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

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

Eat.cn

It is always refreshing to see passion in a restaurant. The food is more enjoyable, if the staff actually care about what they are serving you.

Eat.cn falls into this category of restaurants.

Nestled in the takeaway-haven of Cardiff, on City Road, Eat.cn has a post-modern feel to it. They know what they’re talking about and the dishes seem well researched.

Merging authentic with modern

The style of food and the layout of the restaurant is one you could imagine seeing off a side street in Shanghai. The authenticity of the restaurant cannot be disputed. The emphasis is placed on sharing and a mix and match format.

With this in mind we ordered.

On advice from the waiter we ordered the Salt and Pepper Squid, which is apparently a favourite among the customers. We also ordered the shredded pork with Kimchi and the beef in Sichuan pepper and chilli sauce, accompanied by Egg-fried rice.

The squid was really tasty and you could see why the Eat.cn faithful enjoy it so much. It was a snack-style main course, with a delicate balance of seasoning. The squid, which is notoriously hard to cook to perfection, was chewy (as it should be) but still retained the flavour.

It was one of those dishes you would love to take home in vast amounts and just sit and pig-out in front of the TV, while you ate it.

The shredded pork with Kimchi had a fairly sour taste to it and looked a bit like a broth, but the vegetables mixed in with the pork gave the dish a degree of stability. Pork can be a hit or miss meat in Chinese cuisine, but Eat.cn has done well to promote it.

The beef in Sichuan pepper and chilli sauce was a seemingly fiery dish. The beef, which is worth mentioning, was very tender and had clearly benefited from being immersed in the Sichuan pepper and chilli sauce. There were so many spices in this dish. It would be optimistic to try and name all of them, but they worked well with the beef. It was by no means short of flavour.

Eat.cn had a very authentic feel to it. It felt like a small part of a busy Chinese city had been brought to life in Cardiff, but with a modern-twist to it.

The service was excellent. The staff were attentive and obviously pleased to be working there, which is always a reassuring element to any restaurant.

There are over 100 dishes on the menu and there are a substantial variety of dishes, to basically suit any palette.

Authentic Chinese cuisine, with a modern twist.

Price: £23.50 (3 courses between 2 people, including service)

Rating: 8/10

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

 

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.”

Michelin star musings

It seems many people are eagerly awaiting the Welsh capital’s first michelin-starred restaurant.

Purple Poppadom is the latest creation of Anand George, described by Cardiff Bites (winner of the Wales Blog awards Best Food & Drink Blog 2011 category) as “Cardiff‘s closest thing to a celebrity chef.”

Mr George is famous in Cardiff, for setting up both Mint & Mustard and Chai Street.

His latest venture has received some very positive reviews from the website Trip advisor. One review even asks whether this could be Cardiff’s first Michelin-starred restaurant?

To be honest, I can’t wait to go!

“Could Cardiff get its first Michelin star here?”

 

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