The opening of Duck Egg Bleu, which happened in December 2013 after a few delays, was eagerly anticipated amongst the foodie community. Cardiff born chef, Gareth Dobbs, made no secret of his ambitions for the restaurant to become recognised by Michelin – and with a CV that includes spells at Le Gavroche and Petrus, his goals certainly don’t seem unachievable.
I was keen to try Duck Egg Bleu. Its website and all of its launch marketing have consistently made a big play of the fact it’s a “Fine Dining Restaurant” – fine dining being something which I love, and something which is hard – if not impossible – to find in Cardiff. So, we booked a table for a Saturday night (I discovered when they answered the phone that it is in fact pronounced ‘blue’ and not ‘bleu’!) and headed to its location on Cowbridge Road East. From the outside, the place, with its sister venue The Lazy Duck next door, looks impressive and classy. We decided to have a drink in The Lazy Duck (a relaxed, wine bar type effort) beforehand, which was very pleasant, although they didn’t have a cocktail list (they’re working on it) and the wine list was very limited – but the place had a nice buzz without being too crowded or hectic, so it was a pleasant venue for a pre-dinner drink.
At the appointed time, we went next door to Duck Egg Bleu, where, unfortunately, our evening got off to a rather bizarre start. We’d booked for 8.30 and were bang on time, but when we checked in, we were told “There’s going to be a bit of a wait”. We were then told “But I’ll take you to your table.” Confusion reigned – but we managed to ascertain that there would be a wait for our food. The restaurant was busy, but not full, so we were surprised to be taken to a side room, which already contained two large tables of about 10 people each, both of which seemed like parties in full swing – plus two small tables for two shoehorned in between them. I immediately said we didn’t want to sit there – there’s nothing worse than trying to have a quiet meal for two whilst surrounded by large groups – so asked if we could sit in the main restaurant, where there seemed to be numerous tables free. The waiter said he’d need to go and ask someone, so we followed him back out into the main restaurant, rather than standing awkwardly between the two party tables! He eventually gesticulated at a table for two, not laid up, which he said he’d lay up for us, but there would be a wait so did we want to go back into the bar for a drink (not really). There were several other tables for two already laid, so I asked if we could have one of those, and yes we could. Oddly, after we were seated, no other new diners arrived at the restaurant, so I have absolutely no idea why we were initially given such an awful table, and why there was such a palaver about getting us a new one – but we got there in the end. Again, once we were seated, the waiter reiterated that there would be a wait for the food, as there were 3 or 4 tables due to order before us. Thankfully, we weren’t in a rush, but we probably could have lived without knowing their operational details! Phew!
Thankfully, the menu looked good. A good a la carte selection, plus a grill menu (predominantly steaks) and the option of having a five course meal, selected from the a la carte, with amuse bouche and pre-dessert for £32.50 plus supplements for some of the dishes. We decided to do this as it seemed like excellent value. The wine list was also pretty good. As it happened, we didn’t feel we’d experienced much of a wait to order, or indeed receive, our food, so the earlier comments about a bit of a wait, others ordering before us etc. made an issue out of something that wasn’t one.
Our amuse bouche was an Asian infused beef tea, served in an espresso cup. This was tasty – Mr W was less keen than I, but he’s not a big fan of Asian flavours.
To start, I chose a lobster cheesecake with a red pepper coulis, pistachio base and a tomato jelly. This was an excellent dish, beautifully presented, and served warm – which I wasn’t expecting, but which brought out the rich, smooth lobster flavour. The tomato and red pepper complemented it beautifully, and the base was just crunchy enough to give the dish some depth, without making it hard work.
Mr W chose the eponymous “Duck Egg Bleu” – ham, peas, egg and chips – which was actually a terrine of braised pigs cheeks, a pea mousse, poached egg and pain perdu in the shape of chunky chips. He really enjoyed this – and it was full of flavour – but for me it was slightly odd in that all of the dish was warm, apart from the pigs cheeks which were refrigerator cold.
My main course was a salmon wellington, served with leeks, fondant potato and a watercress sauce on the side. This was a gigantic portion of food – I literally only ate half of the wellington and felt like I was going to burst. It completely hid the bed of leeks and overshadowed the fondant potato, so it looked fairly ridiculous on the plate. The flaked salmon filling was tasty, well seasoned, with finely chopped veg mixed in (although I’d been expecting a whole fillet of salmon. Unfortunately, the puff pastry was slightly undercooked. The sauce was lovely, with a real depth of flavour, but there was nowhere near enough to go with the giant wellington.
Mr W chose a parsley crusted rack of lamb, which was excellent, cooked pink, and served with a shepherd’s pie (or ‘shepard’s, if the menu was to be believed!) of shoulder, cabbage, heritage carrots and a fondant potato, plus a redcurrant and rosemary jus. The shepherd’s pie was particularly tasty and a great idea for a twist on a potato accompaniment, but it was totally unnecessary to have both this and a fondant potato on the plate.
Pre-dessert came in the same espresso cups as the amuse bouche, and was a very good crème brulee.
Main dessert, for me, was lime cheesecake (two cheesecakes in one night!), which came with chocolate ‘gnache’ (sic), lime posset, bitter chocolate sorbet and candied lime. This was a real mixed bag: everything on the plate was good, but – again – there was too much, and it didn’t really go together. The cheesecake base was excellent, as was the lime topping, which was light, creamy and delicately flavourted – but this was completely overpowered by the rich chocolate ganache topping. The lime posset, on the other hand, was eye-wateringly sharp – and could have really benefited from being paired with something more strongly flavoured (unfortunately I didn’t get to eat all of it as the spoon supplied was too big to fit into the shot glass in which it was served). The candied lime was lovely, though. The sorbet didn’t taste of much at all – and I’m not sure if it was bitter chocolate flavour (it certainly wasn’t bitter chocolate colour!) and probably had no business being on the plate.
Mr W finished off with an apple tarte tatin, served with a green apple sorbet and cinnamon crème anglaise. The tarte was fantastic, with a rich, caramel flavour. The sorbet and crème were good too – but didn’t really work together, and should have been an either or, not a both.
Despite all of the issues I’ve picked up, we did enjoy our meal – but it wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, fine dining, but rather brasserie style, or even gastropub style cuisine, with hearty dishes and hefty portions. Likewise, the service, although well-meaning, polite and friendly, was not fine dining style – the staff all seemed relatively inexperienced (although keen to please, and keen to append ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam/Madame’ on the end of everything they said to us!) and there didn’t seem to be a confident maître d’ running the show. On the plus side, there was a nice atmosphere in the restaurant (once we left the side room!) and the décor is clean and fresh.
If Duck Egg Bleu positioned itself as a contemporary bistro or brasserie, it would be almost there in getting it spot on, and it’s certainly a welcome addition to Cardiff’s dining scene. But for Michelin level fine dining, it’s got a long way to go.
Food: **** Service: ** Ambience: ***
Duck Egg Bleu, 435 Cowbridge Rd E, Victoria Park, Cardiff CF5 1JH