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

The Potted Pig

Cardiff has suffered from gastronomic deprivation in the past and for a city with such a rich culture, it is surprising there are very few gems in terms of credible and highbrow dining establishments.

But hold fire. Right in the centre of the city opposite the castle is a restaurant, which challenges the status quo of soul-destroying chain restaurants and sterile atmospheres.

The Potted Pig blends traditional British dishes with sophisticated continental dining in what can only be described as inspired surroundings.

You walk up to the front of the restaurant only to be greeted by a doorman who ushers you towards the staircase. This winds down into what one assumes is just a cellar, but in fact it is a disused bank vault.

The success of independent restaurants is measured not just by the food, but also by the character of the place. If you can imagine a dark and dingy cellar somewhere in France, where you pull up a couple of chairs and get stuck into a Cassoulet or a leg of lamb accompanied by well chosen red wine, then you are most of the way to understanding what the Potted Pig is all about.

Even attempting to blend French and British cuisine is a risky practice, but the Potted Pig has just about nailed it.

The four of us began with a selection of starters. Offaly good breakfast with Wayne’s homemade ketchup, Deep fried whitebait with aioli, cod cheeks and clams and the signature Potted pig with toast and pickles. This gave us a good idea of why there was so much local hype about the restaurant.

We ended up sharing most of the starters but the stand-out starter was the breakfast, which constituted a perfectly cooked poached egg sitting on a home cooked hash brown, a rasher of bacon, black pudding and Offal. A somewhat strange combination but it worked and was well presented.

"Offaly" good breakfast

The cod cheeks and clams were also exceptional. Simple dishes such as this, when cooked well, are sometimes more impressive than even the most perplexing alternative. The cod cheeks were salty and tender. The clams were impeccably fresh and could easily have just been caught and thrown straight into the pot. An excellent start to a promising meal.

For the main course I decided on the Madgetts farm roast chicken with spicy merguez sausage and bean stew. The chicken was slightly undercooked, but not as noticeable as it would have been had it not been cooked in a stew.

The sausage and chicken combination is a common feature of Spanish and French cuisine, but this version merged a popular “peasant-style” dish with Chepstow-sourced chicken, completing a wholesome and mostly flavoursome main course.

The problem with the dish was the volume. They had overdone the bean stew, which regrettably seemed to sideline the chicken and the merguez sausage should have been emphasised, as it really is a delight when it is cooked on its own.

Chepstow-sourced chicken with merguez sausage

My companions were impressed with their choice of main course. The Lamb shank with carrot and suede mash and sprout tops was a quintessentially traditional winter dish. My companion stressed the very British style to the course, the sort you would expect to find at a medieval banquet.

Another, similar dish, was the slow roast Hereford pork belly with baked carrots and greens. I was told this was delicious and not being a huge advocate of pork belly I was impressed the Potted Pig had turned a fairly mundane dish into one of justified commendation.

The Potted Pig has a very clear aim. To serve traditional food presented in a modern manner without the uncomfortable pressure of eating the food in an intimidating environment. Although the cooking may take lessons from French and Spanish cuisine, it is still essentially traditional whatever way you look at it.

The dining environment is interesting and relevant to the food. The cellar set up demonstrates class and sophistication, while also adding to the overall experience.

The only problem the Potted Pig faces is the lack of demand for fine dining in Cardiff. But with the number of excellent reviews the restaurant has received and the fact word is spreading about the quality of the food, it will only be a matter of time before people are travelling from all over to experience this traditional yet refined British cuisine.

Price: £19 (two courses per person, excluding wine, including service)

Rating: 9/10

St. John Bar and Restaurant

This is one half of a special comparative piece I am doing between one of London’s more established gastronomic restaurants (St. John) and one of Cardiff‘s most recent editions to its less established restaurant portfolio (The Potted Pig).

St John Bar and restaurant, founded by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in 1994, has a distinct feel of a butcher’s to it.

The walls were all white, with little decoration, apart from a few coat hooks. The lights resembled the kind you would get in an industrial slaughterhouse.

It felt as though I was eating from a meat-production line.

We ordered a selection of four starters (between three of us), which included: Widgeon Legs, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Rabbit Offal and Braised Squid.

The Widgeon (a small duck) was rich and gamey. The Broccoli, by chance, complemented the more powerful tastes of the Widgeon legs and the Rabbit Offal (the cooked organs of a rabbit).

The squid was a nice addition, as a comfort dish.

A glance at the menu

While deciding which mains to have, we attempted to understand the seemingly straight forward decor, or indeed the lack of it.

We came to the conclusion that they had tried, with success, to recreate the atmosphere of a butcher’s.

The chef was in full view, preparing, or rather butchering, the meat.

Two of us, myself included, ordered the Smoked Herring, Bacon and Mash, while the other ordered the Lop Chop, Turnip and Trotter.

The Herring was also quite rich and oily. This was not a problem, I had clearly chosen a first and second course, aimed at a more resilient stomach!

Nevertheless, it was tasty and despite it’s rich taste, was not overly filling.

At some risk of over-indulgence, I ordered the Steamed Treacle Pudding.

This was merely average, but then when has a butcher’s ever claimed to make a perfect treacle pudding?

St. John boasts a Michelin star and with obvious justification. The experience and the aura of the restaurant, is what you would expect from such an establishment.

The modest building, St. John is located in, resembles that of a local butcher’s- a theme that is consistent throughout the dining experience.

Your local butcher?

 

St John will no doubt prove to be a fierce contestant against The Potted Pig, which I will be reviewing in just over a weeks time.

With a similar menu and, perhaps more trivially, a very similar logo The Potted Pig has a lot to compete with.

 

 

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?