgeous

and they have a cracking range of interesting flavoured American craft beer (the citrusy Magic Hat IPA was particularly lush),

and service is super slick and friendly (complimentary pre-dinner pretzels and minging Hershey’s Kisses brought with the bill were a nice touch),

a BBQ restaurant is ultimately all about the meat, and it’s in this area that the Smoke House disappoints. 

A half rack of ‘Memphis’ style dry rub ribs (£13.95) were tender but hadn’t been trimmed sufficiently to remove the cartilage and small bones. More significantly, too subtle smoking and the drenching of the meat with sweet barbecue sauce contributed to a samey experience. Sides of apple slaw, crisp fries, and a pot of smoked garlic mayonnaise were very good, whilst a pan of BBQ sauce was surplus to requirements.

Mrs G’s pulled pork (£10.95) was tasty but suffered from the same problems - it was all just a bit soft and sweet. A bit more restraint with the sauce, a bit more smoking and some more textural contrast would have improved the dish. Sides of onion rings were good but lacked the uber-crispness of the best. A pot BBQ beans also contributed to the relentless BBQ sauce action.

A side dish of brisket (£3.45) was once again swimming in BBQ sauce. As such, whilst the pulled pork and brisket should have been dramatically different, there was actually very little to differentiate them.

Our other friends ordered slow smoked BBQ chicken (£10.95), a nice juicy half chicken with no discernible smoke flavour, and a Smokehouse burger (£9.50) which was described as good but unremarkable.

For dessert, a warm pecan pie combined a light syrupy filling with crisp pecans. A scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream was good but an unnecessary slick of chocolate syrup conspired to mask the flavour of everything else on the plate.

Baked New York cheesecake was pleasingly light but could have done with a citrus note to balance its richness.

Key lime pie with crisp pastry and a whipped, sharp, creamy filling was the strongest of the trio of desserts.

Our meal at the Smoke House was fine. In fact, it was only the smoked meat which was a real disappointment. 

But here’s the thing... a BBQ restaurant is all about the BBQ. 

The details:
Address - 77 Pontcanna Street, Cardiff, CF11 9HS
Telephone - 029 2034 4628

The Smoke House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Crispy Duck, pan-Asian restaurant review Cardiff

I’ve been mad keen to visit The Crispy Duck on Whitchurch Road for a long time.

They’ve won Oriental restaurant of the year in the South Wales Echo Food & Drink awards, a clutch of people have recommended it, and their menu of pan-Asian food reads really well (think sushi, yakitori, noodles and Cantonese classics amongst others).

They’ve clearly got a broad fan-base too. On the Thursday evening we visited, the clientele ranged from Asian businessmen to toned crossfitters and a large group celebrating an 80th birthday party.

As we chose from the menu, we ordered a couple of beers and nibbled on a bowl of complimentary deep fried snacks that were light on seasoning and flavour.

Whilst there’s a ton of interesting sounding dishes on Crispy Duck’s menu, its expansiveness and the seemingly arbitrary differentiation between some of the starters and mains (beef teriyaki (£8.80) is a starter whilst crispy duck salad (£5.50) is a main) made ordering more of a conundrum than usual. 

Put it this way, constructing a meal of adequate size and balance took longer than my usual ten seconds.

To start we shared a couple of dishes.

A plate of chicken gyoza (£5.50) was excellent. Delicate dumplings encased a light chicken and spring onion filling. A salty & citrusy ponzu dipping sauce was the ideal companion.

Disappointingly, a dish of crispy duck (£5.50) didn’t deserve its name above the door of the restaurant. Served as 2 ready-rolled pancakes, the portion was a little skimpy, the meat wasn’t crispy and the pancakes were on the dry-side.

For mains, Mrs G went down the sushi route whilst I went stir fry.

Scottish salmon and avocado rolls (£6.80) looked pretty as a picture and tasted very good. However, a layer of chewy nori made for a messy eat.

Inari sushi (£3) were excellent. A soft pouch of flavoursome fried tofu cocooned moist, firm & well seasoned rice.

My honey beer chicken (£6.80) was a mixed bag. A tender chicken breast surrounded in a delightfully light and crispy batter was let down by a one-dimensionally sweet honey beer sauce.

Steamed rice (£3) was pleasingly sticky but lacked any seasoning.  

Crispy Duck’s brief dessert menu reads like an afterthought - assorted cakes with special fruit anyone? 

The reality did nothing to dispel this first impression.

A scoop of tasty green tea ice cream was accompanied by a grainy red bean number (£3).

Apple crumble tray cake (£4.80) was pappy with an unforgivably soft crumble topping. It was paired with a scoop of generic vanilla ice cream.

There’s a lot I like about The Crispy Duck – the super friendly service, aesthetically pleasing plating and on occasion very good food are all big pluses. However, it’s the fine details which let many of the dishes down. With a menu of such scope, it could be argued that this is inevitable. 

The details:
Address - 21 Whitchurch Road, Heath, Cardiff, CF14 3JN
Telephone - 029 2062 8008
The Crispy Duck on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 May 2013

Hawksmoor Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London restaurant review

If you're into beef then you've probably heard of Hawksmoor.

Alongside the US beef-centric Goodman, Hawksmoor is the most well respected steakhouse in the UK.

It's not just the sophisticated dining spaces, banging cocktail menu, interesting starters & puddings which bookend the meat or the friendly & trendy serving teams which make Hawksmoor so special.

Nope, it's the beef. Hawksmoor’s steaks, which are dry aged and sourced from Yorkshire reared grass fed Longhorn Cattle, are the best flavoured pieces of beef I've ever eaten.

The four branches of Hawksmoor are located in Air Street (Piccadilly Circus), Seven Dials (Covent Garden), Guildhall (Bank) and Spitalfields.

Mrs G, the sister-in-law and I visited the Seven Dials branch, located in a discreetly entranced subterranean dining space opposite the indiscreet Pineapple Dance Studios, for a pre-theatre dinner.

Whilst 5pm is rather early to be settling down for an evening meal, as far as I’m concerned as long as you’ve eaten lunch, it’s time for dinner. And, judging by the number of other people sharing the dining room, plenty of others agree.

Mrs G and I kicked off with a house cocktail - Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew (£9.50), a supremely refreshing combination of gin, ginger syrup, lemon juice and London Pride. The effect was a posh cross-breed of ginger ale and hooch. Served in an icy cold glass tankard with a crushed ice flecked head, it would be the perfect drink for a balmy Summer’s evening.

As we were dining before 6.30pm we ordered from the staggeringly good value Express Menu offering three courses for £26. Whilst from a steak perspective we were restricted to a well proportioned 250g rib-eye, the trio of starters and desserts to select from was rather impressive. Furthermore, a choice of side was thrown in too.

For starter, I ordered Hawksmoor’s famous bone marrow with onions. Two split bones, filled with wobbly buttery marrow, were piled with mounds of caramelised onion. Spooned onto toasted sourdough, this was a dish to please the inner caveperson. 

Mrs G and the sister-in-law ordered the lighter yet still epic Doddington Caesar salad. Lightly coated crisp leaves, crunchy croutons, plump anchovies and grated Doddington cheese (a British equivalent of Parmigiano) all contributed to an archetypal salad. 

There was very little discussion when it came to choosing mains.

An unspoken agreement meant we all ordered the ribeye, cooked medium rare. They were cooked to perfection, pink and crimson with a lightly charred exterior. 

I’m not sure whether it’s a result of the cattle variety, the grass-rearing or the dry aging but the depth of flavour was phenomenal.

When Mrs G proposed ordering a selection of sides to share, she was shot down in flames by her sister and I. 

We all ordered triple cooked chips.

I mean, who honestly wants mash or salad when there’s deep fried potato available?

The classic contrast of crispy and fluffy, Hawksmoor’s triple cooked chips were very good. Saying that, I’ve had better in Cardiff.

The only real decision to be made was between bearnaise, bone marrow gravy, anchovy hollandaise and stilton hollandaise.

The sister-in-law and I ordered a textbook bearnaise, served in a sauce boat for ease of guzzling. Mrs G’s stilton hollandaise, however, was historic. Strewn with generous chunks of umami rich blue cheese I was only too happy to spoon down her leftovers.

Whilst Mrs G tapped out when it came to dessert, the sister-in-law and I ploughed on.

A peanut butter shortbread is the kind of thing I’ll fantasise about for years to come; particularly, during the mid-afternoon lull at work when I’m resisting a trip to the vending machine for a Double Decker.

Warm shortbread encased a hot chocolate ganache and peanut butter. It was topped with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream - salty and sweet in equal measure.

In contrast, a buttermilk panna cotta was the poorer relation who still happened to be a millionaire.

Creamy, but not overwhelmingly so, it was well balanced by a tart raspberry coulis and a layer of whole berries. The serving of the dish in a glass cleverly masked the fact the panna cotta was a touch on the runny side.

I’ve hopefully waxed lyrical enough about Hawksmoor Seven Dials to convince you that a meal there is a very very good idea. In the tourist trap heavy West End, Hawksmoor makes the Angus steakhouse chain appear even more of an embarrassment than we already know it is.

The details:
Address - 11 Langley Street, London WC2H 9JG
Telephone - 020 7420 9390

Hawksmoor Seven Dials on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Troy, City Road, Cardiff, Turkish restaurant review - The Cardiff Kebab Quest

Compared to the other kebab shops I’ve visited on my quest, Troy is unique.

Firstly, there’s a huge open fire pit dominating the restaurant. Watching the chef cooking kebabs and coordinating service from his seat at the barbecue adds a bit of drama to your meal. It’s a bit like watching dad doing the annual barbecue except this bloke knows what he’s doing.

Secondly, because of Troy’s Turkish roots, the menu is different. Starters of borek and lahmacun, meats including lamb’s liver & grilled quails, and a huge selection of yoghurt based kebabs add to Troy’s broad repetoire.

Whilst I pored over the menu, I necked a bottle of Efes pilsner (£2.80) and munched on a bowl of complimentary pimento stuffed olives.

To start I ordered a plate of tarama (£3.20). Familiarly pink, smooth and delicately fishy , I mopped the huge portion up with a bowl of warm bread.

Shortly after, the kebab followed...

The kebab – Karisik kebab (£10.95)

Meat – A fine selection of adana kofte (lamb kofte), cop sis (lamb shish), kaburga tarak (lamb spare rib) and tavuk kanat (chicken wings). The lamb kofte, well seasoned with parsley and red pepper, and the lamb shish were both very good. However, the charred, crisp, juicy fat of the lamb spare rib and the moreishly juicy chicken wings were the standouts.

Bread – Excellent, warm, dense, sesame seed dotted bread. The only downside is that it’s substantialness meant it was difficult to eat more than a bowlful...

Salad – I love a bit of cabbage with a kebab so the lightly dressed crisp salad of red cabbage, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion was on the money.

Sauce – Superb chilli sauce combined the sweetness of red pepper with a mild chilli kick whilst creamy garlic was subtle enough that I had no lingering aftertaste the morning after.

Other – A mound of buttery mixed rice was bob on whilst some mediocre Turkish delight brought with the bill was a nice touch.

Verdict – I may sound like a broken record but Troy is another awesome kebab shop. Such is the quality of the competition, it’s beginning to keep me awake at night deciding which is my favourite kebab shop in Cardiff. Whilst the sauces and salad were up there with the best, my preferences lean towards a less dense flat bread.

The details:

Address - 192 City Road, Cardiff, CF24 3JF
Telephone - 029 2049 9339