Monday, 29 October 2012

Smooth criminal - The Clink Cardiff review


Law and order, and specifically the role of prisons has hit the headlines recently. The UK has one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe and re-offending rates are high with half of all prisoners released re-offending within 12 months.

The Clink is a restaurant and charity whose aim is to reduce this figure by offering rehabilitation through apprenticeships in a working restaurant. Early indications from the first restaurant at HMP High Down have been encouraging with 25 prisoners graduating into full time employment and only 2 of those re-offending. So we have restaurant number 2 and it's come to HMP Cardiff. With some big names in support (Antonio Carluccio, Giorgio Locatelli and our very own Stephen Terry), and an ambitious menu , I was curious to see how well the concept worked as a real restaurant.

The Clink logo


I was unsure what to expect on arrival, and received a funny look from a chap in the street who asked where I was looking for and I replied "the prison". Walking into HMP Cardiff for the first time might not necessarily stimulate the appetite, but the new venue in Cardiff has one significant advantage over the original for customers, and that is the security level. With High Down there is an 'approval' process for booking followed by a lengthy list of do's and don'ts and security to negotiate. The Cardiff restaurant however, is open to the public.

Stepping in is a slightly surreal experience, and once inside there are a few subtle reminders that this isn't your average eaterie. The 'no photography' rule, envelopes on the table for donations in place of tips, and the sheer volume of staff to name a few. However, the dining room d├ęcor is bright, modern and feels 'high end', and the front of house team are very welcoming and I was encouraged.

The Clink Cardiff dining room
The Clink Cardiff dining room - photo supplied by The Clink
We both ordered the same 2 courses from the menu and started with Spinach and ricotta ravioli with a sage and butter sauce (£5.50). This was very good, pasta cooked well, not overdone in the slightest, with a well balanced filling and plenty of herby butter. The pasta could have been a little thinner but with pasta that good, I'm not complaining.

For the main we had the Breaded chicken balotine with confit leg, tomato croquette potato and braised lettuce served with a chive sauce (£11.25). There were components of this plate that were excellent, particularly the confit leg, deliciously savoury with sage, and perfectly seasoned. Also worthy of special praise was the chive sauce which provided a light contrast to the meat. The balotine, while well cooked and crisp was absolutely enormous and we both agreed that half the portion would have been plenty.

Lobster and crab quenelles
Lobster and crab quenelles - photo supplied by The Clink
Trio of English Apples
Trio of English Apples - photo supplied by The Clink
The service was attentive and efficient and an area that no doubt will improve quickly with practice now that the doors are open.  Where the front of house team did struggle was with the layout of the tables. In some areas these are packed in so tightly that there was a gap of less that a foot available. At one point during the meal, another diner squeezed through only to end up with their bottom planted on the table and on my cutlery! I suspect that squeezing between tables doesn’t do much for the nerves of the people learning their trade in front of the general public either.

It is clearly early days for The Clink but this is a hugely promising start with great cooking and real ambition, both for the project and for the apprentices. If The Clink can deliver on its social impact aims and offer its customers an enjoyable dining experience then we're onto a winner. I imagine that this would make a great venue for business lunches given it's proximity to the town. I'll be revisiting in January when they start a dinner service and am intrigued to see how the team will have developed their enterprise.

The Clink Restaurant, HMP Cardiff, Knox Road, Cardiff, CF24
http://www.theclinkcharity.com/cardiff/





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