We dined at The Park House as guests of the restaurant.
All food and drink was complementary.
All opinions tumble from what passes for my brain, and they do so independently.
No review or social media activity was requested.
Transparency is important.
The great Bill Shankly once said, “Football is a simple game, made complicated by people who should know better.”
He could have been talking about cooking. It should be simple, in theory: find the best seasonal ingredients possible and treat them sympathetically. That it becomes such a tangled of confusion, of misplaced confidence and pretension and utter wrongheadedness, is a source of ongoing frustration.
As such it’s a pleasure to see Chef Patron Andrew Frost head up one of Cardiff’s most prominent restaurants and produce a menu which has the confidence to keep it simple. An enviable CV (Petrus, Le Cinq) is bound to raise expectations.
It’s not an original thought- you’re in the wrong place for that- but it bears restating. There are few more beautiful places to eat dinner in the city- the region- than The Park House on a May evening as you look across to the National Museum and City Hall. (Full disclosure, part 2: we had our wedding reception here, and thoroughly enjoyed our last meal here when Jon Edwards was Chef.)
The menu goes heavy on French classic dishes, with more than one nod to the best of Welsh. If you’re intimidated by highfalutin’ menuspeak you might balk at some of the descriptions here, your veloutés, your farcies, your de l’île de Ré potatoes.
These are not your humble Britspud. These are ‘pomme de terre de l’île de Ré’ potatoes- with AOC status, no less- and it transpires many other fresh ingredients are brought in from France so you can excuse them basking in any provenance fetishism.
A couple of rather good nibbles kick us off: one croqueta-style cube of finely-shredded beef, with an almost velvety texture, in a light crumb, lightly perfumed with wild garlic, and delicate cones of smoked fish and cream cheese.
The plan, on this invitation evening, is to serve us a tasting menu designed to showcase Chef”s skills; but being a man of intemperate appetite, I have already had my head turned by the words ‘poached lobster, seaweed butter’ and ‘suckling pig’ which means we head straight for the ALC option.
There’s some exemplary, brittle-crusted bread with their own seaweed butter (a lovely thing, this) and a grassy-peppery olive oil.
But more than that- many of these dishes are noticeably free of pretension, focussing on prime ingredients given a bit of TLC. Service follows the same template; the staff are clearly aware of the attention to detail lavished on this new phase, but wear it lightly.
There’s some lovely precise (such a cold word, that, when food should fire the emotions, but spot on here) cooking of the hand-dived Cornish scallops, browned to a crust but all pearly translucence inside. Tiny batons of boar sausage bring a deep gaminess into play against the sweet pea purée. It’s as good a scallop dish as I’ve had in Cardiff recently: simply done, not over-complicated, great Welsh produce. It sets the bar high for the rest of the meal.
Pembrokeshire lobster, tomatoes from Brittany. Both in season, both should their best. They’re lightly dressed, nothing overpowering, just a little something to bring it all together and let them get on nicely. It’s about as simple as you can get; the tail pieces are poached in seaweed butter: the flesh fresh and plump, the tomatoes sweet, that prized claw coated in a delicate tempura. It’s sublime stuff. The subtle acidity of tomatoes against sweet meatiness means this one can be chalked up in the ‘win’ column.
The pan-roasted brill is a success, too- a good, meaty tranche with the subtle spicing of ras-el-hanout, leek and potato, garlic foam, carrots. The sauce uses seaweed and sea herbs foraged from Pembrokeshire; there are French sandy carrots (the prized carotte de sables, grown using seaweed as fertiliser), the sweetness of the vegetable just needing butter and seasoning to become a light dressing.
There’s some masterful crackling on the suckling pig, postage-stamp thin and as delicate as a champagne flute, backed by the simplest of accompaniments- the funk of morels and seasonal asparagus, wild garlic and jersey royals. It’s impeccably tender stuff.
I’m later told the pork belly is brined for a week with lavender, then confit overnight, with the rack being roasted to order. This is hearty cooking, unafraid of butter and salt, and not a vacpac in sight.
Their wine list is nothing short of prodigious, something they are clearly proud of. We are recommended a Chilean Pinot Noir which- according to my tasting notes- smells ‘dead fruity, almost like blackberry jam’ (and if you’d like to be able to wrote about wine as expertly as that, my online Sommelier course launches next week. Enrol via the site, first come first served, £499 plus VAT).
Overall, there’s an attention to detail, a sense of aiming high, setting the bar. The table is laid with plates from the Bernardaud Ecume Mordoré range (a quick nose online tells me you’d be parting with £121 if you fancied upgrading to a Partridge-approved size).
Chocolate soufflé is impeccably executed, as airy as you’d hope for and comes with an orange ice cream. I’d have preferred a heavy, silky chocolate decadence- I’ll cheerfully admit I was still harbouring lustful reveries of Michael Coggan’s chocolate cremeux at The Admiral St David’s, which would would spoil many of us- but that’s not the kitchen’s fault.
This is an ambitious menu with some notable highlights. Is it cheap? No. Could you eat more cheaply elsewhere in the city? For sure. Would you be eating food of this quality? Doubtful.
It’s often said that there aren’t enough proper grown up places to eat in Cardiff, that our options are dominated by the casual, the blandly corporate or the infantile. Any sign of ambition, of trying to do something worthwhile, has to be applauded in Cardiff. The Park House certainly has enough to be worth investigating: it’s proper grown-up food.
This is certainly one to watch, and sits comfortably aside the best cooking in the city. Coming so soon after the impressive new menu at The Admiral St David’s Hotel, it is possible to feel a sense of momentum, of impetus in our local restaurants, despite the pessimism and troubles within the industry. Last year gave us Asador 44 and Milkwood, and although the closure of Arbenning is a blow, we have Tommy Heaney’s new place (announced on this blog) to look forward to. Who knows- things may just be looking up.
The Park House Restaurant
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
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.