The concept of going to a chain restaurant on a Saturday night would generally be quite alien to me. I believe they have their place, especially with some of the excellent offers many of them now have, but for me, they are more suited to a quick weekend lunch in amongst some shopping, or a mid-week supper with friends, than a Friday or Saturday night out.
However, with a new branch of Browns opened recently in Cardiff, we decided to break with tradition and made it the venue for our dinner on Saturday night. Our first visit, a couple of months ago, with friends, had had potential, but with nearly half the dishes on the menu unavailable, it had been somewhat disappointing, even though what we did have was very good, as was the service and the atmosphere. I’d read similar experiences from other diners around the same time with numerous menu choices unavailable, but I felt strongly that this could just be down to teething problems, and Browns really deserved a second chance.
We had booked a table for 9.30, but arrived around 9 and started our evening with some drinks at the bar. I opted for one of Browns special cocktails – a Pomegranate and Berry Martini. I can honestly say it was one of the nicest drinks I’ve ever had – and I made sure of this by having a second one, just to check! Even without having tried the food at this stage, I’d already made a mental note to revisit Browns, if only for the Martini!
The member of staff who was looking after the front desk was very friendly and welcoming, and came over to us at the bar to find out whether or not we were ready to go to our table. She also gave us a choice of where we would like to sit. My heart sank when she handed us a menu and said she would run us through the options that were unavailable. Happily, though, there were only a couple of main courses (from a list of about 20) that were off – and this was purely because they had run out. The starters were a different story, with around half – from a much smaller list – being unavailable, but this wasn’t a major issue, and we appreciated the prior notice, which had been lacking on our previous visit, leading to disappointment when we came to order and a second choice having to be made quickly and under pressure. We did enquire as to whether it was simply a result of being fairly newly opened that there invariably seemed to not be a full menu on offer and the lady told us that it was partly due to this and partly due to ‘other issues’ that were being addressed. She was very diplomatic, but clearly felt compromised by the question so we didn’t ask any further and the mystery remained unsolved!
We chose a table by the window – which in hindsight may have been a mistake. Browns is at one end of the popular Greyfriars Road area of Cardiff, which is home to Tiger Tiger and is generally a mecca for stag and hen parties. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows along two of its walls, so throughout your meal, at least on a Saturday night, you’re going to be watching an almost constant parade of people in fancy dress, in various stages of inebriation, which is not ideal, depending on your perspective. Lighter hearted moments included a party of smurfs and a group of superheros, but lowlights were someone climbing up a lamp post, and a girl bending over right outside doing goodness knows what, but certainly nothing that was going to enhance our enjoyment of a relaxing dinner. I think next time we might try to sit elsewhere so we can enjoy the atmosphere inside the restaurant, rather than what’s going on outside. The location and associated passers-by are also no doubt the reason why there are two or three security people on the door – not an issue, necessarily, but unusual in a restaurant!
Fancy dress aside, on to the food. I was tempted to try the Meat Platter for sharing, having enjoyed the Fish Platter last time, but Mr W wasn’t in the mood for a large starter and I’d have ended up eating the whole thing myself (admittedly only an issue in terms of waistline!), so instead we started with a chicken and duck liver parfait, served with grape and orange jelly. It was described as coming with toasted foccacia bread, but it arrived with slices of fresh French bread. The bread was actually very good, but with the texture of the parfait (light and moussey) and the jelly (smooth, with no chunky bits), everything was a bit too soft and mushy and lacked substance. Even the dressed salad of watercress was big on flavour, but could have done with having a more crunchy leaf mixed in. The flavours were all really good, but I would have preferred a thicker, richer texture to the parfait, or perhaps a chunkier pickle or chutney on the side.
You could easily be spoilt for choice with the extensive selection of main dishes, which includes steaks, salads, a range of fish and seafood, and hearty fare such as shepherd’s pie. Unusually, we both opted for pasta as our main dish. Ordinarily I would steer clear of pasta in anything other than an authentic Italian restaurant, but there are some delicious sounding pasta options on Browns’ menu, so we were both tempted to take the risk.
I had the Lobster Tagliatelle, which is described as being served with a half lobster tail, flaked lobster and a white wine, cream and chive sauce. The dish was very good, although as with the starter, there were a few discrepancies between the description and what actually arrived. There were no discernible chives in the sauce, and it could have done with some sort of herb or seasoning to complement the lobster and cream. Also, the lobster in the sauce was more chunky than flaky. Neither of these things were a big issue, but with it being a fairly small serving of tagliatelle, I actually felt there was a bit too much chunky lobster and not enough pasta and sauce – but overall, the flavour combinations worked and it was tasty and well-presented, especially when topped with a liberal serving of fresh parmesan.
Mr W chose a king prawn and chorizo linguine, which had a mild chilli flavour and was served with very finely chopped peppers. This was absolutely excellent, and will probably be my first choice on a future visit. The flavours fitted together perfectly, with the sauce having a more interesting taste than mine, and there was just the right amount of each of the components. He also had nearly twice as much pasta as I did with my lobster! We had a bottle of wine with our meal and the bill came to around £45.
Our waiter, Phil, looked after us very well all evening, and, like his colleague on the front desk could not have been nicer. Unfortunately, though, Phil suffered from the fact that someone in the kitchen was clearly keen to go home. For most of the latter part of the evening, he was having to preface everything he said to us with “I really don’t want to rush you, but…” – which of course ends up having the opposite effect! Again, I think this is a feature of going to a restaurant chain where the staff are under strict instructions to close the kitchen at a particular time and no one has the autonomy to vary this depending on how the dining room is looking.
Fortunately, we’d already decided against a dessert, not being particularly tempted by anything on the menu. Again, this is an area where I’m never inclined to think chain restaurants do very well, as mass produced cheesecakes are often the order of the day. Perhaps if I have enough room on my next visit, I’ll allow Browns to prove me wrong again! They also offer a range of afternoon teas, which look interesting.
We enjoyed our evening at Browns – the food is good but not outstanding, but there is a nice buzz, the decor is good (reminiscent of a casual Parisien Bistro, without trying too hard to be that way) the bar is a good place for pre-dinner drinks and the staff are friendly and engaging (although I’ve given three, rather than four stars for service due to the ongoing menu availability issues). As a chain, it’s a step up from, say, Pizza Express or Cafe Rouge, and probably on a par with somewhere like Cote. We’ll definitely be going back, not for a special occasion, but certainly for a fun, fairly relaxed night out, perhaps with a larger group, not least because I’m determined to catch them one day with a full menu available!
Recommended with caveats.
Food: *** Service: *** Ambience: ****
Browns Bar and Brasserie, The Friary Centre, The Friary, Cardiff CF10 3FA