I must first apologise for this post. This is a review of a restaurant from over the border, in Gloucestershire, but I couldn’t resist.
If you imagine Fawlty Towers, you will be able to build up a good picture of what The Swan at Wotton-under-Edge is like. A hotel in the top half and a restaurant and bar area in the lower part.
My guest and I ordered a bottle of the house red while we chose from the menu.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t really mention what I had to drink, but this particular bottle caught my eye.
'Wine of the European Community'
‘Wine of the European Community.’ It seemed as though Monsieur Sarkozy and Frau Merkel had their fingers wrapped around my bottle of wine. Dave would have a few things to say about this, I am sure.
We ordered. I went for the beer-battered haddock, chips and mushy peas. My guest opted for the vegetarian lasagne.
The food was good. The batter did not fall off the fish, as it does in so often and the mushy peas were well made, with the correct consistency-I wasn’t left with a pile of green sludge on my plate, as I have had in the past.
My guest was also pleased with her choice. “It really does taste home-made, not like something that’s been taken from a packet,” she said.
Many establishments like the Swan Hotel, try too hard to be a restaurant they are clearly not. They offer strange plate combinations, which annoy rather than compliment.
The Swan, in that sense, is a pretty down to earth and straight forward place to go and eat. You know what you are getting, so there is rarely any disappointment.
Battered Haddock, chips and mushy peas
The Swan is a 17th century coaching inn and not much has changed.
There is a roaring log fire in the bar area, surrounded by oak furniture and beamed ceilings.
It has a real local feel to it.
Although I didn’t meet Basil Fawlty and Manuel had probably been deported due to new government rules about being able to speak English in the workplace, it was reassuring that there are still good, traditional establishments one can eat in.
The gastro-pub may be a feature of the modern-day restaurant scene, but there is evidently still space for the classic pub-style food that I thought had been lost forever.
Cardiff has been described as a “gastronomic desert” by food critics and tourists alike. But it depends which way you look.
If you are looking for Michelin starred restaurants with extensive taster menus and a celebrity chef or two, then you will be looking for a while. But if you are more concerned about eating good food at a reasonable price, then Cardiff will impress.
Chai Street, one of Cardiff's quality, low-cost restaurants
It is true, Cardiff does not have the culinary expertise which other cities have. Bristol, Bath or Edinburgh for example. But this is not to do with Cardiff’s lack of culinary ingenuity, it is simply because Cardiff is not as established as these cities when it comes to fine dining.
Councillor Timothy Davies, a member of the Scrutiny Committee for Economy and Culture in the Cardiff City council, says the lack of fine dining in Cardiff is due to the lower disposable income, in comparison to other cities. In reply to whether or not the restaurant scene in Cardiff will improve, Mr Davies subscribed to the ‘market forces will prevail’ attitude and when we experience growth in the economy, demand will rise and people’s tastes will change.
Cardiff is saturated with chain restaurants.Pizza Express and Gourmet Burger, to name a couple. Most cities fall victim to an overwhelming amount of chain restaurants, but also have a balanced proportion of fine dining establishments.
Cardiff is yet to find this gastro/chain balance.
This being said, there are quality restaurants emerging in Cardiff. The Potted Pig, for example. The restaurant opened in June 2011 and was heavily praised by Jay Rayner, in his review for the Observer.
The Potted Pig: an old bank vault
The Potted Pig is a family run restaurant, in a disused bank vault.
An inspirational location choice.
Lucy Bulley, the assistant manager at the Potted Pig, talked about what it was like running a fine dining restaurant in Cardiff and the problems the restaurant faces…
There is a vacuum when it comes to quality dining, in Cardiff. But this space is starting to fill, albeit at a fairly leisurely pace.
After redevelopments in Cardiff, such as the Cardiff Bay development from 1987 to 2000, the city benefited from the emerging cosmopolitan environment.
This attracted major designer shops and also laid the foundations for a more sensitive and highbrow restaurant scene. But, rather than a cluster of respected, award-worthy restaurants the redevelopment has given way to chain restaurants.
Although there are four Michelin starred restaurants in Wales, three of those restaurants being honoured with the award in 2010, none of them are in Cardiff. They are either in the eastern or northern parts of Wales.
But the restaurant scene in a city does not have to be judged by the amount of stars awarded, or the number of raving reviews they receive.
As Lucy Bulley said in the interview, there are restaurants in Cardiff, which have failed to attract publicity and are subsequently sidelined.
They do not get the coverage they perhaps deserve.
A redeeming feature of Cardiff’s restaurant landscape is the low-cost dining available. You can eat a good quality main course in Cardiff for under £10, whereas in London, Bristol or Bath, this may cost you in excess of £20 or even £30.
A member of staff at the Tourist information centre and a man who was visiting Cardiff from London, both gave their views on what Cardiff’s restaurant scene is like…
Cardiff is a culturally aware city. It has opera halls, theatres, three major sports stadiums, an interesting history and beautiful architecture.
But it clearly lacks the culinary credentials.
Jay Rayner described Cardiff as “a city, which even its biggest fans will admit, has rarely been spoilt for good restaurants.”
La Lupa is a quaint little Italian restaurant found in the heart of Canton, Cardiff.
This restaurant may be situated in the middle of the Welsh capital city, but has every feel of wining and dining in the beautiful streets of Italia.
Upon entry you get the instant warmth of an authentic Italian-run establishment, coated by the sound of Italy’s music.
The staff are passionate and friendly and effortlessly make you feel comfortable and willing to relax.
The restaurant has an open plan kitchen, so it’s possible to see the chef work his magic. Whilst on the subject of the chef it would be rude not to mention the pride that he/she takes in the food they cook, from the presentation to the quality of taste.
Sirloin steak with generous helping of veg and wedges
Being a man who will only eat a meal if there is some form of meat accompanying it, I went for the lamb skewers to start, followed by a sirloin steak, and both were cooked to perfection and melted in my mouth. The steak was accompanied by a very generous side dish of potato wedges and vegetables.
As well as a wide selection of meat based dishes, there were plenty of other options on the menu, for all those pasta and pizza lovers.
My partner went for the simple but effective pesto pasta, each dish covers all the basics of a good tasty dish and more. They have clearly added their own, La Lupa edge that leaves a happy, satisfied taste in your mouth (thankfully not overwhelmed by garlic) and we’re looking forward to the next visit.
Classic pesto pasta
This restaurant would be perfect for any occasion, as due to the quirky layout, you have the chance to hide in a corner and enjoy a romantic night with your partner or you can move to another part of the restaurant where you can be joined by parties of friends and family.
We walked into the restaurant and, as it was busy, awkwardly waited to be seated. The seating was very informal and open, with a family orientated atmosphere; a central theme of Italian dining.
I ordered the Risotto Modo Nostra, which I felt I could judge with some degree of authority as it is virtually the only meal I can cook to an edible standard.
It consisted of peppers, smoked bacon and moderately spicy sauce. The risotto was cooked well and had a creamy taste to it, preferred by many chefs including Jamie Oliver. It was also a good-sized portion.
My two guests both ordered pizza, which I was skeptical of, but they rightly pointed out that an authentic Italian restaurant should make exceptional pizzas. However, they were divided over their selections.
The restaurant has a very local Italian feel to it. The restaurant manager, Massimo Fraioli, explained to me how he was trying to, and indeed succeeding to, export classic Italian cuisine from Sorrento on the Naples coast, where Massimo is from and bring it to Cardiff.
Much of the menu does, rightly, consist of seafood dishes and pasta; common to that area of Italy.
The late Pavarotti at the restaurant (courtesy of Giovanni's)
Unlike many restaurants that claim authenticity, Giovanni’s has weighted credibility. They have cheesy Italian music simmering in the background, there is a communal atmosphere, the service is very efficient and well rehearsed, but more to the point, they genuinely seem passionate about the food they serve you.
The experience was complete when, as we were leaving, the waiter cheerfully exclaimed: Ciao!