Llansantffraed Court

Deep in the heart of rural Monmouthshire, well in the middle of nowhere really, sits an old and weather-battered country house, with an almost glum expression as you drive up towards the main entrance. The building is in dire need of a bit of attention.

It’s clear that most of the budget at Llansantffraed Court is spent on the food – but that’s never enough. The restaurant has undergone a revival in recent months – the sous-chef from Wales’ finest, ‘The Crown at Whitebrook’, took over as head chef in a bid to transform the culinary fortunes of the place.

I was excited about the set menu that was put in front us. Choosing what to eat can be quite a laborious challenge, especially when every menu ever created tries to sell you everything on it. So I was pleased that I had only a choice of three for every course.

I started with the Pembroke crab, with cucumber and crème fraiche. The crab had a nice salty after-taste to it, softened by the cold cucumber and crème fraiche. It was presented nicely and it was colourful, but there was quite a random feel about the plate. There was some sort of pastry flopped over the top of the dish, adding very little and over-complicating what would otherwise have been a refined piece of cooking.

 

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Moving on, I opted for the Brecon Venison, beetroot, celeriac and wild mushroom. This was more intelligent. The flavours all worked very well together and there was nothing really over-powering about any of it. The only issue I had was that the Venison was too voluminous. It soaked up too much of the rest of the plate and became a struggle towards the end.

Finishing off with a dessert simply called: vanilla, blueberry and lemon – I started thinking about what the problem was with the restaurant.

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It felt as though the restaurant was dragging the rest of the place with it. A restaurant only needs two things, in essence. One: good food and two: a warming location. You take any of the world’s top 100 restaurants and each will have it’s own unique  atmosphere; generated by the location and the building.

The problem that Llansantffraed Court has is that the restaurant is clearly on the up (although the new head chef is still in the experimentation phase), and is painfully dragging the rest with it. Investing to rejuvenate a restaurant is to be applauded, but that’s only half the challenge. 

If the location or building has a glum feel to it, how can you expect diners to feel embraced. You can’t and the food alone, however good, is never enough.

 

6.5/10

Miller & Carter (Reading)

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Black pearl scallops with pancetta, on a black pudding with a balsamic glaze

Chain restaurants are always the most difficult to analyse. It’s just hard to get excited about a group of restaurants that are bound by a strict menu and an abundance of corporate messages, both inside and out of the dining establishment. But to draw upon the most used cliché in the business world – this one ‘bucked the trend’.

Miller & Carter, the self-proclaimed ‘experts in steak’, has a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. The menu was unpretentious yet well-thought out. If you want honest food and a nice atmosphere, it’ll be worth paying for.

We started with the black pearl scallops, on a black pudding with pancetta and a balsamic glaze. The scallops were slightly overcooked but there was a strong flavour combination and the rich black pudding sat well with the sweet balsamic glaze. The scallops, although a good match with the pancetta, lacked a bit of flavour, which would have been forgivable if they weren’t the centrepiece of the dish.

We then opted for the fillet steak. Despite being blinded by the incredibly well-polished cutlery, the steak was excellent. It really was. When you go to a steakhouse, if the steak isn’t perfect they’ve essentially got a business that’s dead in the water.

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Medium-rare 8oz fillet steak

But this was not the case. The medium-rare 8oz fillet was tender and accurately seasoned. I didn’t find myself cutting centimetres of fat away from the meat, only to leave it in a pile on the plate, so I was happy.

The only criticism of the main course was that the accompanying salad came out out far too early. The dressing had started to congeal.

The atmosphere, which is half the battle with any restaurant, was pleasant and accommodating and the service was sharp and attentive, without being obstructive and annoying.

If you’re looking for a good quality steakhouse, with a nice ambiance, then you won’t be disappointed by Miller & Carter. Although it’s a chain restaurant  – the well-cooked food, a nice atmosphere and helpful staff make it an independent dining establishment in its own right.

8/10

Sunday Supplement discounts for South Wales

The Sunday Times has today published a supplement offering  discounts on dining out in South Wales.

The supplement titled, ‘Eat Out’, gives discounts such as: 2 for 1 on mains, 50% off your food bill and 25% off food and drink.

Eat Out

Included in the South Wales section are: Browns Bar & Brasserie, Plymouth Arms Vintage Inn and Traherne Arms.

This is a really good opportunity to eat out in decent restaurants for a much reduced price.

Browns is offering 25% off food and drink.

Dining out in Cardiff is not as expensive as other areas of the UK and this new scheme from the Sunday Times makes it even cheaper.

The Sunday Times Cookery Writer, Lucas Hollweg says: “There are some very good restaurants on the Eat Out list, from local brasseries and award-winning dining pubs to country hotel dining rooms and the sort of neighbourhood gems that you’d happily visit once a week.”

The Swan Hotel

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.

Money Spent: £8.95

Rating: 8/10

Michelin-starred chef coming to Cardiff?

Following on from my last post about Cardiff’s lack of culinary quality, I found this piece of news, which should please restaurant fanatics in the Cardiff area.

Plan to open £9m hotel in capital has a Michelin-starred chef in its sights – Eating out – Food & Drink – Lifestyle from @walesonline.

Will this be the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Cardiff?

Is Cardiff really a “gastronomic desert?”

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.

Top 10 budget places to eat in Cardiff

Chai Street, one of Cardiff's quality, low-cost restaurants

It is true, Cardiff does not have the culinary expertise which other cities have. BristolBath 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.”

Jay Rayner’s review of the Potted Pig

There seems to be a drought in terms of good restaurants. Sure, many chain restaurants offer good food, but it’s not always about the food.

It’s also about the overall experience.

Pizza Express, for instance. The food is good, but it has a sense of monotony every time you eat there.

You eat pizza or perhaps a pasta dish but that’s about it.

A first-class dining experience is graced not just by the attractive menu, but also by its surroundings.

surroundings are all important to the dining experience

You should not have to look far in a capital city for fine dining restaurants, but if you want a fine dining experience in Cardiff, you really have to do your research.

Nevertheless, fine dining is emerging in Cardiff. It’s just a question of when it will start to impress upon the list of UK cities, which already boast a respectable fine dining résumé.

Relevant websites

Michelin Restaurant Guide

Big Cardiff

Cardiff-eating

eatoutincardiff

dineoutwales