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
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,
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”.
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
Duck, Swede, Maple,
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
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.
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.
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
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