Tuesday, 31 July 2012

'Flip Your Wig' - La Crêperie de Sophie review

La Crêperie de Sophie and its proprietor Loic Moinon will already be very familiar to regular Riverside Market visitors where they whip up deliciously fresh crêpes and and galettes. There is something very satisfying about a humble batter, cooked on a simple hotplate 'en plen air' and transformed into a steaming envelope of cheese and ham loveliness of a Sunday morning!

One month ago Loic opened the latest arm to his venture; a charming cafe in the High Street Arcade and since I'm already a fan of their work, I was tempted to go along and try out the broader range of toppings on offer.

La Crêperie de Sophie, Cardiff High Street Arcade
La Crêperie de Sophie, Cardiff High Street Arcade

For the uninitiated, crêpes originated in Britanny but are a hugely popular street-food across France. The crêpe is made with a batter similar to our once-a-year Shrove Tuesday pancakes which are most suitable for sweet fillings, or there is the Breton Galette mix, which is better suited for the savoury fillings.

My own preference is for the savoury galette and the menu has a good selection of fillings from the classic ham and cheese (£2.95 to takeaway) to gourmet fillings like 'L'Italiene' of parma ham, mozzarella, olives and pesto (£5.45). On asking which was their most popular I was pointed towards the 'Cocorico' - chicken, brie, cranberry, and the 'Sweet Billy' - goats cheese, walnuts, onion chutney, leaves, balsamic, both at £4.45. I'm a sucker for goats cheese, and I'm trying to eat less meat so I went for the Sweet Billy.

Un galette s'il vous plait!
Une artisan au travail
Crêpe! That looks good...
Crêpe! That looks good...

The crêpes are all freshly made to order and generously filled with quality ingredients, The Sweet Billy was well balanced, the creamy cheese cut through nicely by the balsamic and the onions adding a sweet stickiness. The simple galette was the ideal foil, allowing the filling to shine through. Apparently the Welsh tend to favour the crêpe mix but I personally think that batter would have made the overall flavour too sweet.

Crêpes - The ultimate French street food
The ultimate French street food
The galette was very filling (probably too much for me of a standard weekday if I'm honest) which does help to justify the £4.45 price tag. To be fair the quality of the product is high with as much attention paid to the pancake as to the filling. It is also possible to get a ham & egg or sugar & lemon for under £3.00, competitive pricing for an everyday lunch against an M&S sandwich. If you prefer you can also get any of the options as a salad but let's be honest, why on earth would you?!.

The sweet crêpes looked absolutely amazing, coming in tempting combinations of of fruits, creams, caramels and chocolates. The added bonus of being able to sit 'outside' in the arcade whatever the weather is a draw considering our inclement summer and I'm looking forward to returning soon and working my way through some more of the menu!

I was invited along to try out the new menu and as such the lunch was complimentary. Thanks to Loic and the team at La Crêperie de Sophie.

La Crêperie de Sophie, High Street Arcade, Cardiff,
http://www.lacreperiedesophie.com/


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

'Get fresh!' - ffresh restaurant review, Cardiff

Another weekend, another pre-theatre dinner (it's a old tough life!) but this time the destination was ffresh, the in house restaurant underneath the rather wonderful Wales Millennium Centre. ffresh has been building a good reputation in Cardiff over the last couple of years and, in keeping with the rest of the venue, is pursuing as strategy designed to encourage punters outside the pre-theatre slot with 'guest chef' and themed nights. We have been before as à la carte customers so we were looking forward to a good dinner.

When we arrived the Centre was buzzing and the bars were all full so we headed straight in to be seated. We were offered our choice of table and provided with the set menus at £18.50 for 2 courses or £22.50 for 3.

To start I ordered the Perl Las soufflé, port and fig jam and rocket salad. The twice baked soufflé was pretty good, but then I am a sucker for a soufflé. The texture was light and fluffy but the flavour was a little muted and I would have liked a stronger hit of blue cheese. I question the presentation of the brown smear of jam and the rocket salad was very tired and limp and a bit brown round the edges.


Per las souffle at ffresh
Perl las souffle at ffresh
My boyfriend ordered the 'Carmarthen ham and melon salad'. Again this was fine if pretty uninspiring. The ratio of melon to ham was probably a little off but you know what you are getting with ham and melon and this was it.
Carmarthen ham and melon salad at ffresh
Carmarthen ham and melon salad at ffresh
 For the main I had the 'Sirloin of Welsh beef, cottage pie, green beans and turnips'. The sirloin, like the salad, was a bit listless and dry, as if it had been sitting around under a heat lamp for just that bit too long. The cottage pie was decent enough, but nothing special and was frustratingly difficult to eat it out of a deep narrow ramekin dish!

Sirloin of Welsh Beef and cottage pie at ffresh
Sirloin of Welsh Beef and cottage pie at ffresh
He ordered the 'Rump of Welsh lamb with rosti dauphinoise, broad beans and peas', sweet lamb with a good gravy was pretty decent but again nothing to shout about.
Rump of Welsh Lamb at ffresh
Rump of Welsh Lamb at ffresh
As it was a set menu we decided to go for a dessert but I just didn't fancy any of the 3 options, none of them were screaming decadent to me so I went for the 'Selection of True Taste cheeses'. This was placed in front of me without ceremony and I had to call the waiter back to talk me through what was on it! The plate was made up of Perl Las, Perl Wen, Caerphilly and Y Fenni, some crumbly oat biscuits and a blob of chutney with grapes. All good quality cheese, the Caerphilly in particular was a winner, so no complaints from me.

He ordered the 'Summer pudding with Ty Tanglwyst Chantilly cream', a good example of a summer pudding, sharp berries and sweet soft cream (I think he would have preferred custard though!).

Overall we were happy with our meal but we have definitely had much better from Ffresh when we have gone as à la carte customers and on a night when there wasn't a show on. My tiny gripe is that none of what we had was cooked 'Ffresh' to order and as a result there were elements that felt a bit 'canteen-y' and this is a crying shame because this restaurant knows what it is doing. I know that for this type of menu there is a trade-off to meet the quick turnaround and the volume of covers but I would have liked to have seen a little more flair and just a bit of actual cooking instead of just plating up.

ffresh restaurant, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff,
http://www.wmc.org.uk/eatanddrink/ffresh/45151/

Ffresh Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 12 July 2012

'All rise' for Introduction to Baking Bread

Once upon a time, I made a curry upon which I had lavished love and attention. I ground my own spices, marinated chicken thighs, fried and simmered and then resisted the temptation to dive straight in and allowed it to stand and 'mature' overnight.

On my way home I thought about accompaniments. Pilau rice, quality chutneys and bread. Suddenly the thought of my lovely curry being insulted by a long life, mealy, brittle naan was more than I could bear and before I knew what was happening I was Googling recipes for Indian breads and shopping for ingredients.

The result was nothing less than a revelation. Having previously dismissed bread making as 'too technical' for a mere novice like me, I was amazed both by how straightforward, and how much better this bread was in comparison to almost any shop bought bread I'd had in recent memory (The recipe I used is here in case you're interested.)

I then set about trying to make a loaf at home, with, it's fair to say, varying degrees of success. The information I found was contradictory (add oil, add sugar, knead gently, slap the dough about etc.) and a lot the recipes were far too advanced. My main problems seemed to be getting good flavour into the dough and getting the loaf to hold it's shape. Early efforts looked more like very deep pan pizzas than loaves. I was frustrated, disheartened, dejected.

Then, as if by magic, a fairy-godbaker appeared and invited me, along with Nicky from Cardiff Bites, Mark from Corpulent Capers and Nikki from Your Last Mouthful along to be the guinea pigs in a trial run of The One Mile Bakery, Introduction to Baking Bread course.

If you have read this blog before you may have seen my previous series of posts about The One Mile Bakery, a micro business which recently opened, delivering bread, soup and jams in the Canton, Pontcanna and Llandaff areas by journalist Elisabeth Mahoney. It's fair to say that I am a fan of the produce that I've tasted so far so I was curious to see whether I would be able to make bread as successfully myself.

The course promises to teach 'the basic ingredients and techniques involved in making real bread. You will make a range of breads and be given advice on key stages: kneading, proving, shaping and baking.'

Raw bread dough
'This will be delicious... honest'
As we arrived the Welsh weather was making itself felt and it was pouring down; absolutely perfect for baking. We were greeted with coffee and tea and Elisabeth grilled us about our experience of baking and any issues we wanted to solve.

 After a discussion about the realities of mass produced bread and the differences between that and homemade bread , it's impact on health and digestion, and the sheer pleasure of the alchemy of baking, our interest was piqued and it was time to get 'hands on'.

The course is structured so that you make at least 4 loaves (which you also get to take home with you!). Starting with a simple loaf (you choose your own flours) and working through a flavoured rye bread, towards Elisabeth's favourite, a tasty pain de campagne that incorporates a pre-dough left to rise overnight, the slow ferment giving the loaf bags of flavour.

The day demystified the process of baking bread for me completely, reminding me that it should all start with 4 simple ingredients:
  1. Flour
  2. Water
  3. Yeast
  4. Salt
Dough ready to bake
The simple loaf before
Freshly baked loaves
 And after
These are some of the key points that I got out of the day:
  1. Pay attention to your raw ingredients. Stoneground flours, if you can afford them, produce the best bread, retaining more nutrients and flavour and are still very cost effective.
  2. Homemade bread stays fresh for ages and even when stale it can still be toasted or frozen as breadcrumbs for cooking - you don't need the preservatives found in supermarket bread.
  3. Don't bother with so-called easy-rise yeast (this is partly where I was going wrong) Dried yeast is really no more work and produces a far superior loaf.
  4. Having weighed your ingredients carefully don't use flour to knead, it just messes up your recipe, get yourself a scraper to help handle a sticky dough.
  5. The basic processes are dead easy, and once learned, the principles can be applied in lots of ways.
  6. Play with ingredients and flavours, adding spices, dried fruits or herbs can turn one recipe into a multitude of variations.
  7. Learn to shape properly, it takes practice but creating surface tension does produce a more even shape and crumb and encourages the bread to rise rather than spread (which is what used to happen to me!)
Shaping the dough
Nikki gets to grips with a slippery rye!

Pain de campagne
Pièce de résistance - pain de campagne
The course delivered exactly what was promised and since completing it I have been able to successfully make my own loaves at home and I am very proud to say that I haven't bought a loaf from a shop since!

If you want to know any more then you'll have to go on the course yourself which I highly recommend you do! For the princely sum of £70 you will learn loads and come away with a skill for life as well as having a really fantastic and fun day. I fully intend going back later this year to complete an Introduction to Sourdough. Or maybe the Italian Breads. Or maybe both!

End of the baking class at The One Mile Bakery
Four happy, floury blogging bakers!
We were invited by Elisabeth to try out and feedback on the new course and as such the day was complimentary.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Woods Brasserie - review

Now I am a little older (if none the wiser) one of life's pleasures is an evening at one of Cardiff's theatres preceded by a nice dinner. Back in January, on a trip to London we had the pre-theatre dinner by which all future such dinners will be measured, at Les Deux Salons.

At £18 for three cleverly balanced, tasty and satisfying courses we refer back to it often. Pre-theatre dinners can be a great way for restaurants to boost turnover and for punters to try out a restaurant on a budget. These menus can also be tricky to get right. The pricing needs to be sharp, the 3 courses taken together should be filling without leaving the diner stuffed (and liable to nodding off during the performance) and the plates should have a fairly rapid turnaround so nothing that needs lots of fiddly last minute cooking and plating.

Dinners like this are hard to find in Cardiff and I often struggle in town centre but in the Bay it is a little easier. I only rarely head down to Cardiff Bay to eat, only when I am in the area for cinema or the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre, preferring to avoid the plethora of family friendly chains that populate the front. Woods Brasserie is an exception to the rule and although there is no specific pre-theatre dinner, there is a 3 course Table d'Hote, available all evening for £20, so we decided to give it a try.

Woods describes itself as 'a contemporary restaurant situated within the iconic pilotage building of Cardiff Bay' and this is borne through in the decor. A beautiful stone building with glamorous touches inside, and a light conservatory serving as a dining room at the back which takes full advantage of the bayside views.

To start I had the Potted Pig which turned out to be 3 different types of pig; ham with the addition of tomato, slow cooked pork and a ham fritter all served on slate with smears of mustardy sauce and chutney. Of the three, my favourite was the slow cooked ham with tomato that flavoured the fat. The pork was the least successful of the three, the fat being unpleasantly greasy and lacking in flavour.  I felt there was just too much food on the plate for a starter and I would have been happier with about half that portion.

Woods fish and chipsFor main I ordered the Woods fish and chips and a very good it was too. The fish had been fried beautifully, the batter was crisp and light, the handcut chips were crunchy, fluffy and there was an absolute mountain of them. The traditional accompaniments were fine, but the pea puree was a touch too thick for me and didn't have a strong enough pea flavour, and I personally would have preferred a little more bite to the tartar sauce.


The other main was braised blade of beef with garlic mash and red wine gravy. I am told that this was good with a very rich gravy and soft beef, but that the ratio of meat to potato was slightly off. We had been recommended to order some vegetables with this but as I covered in a recent post after a visit to The Social, it irritates me when accompaniments don't form part of the dish. When I order I really think that the plate should be composed together and then if people want to add to it, fine, but don't give me half a dinner!

Braised blade of beef at Woods Brasserie

Frozen bread and butter pudding at Woods BrasserieBy this point I was absolutely stuffed, but as it was a set menu I decided to try the Frozen Bread and Butter pudding. This turned out to be dull old white bread layered with plain ice cream and raisins and felt like a half-attempt at a pudding. It was saved by an indulgent caramel sauce which provided a much needed extra dimension and sweetness.

The service at Woods is quite formal and deliberate, although not unfriendly, and the whole experience offers a very pleasant, more sophisticated alternative to the pizza, burger and fried chicken places further along.

Overall we enjoyed our dinner and thought that it offered exceptional value for money at £20. Looking at the A La Carte menu even that wouldn't have been much more expensive and it is well pitched for the Cardiff market. For me personally it was far too much food across 3 courses although I certainly have friends who would have been very happy with the portion sizes!

We will definitely be back.

Woods Brasserie, Pilotage Building, Stuart Street, Cardiff, CF10 5BW (029) 2049 2400
http://knifeandforkfood.co.uk/woods Wood's Brasserie on Urbanspoon
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