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.

No comments:

Post a Comment