Monday, 24 October 2011

The Hardwick, Abergavenny - review

When a friend suggested visiting The Hardwick for his birthday Sunday lunch my thoughts were mixed. The first time I visited The Hardwick I was less than completely impressed. The food was fine but the service was not. My overall impression was that the restaurant was far too busy being pleased with itself than it was concerned with providing customers a thoroughly pleasant dinner experience. I was however, absolutely prepared to accept that my experience may have been a ‘one off’ and that the restaurant deserved its write ups and awards in the national press including The Observer Food Monthly Awards, so I kept my misgivings to myself and back I went.

To start
We ordered bread with butter and olive oil. The bread and butter were good but the olive oil, which on first taste promised to be delicious, left a bitter, acrid after taste that was really unpleasant.
Now I would normally list all the starters but there were 6 of us so I can’t really do justice to each one but I will talk about 2:
  • Organic Salmon & Cod Fishcake with Crab Mayonnaise, Deep Fried Ortiz Anchovies and Lemon
  • Pan Fried Diver Caught Scallops & Crispy Breadcrumbed Gloucester Old Spot Pork Belly & Black Pudding with Apple & Mustard Sauce and Fennel & Dandelion Salad £5 Supplement
I had the scallops which were very very good, sweet and smooth but weirdly appeared to have been cut into rectangles to match the shape of the pork belly (?) This looked like slices of terrine and the black pudding was running through it like seams in a coal mine. The portion was huge! In all honesty I would have preferred the black pudding served separately – the seams running through the pork belly were very thin and so they were lost in the über savouriness of the pork. this publicly. Undo
He had the fishcake, which he said was good but could have done with being a little more crispy on the outside.

Mains
  • Roast Rib of Herefordshire Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Roast Potatoes,
    Seasonal Local Organic Vegetables and Gravy
  • Deep Fried Cod in Beer Batter with Triple Cooked Chips, Lemon and Tartar Sauce

I had the beef and lovely and beautifully cooked it was too with the biggest best Yorkshire pudding I have seen in a long time. One of the children with us who ordered it had a huge grin on his face from the moment it appeared from the kitchen. Roast potatoes were good and cooked in goose fat (mmm…) so a real treat. The veg was a little disappointing, all boiled, with kale that had enough salt to sink a battleship.
He had the cod which was apparently very good indeed with a crispy, flavourful batter.
Desserts
  • Vanilla Panna Cotta with Fresh Strawberries
I had the panna cotta which although nice and wobbly, seemed to me to be on the verge of splitting. It was also served straight from the fridge which was a shame as this dulled the vanilla. The shortbread biscuit though was as crunchy and buttery as shortbread should be.

Service

This was the element of the meal that let The Hardwick down for me last time and I’m afraid the experience wasn’t much better this time. Despite having a small army of people there, trying to get hold of someone to take a drink order was hard work. We also had to ask several times for the bill (after a 25+ minute wait) despite being the last people there. When I have to explain what a double espresso is I also have to raise an eyebrow. I know you won’t all agree, but I would much more readily forgive the couple of minor issues with the food if the dining experience was a bit more friendly and competent. Having spoken to a few other people it seems that I am not the only one to think so.

Final thoughts

A good menu that should have an option to satisfy everyone. It was a real pleasure to be able to eat somewhere of that quality and see children being equally well catered for. However in my opinion the service lets the kitchen down.
Will I be back for a third time? Hmmm…

The Hardwick is a restaurant in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. Stephen Terry is the head chef.
http://www.thehardwick.co.uk/index.php/restaurant  Hardwick on Urbanspoon

Friday, 21 October 2011

La Becasse - Masterclass


Those of you who read my earlier post reviewing dinner at La Becasse will already know that I was impressed with the quality and inventiveness of the food and service and happy to accept that with inventiveness will come some minor aspects of dishes that aren’t quite to everyone’s taste.

The morning after our dinner I was back at the restaurant at 9.30 for a masterclass on raspberries followed by lunch. The morning started with coffee and cake and a chat with chef Will Holland after which we were taken to the kitchen for the masterclass.

The class

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the session but was thrilled that we were taken to the kitchen to find all the chefs who were prepping for the lunch service. It took huge willpower not to go for a wander round the kitchen shoving my fingers into the various sauces and prodding bits of equipment but I suppose I would have been politely shown the door so as it was I behaved myself and tried to pay attention.

We were provided with a clipboard and pen to take notes (the quantities were provided on email a couple of days later but the method wasn’t). The recipes were:

·         Raspberry vinegar

·         Raspberry and hazelnut dressing (including the vinegar)

·         Beetroot cooking liquor (used in the goats cheese starter)

·         Raspberry soufflé

Along the way we picked up some useful technique tips like how to properly butter a soufflé dish (twice, with a pastry brush, refrigerating between coats), emulsifying a salad dressing, the importance of good scales and how to whip egg whites.

Chef Will Holland was engaging, friendly and talkative, very happy to take questions (and we had plenty!) and passionate about his business. Masterclass groups are usually up to 10 people but for a variety of reasons there were 4 of us so we had more of his time and attention and could all see what was happening. Overall impressions of the kitchen were that it was calm (no MPW style histrionics here), professional and efficient, an impression that carried through to front of house.

Lunch

At about 11.45 it was time for us to leave the chefs to their lunch service so we were shown back to the lounge for a glass of champagne and some nibbles and other guests started to arrive. At this point we had some time with Nico (?) the sommelier who was happy to share with us about his experiences of working at La Becasse. I took the opportunity to ask him to persuade Alan Murchison to make Cardiff the next destination for a fine dining restaurant (it was worth a shot!). I don’t intend on reviewing the whole of the lunch here but the standards that had been set the previous evening were on display again and we had the opportunity to try a few of the recipes we had seen in the kitchen.  The wine choices were bold and (for me anyway) educational, particularly the choice of a madeira to accompany the cheese course and a sweet red dessert wine to accompany the raspberry soufflé.

Final thoughts
At £99 per person I thought that the whole day was very very good value, not all restaurants could do this but the team made sure that we felt welcome. The culture that the they work in is the single most significant factor in enabling days like this to be a success.
When I finally left at about 3.30 I had already decided to sign up for another once next year’s schedule is published. Let me know if you fancy coming along!

La Becasse is a fine dining restaurant in the historic and picturesque Medieval market town of Ludlow with Chef Will Holland manning the stoves.
@LaBecasse10in8

Monday, 17 October 2011

La Becasse - Review

For the last 3 years, a key part of my birthday celebration has been dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant. It is a good job then (having booked in August), that we visited La Becasse on the 4th of October, because on the 6th came the surprising news that the restaurant had not retained its Michelin star. I say surprising because we had a thoroughly enjoyable 2 days at the restaurant, both for dinner, and the following day for a masterclass in raspberries and a tasting lunch with wine (review on that to follow).

The restaurant is housed in a beautiful building which was formerly home to Hibiscus, with oak wood paneling and drunken floors, ceilings and walls which made for interesting people watching towards the end of the night after several glasses of wine! Before dinner we were shown upstairs to the bar/lounge area for champagne, nibbles of curried popcorn (nicer than it sounds!) olives and wasabi bites and a read through the menu.

To start

The amuse bouche was gorgeous and I could have had a bowlfull! Tiny squares of goats cheese, a lentil soup and a dash of harissa. Served with a trio of breads (lots of it!) and lovely salty butter.
  • Ragstone goat’s cheese mousse, beetroot, raspberries, liquorice jelly, pain d’épice and bramble vinaigrette
  • Cornish crab risotto, chervil jelly and fresh autumn truffle

I had the crab risotto which was delicious, fishy, meaty, creamy, and was presented in a bowl with a very wide convex lip that had truffle shavings all over it. A very good choice of plate because it meant that I got to taste the truffle properly, and separately to the other components (a first). The teeny tiny squares of jelly turned out to be a bit of a theme throughout the meal and these appeared several times in the savoury dishes. These worked well I thought and added tiny bursts of sweet or sour and had the bonus effect of clearing the palette a little.

He had the Goat's cheese with raspberries and beetroot, (which I learned all about and had myself the following day at the masterclass.) I thought it was lovely and a really interesting combination although I’m not sure the ratio of goatscheese to fruit was quite right. He wasn't so keen but he is a bit more  fussy particular and has never really enjoyed fruit with savoury. He also doesn't like beetroot much. Probably not a winner to start with then!
Mains
  • Mortimer Forest venison haunch, whimberry purée, parsnips with parmesan, lime and honey, bitter chocolate sauce
  • “Bryn Derw Farm” suckling pig tasting plate, confit potatoes, savoy cabbage, star-anise roasted plums
Suckling pig for me, which I have had once before in Rome. I may struggle to identify and remember each of the components but there seemed to be a piece of belly, loin, shoulder and an ear and a combination of roast, confit, and braise (?). The whole plate was sooo savoury that the star anise plums helped to cut through the richness of the meat and potato and since I often use fennel with pork, the star anise was a good alternative.

He had the Venison which was a bit of a stretch and having had venison and not loved it before, he was a bit concerned about the strength of flavour to the meat. He actually ended up enjoying the venison and might well order it again.
Desserts

There was a ‘pre-dessert’ course of lime jelly, hickory smoked foam and something ginger based. This for me was the only really duff note of the meal. The jelly and ginger were good, sharp, refreshing and full of flavour. The smoked foam was far too reminiscent of smoked haddock and was really quite unpleasant.
  • Dark chocolate torte, salted caramel jelly, lime curd, local cherries, cobnut praline
  • Yoghurt panna cotta, whimberry poached pear,  caramelised clafoutis, crystalised almonds
His panna cotta was absolutely stunning. Full stop.

My desert was good but presented rather bizarrely in little piped blobs so rather than a clearly defined piece of chocolate torte with accompaniments, it was like a plateful of gooey iced gems and meant that after a few mouthfuls everything started mixing together. I probably would have preferred a more ‘traditional’ presentation if I’m honest.
Service

Everything you would expect from a fine dining restaurant for sure. Star of the show for me was Nico (?) the sommelier who could do formal but was also engaging and had a very good sense of humour. The team that Chef Will Holland has recruited at La Becasse seem like a dedicated and close knit group who enjoy their work and it shows!

Overall some interesting flavour and texture combinations, good service and a decent if not overwhelming wine list. Recommended.

La Becasse is a fine dining restaurant in the historic and picturesque Medieval market town of Ludlow with Chef Will Holland manning the stoves.
@LaBecasse10in8


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Review - Bully's

This was my third visit to Bully's in the fictional area of Pontcanna (really, it doesn't exist, you are either Canton or Riverside folks).

The first time we went I was very impressed. Good food, not perfect but to be honest that probably makes it more interesting. Lovely relaxed, friendly vibe. Fab.

Second time, 2 months later, was good but an identical version of the first time we went. What's that all about? The menu was identical for crying out loud! I'm sorry but a changing menu for me is essential and speaks to the quality of a restaurant. If I wanted the same thing every time I'd go to Nando's. It worries me when a chef sticks so rigidly to a menu paying no attention to what might be good from their supplier.

A quick visit to their website recently showed me a largely, yet still not completely, new menu, so I thought we'd have another bash to see if this time I would be sold one way or another.

To start:
  • Spiced parsnip soup
  • Salmon tartare, keta caviar, herb and truffle water dressing
The soup was fine. Essentially curried parsnip. Nothing to get excited about but fine. I had the salmon which was lovely. Very very fresh (as raw salmon absolutely has to be) the caviar lovely, salty etc. Not really sure about the truffle water, it didn't seem to add much at all. Is that surprising when you are adding water to a dish? Didn't spoil anything but probably not necessary.

Mains:
  • Parsnip and sage risotto cake (with extra pan fried foie gras)
  • Fillet of Welsh black beef, caramelised baby turnip, gaufrette potatoes, game crumbs, Madeira jus
He had the beef which I have had before and it was as good as it always is. The gaufrette potatoes (essentially fancy McCoy's crisps) were good and crispy but at £25 always feels a bit over priced. The game crumbs were an unnecessary item on the plate and added nothing.

I had the risotto cake which had a lovely flavour of caramelly parsnip but was under fried and anaemic. I always make extra risotto so I can have risotto cakes on day 2 and I really expect them to be lovely and golden. Done properly they are a thing of deliciousness but it is probably a bit of a lazy veggie option to be honest.

Puds:



  • Granny Smith apple tarte tatin, caramel sauce, summer berry ice cream
  • Dark and white chocolate mousse, banana coulis
 The chocolate mousse was exactly as you would want, rich velvety and smooth. I thought banana coulis an odd choice but I was reassured that it worked well.
The tarte tatin was (like a couple of other items) under cooked. Whilst the apples were lovely and soft, the caramel rich and sweet, the pastry was completely pale and underdone which is unforgiveable since the updside down cooking method of a tarte tatin should mean that the pastry comes out perfect every time. I also thought that the addition of summery berry ice cream was a shame, overpowering the lovely simplicity of apples, pastry and caramel. Why would you do it? A good quality vanilla ice cream is all that should be needed. If you must faff about with it go for a caramel or honeycomb icecream but don't give me blackberries and raspberries - I scraped the ice cream off and left most of it.

Service
The strangest thing about our visit was a product of the three large groups they had in on that night. Bully's is far too small to cope with this and I think it showed in the cooking. It also showed in the service. Only one of the 2 waiters on that night knew anything about the food, the other, when we asked about the game crumbs told us that he knew nothing and was 'just helping out'.

When we were ready to order dessert and clearly getting irritated that we had been left with the menu for 20 minutes AND had run out of wine 10 minutes earlier which is rubbish in anyone's book, the waiter came over for a bit of a sit down and asked that we wait for a bit while 'we get this group out of the way'. We were left waiting for another 10 minutes before anyone came to take our order which really is poor service.

Conclusion:
Another mixed experience from Bully's and I remain unconvinced that they can justify their very high prices. The lack of consistency is the key issue and I want to love it, I really do but it hasn't quite hit the mark for me yet.


Bully's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Review - Canteen on Clifton Street


I have been meaning to visit this place for a long time and finally got round to it a few weeks ago.

Canteen on Clifton Street seems to have a strong, enthusiastic following and with good reason. The menu changes very regularly (essential as far as I'm concerned) and looking at old menus on their website and pinned to the wall in the restaurant itself, they are often themed. The other point to note is that the menu is mostly vegetarian, some vegan and coeliac friendly. The inventiveness of the dishes make no concession to dietary requirements however and the menu looks inventive and fun.

To start
  • Plantain and sweet potato torte
  • Mushroom Galette
I had a plantain, sweet potato torte which was very unusual and surprisingly tasty. One thing we were noticing was that the smaller more creative menu was encouraging us to try things that we might not otherwise try. I normally avoid sweet potato having had bad experiences with sweet potato chips elsewhere but here the combination with the plantain was very good.

For main
  • Greek thali
  • Chicken and vegetable laksa
I had a greek thali for main, made up of a stack of aubergine, potato, tomato and a béchamel sauce with Houmous, salad, pitta etc around it. I am a big fan of this style of eating so it suited me perfectly. The 'thali' description presumably a nod to the rest of the menu which was mostly Asian although Indonesia rather than India. The other half had the chicken and veg laksa. Very tasty but for our taste could have had more spice. To be fair their website does say that they will adjust spicing to taste, we just didn't ask.

Afters
We both had the sticky toffee pud which was delicious and I believe is the only standing item on the menu. Designed to be coeliac friendly the flour must have been gluten free and had a wholemeal taste which added to the flavour rather than detracting.

Service
Service was very very relaxed (think flip flops!), efficient and friendly. A couple of really good points were the pacing between courses, a good 10 minutes or more which suits me, and a jug of water on the table. The atmosphere was that of a friendly neighbourhood restaurant and it seemed that a number of the people there were regulars which is always a good sign.

Neither of us are veggies but happy to eat veggie food and we will definitely be back and I would be happy to recommend to others. The whole bill came to £43 including a couple of glasses of wine and a cognac which we thought was exceptionally good value.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Review - The Crown Social

As it was my birthday (and no I'm not telling) last Friday, the other half offered me my choice of restaurant for dinner. My choice was The Crown Social which I had heard mixed reviews of, but since we had been to The Crown at Whitebrook the same time last year, and had been very impressed I thought we should give it a go.

I was already aware that the format was 'small plates' and I was intrigued by how it might work. I kind of enjoy the 'mock tapas' that we get in this country and I enjoy sharing food and it's always how I serve when we have friends round for dinner, partly because I can get flavour in to food but rubbish at the presentation bit.

The waiter (dressed all in black like a Bobbi Brown makeup counter person) came and talked us through the idea and suggested 4 starter between 2 but didn't explain whether we should follow the same for the main course.

This comes from the menu:


'Rather than offering individual starters and main courses, the Crown Social has designed the menu for sharing. We suggest that you pass our plates amongst your friends and companions.'

To start
So we ordered as follows:
  • Cheese fondue with onion madeleines
  • Poached duck egg, rarebit topped choux bun, béarnais
  • Sardines
  • Home made black pudding, apples, watercress
What came was an unusual experience to say the least. Most succesful was probably the cheese fondue - especially since fondue is clearly made for sharing. The fondue itself was good and the madeleines were fine although the onion flavour was overpowered. The sardines were also good, fresh and grilled. The black pudding was a thin, overcooked slice and very dry with some sliced apple. Not good for a fiver! The duck egg/choux bun was very very good but completely unsuitable for sharing.

That in a nutshell was my problem with the starters. Only one of the 4 was designed with sharing in mind. The 4 plates were brought out and put into the middle of the table. We weren't provided with plates were expected to eat half a choux bun with runny poached egg then pass the plate on. Completely unsuitable for anything except long standing couples or the closest of friends!

Mains
We ordered:

  • Slow cooked lam shoulder, crisp lamb breast
  • Beef skirt steak
  • Chips
  • Buttered cabbage
The mains were much more successful and the lamb in particular was very good, soft meaty and delicious. The sides were also good, although his steak came with what I think was a fondant potato. It's never good when you are left deciphering your veg because a. it isn't obvious and b. no one has bothered to explain what you're eating.
The chips were good though.

Afters
We ordered:
  • Warm filled doughnuts, vanilla milkshake
  • Honeycomb souffle with lime sorbet
This is where we had real problems.

The doughnuts were heavy and clearly not freshly made but the fillings were tasty. It is pretty easy to please him so any pud where he isn't completely happy is worth noting.
I had the souffle which I had read very good things about elsewhere. This was pretty bad. The honeycomb was burned and inedible and the sorbet was so sour that it completely jarred with the rest of the dish. When I mentioned the burned honecomb I received a mumbled apology but when the bill came the desserts had been removed. Nothing more was said.

Service
The service was formal. Too formal for me probably and it was the only duff note at The Crown at Whitebrook where the absence of any sense of humour made me giggle like a fool every time something was placed in front of me with so much fanfare it made my ears ring.

Overall I was distinctly underwhelmed. The place is far far too expensive for so many mistakes.

The other big issue is the venue. For all the design in the world, it still looks and feels like a hotel restaurant. There's not getting away from them big industrial air-con controls and fittings that populate the less 'designed' areas. The other joy was leaving the rarefied atmosphere to be greeted by v. v. v. drunk people capering about by the taxi rank.

To be honest all of this is now completely academic since I read here that the place is closing. But I went so I reviewed. So there.

Review - The Potted Pig

 

I finally made it along to The Potted Pig last week for a booking made 3 weeks ago. Apparently they are running at about a week in advance for bookings at the moment. I'd been checking the menu and trying to put together my ideal dinner since the day we booked. It turns out that this is a really bad habit. The whole crab with chips and mayonnaise disappeared from the menu about a week before our booking. I'm keeping an eye out for it's return though!

Pre-dinner
So, we arrived a little early (the waitress had been very clear with us that we would be seated PROMPTLY - but fair enough) so that we could sample one of the dozens of gins on offer. I chose the Brecon Special Reserve gin from Penderyn Distillery with fever tree tonic. All very nice and I really enjoy a G&T but I think I could do with a gin tasting session so that I can compare the different flavours. Just drinking one on it's own I find it hard to tell one gin from another.

Starters
A mix of starters were ordered round the table, I ordered the Welsh Rarebit with truffle which was maybe a little disappointing. No concessions to presentation were evident. Literally half a slice of topped bloomer bread was what arrived. I will say that it was tasty, deliciously savoury and soft but at £6 felt a little 'under sold'. I don't doubt for a second that there was truffle in there but it couldn't be tasted over the cheese and given that it couldn't be seen either it may as well have not been there.
2 differing opinions were given on the eponymous Potted Pig itself, one person thought it was a little dry whereas another thought it was wonderful.
The chilli eggs with avocado on toast were very good, perfectly poached egg, ripe avocado and just enough heat. I was jealous.

Mains
The mains were pretty much a success all round. The Slow roast Herefordshire pork belly with baked carrots, spring greens & gravy was truly delicious. Wonderfully soft meat with a light, savoury gravy and the vegetables were vivid and stuffed full of flavour. I would love to know what they did to the carrots! Been a greedy mochyn myself I ordered a side of chips that everyone had been raving about and I couldn't resist. To be honest the vegetables would have been enough, but since when has eating out ever been about having just enough?

A couple of people had steaks, one of which had been ordered rare and was considered to be slightly overdone although the steaks were pretty thin so rare would have been quite difficult to achieve.

One person had the duck liver which was very rare. This was perfect for them and was judged to be very good indeed.

Service
Very very good and friendly. Nothing more to be said really.

Overall
A great addition to the Cardiff food scene. I maybe thought the house reds could have been a little better and we were in there an hour before the starters arrived. I don't think this is a problem at all but we could have used some bread or similar to soak up the gin!

I highly recommend this place, good food, nice friendly relaxed atmosphere.

A few interesting places seem to be cropping up in the town centre at the moment, wouldn't it be great if this was part of a trend to reclaim the area and make it a more friendly weekend destination?

The Potted Pig on Urbanspoon
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