Monday, 26 March 2012

Oscars of Cardiff

You might be forgiven for thinking that taking on the former site of the much loved and missed Le Gallois, would be to invite inevitable and 'hard to match' expectation. Speculation was rife and interest was high in news that another restaurant was taking over, but where Le Gallois was pitched squarely in the fine-dining bracket, Oscars, already well established in Cowbridge, is a rather different proposition.

Oscars of CardiffI went for lunch with a friend on one of those glorious, early spring weekends when going out without a coat and hat is still a novelty. When we arrived at 1.00pm there were already people outside enjoying the sun. A quick read revealed a very comprehensive lunch menu, from French Onion Soup (in a jar - not quite sure why) at £4 to an 8oz Fillet Steak at £24.

I ordered Slow Roast Ham, Egg and Maris Piper Chips at £8 and my friend had the Fish and Chips at £9. Both were very good and were stamped as Oscars interpretation of 2 classics.

Ham, egg and chips - Oscars of CardiffThe Ham that came with Egg and Chips was a slow roasted ham that was falling apart and was served hot, a twist on the familiar dish but it was soft, salty and very tasty. The addition of the leaves with red onion did feel like a bit of unnecessary twiddling.

The fish on the other meal wasn't battered and fried, but baked with an oaty crumb instead and all served in mock newspaper. The chips on both were good, crispy and with potato skin left on. We did have to chase down vinegar and sauces but this was our only minor complaint and to be fair this is being a bit picky!

I'd like to add a word of praise here for the menus at Oscars. If you are going to go 'off piste' with classics then it is important to manage expectations and Oscars does this very well. You get the headline of the dish followed by a short description.


I know what I'm getting and I don't have to trundle off a complicated order (take note The Hardwick!)

Included on the menu is a suggested wine to go with everything (even, amusingly, the Croque Monsieur) which is fantastic for a Luddite like me. The (extensive) wine list itself is helpfully grouped into wine styles. Whites and reads each have 4 sub-groups (for example 'Light, juicy and fruit driven' !) with lots of choice by the glass and range from £15 to £45 a bottle. There are also breakfast and brunch menus and coffee and cake during the day.

As we were finishing up, a group of young parents with children in tow arrived and we commented that it was great to see a place catering so well for families. As a non-parent myself I appreciate places that are adult only, but for a neighbourhood restaurant this was great. A quick look at the website showed a very clear policy:

'We are family friendly and offer a dedicated children’s menu for the under 12’s which is available from noon to 7pm.'

I enjoyed my lunch at Oscars. The food was good quality and well thought out, even the simplest of dishes are considered. The service was friendly and the pricing was very keen, presumably to encourage the repeat business that a neighbourhood place needs to be successful. I took it as a good sign that my lunch companion mentioned, in the 1.5 hours we were there, 4 or 5 different times he had been there with recently. The 'personality' that was so sorely missing at the competent but dull Corner House was in strong evidence here.

I'll definitely be going back in the evening soon to take that tempting wine list out for a walk.

Oscars of Cardiff, 6-10 Romilly Crescent, Pontcanna, Cardiff

Oscars of Cardiff on Urbanspoon

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Corner House

Last week I risked the displeasure of a few close friends and finally got round to visiting The Corner House. This is the place, in case you have been living in a black hole for the last few months, which opened just before Christmas on the site of the first gay pub in Wales, the much loved King's Cross.

The King's, which had been established for 40ish years, found itself smack bang in the centre of 'chromeandglassland' when St David's 2 opened and therefore changed overnight from shabby but friendly into prime real estate. Mitchells and Butlers now had an opportunity to revamp it into one of its core brands (along with Browns and O'Neals) as a 'gastro pub'. A well organised and enthusiastically supported campaign was pulled together but the writing was on the wall and the King's closed down.

What reappeared in its place was a monolith of beige 'tastefulness' squarely pitched to resonate with those who have taken neutral tones in home decor to their hearts. There is nothing individual or interesting about The Corner House. It is inoffensive in the extreme.

We had booked a table for a (pre-grand slam!) Friday evening, and my first impression of the interior was much the same as the exterior. The place was packed out and we were asked to go the bar for a drink while they checked on our table upstairs.

We sat, read through the menu and ordered sharing breads, roasted garlic and olives to start. A couple of bottles of a very decent and drinkable merlot, and mains. The breads and olives were fine if unremarkable, and the roasted garlic was a good addition.

My order was for a burger which came with 'onion, gherkin, mayo, relish and fries'. Both of us who ordered burgers were very pleased. The cooking was spot on, still pink inside and the meat was clearly good quality with plenty of flavour. The chips were good too, crispy and fluffy. My only comment, is that thinking back, I don't really remember tasting relish. Mayo and gherkin yes, relish no.

One thing that sprang to mind, which is also something I recently experienced at The Meating Place, was the discrepancy in portion sizes. I had asked about accompaniments for each of the mains (these are bizarrely missing from the menu) The burgers, pizza and spit roast chicken were all there or thereabouts, but my friend who ordered lamb rump was crestfallen and immediately ordered a side of vegetables which were very good if brought suspiciously quickly.

Only one desert was requested (and it wasn't mine so I have no comment) brought at the same time as a round of coffees. Then the plates were cleared and THEN...

...we were quickly told that our time allocation for the table was up.

This was interesting for a few of reasons:
  1. This policy wasn't made clear when I booked. I have seen this on other websites (London mainly) but not on this one.
  2. We were late being shown to our table, I think by the time we were seated it was nearer to 7.30 than 7.00
  3. We didn't order starters
I'm not sure how I felt about this, it certainly wasn't well handled by the restaurant, although it was clearly very busy, it was handled brusquely and left a sour taste in my mouth.

Would I visit The Corner House again? Maybe. Not for a special occasion, but if you are catching up with friends in town where you are paying more attention to the conversation than the food it is a solid option.

If there is nothing offensive about The Corner House, there is equally nothing exciting. Everything was fine and I am sure it will make money but it is crying out for some of the personality it had in it's previous incarnation.

The Corner House, Bar and Dining Rooms, Caroline Street, Cardiff

Wednesday, 14 March 2012 (takeaway)

It struck me the other day that I hadn't really talked about takeaways at all on this blog which is surprising because I do have takeaways a couple of times a month. So why haven't I?

I suppose it is because, unlike with restaurants, I tend to stick to the same couple of places. Local, reasonable, reliable. I am not as adventurous when bringing food home. Takeaways tend to be reserved for those occasions when I have arrived home too late, or I am too tired to be bothered with cooking rather than seen as a treat.

Generally most takeaways have uninspiring menus. Low quality ingredients, poor value and full of MSG.
The other option is to look at restaurants which also offer takeaway, or even better, a delivery service. One upshot of the current economy is that restaurants looking to increase their revenue are starting to see this as a viable additional service where previously it was seen as taking their food down-market (a bit like when film actors decided, post Keifer Sutherland on 24, that TV wasn't so bad after all).

So, I was very excited to find out that .cn, a restaurant reviewed and praised by food bloggers in recent months had started offering not only takeaway, but a delivery service. Utopia!

The website describes the food as 'influenced from the Northern provinces of China' although with a strong presence of chilli and Sichuan pepper on the menu the food reminded me more of my brief visit to Guilin in the south.
Ingredients for the adventurous (shredded pig maw, beef tripe and chicken gizzard) sit alongside the more usual but no less tasty options (lamb breast, meatballs, sea bass). What is immediately obvious is that this is no ordinary menu sanitised for Western tastes.

This is the second order from .cn that we have had. The first (Sichuan chicken, crispy pork in Peking sauce with pancakes and guotie) was so good we went back for more the following week.

The guotie last time were a revelation so this time we ordered a stuffed steamed bun each. The bun was fluffy and the filling of pork, leek and spring onion was savoury and moreish. I smiled like a loon with every mouthful.

The mains were pork in Sichuan pepper and chilli sauce (left) and crispy lamb breast with ground chilli.
The pork was good, plenty of chillies in the sauce and if you were unfortunate enough to bite down on a piece of Sichaun pepper it felt like you had lava in your mouth (in a good way)
The lamb was delicious, the layer of fat was soft and full of flavour, although the dish had maybe been compromised a bit by the necessity of transporting the meat in a plastic container. This had the unfortunate effect of steaming something that should be crispy. I can only assume that is what happened since I haven't been to the restaurant yet and it's hard to see how they could avoid this happening.

The thought that has gone into a varied and challenging menu, the care that is taken over the ingredients, the high quality cooking all results in an impressive all round experience and you still get a strong sense of the personality of the place when eating this food at home.

I'm already planning my next order!

Monday, 5 March 2012

Traditional Cawl recipe

When it comes to food I am easily influenced. Like that cheese advert that sees a string of people seeing and then eating cheese on toast, someone only has to mention a particular food to me and I will immediately start craving and obsessing until I get some.
A few weeks ago we went to The Promised Land for lunch because I'd been craving faggots and peas and they are one of the few places that have them on the menu. One of us ordered the traditional Cawl and when it came it looked very similar to the recipe that I use and so I've been craving that ever since (you can see how this goes).

Cawl is a traditional dish which varies according to the region, season and personal taste, there is no right and wrong (although obviously I am right) so I thought I would share my traditional Cawl recipe with you because it is easy, tasty, cheap. It freezes very well so I always make a huge pan of and freeze into portions for lazy cooking days when I don't want to resort to the chippie!


This is my generic recipe but it can be changed according to what looks good and what you like and can be doubled easily. You can also substitute lamb for beef and add bacon if you want. Make your cawl the day before you want to eat it if you can.
  • Lamb shoulder, breast, neck on the bone (1kg) get extra bones if you can!
  • Onion (1 large or 2 small)
  • Bay leaves
  • Leeks (2-3)
  • Potatoes (500g)
  • Parsnips (2)
  • Carrots (4 medium)
  • Swede (1 small)
  • Butter (a bit)
Put the lamb and the bones if you can get them into a pan and cover with cold water. Add the onion in wedges along with 1 of the carrots in chunks, a couple of bay leaves and some peppercorns.

Bring slowly to the boil, simmer for about 2 hours giving the stock the occasional skim, until the meat is falling apart.

Remove the meat and vegetables from the stock which now needs to be strained (I do it through a cloth) and skim the fat. If you have time you can chill the stock and the fat will solidify into a disk which can just be lifted off. Chunk up the meat which should just slide off the bone.

Melt a slice of butter and start softening whatever veg you are using, adding them to the pan starting with the hardest first and softest (the leeks) last. Then return the stock and add your chunks of lamb and simmer gently for about an hour until the veg is tender. Check for seasoning and you can always add a lamb stock cube if you fancy.

Then leave it for 24 hours and serve hot with crusty bread and a piece of very mature cheddar. As we say in Wales, 'Lush'!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Angela Gray's Cookery School - Bake it!

This year my boyfriend set down some ‘rules’ for our Christmas presents, designed I think to turn Christmas shopping into a sort of ‘Challenge Anneka’ type experience only without the skin-tight jumpsuit (hooray) or giant truck (boo). The rules included a second hand item, something made by you, a gift costing less than £10 and something consumable. The something consumable he got was a box of Maltesers but I definitely had the better end of the deal with the very exciting prospect of a day’s baking course at Angela Gray’s Cookery School based at Llanerch Vineyard.

The course description promised a lot which was just as well with a price tag of £140 for a full day course:
Re-discover the art of baking. Learn new skills, and how to add variety to your culinary repertoire. It’s the perfect way to spend the day, and you take home delicious eats to share with friends.
Make Carrot and sultana scones with cheese pate, Fougasse and Pissaladiere. Break for a well deserved lunch of Leek rarebit tart and winter salad and finish with Spiced chocolate brownies.
We all know that baking is having a bit of a moment with the Great British Bake Off having revived interest and being a bit of a sucker for a bandwagon I was keen to expand my own baking beyond your basic cakes and tarts.

The kitchen
The school itself is house in the grounds of Llanerch Vineyard which has seen some major improvements since it was sold in 2010, one of these being the cookery school which opened in April 2011.

It is housed in a separate building with a fully equipped kitchen area that has about 6 or so workstations, there is also a large farmhouse style table with an Aga next to it and although it was a cold January day when we were there, the kitchen has doors around 2 walls which looked like they could open right round when the weather allows. The whole area is finished to a high standard and is immaculate; in fact it all screams QUALITY at you.

The course
I arrived just before 10.00am to find Angela and one other student already there. Since it was the first course back after Christmas there were only 3 of us booked on and one didn’t turn up, so it was just the two of us. After coffee and chocolate cherry tart we were ready to start and first up was a basic bread dough which could then be turned into Pissaladiere and Fougasse.

Bread is one of the areas I have very little experience with so most of this was new to me. Angela took us through the basic dough recipe and taught us to knead the dough by slapping it against the worksurface (tres therapeutic) This was then placed into the oven on a setting specifically for rising dough (fancy!).

Next on the list was the onion topping for the Pissaladiere which we were reliably informed, is a pizza style style dish of Southern France which is usually served in small slices with an aperitif. The usual topping (which we were making) is slowly cooked onions with garlic, olives and anchovies but Angela also suggested roasted peppers, sausage, cheese etc.

We then made a start on the scones, the addition of carrot being a new experience for me. We prepped the mix and left it to one side to return to the dough which by now had doubled in size. It needed to be knocked back and then it was ready for use.

Half the dough was flattened for the Pissalaldiere and the onion mixture was spread out across the top, and dotted with olives and anchovies.


For the other half of the dough we added some very finely chopped rosemary before shaping into a sort of palm leaf shape with cuts through the dough (apparently it is sold hanging up in France). Again this could have other flavourings added; I am fancying parmesan and bacon! As you can see I had some issues with the shaping *ahem*


Then it was time to prep lunch which was a leek rarebit tart. Tart tins were lined with mustard and parmesan pastry, leeks sautéed in butter and added to a strong rarebit mixture.  A large salad with a pomegranate molasses dressing was prepared, and we sat around the large farmhouse style table for lunch and a good chat.

The final items to be made were the brownies and these were flavoured with cinnamon and my favourite spice, cardamom.

Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Angela’s cookery school and the new skills for me were all about the bread making. Angela is absolutely lovely. Friendly, chatty and encouraging, no question was too stupid and nothing too much trouble. The quality of the equipment and the ingredients is all very good and the school seems to fit in well with the wider work happening on the site.

Whichever way I look at it £140 is quite a lot of money so if when I go again and have to fork out for it myself, it will either be for something a bit more technical (I really fancy the knife skills session) where I can really pick up some new skills, or for one of the taster courses which are a more affordable £50. Judging by the website I don’t think they are having much difficulty attracting customers with some upcoming courses already fully booked. I also hear that a certain red jerseyed rugby team are booked in for a session soon. There are more courses and some events (including a glamping day) planned for this year and the school is a great addition to an improving food scene in South Wales. I look forward to being able to visit again.

Angela Gray’s Cookery School is based at Llanerch Vineyard and offers a range of cookery courses and events including 2 day schools, demonstrations and a Lunch Club.
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