Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Walnut Tree, Abergavenny, Wales Michelin-starred restaurant review

There’s one restaurant above all others which holds a special place in my heart. You see, almost exactly five years ago, Mrs G and I got engaged at The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny.

It was a canny plan on my part – it means that whenever Mrs G and I have a special anniversary I’ll get to visit one of the best restaurants in the UK.

There’s often a lot talk bemoaning Cardiff’s lack of a Michelin-starred restaurant. But, let’s not forget that 45 minutes up the road is one of the country’s very best.

The Walnut Tree is perhaps the least Michelin-starry Michelin-starred restaurant going and that’s why I love it so much.

One of the elder statesmen and big personalities of British cooking, Head Chef and Owner Shaun Hill, has been cooking in some of Britain’s best-known kitchens for a staggering 43 years.

Bold flavours, unglamorous ingredients and straightforward presentation combine in his menu of modern classics. There’s not the slightest hint of a foam, smear or gel.

The dining room meanwhile feels like the local pub; it buzzes with jovial conversation instead of the occasional hushed whisper. And the serving team are warm, knowledgeable and down to earth - no one will look down their nose at you if you don't have the foggiest what jabron potatoes are.

An amuse bouche of a mini sausage roll summed The Walnut Tree up in one mouthful. Warm golden pastry and herby sausage meat were topped with a dollop of tangy homemade brown sauce. 

Warm bread, a golden granary loaf and a crusty soft brioche, were both delightful. 

Neither of our starters were as we envisioned from their menu descriptions. Thankfully, they were both still lush.

A pheasant pudding with sage and bacon (£10) was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. Essentially a hot, set pheasant mousse, it contained a hidden filling of wild mushrooms and was topped with a rich meaty jus, deep-fried sage leaves and nuggets of crisp bacon. 

Mrs G’s starter of monkfish and cucumber (£13) was a perfectly wintry fish dish – a trio of fillets were bathed in a cream sauce of intense cucumberiness (is that a word?) with a mild mustard hint. 

Mains were a pair of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten in a long time.

For me, a homage to the hog (£24).

Tender loin, unctuous belly, yielding cheek, intense black pudding atop a fried potato cake, buttery cabbage and sticky pork-flecked Boston beans made for a near flawless plate of food. The only imperfection was a slightly anaemic and under-seasoned piece of crackling. 

For Mrs G, the venison (£23).

A generous pile of meat (tender pieces of loin and deeper flavoured pieces of slow-cooked cheaper cuts) was muddled together in a glistening sauce. Accompaniments of buttered kale and carrots and golden-crusted gnocchi baked with tangy goats cheese were the ideal match.

Having swatted up on dauphine potatoes (£4) before my visit, I couldn’t resist ordering a bowl for the table. I’m not sure a potato has ever been treated with such care. A bronzed, hyper-crisp exterior gave way to an ultra-smooth mashed potato and choux pastry filling. Swoon.

Resisting the temptation to order a second portion of potatoes, we moved onto dessert.

A white chocolate and rum torte (£9) was so much more than it’s menu description. A delicate, crisp chocolate base was topped with a not too sweet, not too boozy and not too creamy white chocolate mousse, chocolate sponge, another layer of mousse and then studded with dainty pieces of raspberry. 

It was served with a phenomenally smooth, rich and yet palette cleansing dark chocolate sorbet. 

A groaning plank of British cheeses (£12) was a who’s who of Britain’s finest. Brie-like Wigmore, vegetal Montgomery, tangy Bosworth Ash, firm and socky Nuns of Caen and my all-time favourite, salty and savoury Stichelton. A lightly-dressed salad scattered with walnuts broke up the richness whilst nestled amongst the fine selection of crackers were a clutch of McVitie’s Digestives – another sign of the Walnut Tree’s lack of pretension. 

We rounded off the meal with peppermint tea (£4.50) and a pair of perfect petit fours. A cube of fudge was made using all the cream whilst a coconut bite was the ultimate mini bounty – a thick chocolate case surrounding a buttery smooth coconut filling. 

If you haven’t made a pilgrimage to The Walnut Tree then add it to your to do list for 2015.

The Details:

Address - The Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales NP7 8AW
Telephone - 01873 852797
Web -

The Walnut Tree Inn on Urbanspoon

Friday, 23 January 2015

Spit & Sawdust - Searching for Cardiff's Best Burger

Next time you’re heading to McDonalds on Newport Road, why not walk another twenty metres up the road and check out Spit & Sawdust instead?

The folks at this quirky social enterprise (comprised of an indoor skate park, art space, shop and café) are grilling burgers that would test the loyalties of even the Hamburglar. And, they barely cost a penny more than those at the Golden Arches.

Spit & Sawdust’s café is a relaxed and friendly kind of place - when I arrived at midday on a Saturday I was faced with the aftermath of a kids party.

It’s also a bit baltic so you might want to bring a coat and woolly hat. 

Having ordered from the dedicated burger menu, which includes a couple of very interesting veggie options, I sipped a can of San Pellegrino aranciata and waited for my food. 

The Burger – Classic with cheddar

1. How was the patty? A flavour-packed, golden-crusted, well-seasoned organic beef patty topped with a decent ooze of cheddar. Served well done, it would have benefited from a little less time on the grill.

2. How was the bun? A soft and sweet toasted brioche bun from Allen’s bakery in Roath. The burger:bun ratio however was a little off.

3. How was the other stuff in the bun? Shredded lettuce and finely sliced onion and tomato brought the freshness to the party.

4. How were the fries? Deep bronze, double-cooked, crisp, salty and tender – absolutely epic.

5. What was the price? Ridiculously cheap - £4.70 including chips. In terms of quality for your buck, Spit & Sawdust are very very impressive.

6. How was the other stuff? A huge bowl of onion rings (£1.50) were exemplary - crisp, light and golden with a soft filling. 

8. So what's the verdict? A damn tasty burger – Spit & Sawdust are a fine and bargainous addition to Cardiff’s burger scene.

The Details:
Address - Spit & Sawdust, Rhymney River Bridge Road, Cardiff CF23 9AF
Web -
Telephone - 02920 494741

Spit & Sawdust on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Zio Pin, Roath, Cardiff Italian restaurant review

There’s an old school Italian restaurant like Zio Pin’s on nearly every high street in the UK.

You know the score – they’re places of familiarity when you’re craving a large plate of comfort food and an even bigger glass of booze.

Zio Pin’s does some things very well – the serving team were hugely welcoming and the bar area has had a bright modern makeover since my last visit a few years ago. However, some of the dishes we ate were a bit average…

Excellent, warm crusty homemade bread slathered with soft butter and a large glass of seriously quaffable house red (£4.25) kicked off the meal on a very positive note. 

A starter of arancini (£5.45) was a well-flavoured piece of homely cooking – the risotto balls, flecked with bolognese and ham, were topped with a fresh tasting tomato sauce and melted cheese. However, the soggy crumb coating and overcooked rice were a big letdown. 

Whilst Mrs G’s starter wasn’t easy on the eye, it tasted much better. A generous portion of prawns and baby mushrooms (£5.75) were coated in a flavour-packed sauce of garlic and white wine.

Mains were the strongest suit.

A brick of lasagne (£8.95) was everything it should be – tender pasta, creamy béchamel, meaty bolognese and oozy cheese. 

Mrs G’s main, Penne Zio Pin (£9.45), saw al dente pasta and a deliciously light sauce of chicken, pancetta and tomato. 

Unfortunately, things came tumbling down with what should have been a very interesting pair of desserts.

Chocolate Nemesis (£4.50), as made famous by the legendary River Café, was a fridge cold lump of overly-rich solid chocolate cake.

Limoncello tart (£4.50) was even worse – an average lemon tart was spoiled by a shot of limoncello which had been poured over the top. Soggy pastry and the harsh taste of alcohol were the notable features. 

There’s a lot I like about Zio Pin – I’ll most certainly go back for a plate of lasagne and a pint or two in their bar. However, I’ll definitely be giving their dessert board a miss.

The Details:

Address - Zio Pin, 74 Albany Road, Cardiff CF24 3RS
Telephone - 02920 485673
Zio Pin on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Fischer's, Marylebone, London restaurant review

There are some restaurants worth visiting for the atmosphere alone.

Fischer’s in Marylebone is one of them.

The dining room is stunning - a mock-up of a grand Viennese konditorei with imposing railway clocks, old-fashioned portraiture and a stuffed animal menagerie all forming part of the set.

In fact, eating dinner at Fischer’s is like being in a Wes Anderson film i.e. my idea of fun.

Service was impeccable too (I’d expect no less from Corbin and King, the blokes behind The Wolseley) – stylish, unobtrusive and warm, the waiting team didn’t put a foot wrong. When our waiter detected an undertone that my friend wasn’t too impressed with his main course – the option of a replacement was offered in a flash.

Whilst the decor is the epitome of central European grandeur, so too is the menu. Wursts, schnitzels, kuchens and tortes are found alles uber der platz. 

Top notch crusty bread and whipped butter kicked things off on a good note. However, the £7 dinner cover charge which appeared on the bill was a sucker punch.

Starters were all enjoyed. Meaty smoked salmon (£9.25) was served with a quenelle of punchy horseradish cream and Nordic bread.

An unappetising looking log of sweet mustard cured herring (£7.50) made up for its appearance in taste – tender and sweet it was a great example of its type. 

The winner of the round however was a glorious dish of käsespätzle with bacon (£6.50). Essentially an Austrian take on macaroni cheese, the little noodles were enveloped in velvety cheese sauce and laced with nuggets of crisp bacon. 

Onto mains where there were a few glitches.

A chicken schnitzel (£14.50) was crisp, tender and impressively overhung the edge of the plate. However, save for the muslin wrapped lemon and demi-glace covering the bottom of the plate, there were no other accompaniments. 

Therefore a side of spätzle (£3), sauerkraut (£3.50) and honey-glazed parsnips (£3.75) were well needed to break up the dish’s monotony. A special mention should go out to the parsnips – covered in what seemed like a whole jar of honey, they were wickedly sweet and sticky. 

A functional lamb goulash (£18) disappointed. A handful of pieces of well-flavoured lamb, tender potatoes and mixed peppers sat in a paprika-laced broth. There's no doubt it was a tasty plate but such was its simplicity it felt like a dish from the office canteen and at £18 overpriced. 

The würstchen were the best - Fischer’s have an enviable sausage selection. I ordered a marjoram twanged Nürnberger and a Berner Würstel stuffed with oozing emmental and wrapped in crisp bacon (£12.75). Accompanying sauerkraut and mustard-tinged potato salad completed a top notch and well-priced plate of food. 

As the only person on the table to order pudding (why am I friends with people who don't order dessert?), I had a difficult choice to make from the exotic sounding selection which included scheiterhaufen, gugelhupf and dobos torte.

I decided on a Bergasse sundae (£7.25) comprised of faultless hazelnut, almond and pistachio ice creams served with a jug of hot butterscotch sauce. Oofh. 

So, all in all a mixed bag – some excellent, some average and some overpriced food. There’s definitely a delicious meal to be had at Fischer’s and there’s plenty more menu I'd like to rootle through. 

Most importantly, for anyone who’s wanted to feel like a character from the Grand Budapest Hotel or The Royal Tenenbaums, Fischer’s should be on your to visit list.

The Details:

Address - Fischer's, 50 Marylebone High Street, Marylebone, London W1U 5HN
Telephone - 020 7466 5501

Fischer's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Burger & Lobster, Cardiff restaurant review

*** Update July 2016 - Burger & Lobster Cardiff has now closed *** 

In homage to their compact menu, here’s my compact review of Burger & Lobster Cardiff:

Burger – Incredible but too expensive.

Steamed lobster / lobster roll – Delicious (but I think lobster is overrated) and well priced.

Drinks / Desserts / Service / Atmosphere - Excellent

If you want more details then read on…

The opening of Burger & Lobster’s first branch outside of the Big Smoke in Cardiff is a coup for the city. Alongside the arrival of Wahaca, it’s further evidence of the upward trajectory of Cardiff’s food scene.

Located in the top floor of the old Habitat building on the Hayes, Burger & Lobster’s dining space is one of the city’s best – grand metal arches, an imposing central bar, DJ decks and boothed seating all contribute to the funky vibe. 

And with an interesting drinks menu of cocktails priced around £7.50 and beers at £3 - £4.50 it’s the kind of place you could easily put in a session.

A Swiss 1936 lager (£3.80) and a ruby cooler (£7.50) - a citrusy, fragrant and not too sweet blend of gin, blood orange and Ceylon tea - were both a welcome change from the norm. 

Onto the food and as you may have guessed, Burger & Lobster only serve burgers and lobsters (all accompanied by fries, salad and butter sauce) at a flat rate of £20.

There are 3 ways you can have your whole Nova Scotian lobster – grilled, steamed or in a lobster roll.

The corn-fed Nebraskan beef burger meanwhile is cooked according to preference and available with a choice of toppings.

Of course we ordered a burger, steamed lobster and lobster roll to share. 

Half and Half (half lobster and half burger)
First to the burger and it’s a thing of absolute beauty, in fact without doubt the best I’ve eaten in Cardiff. Served a pleasingly pink medium-rare (other places take note) with a good lick of char, the giant patty is sandwiched inside a soft and sweet brioche bun and accompanied by oozy American cheese, crisp streaky bacon, crunchy pickles, burger sauce, thinly sliced red onion, shredded lettuce and sweet tomato.

It’s an absolute joy to eat and almost worth £20… but not quite. Can any burger really be worth £20?

Next onto the steamed lobster and it’s the best lobster I’ve ever eaten. I should probably caveat that by saying I haven’t eaten lobster many times because it’s normally so bloody expensive.

So, at £20 for a whole lobster it’s a bit of a bargain. All sweet and tender fleshed you’ll need the provided pickers and crackers to furtle all the bits of meat out of those pesky nooks and crannies. And accompanying it is a lemon butter sauce of unparalleled silkiness. That sauce is also rather incredible for dipping the excellent fries. 

The lobster roll is lovely too. A marvellous toasted sweet brioche bun is loaded with cold lobster meat in Japanese mayo (I think it’s meant to contain wasabi but I couldn’t taste it). Whilst it’s less of a hassle to eat than its steamed counterpart, the cold crustacean isn’t quite as tender and therefore not quite such a good option. 

But here’s the thing, even at £20 I’m still not convinced that lobster is all that. Where’s the earthy complexity that you get from brown crabmeat? Is it really worth the faff of having to pick and crack your way to a few decent mouthfuls?

For dessert there are two choices available, both priced at £4.50.

A snickers pot combined a light, slightly sweet chocolate mousse sat atop a layer of runny salted caramel and scattered with crisp chocolate-coated cornflakes and toasted peanuts. Lush.

Meanwhile, a cheesecake pot combined a fluffy and slightly tangy unset cheesecake topped with berry compote and biscuit crumbs. Equally lush.

So what’s the verdict?

I’d eat Burger & Lobster’s burger any time of the day but I'd be reluctant to stump up twenty quid for it. In contrast, I won’t crave lobster that often but if I do I’d quite happily pay twenty notes.

However, if lobster’s your thing or you don’t mind dropping loadsamoney on a burger then Burger & Lobster is definitely the place for you.

Disclosure - I was invited to Burger and Lobster, all food and drink was complimentary.

Update 26/12/15 - 

Burger & Lobster Cardiff now offer a £12 burger and fries during weekday lunchtimes. It’s a slightly smaller 6oz compared to their usual 10oz offering but it’s still a thing of beauty and the best way to sample Burger & Lobster without bankrupting yourself.

The weekday lunch menu also includes lobster niçoise salad and lobster mac and cheese. But, I’m all about the burger.

The Details: 
Address - Burger and Lobster Cardiff, Unit 29-11 The Hayes Cardiff CF10 1AH