Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Mini Restaurant Reviews: Cardiff, Wales

Pete and I spent a weekend in Cardiff recently, to attend the Cheese Festival and to celebrate my birthday.

Here are reviews of the following:
Dinner and Breakfasts at Ty Rosa B&B
Coffee & Cake at Craft in the Bay
Lunch at Madame Fromage
Woods Brasserie

Dinner and Breakfasts at Ty Rosa B&B
This is where we stayed during our visit. I’d booked dinner at the B&B in advance, thinking we might not feel up to heading out on our first night, especially as I’d not been sure what time we’d arrive when I first booked the trip.

Whilst I’d already learned that Stuart had been a professional chef in a previous life, I hadn’t expected quite such an excellent meal. Pete had a French onion soup that was deeply flavoured from the heavily caramelised onions, thick and brown and served with one cheese toast floating on top and an extra two on the side. He’s rather fussy about his French onion soup but had nothing but good words to say about Stuart’s. I was equally delighted with my homemade crab, cockle and laverbread cakes served with salad and a generous pot of mayo. One would have been plenty as a starter but I greedily munched my way through both! For our main we had both chosen the sausage, mash and giant Yorkshire pudding though were caught out by the huge size of the portion. Three locally-made pork and apple sausages on a vast mound of homemade mash which itself sat inside a plate-sized Yorkshire pudding, the whole lot topped with onion gravy! Very good indeed, though I couldn’t eat even half my mash! Pete ate nearly all of his and consequently started making close-to-bursting moaning noises!

I decided against pudding and Pete delayed his decision for a while as decamped to the kitchen and chatted to Paul and Stuart. Stuart and I got into a discussion on cheese at which point Stuart dug out their cheese box and had me taste a number of cheeses!

Pete decided to squeeze in a dessert and Paul made up a red cherry crumble. He used a vast tub of ready-made cherry filling and some frozen ready-made crumble topping, which resulted in a surprisingly acceptable crumble served with good quality ready-made custard. Of course, Pete was so full of soup, sausage and mash he managed less than half the crumble though I did assist by finishing off his custard!

For our first breakfast we started as we meant to go on, with a fabulous home-cooked offering. The menu is extensive and I eventually settled on eggs benedict and Pete for a cooked breakfast, choosing various items from the a la carte menu. Before that we helped ourselves to juice from the buffet (which also offered cereals, yoghurt and fresh fruit) and some nice hot toast too.

For our next breakfast Pete had the "Persian eggs" (eggs fried in lots of butter with cheese and paprika) and I had pancakes with sausages with maple syrup. Very naughty but very enjoyable!

Our last breaky was eggs benedict for me with mushrooms on the side and a lovely fluffy omelette for Pete.

Coffee & Cake at Craft in the Bay
A BBC Food Chat board friend had recommended the cafe in Craft in the Bay, a gallery and shop showcasing and selling contemporary Welsh art and crafts. The building itself is a combination of a refurbished shed and modern extension and very light and airy. Although I liked some of the crafts on display there was little I’d want to purchase though I admired the skills more than I loved the finished pieces. However, our main reason for popping in was to visit the coffee shop, which had been recommended as a potential lunch stop. Not hungry enough for lunch after our huge breakfast we ordered cakes and coffee instead. I can definitely vouch for the quality of their coffee and walnut cake, very light and moist and more generous with walnuts than most examples I’ve eaten. Pete enjoyed the chocolate and raspberry cake he chose too. I particularly liked the single white dahlia flower on each table, which had been coloured like a rainbow by drawing inks up into the petals via the stem.

Lunch at Madame Fromage
Stuart at the B&B had recommended a deli called Madame Fromage, located in one of the pretty arcades in the town centre. There hadn't been any free tables when we first visited, hoping to stop for coffee but we returned on another day and had a really wonderful lunch there. The deli is in one unit and has tables inside and out but they have also taken the unit opposite and filled it with extra tables, which is where we sat. Pete quickly chose a croque monsieur with salad and a local beer. I was thrilled to find my favourite Ecusson doux French cider in stock but couldn’t decide what to order so I popped up to the deli counter and noticed a wonderful looking pastry. The male owner explained that it was a fougasse filled with Emmental, black forest ham, rosemary and olives which sounded good to me! When it arrived it was a much larger portion than I expected and came with a lovely side salad and some rather marvellous homemade chutney. The owner popped over to our table later to check everything was OK and I asked about the chutney, telling him it was particularly good. Later, when I went back into the main deli to pay, the owner looked slightly shy as he thrust a carrier bag at me and said gruffly that it contained a gift for me (I hadn’t mentioned anything about it being a celebratory weekend). Inside was a portion of that wonderful chutney! Our bill was £20, which was well worth the quality of our meal and drinks.

Woods Brasserie
We'd originally booked for the previous night but a migraine on my part had put paid to that plan. We did call in to cancel the booking before heading home and they were very gracious in squeezing us the next night instead, even though they were full. It meant we were seated upstairs by a large group table, though they weren't too loud or disruptive and we had a view out over the bay from the window. During our meal we were looked after by friendly and professional staff who checked regularly that we were OK for drinks etc. My starter of scallops, confit of pork belly and cauliflower puree was absolutely out of this world. Pete even asked me if they’d given me a vibrating chair, so rapturous was my response! The scallop was sweet and soft, the generous piece of pork belly was so soft it melted in the mouth but was topped by skin that was at the same time crunch and chewy; just perfect. I could have eaten the same thing as starter, main and dessert but as I’d already ordered a salmon dish it was too late to switch! My main was a fillet of salmon on top of wilted spinach within a pool of shellfish chowder. Clams, mussels and root vegetables sat in a thin white soup. On top of the salmon was a langoustine, it's beady eyes watching me as I ate! Pete had a spiced carrot and coriander soup followed by a very nice battered fish and chips with a subtly minted pea puree. Yes, Harry Ramsden’s was just next-door but I’ll bet this was far, far nicer. For dessert I had a fabulous Eton Mess, very good cream with robustly flavoured strawberries and raspberries and crunchy meringue. Pete had a rhubarb crème brulee which he deemed excellent. Both the service and food were excellent and I’d happily recommend Woods to anyone looking for good brasserie cuisine in an elegant venue.


Birthday Potterings + Restaurant Review: Maze, London

Yesterday was my birthday (and my sister's too).

Lazy waking to kisses and cards from Pete and calls from sister. No plans for the morning, just catching up on some fun stuff such as helping my dad with the itinerary for the trip he and ma are making to Kenya next year (I do love planning trips), packing up and posting a photographic print sale, catching up on a little web surfing and starting to write up a review of the weekend trip to Cardiff. Oh and a lovely lunch at my local Italian, La Lotta, looked after by the lovely Bob and Eva.

In the afternoon I headed into Bloomsbury to meet a friend who shares my birthday. She'd read recommendations of an elegant cafe near her college where we enjoyed extremely good Valrhona hot chocolate and outrageously huge meringues.

Satiated, my friend headed off to class and I hopped on the tube to China Town where I enjoyed a relaxing massage in a China Town beauty salon. On this occasion I was treated by Emi, a slip of a girl from Japan who applied a little basic stretching and massage before hopping up onto my back with both feet. She used her full body weight (which was just heavy enough) to perform some very welcome stretching, pushing and manipulation before jumping back down and moving on to a regular oil-based deep-tissue massage of back, neck and shoulders. Oh, and feet too, that was good.

Feeling relaxed I splashed out on a black cab to Maze, one of the Gordon Ramsay stable of restaurants, run by head chef Jason Atherton. I sat in the bar with a mojito and my book until my sister arrived and we headed to our table. (For anyone left who doesn't know, my sister is exactly 3 years and 5 minutes younger than me, yes, yes we do share the same birthday without being twins, how extraordinary! ;)

We opted for the Tasting Menu which was the reason (along with hearty recommendations from foodie friends) that I picked Maze: unlike most of the GR restaurants, the tasting menu isn't a set list of about 7 courses but a menu of smaller dishes from which each guest is encouraged to pick 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 desserts. Price-wise, this comes to slightly less than the set tasting menus in the other restaurants and yet gives you a selection tailored to your own tastes!

The good thing is that sister and I have very similar tastes indeed so we picked 4 different starters, mains and desserts and shared all 12 dishes between us. The staff are clearly geared up for this judging by the way they present the dishes and crockery.

The food was absolutely amazing! We had:
Pressed marinated foie gras, Lincolnshire smoked eel, baked potato foam and dill
Cornish crab mayonnaise with avocado, sweet corn sorbet and Oscietra caviar
Roasted sea scallops, cauliflower puree, Muscatel vinegar dressing
Slow roasted prawns with butternut squash puree, rye croutons, crab bisque and vanilla oil
Roast rack of lamb, pea puree, marinated turnip and lamb navarin
Rare breed Sussex pork ‘Head to Toe’, apple puree and spiced lentils
Roasted squab, Peking leg, marinated turnip and date sauce
Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento puree and squid paint
Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, raspberry and lemon thyme jam, mascarpone and pecan ice cream
Pineapple carpaccio, coconut sorbet, seaweed croquette and Malibu lime jelly
Chocolate moelleux, pistachio sabayon with milk and honey ice cream
Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granite

There was no dish we didn't think was fantastic, though neither of us liked the tiny, deep-fried bite of pig's trotter that was a very small element of the rare breed Sussex pork dish.

Our favourites were:
All the starters were divine. My sister especially loved the foie gras, I really loved the scallops and the butternut squash puree that came with the prawns.
The mains were also all excellent but the pork and the squab/ peking leg were particularly delicious. Then again the lamb rack was so tender too, and the navarin stew so flavoursome!
Of the desserts the clear winner was the rice pudding, though again, all were good. My sister's second choice was the panna cotta. Mine would be the pistachio sabayon that came with the moelleux (which was also very good).

By the end of the mains we were feeling satiated, by the end of the puddings, we were definitely feeling full.

And yet, when the bill came, we received some lollipop ice-creams, some “olives” in a slimline kilner-style jar and some chocolates and sweets on a tray. The ice-cream and the white sweets on the chocolate tray were the only two things I found actively unpleasant during the meal (I actually had to vigorously wash my mouth out straight away). I figured the “olives” couldn’t really be olives, even though they were, from the smell, clearly sitting in olive oil. They turned out to be marzipan, though I’d have preferred them without the strongly flavoured olive oil which I ended up draining and wiping off as much as possible.

Just when I thought they’d forgotten (or were simply unable to accommodate) my request (made on booking) for a brief tour of the kitchens the staff arrived with yet another dessert for each of us, a wonderful chocolate mousse cake, complete with gold foil, a burning candle and Happy Birthday piped onto each glass plate with chocolate! They said, if it wasn’t too late (about 11.30 pm), they’d be happy to show us into the kitchen once we’d finished.

We managed a few bites of the extra dessert (if I’d been somewhere less refined I’d probably have asked if I could take the rest home!), settled the bill and headed into the kitchen. Most of the areas had finished for the night and were clearing up, though a couple of departments were just plating up the last dishes to be sent out. We also saw the location of the chef’s table – I don't think the position is very good in this kitchen as it seems to afford a view of the fish and meat counters only, though I’m sure it is still quite a show.

Our bill came to just under £180 including service and comprised £22 for our two bar drinks, £22 for my sister’s wine, £114.50 for the food and £20 for service (12.5%). Whilst it’s not the kind of money I’d drop for dinner on a regular basis I think it was very good value for the food and experience we had and I’d definitely like to visit again and would recommend it to others!