Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Mint and mustard

Mint and mustard
134 Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF14 3LZ029 2062 0333

I've been a fan of this place since it first opened and I saw the enticing pictures on their website.  I became an even greater fan a year or so later when I eventually got to eat there. They had just been announced on restaurant magazines 100 best of Britain list, and we decided that this accolade definitely warranted our visiting, so eight of us went along on a Friday night. From the second I popped that Bombay chat from the pearl starter into my mouth and saw the smiles on the others who were doing the same I was hooked. The light pastry case, giving way to smooth yoghurt. Even better, they did fish, and they did it well.
Mint & mustard is a Keralan restaurant and apparently Kerala is all about the seafood. The meat dishes here are great, but on that first visit it was the fish that had me hooked. A bowl of monkfish with boatman sauce overwhelmed me on that visit, the tamarind bringing on a rush of acid indegestion, but when I sampled the same fish with a mango allepey sauce, I was blown away. On another visit I tried the chefs signature dish of tiffin sea bass. Now I must confess to not being a fan of sea bass. To me it's the fillet steak of the ocean world, bland and lacking in any character but that's just me. It's served here on a lightly spiced mashed potato, with that mango sauce I love so much and topped with a beautiful streak of raspberry. An alternative is the polichathu, where the fish comes wrapped in a banana leaf; the moist flesh infused with flavour and in my opinion a far better dish. 
Everyone with me on that first evening loved it, and all have been back since, but for me it meant more. For me this was a life changing experience. I don’t use that term lightly in a "I’ve just seen the doctor and he said my cancers cured" sort of way, no this was bigger. I'd finally found an Indian restaurant I enjoyed.

   I've always struggled with Indian food in general and I won't pretend to know anything about it. For me a night out at an Indian has meant struggling through a ladle full of slop, dumped on a pile of rice, and this has been the case at every place I’ve visited. I've always felt slightly autistic when dining at Indians, as I just can't understand peoples overwhelming emotion for it. Everyone else seems happy as they discuss excitedly which form their slop should take, and how hot said slop should be, and most importantly, which naan they want to make them feel more bloated and uncomfortable at the end of the meal. I just sit there more miserable than normal, dreaming of Mint and mustard.

Mint and mustards food is refined even sophisticated, and if Cardiff needs something desperately, it's sophistication. They've kept some touches of the classic Indian, like the bad art and shit music, but done away with the chips and giant mounds of rice. I've actually been warned on a couple of occasions by people who hadn't done their research that mint & mustard is rubbish because they don't do half and half and the portions are small, and you cant get a jalfrezi, and that they didn't enjoy it at all. This cheers me immensely. The poppadoms are still there, but at mint and mustard they're more like crisps. Small perfectly cooked and satisfyingly crunchy, they're more a revelation than a pre-meal nibble.
The other thing about Kerala I’m told, as with a lot of the sub continent, is that they understand vegetarian cookery. This is definitely the case at mint and mustard. I'm no vegetarian myself but the dishes I’ve tried here have been lovely. I've even moved from the meat filled pearl starter, to it's veggie equivalent the panch ratan (If you don't want to stretch to the £9 panch ratan then let me recommend the spinach and prune cake instead, it's the star of the panch ratan.). I live in hope that one day the best of the two will meld and form the ultimate world conquering, Indian super starter of my dreams. 

Another problem I have with Indian restaurants is the seemingly endless list of dishes that fill the menus, and Mint and mustard is no exception. Along with explanations that would give Tolstoy writers cramp, it can all become a little bewildering, as once you've reached the end you forget what you read at the start. I think therefore that it might be useful to provide some recommendations. I already mentioned the monkfish, and the robust, meaty flesh stands up excellently to the heavy and creamy Indian sauces. It does however lose it's finesse when poured over a pile of rice, but is a great alternative to the lamb and chicken curries most people will be familiar with. A starter of Nandu; a soft shelled crab, is delicious but also one of the most visually pleasing of the dishes served here.
Another dish I can heartily recommend is also my misses’ favourite. The Malabar biriyani is a masterclass in rice cookery. Meat, rice and spices are cooked together in a pastry-covered dish, giving the added bonus of theatrics as the waiter cuts away the lid releasing the scented steam. Before tasting it myself, I was unaware just how well rice could take on flavour. The meat, thanks to the enclosed cooking method, is moist and flavoursome, but the humble cereal grain is the real star.

My writing so far may feel less like a review and more of an advertisement and for this I apologise. The reason for this is that I really do enjoy mint and mustard and feel it's a real asset to the city. I have my complaints of course, There would be something seriously wrong with me if I never. A duck dish I once had was disappointing. I had expected the kitchen would do something wonderful with a duck breast, perhaps serving it elegantly sliced, and intelligently spiced atop a bed of wondrous and exotic veg. Sadly it came in chunks doused in a thick stew-like sauce. The flavour of the meat lost to the extent that had they run out of duck that day, and substituted it for lamb, or beef, or labrador I’d have been none the wiser. This is mentioned more in the hope that Mint and mustard themselves take note, and continues to offer something as far removed from the run of the mill curry house as possible.
I've also heard tales of rude and arrogant staff, but have been lucky enough to have the same waiter on every occasion, who is always smiling, polite and knowledgeable. That was until my most recent visit when the man serving us did an excellent job of getting on my tits. Not only did he seem intent on rushing us, returning at 30-second intervals to ask if we were ready to order, but also seemed to be working on commission.  After every order, we were asked if we wanted anything else. "No thanks" came the reply, "how about a naan?", "no thanks", "are you sure?", "yes thanks", "have you seen the new list of naan and side dishes?" ,"yes thanks", " so you don't fancy anything?" "No, thanks, and please just FUCK OFF!". 
The hard sell is never appreciated, un-called for, and for a restaurant of this calibre, completely unacceptable.

So, in summary to this somewhat essay-like review (again I apologise) I'd say; If you haven't already tried it, I recommend you do. Though please, for your own sake, keep an open mind, and enjoy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


11 Kings Rd
Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF11 9BZ
029 2019 0265


meal for two + tip = £80

This review is from my second visit to Patagonia, and it's with somewhat of a heavy heart that I have to write it. My first visit was quite a while ago now, when a group of friends and I visited with little knowledge of the restaurant and few expectations. That meal had that ever so rare pleasure you get when you accidentally stumble across a gem. Starters, mains and dessert for all of our party were beautifully presented, petite and pretty, tender and tasty. We were served some of the best-cooked meat i've ever eaten on that occasion. I loved the place and despite my best efforts it's taken me over a year to return.
In a strange way I wish I hadn't revisited, as it's caused me somewhat to question my memory of a meal, and like Descartes before me, it led me to question everything I know about the relationship between knowledge and the senses. If my first meal had so overwhelmed me that I sang it's praises to everyone I met, then how come on my second visit, could I find that I got it so wrong? I was overcome with crisis, torn apart by self-doubt and plagued with suicidal thoughts towards my blog. Thankfully, after spilling my heart out to the misses in a flood of tears, she told me to stop being such a tosser, and that the restaurant was probably just having a bad night.
She should know as she was with me on both occasions, has a far better palate, and isn't as prone to melodrama as I am.

We went along on a Saturday night and were pleased to see the place was busy. We were lucky enough to be seated next to the window, so we could laugh at the people struggling through the rain outside, but unfortunately the table for two they gave us would barely accommodate one. This was silly, as Patagonia doesn't seem to lack the floor space to make the tables that little bit bigger. Granted the restaurant isn't the biggest place, but a slight re-jig would work wonders.
For starters I ordered a smoked eel and pork agnalotto (I wanted the tuna belly confit, but someone more fortunate must have already eaten it all). It looked fantastic surrounded with an applesauce, but the bowl it was served in forced my wrists into some awkward positions as I tried to attack it from some obtuse angles. The first few bites were heaven, but it did start to taste a bit like baby food and I was quite relieved when I finished it.
The misses had ordered the beetroot risotto and I’m sure the kitchen was short on salt that night as it was the first of our under seasoned dishes. It again looked lovely but it's beauty belied it's bland, flavourless eating.
For mains we both decided on the duck, but since I’m writing the blog and she wouldn't budge I was forced to opt for the venison. I didn't mind so much as my head was still awash with thoughts of the meat we'd eaten on our last visit, but once again I felt let down. The meat was cooked to the degree I like, but was fibrous, slightly tough and again lacking salt. The mashed potato that it came with thankfully wasn't under seasoned and had been beaten into a rich, smooth puree .I could happily have eaten my own substantial body weight of it.
Onto her duck. A large breast was again plated beautifully, although lacking an accompaniment of deep-fried confit leg ravioli, which the kitchen had promised. They realised they're mistake just as we realised it was missing, so all credit to them, but strangely the ravioli was more reminiscent of Cornwall than Italy. The deep-frying had given it the strange quality of a Ginsters pasty and was a bit disappointing. The duck breast was well cooked but again no-where near the heady heights we remembered, and would have benefited from a thicker sauce. The pan juices it was served with were just too weak for a meat that goes so well with the sort of sauce that sticks to the top of your mouth.
After a nice bottle of wine we were ready to leave, so avoided dessert as nothing on offer sounded particularly appealing and ordered the bill.
I left with a heavy heart, but not because our meal was bad. If this second visit had been our first, then I would still be singing the praises of Patagonia, because the cooking is great, and the service excellent. The under seasoned food let it down more than anything, and although it caused me a crises of conscience, I’m still keen to return.

Saturday, 6 November 2010


The misses is from Ireland and on one of our trips back her family took us out to dinner at a place called johnnie fox's. It's one of Irelands oldest pubs, tucked away in the mountains over looking Dublin. It's like every Irish theme pubs wet dream and if you ever get the chance to visit you really should. I’m sure you'll love it. Anyway, on my visit there I ordered the jambalaya and loved it, so when we got back to Cardiff we decided to recreate it, or at least develop our own version. This was about three years ago now, and the recipe has evolved into what I want to share with you today.
This is a Monday night dish for us, using up the leftover meat from the Sunday roast. I think any leftover meat you have will work well, but pork is king so that's what we've settled on. This is a boisterous dish with the addition of king prawns and smoked sausage to ensure that every mouthful is a meaty one. Here is what you'll need:

Smoked sausage (I recommend the garlic and herb chorizo from bath pig.)
Left over meat
10-15 King prawns
1 ½ tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1 Green Bell pepper
1 Leek
1 Red chilli
1 large clove of garlic
1 Bunch of spring onions
1 Tin of chopped tomatoes
450ml chicken stock
250g rice

1.Toss the left over meat in the Cajun seasoning
2. Fry the sausage to release its oil
3. Add the seasoned meat to the sausage and fry for a bit
4. Add all the veg (except spring onion) to the pan and to soften and brown slightly, adding the garlic and chilli last
5. Add the rice and stir to coat in the oil and juices in the pan
6. Add tomatoes and stock and bring to the boil
7. Reduce to a simmer, sit back and relax for 30/35 mins until the rice is cooked to your liking
8. Fry prawns in a separate pan and add when the rice is cooked
9. Mix through finely chopped spring onions
10. Place in a bowl, grab a fork, sit back and enjoy.