Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Social Restaurant - review

I think we are all familiar with fate of The Crown Social by now, the naked ambition for a Michelin star for Cardiff that got us all very excited last year. I went (review here) and was underwhelmed. A flawed concept (shared poached egg anyone?) alongside inconsistent cooking and service wasn't destined for success and we were all left little deflated and not surprised at all when Martin Blunos and The Parc Thistle parted company after 5 months.

The Crown Social closed and a pared back verion, The Social, opened last autumn under executive chef Iain Inman. It has taken me some time to put to bed memories of my last experience there but when a tempting Travelzoo voucher was made available (£39 for 2 glasses of Prosecco, starters, mains, deserts) I decided it was worth another punt.

As we arrived the restaurant looked quiet through the window but the bar was not with a large group of fairly loud ladies gearing up for a night in town. Sitting in the bar sipping a glass of prosecco and reading the menu, entertainment was provided by the stream of people heading towards St Mary Street dressed in a variety of what I will generously call 'outfits'.

To start:
  • Cured sewin, laverbread puree, crab vinaigrette, shaved fennel, candied lemon and chilli (£8)
  • Red and white onion risotto (£6.50)
Before the starters were delivered a bread board with 3 different breads was brought out. I tried a decent irish soda bread first, followed by a horrid piece of heavy, chewy focaccia that i think may have been raw in places.

Cured Sewin at The Social CardiffRed and white onion risotto at The Social CardiffThe cured sewin was a pretty good start, not a bone in sight, and the candied lemon, chilli and fennel salad was a fresh counterpoint to the fish. The crab vinaigrette felt utterly pointless though and with 2 microscopic blobs on the plate came across as almost stingy.



The onion risotto was good, al dente and strong/sweet with onion. This can also be ordered as a large plate but I suspect it might have been a too one-dimensional to work as a main.


Mains
  • Fillet of Usk Valley beef (£25)
  • Rump of Welsh lamb, braised shoulder, smoked aubergine, Nicoise jus (£20)
The beef had a £5 surcharge and came only with mushrooms and red wine jus so we had to order chips on top. Call me crazy but if a main is twenty five quid I don't want to have to pay extra for a fried potato. The mushrooms too were disappointing and turned out to be boring old baby button mushrooms.

The lamb dish was a real disappointment. The rump was unevenly cooked with some parts pretty much raw and had quite a lot of indigestible fat. The braise hadn't been cooked long enough and was unpleasantly flabby too. The smoked aubergine just tasted burned and wasn't pleasant to my taste.

Desserts
  • Pithvier [sic] of dark chocolate, milk chocolate mousse, white chocolate ice cream
  • Board of Welsh cheeses 
Pithivier of dark chocolate at The Social CardiffThings did improve with the desserts. We disagreed about the chocolate pithivier which I think had used salted butter in the pastry. I liked the saltiness but he was less sure. The white chocolate ice cream was very good.
Welsh Cheese Board at The Social Cardiff

I had the Welsh cheeses, Perl Las, Caerphilly and 2 others that I can't remember (sorry), a generous amount of good quality cheese, biscuits and chutneys.




The service was good and the front of house team know what they are doing. They were keen to make sure that their customers enjoyed and when I asked some questions about the aubergine on the lamb dish the Maitre d' was very happy to chat and even went so far as to take it upon himself to bring another  spoonful so I could taste it again - above and beyond the call of duty!

For the second time I left The Social feeling a little let down and here's the issue. If we had been paying full price the total bill would have come to somewhere around £120 for 2 people - a significant sum in anyone's book. As it was, with the voucher, we paid a more realistic £66 for the quality of the meal we had.

According to its own press releases, The Social is still ambitious which is laudable but with venues like The Park Plaza and The Parkhouse Club having recently launched new menus in the same space and within walking distance the competition's hotting up.

Crown Social (Parc Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The One Mile Bakery - week 2

Continuing my adventure of soup and sourdough from The One Mile Bakery this was the delivery for week 2, a rare week of glorious May sunshine, not the ideal weather for soup you may say but think again...

Le menu:
  • Spring minestrone with mint and almond pesto
  • Wild garlic loaf
  • Seeded rye sourdugh

Minestrone being the italian version of our Cawl, a whole meal in a bowl with as many varities as there are seasons, I was intrigued to lift the lid on the biodegradeable packaging and see what was in the pot. This spring version was beautifully fresh with green beans, artichoke and peas and pasta shells all bobbing about in a light stock.



As with week 1, the garnish added a whole new dimension, fresh mint freckling the stock and livening up the bowl.

We chose the (locally foraged) wild garlic loaf to go with the soup. This was a plain loaf marbled through with a wild garlic pesto, a subtle, almost sweet flavour that suited the delicate soup well.

The other of the 2 small loaves in the package was a seeded rye sourdough loaf that was as dense and heavy as a brick and made an excellently filling breakfast spread generously with last weeks jam. A thick slice of that kept me happily going until lunchtime and the loaf lasted me all week!

2 deliveries to go...

On to week 3
Back to week 1



Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The One Mile Bakery - week 1

The humble loaf has been a contentious topic in recent years with many people claiming gluten and wheat intolerances and swearing off bread as the cause of bloating and weight gain. In a 'Newton's third law of motion' kind of way there is an equal and opposite reaction in the form of those who are advocates for real bread. That is to say bread not made using the vilified ‘Chorleywood bread process’.

These advocates include anyone from artisan bakers to households throwing a few ingredients into a breadmaking machine of a weekend. This bread is the stuff that we homosapien have been eating for 30'000 years and is very different to the 10+ ingredient  offerings available in most shops.

Into this space steps One Mile Bakery, a micro bakery selling and delivering breads, soups and jams and run by bread enthusiast Elisabeth Mahoney (who also does a nice side-line in radio and theatre reviews).

The business model is this: you buy a subscription in a bread/soup/jam configuration that works for you and if you live in Canton, Pontcanna or Llandaff you get a weekly delivery of fresh, seasonal produce. The delivery is a 'doorstep surprise'™ but it will be handmade and different each week.
The beautifully designed and photographed site launched 3 weeks ago and it’s fair to say that I was poised with my PayPal account as the site went live and was I think (?) the first person to order.
This should tell you which side of the bread divide I am on. I LOVE bread but find the supermarket stuff hard to digest and have avoided it for the last few years.
I went for a 1 month sourdough and soup package which contains 2 sourdough loaves, 2 other loaves and 4 soups across a 4 week period for £22. So that you get a good sense of what a month of products involves, I'll post a blog showing you the delivery each week.

Week 1
It’s fair to say that I was quite excited about my first delivery and more than a little curious about the contents. What I received was:
·        Cream of asparagus soup
·        Hazelnut pesto & asparagus spears garnish
·        Pain de Campagne
·        Kalamata olive, pecorino and herb breadsticks
·        Strawberry, rhubarb, French vanilla and lavender jam (the jam was an added first week bonus for being an early adopter)



All the packaging (bar the stickers) is compostable and can be put into the food recycling caddy which keeps the 'ethical credentials' high.

The soup portions were enormous, more than enough for 2, fresh and vibrant with asparagus and spinach. At first I thought it was a tiny bit under-seasoned but then I realised that the soup is seasoned taking the garnish into account and the addition of hazelnut pesto soon sorted that out!

The pain de campagne was reserved for the jam. Ooh, the jam! This for me was the best bit and I will definitely be adding jam to my next order. This was a super condensed strawberry flavour with a kick of rhubarb and mellow vanilla reminiscent of rhubarb and custard sweets. I couldn't really taste lavender but that didn't detract in the slightest. That jam with a piece of toasted bread is a fabulous way to start the day.
The bread itself with a light but firm crumb was tasty and filling, a good foil for both the soup and the jam (and the cheese and the humous that I had the following night!)

I am a week behind with my posts so the next 2 will follow quickly!

On to week 2

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

La Galleria restaurant review


When I started blogging about food and restaurants, a mere 9 months ago, I didn't realise what a job it would be to keep up with all the new restaurants opening, and here we go again, in Canton, with the latest new kid on the block, La Galleria.

Ordinarily I avoid all new places in the first month, particularly if I am planning to write about it, but the promise of 'Italian food the way it should be' tempted me and once you throw in a 2-4-1 offer it would be silly not to. I was looking forward to something more than your standard Italian restaurant.

La Galleria describes itself as a 'restaurant lounge bar' which I found intriguing. The reality was an unnecessarily lengthy description for what is in fact a restaurant.

The interior seemed equally unsure of itself; a mix of modern ('feature' wall and squishy sofas in the front - presumably the lounge bit) and a curiously old fashioned look in the main restaurant. White table cloths, a strange arrangement on the walls of thick horizontal strips of cream wood interspersed with thin mirrored strips, and generic Italian looking paintings in a Jack Vettriano style. Traditional is one thing but old fashioned is another. And while I'm at it the tables were absolutely rammed together, I can image it getting very cramped when they get booked up.

But enough of the decor, the food is what it's all about.

The menu is pretty standard UK Italian restaurant fare, antipasti and bruschetta starters; pasta, pizza and a handful meat/fish dishes. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to the menu at Bellini's so if you like that there's a good chance this will be your thing.

We ordered bruschetta and olives to start, both were good, the bruschetta strong with garlic and the tomatoes properly salted.The olives were good and came with carrots, celery, chilli etc. (again like the olives in Bellini's)

The 2-4-1 could be used on either pasta or pizza so he ordered a Calzone and I had the Rucola (parma ham, rocket, shaved Parmesan). These were both good with generous toppings but for me the pizza base could have been a little thinner and crispier. We were offered, and I accepted, the offer of chilli oil for the pizza. This came in a oversized comedy bottle that needed two hands to lift it and was without a stopper for drizzling. This added an unnecessary frisson of danger and was so unwieldy reduced me to giggles.

Service was fine and efficient but would benefit from being a little more welcoming. There is a difference between service and hosting and as a general point the latter is much harder, but is normally the way in the best Italian restaurants. There were some teething issues evident but to be fair they were all dealt with cheerfully and quickly. While this would have been a problem somewhere more established, it wasn't a problem at all for somewhere open less than a week so let's not hold it against them.

Our bill with the discount was only £22.75 for the bruschetta, olives, 2 pizzas, 2 glasses of house red (an easy Montepulciano) and a coke; ridiculously good value in anyone's book. Without discount it would have been £31 which is still pretty sharp.

As we left we walked home past La Lupa and the Italian Way, both full and lively, and here for me is the issue. The food was fine, the service was fine but La Galleria seems to be a little confused in terms of what it is aiming for while at the same time not offering anything new. The description and the street view promise robust Italian cooking with a modern twist but this isn't completely followed through to the menu. If feels like 2 people have been locked in separate rooms with one working up the design and marketing while another worked up the menu. Canton is already well served with established Italian restaurants practically next door so where is the USP?

I'd really like La Galleria to do well. We have traditional Italian restaurants in Canton so there is space for something a bit different. Both La Vita (gorgeous pizzas) and Casanova (wonderful seasonal cooking) have already managed this and it would be good to see La Galleria carve out its own space.

La Galleria - Restaurant Bar Lounge
147 Cowbridge Road East, Canton

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Almada restaurant review

I moved to Cardiff about 7 years ago and in that time the options for eating in Canton have improved significantly. One of the first places I ate after arriving was a little neighbourhood Turkish place called Seren, which at the time was very tasty and exceptionally good value. Over the last 2 years though, the quality took a bit of a dive and earlier this year it quietly closed and a new Portuguese restaurant opened in its place. I had heard rumours that the chef used to be at Casanova (an excellent Italian restaurant on Quay Street in town) so when I booked a table for Saturday evening, expectations were high.

When we arrived at 8.00pm we were the only people there. I did not take this to be a good sign. One other couple arrived about 20 minutes later but that was it for the evening.

I liked the place when it was Seren and I still like the interior, however I find it hard to relax in an empty restaurant. Apart from trying to hold half whispered, self-conscious conversations, I become very aware of being watched over by hovering waiters!

Almada restaurant Cardiff dining room

In any case, when we sat down we were brought a dish of huge, shiny olives that almost needed a knife and fork to deal with them. Some bread also appeared along with a delicious tomatoey sardine paste which I thought was a very nice touch. I tried a glass of reasonable house red and looked through the menu.

Mussels with garlic and white wine at Almada CardiffTo start I ordered mussels with garlic and white wine (apologies for the naff photography). When they arrived there was enough shellfish to make a decent main course and while the mussels were good quality (their fish comes from Ashtons in the central market) if there was garlic in there, I couldn't find it.

The other starter of smoked salmon with beetroot salad was off balance. Far too much beetroot which completely overpowered the salmon.

For the main we ordered a Cataplana for two people at £35. Having never been to Portugal I had no idea what a Cataplana was, but the friendly and helpful waiter was very happy to explain and it turns out that it is a sealed metal cooking dish. This version had mussels, prawns, pork and chorizo and came with 'chips'. (Is this a standard 'Cataplana' or is it like a tagine with lots of variations? Comments welcome!)

Cataplana - Almada Cardiff
The seafood, as with the starters was good quality with lots of whole prawns and mussels on the top. The pork however was chewy rather than soft, and again the flavours were disappointing even with the chorizo and I found the whole thing a little bland and crying out for a good punchy sauce. The chips were fried potatoes rather than chipped, no problem at all, but why describe one thing then serve another?

We skipped dessert (the options didn't inspire me) and settled the bill.

Overall I thought that it was expensive for what we had. The total bill came to £70 for 2 starters, the main, 2 glasses of wine and a soft drink. The service was good and friendly but given that there were only 4 customers in that is to be expected. Almada faces some stiff competition on Cowbridge Road East which now has plenty of options for anyone looking for good, value for money, independent places to eat. I suspect that Almada will have to improve either their offering or their pricing to keep up with the competition.

Almada on Urbanspoon
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