One of the nicest opportunities I’ve had recently came in the form of an invitation to a ‘Masterchef’ event in the kitchen of Filini restaurant at the Radisson Blu hotel in Cardiff, with executive chef Mattias Wenngren. With three other foodies, I munched my way through seven delightful courses that showcased Mattias’s talents. We also had an opportunity to chat with Mattias as he plied us with these treats, and to learn about what makes him tick and the philosophy behind Radisson’s Filini concept.
There are a number of Filini restaurants across the Radisson chain in the UK, each with a strong Italian flavour, but with their own chefs who have the autonomy to develop their own dishes and adapt the menu as they see fit. Mattias, who is from Sweden, has worked for Radisson in a number of European locations for a number of years now, but loves Cardiff and seems to be fairly settled here – and why not?! Mattias clearly has a passion for his art, and seems refreshingly unconstrained by working for a large chain – I am sure this is thanks in no small part to Radisson allowing their chefs to put an individual touch on the menus – whilst honest about the few inevitable restrictions he faces. Sadly, as part of a big chain, Mattias is not able to source all his produce from local suppliers – but he does take a keen interest in the suppliers that are used and is certainly in a position to influence if the quality of the produce he’s receiving is not hitting the mark.
When we arrived in the kitchen, service for the evening was underway. Everything seemed very much under control – the kitchen was spotless, and the other chefs were working calmly and efficiently. Mattias told us that in the past he’s been a bit more hot-headed (think Gordon Ramsay!) but now he’s calmer, and although he will occasionally shout at his team, he saves it for when it’s really needed – much more scary if you ask me (although I find it hard to imagine Mattias being scary at all)!
Mattias had reserved an area of the kitchen for us to try his wares. First up was a selection of handmade breads, including a delicious roll that had swirls of pesto running through it, breadsticks, Sardinian crispbread, dipping oils and balsamic. This accompanied a stunning selection of antipasti that showcased a variety of Italian meats including Parma ham and Bresaola, and a delicious Gorgonzola dolce cheese, plus a selection of olives, sunblush tomatoes, and balsamic onions that made me see onions in a whole new light – I never knew it was possible for them to taste so sweet in their ‘whole’ form without being caramelised! This was all served with a refreshing glass of Prosecco.
At this point, we still didn’t know what to expect, and I would genuinely have been more than happy just with the chance to chat to Mattias whilst gorging myself on the delicious antipasti, but it soon became apparent that the courses were just going to keep on coming and we were in for a really special evening! Next up was ‘Spiedini’, which consisted of truffled arancini, rare beef fillet, crab cakes and king prawns, all served on really cute skewers adorned with roses. I struggled to choose a favourite out of these, but the crab cakes deserve a special mention for having nothing but crab meat and a little bit of mayonnaise inside the deep fried breadcrumb shell. As regular readers will know, I’ve an aversion to any kind of fish cake that is actually a potato cake with bits of fish in, but – happily – Mattias feels the same, and these were delectable little spheres of 100% crab. The arancini were also noteworthy as they were so flavoursome with strong notes of truffle, mushroom and parmesan coming through.
A short break came next whilst Mattias poured us all a glass of Verdicchio, a lovely light, fresh white, to accompany the first fish course, a whole seabass that had been stuffed earlier that day with lemon, rosemary and onion before being baked whole. I’d never have thought of putting rosemary with fish, least of all a delicate seabass, but with the lemon it really, really worked. This was served with a lovely small bowl of creamy risotto topped with parmesan shavings. I’d have happily eaten the risotto as a dish on its own.
There is clearly no rest for the wicked foodie, and next up was a beautifully presented little dish of ricotta ravioli, served with a king prawn, prawn bisque, and a gorgeously tasty parmesan foam. Mattias showed us how he makes the foam, using a soda siphon. It’s hard to choose a standout course of the evening, but this one was definitely one of my highlights, as I love seafood bisque, and it worked so well with the two cheeses and al dente pasta.
More pasta followed – although at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it was risotto or even a lentil dish, as it was a tiny Sardinian pasta – Fregola Sarda, served with a tomato sauce and Salicissa. This was another favourite of mine, full of Italian flavour, and was complemented by a glass of Il Corto red wine.
At this point we felt sure we couldn’t be spoilt any more, but Mattias then appeared with a big cooking pot, from which he removed the lid to reveal some splendid slow-cooked lamb shanks, which were met with a chorus of oohs and ahhs from our assembled group! These were cooked simply, with a few veg and red wine, but were oh-so-tasty and I could have easily made a meal from this alone. As it was, I was getting very full up and was almost tempted to ask for a doggy bag for Mr W, lamb shanks being a particular favourite of his, but he had to make do with the photographic evidence!
All through the service, Mattias chatted to us about the food he was serving, and his huge passion was continually evident. He’s also a fantastic character, and it was a pleasure to spend time in his kitchen. He also put up with what turned out to be a very talkative group of foodies and didn’t seem to mind our incessant chatter about all things food related!
Finally, we were on the home stretch and Mattias suggested we adjourn to Filini Restaurant for our pudding and coffee. This was a great idea as it allowed us to experience the ambience of the restaurant – and, again, I was really pleasantly surprised. There was none of that ‘hotel restaurant’ vibe – despite it being a Wednesday night, there were few solo diners and not a breakfast bar in sight, and there were several groups, one of them quite large, enjoying a meal together. The place has a really nice atmosphere, it’s fairly dimly lit and stylishly decorated, and would make a great venue for a special occasion dinner, whether or not you were staying in the hotel. The bar area outside is also lovely, and the little we experienced of the service was excellent too.
We enjoyed a trio of puddings – a chocolate mousse in a tuile basket, a citrus pannacotta in a shot glass, and my personal favourite, a mini tiramisu, served in an espresso cup, which was beautifully light and fluffy (not heavy or cheesy as some tiramisus can be) and had the added bonus of an almondy flavour to the liqueur that was used.
Finally, we had a coffee which was served with an Amaretti biscuit, which I’m pleased to say did make it into the doggy bag for Mr W, because at this point there was a very real danger of it being the equivalent to Mr Creosote’s ‘wafer thin mint’, and an explosion would have spoilt the evening!
I had a fabulous evening at the Radisson. It was great to do something different and to meet such a passionate and interesting chef. The food was exceptional and a brilliantly chosen range of dishes to showcase for Mattias’s talents and the kind of food that appears on the menu in Filini. I’m now looking forward to going back and experiencing the restaurant in the more traditional way. Watch this space for a review soon.