Saturday, 31 May 2014

Allium Brasserie, Bath restaurant review

The other weekend we went on a day trip to Bath.

Okay, perhaps day trip is over-egging the custard a bit - we ate some food, had a brief mosey around a few shops, drank a coffee, bought some cheese and then came home.

In summary, it followed pretty much the same formula as all of my so called “day trips”.

The primary of purpose of our visit to Bath was to check out Chris Staines’s restaurant, Allium Brasserie.

Before opening Allium, Staines cooked at Foliage in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, where he held a Michelin star for seven years until it was replaced by Heston’s Dinner.

Foliage was darn awesome and so I guess it’s no surprise that Allium is too.

Staines knows how to knock out vibrant, picturesque plates of food which combine old school technique and interesting ingredients. And, with a lunch and early evening menu offering 3 courses for £23, it’s stupendously priced too.

Located in the Abbey Hotel in the middle of town, Allium’s dining room has the potential to be a charmer. However, despite the high ceilings and huge windows, it still felt gloomy and a bit characterless.

Warm, homemade rye sourdough with a golden crisp crust and a light, complex tasting interior kicked things off on a stellar note. Served with salted butter, I didn’t turn down the offer of a second basket. 

To start, I had chicken terrine with Caesar dressing, lightly pickled mushrooms, tender potatoes in a mustard dressing and a shard of crisp chicken skin. This was a dish of intense flavours which all harmonised perfectly. 

The other starter, a velvety pea soup, combined well with creamy, citric lemon goat’s curd, crisp croutons and pea shoots.

For main was a whopping portion of deep flavoured pork loin - the intense flavour was perhaps down to its 55 days of ageing. The dish was given an Asian twist by way of its delicious accompaniments - carrot and ginger quinoa (one of those health food ingredients of which I’m normally so dismissive) and a nam jim salad, heady with fish sauce, chilli and coriander.

Mouth meltingly tender lamb, broccoli puree, broccoli, caramelised shallots, wafer thin beetroot tartare and beetroot and horseradish cream was a killer combination. But, the portion was seriously stingy. In fact, it wouldn't have looked out of place on a tasting menu. 

For dessert was a triple whammy of strawberry - an excellent strawberry cheesecake with strawberry sorbet, fresh strawberries and the fragrance of mint. 

But, even better was a light and sticky almond cake accompanied by poached pear, milky ice cream and salted caramel sauce. 

After lunch, we visited Colonna & Smalls to see why they’ve gained a reputation as one of the best coffee shops in the UK. A couple of cups of coffee were all it took for me to understand what all the fuss is about. 

Utilising a scientific attention to detail and a variety of brewing techniques, the coffees were complex in flavour without the merest hint of bitterness.

However, all this quality comes at a price… you’ve got to tolerate the melange of moustaches, red chinos and tweed waistcoats.

Before the drive home we also stopped in Paxton & Whitfield Cheesemongers. Despite the allure of the jaw-droppingly large cheese selection, I miraculously left with only a couple of pieces.

The Details:

Address - Allium Brasserie, Abbey Hotel, North Parade, Bath, Somerset, BA1 1LFN
Telephone - 01225 805870

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth fine dining review

Cardiff’s hottest new restaurant in years has finally opened its doors.

Sorry, I mean Penarth's...

Restaurant James Sommerin is the spanking new, eponymous restaurant of decorated chef James Sommerin.

Caerleon born Sommerin held a Michelin star for 7 years whilst at the helm of Crown at Whitebrook, making him one of the daddies of Welsh cooking.

After months of delays, Sommerin’s new gaff in the newly built Beachcliff development on Penarth Esplanade is open for business. It’s so new that some of the building is still covered in scaffolding.

Whilst the dining room is smack bang opposite an impressive vista of the Severn Estuary, the best view to be had is into the kitchen through a window in the back of the dining room. It’s rather therapeutic to watch the kitchen team serenely doing their thing whilst the orders come in thick and fast.

In fact, the sea view is partially blocked by high-backed leather banquettes that run along the windows – somewhat of a missed opportunity.

Whilst the view is obscured, there’s no hiding Sommerin’s talent. His stellar cooking combines first-rate classical technique with clever flourishes and interesting ingredients.

On the basis of just one meal, I’d confidently say that Cardiff (sorry Penarth) now has a destination restaurant to call its own.

The menu offers a choice of 3 tasting selections to be taken by the whole table; a 5 courser for £55, 7 courses for £70 and a surprise 10-course menu for £85.

We opted for the 7 courses.

Amuse bouches included an intensely cheesy and light gougere, a dainty truffle arancino and a sweet corn panna cotta topped with smoked haddock and crispy bacon.

Next up was a little dish of indulgently cheesy and beery Welsh rarebit cream. A scattering of toasted rice provided crunch whilst a soldier was ideal dipping fodder. 

A heavily-laden plate of warm white & wholemeal bread for the table was a cracking alternative to a one-time proffered bread basket. Whilst it wasn’t the most adventurous selection, it meant I was never short of something with which to wipe my plate clean.

The first substantial course comprised of a perfectly al dente raviolo filled with creamy pea soup and accompanied by fresh peas, fragrant deep-fried sage leaves and salty ham crumbs. 

The ultimate cheese on toast followed; oozing Perl Wen topped toast was accompanied by asparagus cream, buttery asparagus pieces, truffle foam and wild mushrooms.

The first meat course continued the brilliance. Slow cooked, deeply meaty shredded oxtail was joined by caramelised onion pieces, sweet onion and parsnip purees, meaty jus, pearl barley in a vibrant green parsley sauce and a parsnip skin crisp. 

The only fish course of the night also happened to be the only dud of the meal. A piece of watery and flabby smoked cod was joined by under-seasoned egg yolk, slightly too crunchy lentils, a few bits of cauliflower and a non-descript sauce. In fact, some interesting flavoured foraged leaves were the best thing on the plate.

A phenomenal plate of pork forgave everything. Blushing loin, fatty belly and unctuous shredded head all put in an appearance. 

A super-light brie and vanilla cream provided an ingenious segue between savoury and sweet. The cleverly balanced dish was topped with finely diced apple and delicate crisps. 

Dessert, another inspired combination of sweet and savoury, was unquestionably my favourite dish of the night.

A subtle anise flavoured parfait was sandwiched between a golden biscuit base and a vibrant Del Monte-esque pineapple ring. A spiced shard of caramel, finely diced cubes of ras el hanout infused pineapple and a couple of sprigs of dill completed the picture. 

Teas and coffees were of course ordered to secure a clutch of petit fours.

Served on individual boards, we each received a wobbly cube of raspberry jelly; a raspberry and chocolate macaron; a white chocolate and coconut truffle and an ingenious banana & bubblegum panna cotta which tasted exactly like those childhood banana foam sweets. 

Restaurant James Sommerin is utterly brilliant and he deserves to reclaim his Michelin star at the earliest opportunity. 

If and when he does, Cardiff will finally have its first star.

Sorry, I mean Penarth will.

The details:

Address - Restaurant James Sommerin, The Esplanade, Penarth CF64 3AU
Telephone - 029 20706559

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Gutsy Goose, Cathays - Hunt for Cardiff's Best Breakfast

*This restaurant is now closed*

The last time I visited The Gutsy Goose on Crwys Road, I wasn’t completely convinced.

However, yesterday’s brunch visit was a totally different experience.

Well... except for the continued presence of those irksome wooden boards. 

In fact, it was so good that it’s set the benchmark against which I’ll compare all other breakfasts in Cardiff. 

The Gutsy Goose’s comprehensive brunch menu includes fry-ups, eggs Benedict, American style pancakes and steak & eggs amongst others.

Breakfast 1 – The Traditional Welsh Breakfast 

The price - £6

Pros – Uber-thick bacon, a top quality and not too herby banger, beans in a separate pot (anyone else have an issue with ‘em making the rest of the stuff on the plate soggy?), a guilty-pleasure hash brown and a good wedge of black pudding.

Cons – Being pedantic, I’d have liked to have had the option to choose white toast instead of wholemeal.

Breakfast 2 – Eggs Royale

The Price - £6

Pros – A pair of impeccably runny poached eggs, freshly toasted muffins, silky and buttery hollandaise and a liberal portion of smoked salmon.

Cons – The hollandaise was a touch too tepid and… don’t get me started on the wooden board.

Beverages – A perfect freshly squeezed orange juice (£2.50) was exactly as described. However, if you’re in need of a hair of the dog then you can knock yourself out with a Bloody Mary or a Bucks Fizz. 

Verdict – Excellent quality and a very well priced, it’s going to take some discipline for me to not call off the search for Cardiff’s best breakfast.

The details:
Address - 145 Crwys Road, Cardiff, CF24 4NH

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Got Beef, Whitchurch Road, Cardiff food blog

Readers of the blog will know I’m a bit of a fan of Got Beef’s burgers.

Following the success of their regular pop-ups, they opened their first bricks and mortar establishment on Whitchurch Road at the end of March.

The exposed brickwork, open kitchen and neon lights of the restaurant’s interior are a good fit for the casual style of food.

A menu of craft beers includes the session lager Pistonhead (£3) alongside other solid choices from Brewdog, Brewers & Union and Sam Adams.

Most importantly, the menu of burgers includes familiar favourites from the pop-up days including the Heisenburger, with blue drunken onions & blue cheese, and the Bombay, with curried bacon and coriander & lime mayo.

Sticking with the principle that simple is best, I ordered the Welsh Black (£6.95). 

A soft toasted brioche bun, juicy Welsh Black beef patty, oozing American cheese, sliced iceberg and a Big Mac-esque secret sauce (minus the diced gherkins) all combined to form a super tasty burger. 

A side of dirty fries (£3.50) was an epic guilty pleasure. Gooey cheese, spicy Cajun mayo, jalapeno slices and salty bacon bits all adorned a bowl of fries – what’s not to like?

One month after opening, it’s good to see that business is thriving at Got Beef and that the transition from pop-up to permanent restaurant has proved to be a winning formula.

It would still be nice to see the burgers cooked a medium pink – but Got Beef has unquestionably helped to raise the game for burgers in Cardiff.

The details:

Address - Got Beef, 83 Whitchurch Road, CF14 3JP Cardiff
Telephone - 029 2061 7534

Trishna, Indian restaurant, Marylebone, London review

It’s easy to picture a stereotypical plate of “fine dining” food - diddily dimensioned and precisely plated to within a millimetre of its life.

One of the reasons why I love Indian nosh is because it’s normally the exact opposite. There’s nothing quite like getting stuck into a hearty bowl of curry mopped up with a fistful of naan.

Trishna, a Michelin starred Indian restaurant located in Marylebone, finds itself caught between these two camps.

At it’s best, their Indian food is immense; expertly spiced and skilfully cooked. However, it’s let down by some poncey portions and mildly annoying service.

A couple of examples of my gripes with the service:

- Having a set lunch menu offering between 2-5 dishes per person and then being given the raised eyebrow treatment by the waiter when you try to order more than 3 seems a bit odd. It also does nothing for my insecurities about the size of my appetite…

- Waiting for your glass to be topped up with water (as the jug is squirreled away somewhere) whilst dealing with the effects of a chilli after-burn is an infuriating example of “refined” service.

A mix of poppadoms, one notably light and crisp like a prawn cracker, served with delightful tomato and mango chutneys, kicked off things in style.

A salty, spiced lassi (£4) packed with roasted cumin, fragrant coriander and a kick of green chilli was a deliciously savoury drink. My loyalty towards my old friend the mango lassi however remains unshaken. 

The three of us ordered a selection of starters to share:

Quail pepper fry was the unquestionable standout. Crisp, battered nuggets of tender poultry, golden onions, curry leaf and a good twist of black pepper combined to moreish effect.

Vada, crisp and light lentil donuts, accompanied by rasam, a thin, spiced tomato soup, was also given the thumbs up. 

The other big winner was hariyali bream; a juicy fillet of fish, coated in a lush green marinade of coriander and chilli, was accompanied by smoky tomato sauce. 

The only disappointment was a very tasty yet tight-fistedly portioned, single piece of tikka paneer. Delicately charred and topped with sweet corn it lacked the complexity of the other starters. 

Mains were winners across the board.

Andhra lamb masala was a heady mix of tender lamb, aromatic curry leaf and coconut. 

Exquisitely spiced Chettinad baby chicken was married with a mound of crispy potato shreds, inside of which nestled intensely spiced, soft leg meat and stellar peanut chutney. However, it’s plating on a stupid curved rectangular plate meant there was next to no room on the dish for any of the marvellous sides…

a creamy dhal with a tempered scotch bonnet chilli,

soft breads,

and tender spiced potatoes. 

Dessert, aam malai, was average. A fragrant mango mousse with a soft base was accompanied by fresh cubes of the fruit, chewy dried mango and a shot glass of what I think was kiwi and mint juice. 

Accompanying the bill were some dainty pieces of disappointingly dry walnut cake.  

In spite of a few issues, Trishna is an impressive restaurant.

Furthermore, their lunch menu is great value – 3 courses, poppadoms, breads and a side dish will set you back £23.50 – surely one of the cheapest Michelin starred meals going.

The details:

Address - 15 -17 Blandford Street, Marylebone Village, London, W1U 3DG
Telephone - 020 7935 5624