With a recently awarded third AA Rosette, it’s obvious twins Pasquale and Sergio Cinotti are doing something at Gem 42 in Newport which deserves attention.
It’s not an award any Cardiff restaurant holds. It’s not unusual for it to go hand in hand with a Michelin star: The Beach House and The Walnut Tree have both, as does Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus.
All of which makes the Cardiff bubble-centric lack of attention a little odd, because the award criteria sets a high bar:
‘Restaurants with 3 Rosettes have achieved culinary standards that demand national recognition well beyond their local area…
Receiving the award is a huge achievement not to be underestimated.’
Which is bound to make you at least curious, no?
Gem 42 is unashamedly ambitious. They call this ‘art cuisine’ and their site is at some pains to talk about sourcing, sustainability and zero waste ethos, topped off with a quotation from Murakami. ‘Tradition with Innovation… humble delicious food with a creative touch, never a pretentious attitude, but just sharing a loved passion for what we do best.‘
That might not be the first thing you expect from Newport city centre. And that’s euphemistic: Gem 42 is actually on the railway bridge directly opposite the station.
A few years ago I had to judge the brothers’ former restaurant for a national competition. There were splashes of excellence, tempered by things which puzzled me. Yet it all made an impression. It wasn’t predictable or straining for relevance, it was happy to be in its own space and to do its own thing. Reading back on what I wrote about Gemelli four years ago- you can read that here, if you really must– I ended up asking if it was “brilliant or barking”.
Which brings us nicely to Gem 42.
In this intimate little dining room, with its mural ceiling and quilted wall panels, inventive touches come thick and fast. An outstretched ceramic hand offers crisp lollipops of dehydrated cave-aged Snowdonia cheese, further aged on coffee beans, studded with pickled ginger and pine nuts; and spindly, gnarled grissini, ready for the little pot of silky bottarga emulsion which has my companion positively purring.
If you’ve ever lain awake at half three and wondered what you could do with a bowl of peas- and who hasn’t?- then wonder no more. Here comes a tiny tartlet case of pea flour, filled with a vivid green mousse, and finished with the texture of dehydrated peas, the sweetness of fresh and the subtly grassy shoots. It seems unlikely something this fragile could deliver such depth of flavour, such variety. And yet, here we are.
Besides, all of that green stuff and I didn’t once reach for ‘verdant’. Proud moment.
More trickery: a baby ‘tomato’ is actually three varieties, cooked three ways (dehydrated golden cherry, roast Torpedino, oven-blushed San Marzano, for anyone hoping to complete their Tomato Spotter’s Guide today), combined and moulded, the glossy ‘skin’ a coating of Bloody Mary cocktail jelly.
A laborious process? Sure. A lot of effort for something gone in a couple of bites? Of course. But it’s done with such skill and wit you can’t help but smile as you spread the pâté-like texture over the toast and that concentrated essence of tomato hits you squarely in the chops.
Next, a startling thing: an unidentifiable lozenge, as dark and mysterious as Kubrick’s obelisk. Under the lights it looks jet black. Something coaxed for hours until the collagen collapses, surely. Osso bucco? Some long-braised ox cheek, perhaps? It’s definitely meaty, isn’t it..?
It’s cauliflower. ‘Millenarian Cauliflower’, cooked for precisely one thousand minutes at a steady 72°, they explain. Time and patience. From hours twelve to fourteen the cauliflower starts to brown, then the final two hour stretch accelerates the transformation and the enzymes rapidly force the change from brown to black.
It’s a remarkable thing, with an unexpectedly intense nuttiness, a profound umami which forces you to reassess your opinion of the potential of the vegetable. It tugs at your memory for days and weeks after, a startling reinvention revealing unsuspected depths.
And if you’re keeping score, we haven’t hit the mains yet.
The lobster comes with a boldly flavoured bisque, so muscular and evocative you can almost hear the scuttle of pincers. The textures are accomplished, the meat sweet and teamed with the earthier tastes of carrot and truffle. It’s beautifully presented and my companion’s favourite dish of the night.
As the meal goes on- and with this food and the right company, these three and a half hours pass far too quickly- we can’t help but notice the conspiratorial smile of staff as they clear between courses. It makes sense. They have welcomed us here and now we share their secret.
When Is An Egg Not An Egg? When it’s Uovo 55, the three numbers referring to the weight, cooking temperature and calorific content of the egg yolk.
The white is a scallop formed into egg shape, moulded around a barely-set yolk. There’s a lot going on here: the sweet Scottish shellfish taking center stage, with the warm, creamy ooze of the yolk and a tart wasabi vinaigrette playing their part alongside a little bowl of scallop noodles in a limpid oyster dashi broth.
It’s all topped with Oscietra caviar- this is not a dish which is bashful about flaunting its wares. The visual sleight of hand is impressive, an audacious bit of visual trickery, a deliberate attempt to confuse you. I’d call the whole thing a red herring if there wasn’t already enough to scramble your brain. Or egg.
Ironically we find ourselves missing the matchless simplicity of pan, scallop and foaming butter. And yet it’s a skilful, memorable dish and I would happily eat it again and again to focus less on the element of surprise, than the interplay of sour and sweet and salt.
It’s followed by a smoky baby aubergine with a rugged tomato sauce, cocooned in tagliolini: an elegant, refined take on the classic parmigiana.
And then, my favourite of the night.
Here comes a crisp little potato cylinder filled with long-braised shoulder and leg of Montgomery lamb, with loin chargrilled and seared with cavolo nero powder. Potato millefoglie has been cooked in duck fat, its many delicate layers mimicking the sweet pastry classic, the homegrown salt-baked beetroot and shallots all laced with a rich, full-bodied Bordelaise. It’s the least flamboyant plate of the night, and absolutely lovely. That loin is, certainly, the most beautifully judged piece of lamb I have eaten for years.
A candle is brought. Lit. We barely notice, distracted by the arrival of lumps of midnight-black sourdough. They look cold, hard, spent. Unappetising at best, inedible at worst. And suddenly they angle the candle over the tray and the ‘wax’- actually, wagyu fat- drips all over it and that soft, warm bread is perfumed with the smoky memory of meat. It’s a lovely punchline.
Cauliflower cheese is given a revamp, engineered as a transparent dome of sugar and sherry vinegar around a cauliflower panna cotta with ginger and herbs, finished at the table with dehydrated sour cream prepared in liquid nitrogen. It’s billed as a pre-dessert.
A chocolate cigar is served with a waft of tobacco air and lit at your table to a little explosion. It’s a smoked chocolates and rum crémeux with a punchy, aromatic cardamon gelato on the side. Unexpected? Only if you hadn’t seen their previous tube of cream ‘toothpaste’ and a brush made from different types of Madagscan chocolate, with cream and salted caramel.
There are playful things with peanuts and a hazelnut and almond pan toscano in edible wrapping, naturally, and some glossy expertly tempered chocolates, and an edible QR code so with chef can wish you goodnight.
Throughout, this meal dazzled with its wit and inventiveness. Gem 42 is certainly pushing that elusive Michelin Star level. This is grown up eating for grown ups, but at the same time it’s whimsical and playful in an area where whimsical and playful are in short supply. Of course, you might find all this nonsensical and pretentious and self indulgent but I found it all rather beguiling and a refreshing dose of escapism. And it’s all so close, too.
In ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, ’42’ is famously the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I don’t know what question Gem 42 is trying to answer, but it’s an awful lot of fun finding out.
So…bonkers or brilliant?
Gem 42, Bridge St, Newport
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.