Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Corner House, Cardiff

A pyramid of thickly-sliced lamb rump, cooked to order, on a base of roasted baby potatoes mingled with pancetta and shallots, with a dollop of soubise (béchamel-based onion sauce) and topped by two asparagus spears. Juicy and flavoursome, everything on this plate was working for the greater good. It was accompanied by a seasonal (optional) redcurrant jelly with nutmeg.

This was my main course yesterday lunchtime at The Corner House Bar & Dining Rooms, which opens for business this Friday. It’s on the sharp corner of Caroline Street (the postal address) and Mill Lane (the front door) in Cardiff city centre’s self-styled Café Quarter. Operating under the Mitchell and Butler umbrella, The Corner House is the start of a new venture. It’s the first, and therefore flagship, Maybury Pub (“Maybury at The Corner House”): a planned new chain of gastropubs.

My partner decided to go for something a little different for her main course, and ordered the Salmon and Caper Fishcakes. Two thick fishcakes, each topped with a poached egg and chive hollandaise sauce, stood sentinel over a small mound of spinach. Intriguingly-spiced, they were pronounced a little salty in their cumulative effect. The saltiness was nicely counterbalanced by the poached egg, although the balance would have been better with smaller fishcakes. So (for a change): best menu choice to me! Prices for main courses range from the £10.95 Classic Burger to the £16.95 Lamb Rump.

We had gone for Scallops and Lamb Koftas, respectively, for starters. My trio of large scallops, griddled for the bare-minimum time, were mouth-meltingly light and succulent; the best scallops I’ve tasted for years. Between them lay a mound of very thin noodles, where intense ginger and soy flavours lurked. This was offset by cubes of refreshing watermelon. I liked the way these three components were arranged and could be tasted individually, but I was less sure about the handful of cress on top (maybe a case of less is more).

The Moroccan-style lamb koftas were served with a fattoush salad (crispy grilled pieces of pita bread, feta cheese, radish, cucumber, salad leaves, mint, olive oil and lemon juice) and a tzatziki dip. This was a very pleasing mixture of textures and flavours, which could also have been made into a good main course.

The wine menu offered plenty of choice, even for wine ordered by the glass. I had a glass of Rioja, while my partner ordered an Aspall’s cider (dwarfed in an oversized glass). Our friendly waiter Adam seemed representative of the experienced and enthusiastic staff at The Corner House.

The key material in the upstairs dining room is wood: wooden benches, chairs, tables and floor. Quirky touches are thankfully kept to a minimum. The animal skins slung over the chairs are, in fact, reindeer (you can buy one for yourself in the nearby Cardiff Christmas Market!). Sitting on a reindeer is a nice seasonal touch.

The redevelopment of The Corner House was not without controversy. This pub has had a colourful 137-year old history. Previously, as the Kings Cross, it was for many years one of Wales’ best-known gay bars and a focus for the capital’s gay community. A petition signed by more than 2,000 people, demanding the venue keep its gay identity, was presented to M&B’s directors. There was a sense that something important was being lost. The company said the decision was inevitable for economic reasons, as this prime site could no longer support a late-night drinking venue, and needed to become a pub and restaurant catering for customers throughout the daytime and evening (The Corner House indeed covers all the bases: doing breakfast, lunch, after-school pizza deals and so on, through to evening meals in the restaurant).

The Corner House happily describes itself as a Gastropub, but what does that mean? The term “gastropub” was first coined in the early 1990s in London, when pubs started to move away from traditional “pub grub” to offer a wider range of classier food (a novelty at the time). I have an outdated and overly-romantic picture of a Free House pub in an old building, with a traditional bar full of regulars and a dining room next door, where a renowned chef serves up high-quality food that is more affordable and less pretentious than in a typical top-end restaurant.

However, the recent Oxford English Dictionary definition of “gastropub” is: A public house which specializes in serving high-quality food. What constitutes high-quality food is a matter of debate and most dining pubs in the UK could therefore claim to be gastropubs, if they so wished. The Corner House certainly qualifies. However, the other essential feature is that you can go in and feel comfortable just ordering a drink from the bar. The downstairs area at The Corner House looks the part, but a pub needs people. Only time will tell whether this pub becomes merely a pre-dining waiting area or whether it will again attract a loyal customer-base and become an important meeting place for this community of regulars.

The Corner House
Caroline Street, Cardiff CF10 1FF

Previous posts on Mill Lane and Caroline Street:

Mitchells & Butlers (who also own O’Neill’s, Browns and the new Harvester in Cardiff city centre):
Reference for the Save the Kings Cross Campaign:

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