Outside London, it’s fairly unusual to come across a hotel with a bar and restaurant that you would actually choose to visit if you weren’t staying there, so I was a little sceptical when Mr W told me that our dinner date with friends on Saturday night was to take place in the restaurant at the Park Plaza in Cardiff – the Laguna Kitchen and Bar. I stay in hotels for work relatively often, and to me, eating in the hotel restaurant always seems like a convenient (and often overpriced) option, rather than my first choice given the time and the company to find somewhere else to enjoy. Admittedly, the Park Plaza’s bar, which we’d been to on numerous occasions previously, is always packed and buzzing, with a slightly older and more sophisticated crowd than some of the other bars on Cardiff’s Greyfriars Road (one of a few ‘centres’ for nightlife in the city), so despite my slight reservation, I was more than willing to give the restaurant a try.
We started off with drinks in the bar – a very pleasant glass of Merlot and then a Cosmopolitan, on recommendation of our friends when they arrived, which did not disappoint and was carefully mixed, then adorned with burnt orange peel. The restaurant adjoins the bar, and we could see that it was very busy, with a number of large groups (helpfully letting us know, via the medium of helium balloons, that they were a hen party, a 50th birthday and a 30th birthday.) Perhaps deliberately, the large groups had all been put down one side of the restaurant, on the inner wall away from the windows. This may just have been due to the banquette seating along this wall lending itself better to this, but it certainly seems a good idea, as it can be unpleasant if you’re in a couple or a small group to find yourself in the midst of large parties – and similarly, if you’re in a large party you can sometimes feel a bit bad if you see a couple at the next table having their intimate romantic meal encroached upon by a large group of people noisily enjoying themselves, so it made sense to confine these to one area of the restaurant.
Our table for four was nearer the window and we were surrounded by other groups of similar size. The restaurant is furnished in a fairly contemporary style, and has a large ‘wine wall’ at one end, separating it from the bar, and a view through to the kitchen at the other. Unfortunately, for me, the restaurant is slightly too big to have any real character; if – as we were – you are in the middle of the room, you’re not close enough to either of the features to appreciate them, and as such, you could really be anywhere. That said, it’s still a very lively place, so what it lacks in character, it certainly makes up for with atmosphere, both its own, and that which you’re aware of in the bar outside.
The menu is interesting, with quite an extensive choice, including a selection of ‘lighter bites’ which can be served in a starter or main course portion. To start, Mr W chose a smoked haddock risotto, served with a poached egg, and I opted for bruschetta, served with asparagus, poached egg and hollandaise. Our dining companions had the risotto and a calamari dish respectively. All of our starters were excellent. Mr W is a big fan of risotto and particularly enjoyed this one. From the mouthful I tried, it was creamy and packed with smoked haddock flavour, and the soft poached egg on top really made it special. Similarly, my poached egg was cooked perfectly, with a runny yolk that mixed delightfully with the tangy hollandaise to complement the tender asparagus and light, crisp bruschetta. We were also offered a choice of four different breads, which came with olive oil and a wonderfully sweet balsamic dip. I chose the onion bread, which was very tasty.
Unfortunately, both I and our other lady companion were unable to have our first choice of main course (halibut and chicken) as they had sold out. Now, sometimes this can be a bad sign, as it means the restaurant hasn’t planned well enough for the turnover of customers, or just hasn’t bothered, but to me it shows that they cook fresh food and don’t keep reserves in the freezer – and when the menu is as extensive as this one, it doesn’t really matter as there are plenty of other options. It ended up with all of our party except for me having a rib-eye steak, served with tomato, mushroom and a choice of fat or thin chips. They all went for the fat ones, based on the recommendation direct from the Park Plaza via Twitter earlier that day when I’d said we were going to be eating there – and they were not disappointed! I decided to go for rump of lamb, which came medium rare as I requested. The lamb was tender and tasty, and came served with a wonderfully creamy, glossy spring onion mash and a few small spoonfuls of olive caponata around the edge. I’m not always hugely keen on lamb as it can be too fatty for my taste, and took a risk ordering it, but was very happy with my choice and would certainly have it again.
The service was unobtrusive and efficient, but did lack personality – probably because the restaurant was so busy, meaning that the waiting staff didn’t really have the time to interact any further than taking our order and bringing our food. We stayed at our table until late, and were a little bit put off by the next morning’s breakfast being set up around us, but this is of course to be expected in a hotel! We were so engrossed in our wine and conversation that we unfortunately missed our chance to order dessert as by the time we got around to asking to see the menu, the kitchen had closed, so once again I’m not able to review the dessert offering – although we did enquire as to whether we could have a bowl of cornflakes instead. Cornflakes and dessert both being unavailable, and with gentle prompting from the Maitre d’, we retired to the still packed bar for more of those Cosmopolitans!
Two courses plus wine worked out at around £45 per head, but one of the things I noticed about the menu was the wide range of prices, particularly for the main courses, which started at £9.50 and went up to £19.50, so you could probably eat much more cheaply – or more expensively, depending on your taste and budget. In general, for a city centre hotel, I thought the prices were quite reasonable, especially compared with somewhere like the Hilton in Cardiff, which seems to charge a noticeable premium and is more on a par with London hotel prices. I would definitely eat at the Park Plaza again, as the food was excellent and there were other dishes on the menu that I would like to try. I would, however, tend to stick to a Friday or Saturday night, as the atmosphere in the restaurant and in the bar outside definitely added to the experience. I could imagine that on a week night, when perhaps there are a lot of residents dining, perhaps alone, the large and impersonal nature of the restaurant could mean it would seem a little soulless – but perhaps I will give that a try sometime and be proven wrong!
Food: **** Service: *** Ambience: ***
Laguna Kitchen and Bar, Park Plaza, Greyfriars Road, Cardiff, CF10 3AL