There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 14 July 2017

Penarth and Restaurant James Sommerin

Our wedding anniversary excursion into the world of ‘fine dining’ happens later this month, but first a bonus; a visit to Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth. This excellent idea came from Anne, a friend of forty years and Vale of Glamorgan resident, who has featured in the blog before (Cannock Chase Through Fresh Eyes).

Lynne outside Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Born in Caerleon, James Sommerin started his career in Wales before moving to the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy (which sounds Welsh but is in Scotland). He returned home as sous-chef at the Crown at Whitebrook in the Wye Valley. He became executive chef there in 2003, won a Michelin star in 2007 and maintained it until the Crown closed in 2013. He opened Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth in 2014 and was awarded a Michelin star last October.

Wales has only 7 such restaurants, the other six in country houses or other rural locations relying mainly on visitors. Restaurant James Sommerin is different but, I wondered, is Penarth the right place? Why not central Cardiff, or the Bay Development? Wikipedia rather strangely describes Penarth as ‘the wealthiest seaside resort in the Cardiff Urban Area’ though I struggle to think of any others, and although within the urban area, Penarth is not actually in Cardiff being west of the River Ely and thus in the Vale of Glamorgan.

South Wales and the Bristol Channel
Caerleon is NE of Newport, almost but not quite a suburb, Whitebrook is in the Wye Valley between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye. Flat Holm and Steep Holm (see later) are either side of the 'W' of Weston-super-Mare
I had previously visited Penarth once. My father was an only child and uninterested in his wider family so I was ignorant of his wealth of cousins until Lynne took up genealogy. She discovered Cousin Jude and her husband John and we visited them six or seven years ago when John was Mayor of Penarth; we would have called again this time but for a delayed letter. Penarth had seemed a pleasant enough small town, without making a big impression on us.

Our taxi failed to arrive so Anne drove past Cardiff City’s impressive new(ish) stadium before turning west and then south to Penarth. After negotiating the tidy and prosperous town centre the road drops sharply to the coast.
Penarth was en fete, the esplanade closed to cars, so Anne dropped us by the pier and went to find a parking space. On a balmy summer evening we strolled through the crowd…
Penarth Summer Festival
… pausing to photograph the pier…
Penarth Pier
…and Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the unusually calm and blue Bristol Channel. From this angle they looked much closer together than they really are.
Welsh Flat Holm on the left and, several kilometres beyond it, English Steep Holm (though it does not look that way)
The restaurant sign is suitably understated and we walked past, only realising our error when we reached their kebab stall. ‘Harrumph,’ went my resident Food Snob, ‘a fine dining restaurant peddling kebabs to revellers?’ ‘Lighten up,’ my Better Nature shot back, ‘community involvement is to be applauded.’ ’And why ignore a money-making opportunity?’ added my Inner Cynic.

The interior was better lit than most of its kind (though not as bright as Loam in Galway last year) and felt a touch functional with no bar, just a few small tables at the side for perusing the menu and ordering aperitifs.
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Only the tasting menus are available at the weekend and although I might once have argued for the 9-course version I have now reached a state of maturity (or decline) where even 6 courses sounds daunting.

Menu, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Anne re-joined us before we ordered drinks – gin and tonic for Lynne (drowned), dry Martini for me (too much Vermouth) and Noilly Prat for Anne (who maybe knows how to pronounce it!).

Moving to our table we were presented, 6-course or not, with canapés. An espuma (creamy foam) of garlic with toasted seeds eaten from a glass pot with a wooden spoon only slightly more sophisticated than an ice cream spoon. For me, it could have been a tad more garlicky but the seeds had a pleasant crunch and we enjoyed failing to identify them. Taramasalata on tapioca crackers was a lovely combination, not too aggressively fishy, and gougères injected with flavoursome goat’s cheese were a finger licking delight.
Lynne, Anne and Taramasalata on tapioca crackers, served in a box of pebbles, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
I have no idea why Lynne looks so worried (I wasn't worried, I was eating! L)
I am unsure why bread always appears at this juncture, but it happens at every level of restaurant. At James Sommerin, as you would expect at Michelin star level, the bread was spectacular, or as spectacular as bread can get, but did we need bread? I don’t know, but we ate it.

Now we were ready for the first of the six: 'Beetroot'. Linguine of yellow beetroot (fun with a spiraliser), morsels of ‘normal’ beetroot, cubes of feta and a sprinkling of pine nuts. There was more, too, though I couldn’t say what. A clever dish proving that beetroot can be pickled but does not have to be, and is brilliantly complemented by feta cheese, well who knew that?

The accompanying wine was a Viognier, only a Vin de Pays but with far more class than that suggests. Viognier is not my favourite grape, but that is my problem, it has its fans and this wine would impress them.

‘Venison’ was a tarragon flavoured pile of venison tartar, as tender and rich as could be wished for, a mandolin slice of raw mushroom, a trio of carrots, a dusting of nutmeg a covering of beetroot leaves and a small oil slick, walnut oil, I thought. Not much cooking involved but the ingredients were so well chosen I could happily have eaten it twice.

Venison, Tarragon, Carrot and Mushroom, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Chilled Cheverny, a Pinot Noir/Gamay/Cot blend, was the perfect partner. The lightness of Loire valley Pinot Noir gaining body from the Gamay with little loss of character.

Number three, ‘Langoustine’, was a single largish ravioli (a raviolo?) of flaked langoustine in a sauce à la Indienne accompanied by broccoli, carrot, globe artichoke and fresh, crisp samphire. The langoustine was excellent and the sauce sublime but I could have done without the flabby artichoke heart and the pasta could have been thinner – or possibly even absent.

The accompanying Saar Valley Pinot Grigio was a revelation. In a Burgundy-style bottle it had more body and less sweetness than Germany is noted for, more flavour than Pinot Grigio usually manages and enough acidity to cut through the sauce. I enjoyed it but sometimes wonder if traditional German wines, their reputation long ago sullied by cheap Liebfraumilch, are due rehabilitation.

All courses were of similar size, but it was hard not to think of ‘Guinea Fowl’ as the main course. The thigh meat was excellent, the breast, rolled and water bathed, was tender but lacking in flavour. The menu mentions sweet corn, truffle and potato. In the picture the corn is obvious, the truffle, inevitably invisible, could have been more assertive, but where is the potato? The answer was, in the jus, which somehow had an intense flavour of jacket potatoes. I do have no idea how this was contrived but I was delighted, even if potato lover Lynne was disappointed not to have the real thing.

Guinea Fowl, Sweet corn, truffle and potato, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
With it we drank Devil’s Corner Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Henning’s Wines describe it as ‘A strongly perfumed style redolent of black cherries with hints of violets and even a touch of ginger spice. Soft and full of flavour this wine is showing upfront flavours of cherry supported by some savoury elements. The finish combines fine tannins and firm acidity but the overall impression is of soft lingering flavours...’ I have nothing to add except that it was a grown-up contrast to the charming if lightweight Cheverny.

Lynne and Devil's Corner, Pinot Noir, Restautant James Sommerin, Penarth
At least she looks happy now
We decided to go for cheese before the dessert; although not included among the six courses the choice of 32 cheeses, all British, was irresistible. We were talked through them, from the goat’s cheeses through hard cheeses, washed rind cheeses and blue cheeses. There is an artisan producer for every style imaginable, though I was slightly disappointed that apart from the local Caerphilly they were all described in terms of a foreign cheese, ‘like Manchego’, ‘like Brie’ and so forth. It is a shame we do not have our own points of reference.

We let them make the choices for us, five cheeses each, all different, meant we had a taste of 15 different cheeses. Dairy heaven lubricated by a glass of ten-year-old tawny port!

Lynne, Anne and more cheese than you can shake a stick at
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
As they had suggested we gave front of house a nod after course 3 so they could order us a taxi. Together we estimated an 11.15 finishing time, but the marathon cheese course put us behind. Consequently, the desserts, ‘Pear’ and ‘Apple’ followed each other swiftly, both accompanied by Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh. In the days when I sought out unusual wines this Gascon oddity would have delighted me, now I can enjoy its sweetness while wishing it had a little more acidity.

I have little to say about ‘Pear’ with flapjack, honey, cream and hazelnuts, other than it was sweet, surprisingly light and very pleasant. ‘Apple’ with puff pastry, caramel and vanilla, was a warm tarte tatin except the pastry lay on the plate in shards. The courses had been small, but there were six of them, plus cheese, so shards were enough. It looked a tad untidy, but the vanilla ice-cream actually tasted of vanilla and the caramel sauce was nicely restrained so all was forgiven.
Lynne with apple, caramel and vanilla, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth

Between courses Anne interrogated the Romanian sommelier who worked part time while completing a degree and certainly knew his wine, and the head-waiter (?) who was remarkably confident on his second day in the job. A window let us see into the kitchen from where dishes were brought out and explained by a succession of personable young men and women, perhaps those who had actually cooked them.

With a taxi waiting we omitted coffee and brandy - probably a good thing, there had been ample wine already – and were driven home by a friendly and loquacious east European who had been in Wales long enough for his accent to occasionally take on the local lilt.

And so ended an excellent evening at a restaurant thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star. A big ‘thank you’ to Anne for having the idea and for putting us up for two nights - and for rather more. In the morning I showed my gratitude by giving her a lift back to Penarth to collect her car. I could have made her take the bus, but I am not that kind of guy.

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