One of the questions I often get asked about being a food blogger (and one who eats out an awful lot!) is whether I ever get bored with going to restaurants. For me, the answer would definitely be no – I always enjoy the experience of eating good food in different surroundings, and especially going somewhere new. That said, it could be quite easy to become blasé about dining out, so it’s good when something really exceptional comes along to keep things new and fresh, and to remind you just what a special experience it is to dine out.
Following my interviews earlier in the week with Head Chef, Jonathan Edwards and Consultant Chef, Michelin-starred Roger Jones, from Cardiff’s Park House, it’s fair to say I had great expectations when I was invited to attend the VIP and press launch of their new tasting menu. When I arrived outside the Park House to find the building itself (already a striking edifice!) tied up in a big red bow, I knew this was going to be something really special.
Both Roger and Jon had talked about their plans to set a new trend for really high quality food in Cardiff, and things certainly started off that way as we enjoyed the first of an impressive nine courses on the terrace – this was a Vietnamese Roll canapé, a wafer thin, soft rice paper wrap, filled with tasty fresh crevettes and lobster, mildly spiced, and matched with a 2008 Argentinian De Fin de Mundo Extra Brut (that’s a glass of fizz to a relative wine ignoramus like me, but I did learn more as the evening went on – more on that later!)
The May evening air was becoming a bit chilly, and many of us were finding that the gravel on the terrace was not being kind to our high heels (note to self: wear wedges next time), so it was time to move inside for the next dish. The Park House dining room is traditional in style, and preserves a lot of the private members’ club atmosphere, which seems right for the building. This was complemented by a pianist playing a variety of popular tunes, at just the right volume not to be intrusive, but still to make his presence worthwhile. He entertained us all evening.
We started the meal with a few words from owner Adam Pledger, echoing the sentiments I’d already heard from Jon and Roger about their hopes and aims for the Park House in its new guise, and also explaining that the guests would have the benefit of watching Jon and Roger at work in the kitchen on two large plasma screens by our table, hooked up to a camera that was trained on the pass – this was great as we could see the food being plated up, and it also confirmed what Roger had told me about how he operates a very calm and quiet kitchen. There was definitely no Ramsay-esque shouting or stress going on – at least not that night anyway!
Our first dish at the table was cured wild sewin with smoked Halen Mon sea salt and – according to the menu – fresh horseradish, but in fact it seemed to be wild garlic that accompanied it. This was probably the weakest dish of the evening for me (but it’s all relative – it was still of a very high standard) simply because the wild garlic overpowered the delicate fish a little bit, but I still enjoyed it, and it was a great match with the 2010 Australian Johnny Q Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc, which accompanied this and the next course. I was fortunate to be sitting next to Nick John of N D John Wines, who supply the Park House, and Nick had chosen all of the wine pairings for the evening’s menu and was happy to educate me a little bit as we went along! Nick has travelled the world sourcing wines, but his top tip for the most beautiful place he’s seen is the Douro Valley in Portugal – which is now on my ‘to visit’ list!
Next up was more wild garlic, this time in a risotto with Wye Valley asparagus and a pea jus. I’m happy to report that here, the wild garlic was a perfect pairing, and it was an excellent risotto, with a hint of crunch inside the rice grains and beautifully delicate asparagus.
On to the much anticipated fish course, which Roger had cited as his favourite on the menu: Little Haven lobster fish finger with ketchup. This was a delicious, sweet, meaty piece of lobster, wrapped in wafer thin deep fried bread and served with a drizzle of a delicately spiced tomato ‘ketchup’. A simple dish really, but the execution was exceptional and I can see why it’s Roger’s favourite. This was paired with a 2008 Australian Treasures Chardonnay. I’m not a big Chardonnay fan – Nick told me that in that case I probably wouldn’t enjoy this one, then, and he was right – it was quite oaky and too strong for me, but no doubt an excellent example of its genre!
We moved on to another dish that I’d heard good things about: caramelised Kelmscott pork with chilli squid. Chatting to Adam over this dish revealed that the Kelmscott pork comes from a farm near Roger’s Michelin starred restaurant in Little Bedwyn, and Roger has actually worked with the farmer to explain exactly what he was looking for in his pork, resulting in the pork we tried, which is less fatty than a lot of breeds, but still has a generous layer of fat atop the meat, making it perfect for caramelisation, which resulted in a lovely sweet and crispy top. I’d never considered pairing squid with pork, but this was a great match, with just a hint of chilli, and a 2005 Saumur Vieilles Vignes from France to drink.
My food highlight of the evening was the next course, a carpaccio of roe venison, served with a torte of foie gras and a slice of Bara Brith, with some fig jam and a caramel from reduced 1927 PX sherry. Wow! Sadly, I was so excited by this dish that I tucked in to it before I thought to photograph it (oops), but suffice to say it was a genius dish, with the range of seemingly disparate flavours and textures coming together into something absolutely sublime – and when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I took a mouthful of the matched wine, a 2006 Del fin del Mundo Gran Reserva, again from Argentina, and reached even higher levels of gourmand delight. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever eaten a better dish in Cardiff.
We were now on the homeward straight and the last savoury course of the evening was an Asian style shin and oxtail of Highland beef served with ‘a traditional Taka Dhal made by a Welshman’(!) and a little mint yogurt on the side. I’m not a huge lover of Asian flavours, and the Dhal was bordering on being too spicy for my palate, but I could still tell it was good, and the beef was exceptional, falling apart at the slightest touch from a fork, and melting in the mouth. This was paired with a 2008 Australian Treasures Cabernet Sauvignon.
The most intriguing dish on the menu was the simply named ‘Boiled Egg’ – which I guessed (correctly) would be anything but an actual boiled egg! It was in fact our first pudding of the evening (always good to have two!) and comprised a layer of mango puree, topped with a crème anglaise and a generously piped topping of soft, sweet meringue and served with a shortbread ‘soldier’ – lovely to look at and fun and delicious to eat!
Finally, we enjoyed another dish I’d heard an awful lot about, a coconut panna cotta with mojito sorbet. The panna cotta was creamy and soft, without the gelatinous consistency that some panna cottas can suffer from, and the mojito sorbet was refreshing and sharp, especially when accompanied by the mango salsa on the plate that had a hint of chilli to it too. Even Roger and Nick’s wine pairing skills weren’t up to finding a perfect match for this dish, so instead we all enjoyed a speciality Mojito from Vanilla Rooms, Park House’s basement cocktail bar.
I had a fantastic evening at Park House. The food is genuinely a cut above pretty much anything else I’ve eaten in Cardiff. The team have set out to raise the bar when it comes to dining in Cardiff and they have certainly done that. It was great to share in Adam, Roger and Jon’s passion for their new venture. I have two slight reservations, the first is whether the dining room will have the same atmosphere when it’s a normal evening, filled with regular diners, rather than a big party of foodies enjoying the launch and watching the chefs on TV – it seems the perfect venue for private dining or an event, but I’m yet to picture it operating simply as a restaurant (and I’m keen to go back on a ‘normal’ night to check this out, in the hope that it will be just as good), and the second is whether the average Cardiff diner will be willing to pay what are inevitably higher prices than the norm in the area. That said, the pricing structure is simple, at £10 for all starters, £26 for all main courses and £7 for all bar a couple of the desserts. With this in mind, there are some bargains to be had – I won’t give away all of Adam’s secrets, but there’s one dish on the starters menu that apparently breaks his heart every time someone orders it, because it’s such exceptional value for the diner! And I really do think that the quallity of food is worth every penny of the asking prices – I just hope that others think so too and continue to think so.
If you fancy indulging in a tasting menu similar to the one that I tried (and I thoroughly recommend that you do!) then it’s priced at £59 per head, plus £25 to include matched wines. The Park House also offers an exceptionally good value 2 course lunch menu at £15 per head, so if you’re unsure about committing to the a la carte or tasting menu, I’d suggest trying the lunch first to get a taste of the quality you can expect. There’s also an afternoon tea menu, and the Terrace Bar menu features some of the dishes I tried – so there are lots of options for anyone who wants a little taste of the Park House!
As a Cardiff-based foodie, I’m grateful to the Park House for, in my opinion, raising the bar in the area, and I wish them every success!
(With apologies for the dubious quality of my photographs in this blog post – despite the ambient lighting in the dining room making for a great atmosphere, it wasn’t quite so conducive to great photography!)