Friday, 23 January 2015

FeD, Cardiff

FeD (Food Exploration Destination) launched in style last night. It is Cardiff’s latest ‘world cuisine’ buffet, and can be found in Mary Ann Street around the corner from Cineworld and opposite the Motorpoint Arena.

Sachi and Shailesh Bajpai, both formerly on the management team of the Red Hot World Buffet chain, have opened FeD to feed the Welsh capital’s insatiable demand for diverse buffet under one roof. FeD can seat around 300 diners and offers hundreds of dishes at its themed zones: Salad and Sushi, Tex Mex, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Grill, and Ice cream and Desserts.

At last night’s VIP launch event, Sachi Bajpai in his short welcoming speech explained the restaurant’s philosophy and the innovations that distinguish it from other world cuisine buffet destinations in Cardiff. The main emphasis at FeD is on the nine live kitchens, where chefs cook food to order. Different crockery complements each cuisine, such as the little dishes designed for sushi. The small plates handed over with your food choices by the chefs mean there are fewer people wandering around with bizarre food combinations than would otherwise be the case. Dishes that take a little longer to cook, like the steak I order from the Grill (which came with a mushroom and well-fried onion) are delivered to table (so remember your table number).

The dish I enjoyed most was a seafood pasta dish, followed by a very tasty lamb curry. The interaction with the chefs is a key part of this food destination experience.

Food prices at FeD range from midday lunch for £8.99 to weekend evening dining for £14.99. Kids under 10 eat for half price, though I thought this was a more adult-oriented take on the world buffet model than previously seen in Cardiff.

All food was provided free by FeD at VIP event night.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

James Sommerin, Penarth

If you’re self-employed you don’t get invited to office parties, so we do an annual dinner-for-two instead. This year we chose Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth, which opened on the seafront last summer. We went along on the day this family-run restaurant reopened for business in the New Year.

The philosophy at James Sommerin is to marry three or four distinct flavours in innovative ways. Therefore, the menu just lists these main components for each dish. The waiters do the extra work of describing how the components have been prepared. The menus change seasonally. We went for the seven-course taster menu, the Clogwyn (cliff), which was preceded by some extra starters (£70). There are also five course (grey mullet, guinea fowl) and ten course tasting options menus, the latter is a surprise selection that currently includes such Sommerin specialities as bubblegum panna cotta.

A row of three amuse-bouche comprised a delicate pyramidal gougère made from choux pastry and parmesan cheese, a small truffle arancini on a stick, and a sweetcorn panna cotta topped with smoked haddock. All great, though the crispy outside and melting interior of the arancini was the best of the three for me. The panna cotta was served in a little glass bottle (giving me, the probably unintended, resonance of feeding babies!). An addition amuse-bouche arrived next, with baked potato and Caerphilly cheese but not in a form you would expect.

Wholemeal and white bread rolls were accompanied by two types of butter, one with laver (Welsh seaweed). The butter was served on a large pebble, apparently collected from the beach outside.

Pea, Parmesan, Sage, Serrano Ham
Pea ravioli is a James Sommerin signature dish from his days at The Crown at Whitebrook (Monmouthshire), where he was Head Chef from 2003 to 2013. He won a Michelin star there in 2007. The dish comprises a large ravioli (raviolo?) with an intensely-flavoured pea stuffing and deep-fried crispy sage leaf and Serrano ham. The whole is topped with creamy parmesan foam.

Those concerned that they might be in for a gimmicky molecular gastronomy workout need not worry. This is a single and well-used incidence of foam, and there are no i-pods in sight (listen carefully though and you might hear the actual sea). When James Sommerin was name-checked by Jay Raynor, as one of the Observer’s chefs to look out for in 2008, the chef said in the accompanying interview that he was interested in the new wave of cooking as long it was not “out of control”.

Jerusalem artichoke, Egg, Truffle
Regular readers will know I follow developments in the world of Jerusalem artichoke fairly closely (having co-authored the only English-language book ever written about this vegetable). I can safely say that this is the best Jerusalem artichoke dish I have ever been served in a restaurant. The tuber is best enjoyed in moderation (for reasons we won’t go into here), so lends itself to small plate cooking. Here the Jerusalem artichoke comes as a purée and as small slow-roasted pieces. A runny egg bursts to ensure creamy mouthfuls, and the dish is topped with black truffle shaved at the table.

Duck, Swede, Maple, Soy Sauce
The different courses came on different styles of china crockery. This cultural melange of crispy duck with balls of swede holding sticky maple and soya sauce arrived as a concise arrangement on a typically pretty but understated plate.

Turbot, Carrot, Cockles, Ginger
The fish course was a chunky piece of turbot served with sweet roast carrot and a sauce containing the cockle and ginger. James Sommerin once said, in a food industry magazine interview, that spices play a huge part in his cooking; subtle and unusual spicing is certainly a key component in the tasting menus’ success.

Welsh Venison, Beetroot, Savoy Cabbage, Port
The main course was venison, served as round loin medallions that melt in the mouth. Port in the jus provided a Christmassy touch. The winter root vegetable theme concluded here with sweet beetroot, including a bold red swirl across the plate. Caerleon-born James Sommerin likes using local ingredients, as noted here with the venison. However, I am one of those people who like to read about where food is sourced, and the minimal menu and website offer few clues.

Apple, Cinnamon, White Chocolate
We passed on the optional British cheeseboard and went straight into the two dessert courses. The apple here is in the form of a terrine. The cinnamon ice cream was wonderful, actually one of the highlights of the whole meal. The dish was completed with dainty white chocolate biscuit.

Prune, Vanilla, Blood Orange
The perfect course to finish: a James Sommerin soufflé. This rose out of a cup and looking good. Do be careful – the orange sauce at the bottom is hot! The cinnamon ice cream set the bar too high for the prune ice cream, which was still a pleasure and served here alongside vanilla egg custard and slices of seasonal blood orange.

There was optional coffee served with a selection of petit four, which we passed on.

Diners should not be fooled by the word ‘taster’ on the menu. This is a four-hour feast, so book for an earlier time and don’t snack beforehand!