One of the most eagerly awaited arrivals to the South Wales dining scene that I can remember since I started blogging is Restaurant James Sommerin. We first began to hear whispers over a year ago that James, the former head chef at the abruptly closed Michelin-starred Crown at Whitebrook, was planning to open a restaurant in the Beachcliff development on Penarth’s seafront. Given a few false starts with the development itself, not to mention the fact that this would mean a Michelin-starred chef having a restaurant less than 5 minutes’ walk from my front door, the whispers we heard almost seemed too good to be true, but sure enough, a few weeks ago, Restaurant James Sommerin opened its doors for the first time. We went along a couple of weeks ago to try out what was on offer.
The first thing to say about the restaurant is that you can’t just pop in for a quick dinner. In the evening, they only offer tasting menus: 5, 7 or 10 courses, or a whopping 14 courses served at the chef’s table in the kitchen. The cheapest option of five courses is £55, and the 14 courses are £150 per head. If you opt for 5 or 7 courses, you get a bit of an inkling of what you’re having as the dishes are listed on the menu (albeit not described in all their glory!), but for 10 or 14, it’s all a big surprise! So, with those prices, and wine starting at around £30 per bottle, it’s not going to be a cheap evening out any more than it’s quick. But so long as you’re okay with that, the main thing is that it’s good – and it certainly was! Read on…
The restaurant itself is quite small, occupying a modest space on the ground floor of the Beachcliff development. It’s a shame that at the moment there’s still scaffolding on the rest of the building but once inside, all that is easy to forget. It’s elegantly furnished in muted tones and is reminiscent of some of the really nice places I’ve eaten in London. Windows along one side look out onto the seafront, and then one wall has windows that look into the kitchen, so you can see James and his team of chefs beavering away in the kitchen preparing your food. You can also see into the kitchen from outside on the seafront, so there really is nowhere to hide!
We decided to start small and opted for the five course menu, which actually turned out to be at least seven anyway as we had canapés and an amuse bouche, and probably would have had petit fours as well had we decided to stay for coffee.
We had our canapés in the (very small) bar area whilst I enjoyed a rather good Cosmopolitan! On offer was a sweetcorn pannacotta with smoked haddock (lovely, although I’d never had smoked haddock cold before and the jury is still out for me on savoury pannacottas!), a cheese gougere (also lovely) and truffle arancini (really lovely!) The meal was off to an excellent start.
Once shown to our table, we had an amuse bouche of onion consomme which was poured over a Welsh rarebit mousse with soda bread crisps. I absolutely love Welsh rarebit and this was fantastic, especially paired with the sweetness of the onion consommé. Bread served at our table was fresh and delicious and we loved the little touches of quirky butter knives and butter served on stones collected from Penarth beach by James’s children, and the consommé served in an egg-shell like dish.
Our first ‘proper’ course from the menu was pork, anise, celeriac and apple – which was pig’s head with crackling, matchsticks of apple, apple puree and celeriac puree. The anise was sprinkled over the top, rather than adding any discernible taste to the purees or the pork (unless my tastebuds were particularly desensitised!) but this worked well as the celeriac and apple complemented the pork, which was tasty and tender, really well.
Up next was seabass with broccoli, aubergine and spiced butter. This was one of my favourite dishes of the evening: the bass was a fantastic thick, meaty fillet, showcasing the excellent quality of ingredients that James is using, and the spiced butter gave the dish almost an Indian feel – which shouldn’t have worked with the delicate bass, but was delicate enough in its spicing to be absolutely spot on.
The last savoury course was lamb with peas, garlic, lentils and cumin: neck (I think – if I recall correctly!), a sweetbread, peas, beans, lentils and pea shoots and – the piece de resistance – confit garlic which was absolutely delicious with the lamb. This was another contender for best dish and probably Mr W’s favourite.
First pudding was banana, stout, toffee and macadamia nut: roasted banana, macadamia ice cream, banana parfait and a stout foam. I loved all the flavours of this dish but found the texture of the iced parfait a bit of an odd fit with the rest of the dish. Mr W, however, thought it all worked well together.
Last but definitely not least was second pudding (just the combination of those two words makes me happy!) which comprised strawberry, mint, cream cheese and rosewater: a strawberry sorbet, rosewater jelly, marinated strawberries and cream cheese mousse with a shard of meringue and a strawberry and rosewater sauce. The mint flavour was extremely subtle here, which was a good thing for me.
None of the food we tried could be faulted at all and I’m very pleased that it all lived up to our understandably high expectations of such a keenly anticipated new restaurant opening!
Service throughout our meal was impeccable: James has clearly recruited people that he knows will deliver service to match the standard of the excellent food he’s turning out, and they had that magic combination of relaxed confidence in the dishes they’re serving and appropriate formality that you associate with fine dining.
I’m thrilled that James has chosen Penarth for his new venture, and so far, it seems to be the right choice for him, as it’s pretty hard to get a table on a weekend for the next few months! As discussed, it’s not a cheap option, so although the intention is to attract visitors from far and wide, and in theory Penarth has the money to sustain a restaurant of this calibre, I really hope that locals return for repeat visits after the opening excitement dies down, and frequent changes to the set menus will be key to this happening. Knowing James’ enthusiasm for local, seasonal ingredients, I should imagine we will see a lot of different dishes on the menus as time goes on. We will certainly return – and have our eye on the chef’s table at some stage – probably when we’ve not eaten for a week beforehand!
Food: ***** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Restaurant James Sommerin, The Esplanade, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan CF64 3AU