Saturday, 30 April 2022

Banana, Cardiff southern Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant review

I’m always the first to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to most world cuisines, from Sri Lanka and Mexico to Vietnam and Syria.

And I certainly wouldn’t pretend to be an authority when it comes to passing judgement on what is or isn’t an authentic pho, dolsot bibimbap, ful medames or black daal.

All I am is an enthusiastic ignoramus who’s visited a lot of restaurants and watched a lot of food programmes on TV.

Which brings me to Cardiff’s newest southern Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant, Banana, which is located on the city’s busy North Road thoroughfare. This bright and colourful spot is a relative of Swansea’s popular Banana Leaf and serves a broad menu of dishes including mutton biriyani, Ceylon kingfish curry, uttapam and paneer butter masala.

With City Road’s Ponnuswamy and Cathays’ Curry Hut, two of my favourite restaurants in Cardiff, serving southern Indian and Sri Lankan food respectively, how would Banana compare?

More importantly, what would my friend Pat think of it? He’s a man who will waste no opportunity to tell you he once lived in Sri Lanka for a couple of months and visits Curry Hut at least once a week.

First up, it’s worth flagging how warm, friendly, and efficient the service at Banana was. They were also genuinely interested in getting feedback on the cooking, either positive or negative. 

Bottles of Sri Lankan Lion lager (£3.80) were crisp, malty and a little sweet.

From the selection of starters, devil mutton (£7.99) was the standout but it certainly wasn't a looker - plentiful pieces of tender meat and crisp peppers were bathed in a sauce with a good hit of spice and soy.

Gobi Manchurian (£6.99) saw pieces of cauliflower with a nice amount of bite coated in an Indo-Chinese sauce with a tasty sweet-savoury vibe.

Whopping mutton rolls (£2.99) ticked all the right boxes; they were crammed with soft spiced mashed potato dotted with pieces of tender meat.

Sticks of crisp and lightly battered paneer 65 (£6.49) were accompanied by a chilli-licked ketchup. But, I think the dish could probably taken an extra dimension of spice. Some curry leaves certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Finally, an egg hopper (£2.99) was crisp around the edges with a pleasingly runny yolk. But it would be lovely to see it served with some chutneys or sambols to add an extra layer of flavour.

Onto mains and a monster of a masala dosa (£6.99) was commendably thin and crisp with delicately spiced mashed potato lurking in its folds. Hidden beneath its canopy were pots of coconut and coriander chutneys and a silky dhal.

A bowl of chicken kothu parotta (£7.99) was just as comforting as I’d hoped. Tender golden pieces of fried flatbread were flecked with soft shreds of chicken, egg and onion. However, once again I think the addition of curry leaf wouldn’t have gone amiss like versions of the dish I’ve eaten elsewhere.

A Sri Lankan chicken curry (£7.99) was beautifully creamy and grease-free with its coconut milk based sauce studded with juicy meat and sweet tomatoes. But, it was quite mild and didn’t deliver the wallop of chilli that I associate with Sri Lankan curries - when I mentioned this to the front of house team they advised that they can most definitely make things spicier on request.

For dessert, a bowl of warm and creamy rice pudding-esque Sri Lankan payasam (£3.99) was beautifully fragranced with cardamom and contained crisp cashews, sweet sultanas and fronds of rice vermicelli lurking in its depths.

Accompanying the bill was an indulgent deep-fried sweet which tasted of coconut, sugar and a bit of fatty richness.

We had a lovely evening at Banana and I'll certainly go back for their fresh tasting southern Indian and Sri Lankan food. Whilst I can't tell you how authentic their cooking is, I did hope for a bit more spice from some of their dishes, like versions I've eaten elsewhere.

And what was Pat’s verdict? He was very impressed. But, I don’t think it’s knocked the bargainous Curry Hut off its pedestal.

The Details:

Address - 148-150 North Rd, Maindy, Cardiff CF14 3BH
Telephone - 02920 615135

Saturday, 23 April 2022

The Shed, Barry restaurant review 2022

It’s somewhat flown under the radar but earlier this year James Sommerin parted company with The Shed restaurant in Barry.

Now, Jim and Rhiannon Dobson, the husband and wife team who previously ran the award-winning Fox and Hounds in Llancarfan, are managing the business.

Whilst Jim heads up the kitchen, Rhiannon runs front of house with warmth and enthusiasm. And despite the change in personnel, it’s a case of evolution rather than revolution when it comes to The Shed’s menu.

There’s still very much a focus on comforting flavour combinations executed with classical technique. On our visit we were pleased to see both a chicken kiev, filled with ’nduja, and a seasonal soufflé still on the menu.

To start, a big bowlful of roast onion velouté (£8.50) delivered on its promise of cockle-warming decadence. Hugely savoury and delicately sweet with a good glug of cream, it avoided being too rich thanks to its beautifully silky and light texture.

Perched on the side, a lux sourdough crouton was topped with melted smoked cheddar, sweet red onion jam and the zing of pickled shallots.

The other starter, a golden salt cod fish cake (£9.50), was all thriller and no filler. Loaded with flakes of meaty cod it was stacked amongst a blob of piquant smokey paprika mayo, a disk of crispy chorizo and a light and cleansing fennel salad.

For main, a crisp-skinned fillet of bass (£21) teased apart into large flakes with the merest nudge. A rich and buttery sauce with the aromatic warmth of pink peppercorn, briny samphire and golden gnarly nuggets of Jerusalem artichoke were all bang on accompaniments. I’d have gladly demolished a mountain of the crispy artichokes with a bowl of the sauce.

Every element of a Middle Eastern inspired duck dish (£20.50) was packed with flavour from a crisp-skinned breast topped with dukkah, an earthy spiced mix of seeds and nuts, to a dainty pastilla stuffed with soft shreds of slow-cooked duck meat. 

Warming spiced carrot puree, sweet and tangy date puree and a glossy meat sauce completed the big flavoured dish. It was only a minor quibble but the duck breast could have been a touch pinker and more tender.

Sides were all on point. Triple-cooked chips (£5.25), spiked with savoury parmesan and funky truffle, were commendably crisp and fluffy.

Tenderstem broccoli (£4.25), with just the right amount of bite, was lightly dressed with a vibrant almond pesto.

A bowl of fudgy roast carrots (£4.25) were drizzled with honey and fragranced with rosemary.

Somehow resisting the soufflé for dessert, I plumped for the forced rhubarb pavlova (£9.50). The light and airy soft-centred meringue was topped with a vanilla-scented whipped custard that was a canny twist on the usual cream. Sweet and sharp forced rhubarb pieces and chunks of throat-tickling and slightly boozy ginger wine jelly completed the excellent pud.

A slab of light and squidgy nut-studded sticky toffee pudding (£9.75) was well-drenched in toasty toffee sauce and served with smooth and airy vanilla ice cream and crunchy pecan praline. Extra sauce was left in a jug at the table and it certainly came in handy because it’s the kind of thing you can never have enough of.

We had a cracker of a meal at The Shed. Whilst it’s all change with the personnel, they still serve the kind of food I could eat time and time again.

The Details:

Address - The Shed, Hood Rd, Barry CF62 5BE
Telephone - 01446 737458

Saturday, 16 April 2022

The Felin Fach Griffin, Brecon restaurant review

It’s a fair indicator of how old this blog is that I’m able to say the last time I reviewed a restaurant was ten years ago.

One such place is the Felin Fach Griffin, a charming pub with rooms near Brecon, which we last visited in April 2012. We had a rather stonking Sunday roast and dinner as part of their Sunday Sleepover deal.

More recently, the Griffin has gained national attention as it has secured an impressive ranking of 34 in this year's Top 50 Gastropubs list. Whilst some awards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, this is most certainly not one of them.  

The Griffin's ascent in the gastropub rankings can most certainly be linked to the arrival of a new head chef, Nick Evans, in April 2021. 

With an impressive CV, Nick was previously executive chef at Tom Kerridge’s Bull and Bear in Manchester and Craft Dining Rooms in Birmingham as well as a National Chef of Wales title holder. 

Whilst the Griffin has the feel of a quintessential country pub with its roaring fireplace and good selection of Welsh cask ales, their food is some of the most technically accomplished that I’ve eaten in Wales lately. 

A first bite of warm country cob loaf with a shatteringly crisp crust and soft crumb was an indicator of very good things to come.

The Griffin’s menu descriptions most certainly belie the amount of effort which has gone into each plate.

A vibrant green and vegetal watercress soup (£7.50) was served in a jug to pour over its garnish, a crisp crumbed and beautifully runny egg, tender jersey royals, chive oil and light dusting of funky truffle.

My starter was described as ‘fish pie’ (£9.50) but this was certainly no ordinary family favourite. 

Beneath a layer of aerated potato dotted with nuggets of crunchy cheddar hid a generous hunk of flaky smoked haddock, sweet peas and soft leeks bathed in a butter sauce thrumming with dill and chive. Somehow this classic dish had been elevated in luxury whilst becoming a much lighter proposition.

Mains wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant but the intense and hearty flavour combinations ensured there was no risk of style over substance.

A crisp-skinned fillet of hake (£17) was accompanied by pieces of long-cooked and caramelised celeriac, dill-seasoned greens, smoked leeks and a luxurious chicken butter sauce. Mrs G barely gave me a look-in before she polished off her plate.

I was equally impressed by my lamb (£17.50) which combined a seriously tender and crisp-skinned slab of lamb belly alongside a dense and intense lamb kofte that was reminiscent of a merguez in its seasoning. Silky hummus, wild garlic mayonnaise, roasted cherry tomatoes and crunchy chickpeas all counterbalanced the richness of the sheep.

Sides would have made an excellent lunch in their own right. A first rate Caesar salad (£3.50) was given an extra dimension by the light charring of the little gem leaves used in its construction.

“Cheese, chips and gravy” (£5) appeared to be missing its gravy component but I was rather glad there was nothing in the dish to compromise the ridiculous crispness of the fried potatoes. If you’d told me they were quadruple or quintuple cooked, I’d have most certainly believed you.

With Mrs G once again too full for dessert (disappointing), the responsibility was once again left to me. And with puds on offer including lemon curd tart, rice pudding with rhubarb compote and banoffee pie, it was a rather difficult decision to make.

I opted for the Millionaire chocolate fondant tart (£9.50) with Guinness ice cream. Served hot, the crisp pastry case cradled a layer of runny caramel and molten chocolate fondant. Cleverly, the malty and slightly bitter ice cream provided balance to the decadent tart.

We had an absolute corker of a lunch at the Griffin. With its magnificent cooking, lovely setting, delicious Welsh ales and slick service, it deserves all the plaudits it gets. I hope we're be back sooner than ten years’ time.

The Details:

Address - The Felin Fach Griffin, Felinfach, Brecon LD3 0UB
Telephone - 01874 620111

Saturday, 9 April 2022

Cafe Deco, Bloomsbury, London restaurant review

Rather than throwing ingredients at the plate, the highest rewards often come with focused flavour combinations.

From St John’s bone marrow on toast to Noble Rot’s slip sole wth paprika butter and Bleecker’s cheeseburger, many of the very tastiest dishes are case studies in restraint.

However, with dishes this paired back there’s nowhere to hide if every element isn't on point.

Cafe Deco in Bloomsbury is one restaurant which very much adopts of the ethos of less is more. 

Co-owned by Anna Tobias (an alumna of the River Cafe and former head chef at Rochelle Canteen) and the team behind Bermondsey’s excellent 40 Maltby Street, it’s currently one of London’s hippest restaurants.

It’s easy to see why with its laid-back pastel coloured dining space and an interesting selection of natural wines by the glass. From the five different glasses we tried, a complex and golden hued Nino Barraco catarratto (£11.80) and a thick caramel-twanged Pacina La Sorpresa dessert wine (£10) were my two highlights.

From our first mouthful of a snack of eggs (£3.50) dressed with silky mayonnaise and the salty hit of anchovy, I knew this was a meal I was going to enjoy.

Superb brittle crusted and tangy crumbed sourdough was served with slightly fridge hard golden butter.

Cauliflower cheese fritters (£9.50) reinterpreted one of my all time favourite dishes and somehow made it even better. The tender pieces of brassica were coated in the lightest of batters and drenched in a potently savoury, socky and salty cheese sauce. Cleverly the leaves of the cauliflower had been left on and the result was deliciously crisp.

A salad (£9) was a masterclass in contrasting textures and flavours - sweet roast carrots, nutty farro grains, crunchy pumpkin seeds, green herbs and a dressing made with quality oil and a zip of citrus.

Crab tart (£18.50) was described by Mrs G as "the crabbiest crab thing I've ever eaten" and I'm inclined to agree. Made with stonkingly good flaky and buttery pastry, it was filled with a set custard studded with whole pieces of white meat and a bucketload of earthy brown meat. I could probably have eaten a whole tart’s worth.

Gloriously juicy roast chicken (£23.50) was stuffed with creamy and fragrant wild garlic creme fraiche and served with proper crispy chips. Whilst the chicken was served cold I reckon it would have been even better hot with its resulting crispier skin.

Unable to decide between two of the desserts on offer I of course ordered them both.

A scoop of beautifully smooth, fragrant and tangy rhubarb sherbert (£3.50) did a good job as a palate cleanser before the main event of chocolate and marmalade tart (£9).

Combining short pastry and a light yet molten interior with plenty of bitter dark chocolate and pithy orange peel pieces, it was a slice of decadence.

A bowl of apple compote (£8) hit just the right balance between sweetness and acidity and was zhuzhed up by a dollop of thick Jersey cream and excellent shortbread.

With its weekly changing menu of deceptively simple, flavour-packed food and lovely wines by the glass, I think Cafe Deco is going to become another of our regular London haunts.

The Details:

Address - 43 Store St, London WC1E 7DB
Telephone - 020 8091 2108

Saturday, 2 April 2022

North Star, Cardiff restaurant review

Asador 44, Sopra 73, Milkwood, North Star, Heaney’s, Uisce, Thomas by Tom Simmons and Nook.

When Jay Rayner recently wrote a well-deserving glowing review of the Heathcock, he name checked a few "interesting-looking" new restaurants which had opened in Cardiff since his previous review in the city in 2016.

However, one of them stood out to me as a bit of an anomaly as the North Star actually opened well before then and the last time I visited in 2012 was when I rather foolishly completed a Man v Food challenge.

Relaunched in August 2020 under a new team, I haven’t heard too much on the grapevine about the place other than that they serve a rather good Sunday roast and there used to be some rather filthy-delicious looking deep-fried lasagne sticks on the menu.

Mrs G and I decided to visit the bright and airy venue on a week day lunchtime.

The North Star’s well-priced menu includes a good representation of pub classics such as scampi and chips (£9.50) and chicken tikka masala (£9.50) as well as more contemporary dishes such as beer battered banana blossom and chips (£9) and halloumi fries with chipotle jam (£4.50).

Mrs G worked her way through a glass of highly chuggable sauvignon blanc whilst I opted for an alcohol free Peroni. 

Nuggets of tender squid (£5) were coated in a golden crumb with a delicate nudge of salt and pepper and accompanied by a pot of sweet chilli sauce. It was a tasty dish it but I'd have liked a bigger hit of the billed seasoning. 

The weakest of our dishes was a plate of rather run of the mill nachos accompanied by house guacamole (£3.50) which was perfectly enjoyable but lacked vibrancy.

Generously proportioned cauliflower wings (£4) had just the right amount of bite and golden roasty edges with a light batter coating. Dipped in a pot of Frank’s hot sauce and creamy ranch dressing it was a lovely piece of veggie junk food.

A halloumi burger (£9.50), made with a big slab of caramelised salty cheese, a dusting of crispy onions, sweet and smoky chipotle chilli jam and plenty of fresh salad stuffed into a soft seeded bun, was the highlight of the meal.

Excellent chips were impeccably crunchy and fluffy but a minuscule pot of under-seasoned red cabbage slaw wasn’t worth bothering with.

We rounded off the meal with a rather pretty slice of cheesecake (£4.50) with a crisp buttery base and a reassuringly sturdy and creamy top. The main interest came in the form of a thin layer of salted caramel, banana slices and the crunch of pecan. If it wasn’t already decadent enough then a pot of pouring cream was more than welcome.

We had a very enjoyable and good value pub lunch with friendly service at the North Star. I don't think it sits among the other places in Jay Rayner’s list but it’s somewhere I’d gladly return for a burger or a Sunday roast.

The details:

Address - 131 North Rd, Maindy, Cardiff CF14 3AE
Telephone - 029 2061 9191