Naming your debut event ‘Q’ is a canny move. It’s redolent with possibilities, with just the right amount of inscrutability: try as you might, you’ll struggle to scrute it. For years, ‘Q’ meant the monthly music magazine, and especially the eager wait to see which hapless soul had wandered into Tom Hibbert’s ‘Who The Hell..?’ trap. It could be Larry Cohen’s winged serpent schlockfest– “Just call it Q…That’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”, or of course James Bond’s Quartermaster and his usual gewgaws, gizmos and kajiggers.
More prosaically perhaps, Tom Martin’s Q brings us here: upstairs to the rugby club bar in Heol Y Cyw, a little village just outside Bridgend, to investigate a young chef’s first foray into the world of pop-up cooking. It’s a trend which is growing across the area, from regular appearances to one-offs to space-sharing arrangements (see previous reviews of the quirky Blue Honey Night Café, the assiduous technique on show from Grady Atkins at Plat Paysan, John Cook’s gutsy seasonal favours at Ember and the impressive Leyli Joon & Co, for example.)
From Cardiff’s Chapel 1877 to Holm House and The Brook, via fine dining experience at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and twice runner-up in the Junior Chef of Wales, he has worked quite the range of kitchens. This is second of two evenings. It’s an easy sell- £35 gets you 10 courses of cooking which he says is all about nostalgia.
It’s likely to be a challenge- he’ll face the strictures of cooking and serving from a little station in the corner of a small function room.
The first three dishes are served together. Instantly there are good things on show, from the rich braise and the crisp coating balanced with minty acidity in the lamb, to the little shredded potato cake which packs a meaty heft.
I later learn that it’s based on the classical French pommes paillasson, where potato is grated into oil and poached until tender before being pressed into a terrine and shaped. Here, it’s poached in rendered beef fat then fried, with the pressed terrine finished in beef fat too. A mayonnaise flavoured with yet more of that fat and seasoned with soy, sugar and smoked sea salt finishes the dish, before a cured egg yolk is grated for yet more umami depth.
A mackerel taco puts the fish on a squid ink-infused tortilla. Alone it’s a very good pate, smooth and rich, and more evidence that it’s the most underrated fish around.
However, it’s a little jarring to go from beef fat to oily fish- I learn later it’s a crockery rationing issue down to the limited amount available on the night and serving temperature issues threatening to sell the cooking short. It’s topped with pickled celery but it could all do with a little more snap to lift it all. A soft taco is fine: but on bruschetta it would be even better, and even serving it as a crisp little tostada would be a small but significant textural tweak.
And who doesn’t enjoy a well-timed tweak, especially on a Friday?
Tom Martin says his food is all about comfort and evoking memories. They are both writ large on his bread slathered- and it’s the only word here- with roast chicken butter. It brings to mind those times you cooked with your grandmother, standing up on the kitchen stool, and she rewarded you with first dibs on the roast, those choice little scraps of skin where all that flavour is. The choice of bread is key too: artisan sourdough made with a 700-year-old starter jealously guarded by an Albanian order of Cistercians would be completely off the mark here, so he has gone for thick slices from a soft, floury white loaf, for precisely those nostalgic notes.
The first bite has me hooked, the second has me wanting the recipe. The third was something along the lines of ‘I wonder if I can mug him in the car park later and get any leftovers?’ It’s food with an emotional connection.
The tried and tested combination of Pantsygawn goat cheese and beetroot is lifted with a speckle of pine nuts. The evening is really hitting its stride now, and for some at our table it was their dish of the night.
A poached Cod loin, briefly pre-salted and then lightly poached for a nacreous shimmer, that lovely iridescence inside telling you all you need to know about precise handling. Cauliflower is roasted in a pan of foaming butter and finished in a scorching oven, the trimmings roasted until golden and then blended with chicken stock, for a rich, hearty sauce.
A beef and mushroom ‘tea’ is a thing of depth, bosky and savoury and pepped up with the sweetness of charred little onion petals.
A brisket that’s been salted then braised in (you’ve guessed, haven’t you?) beef fat and stock for 12 hours before being picked down and flavoured with pickled mustard seeds and shallot: it has been simmering for the best part of two days, cooked down with dried mushrooms, seaweed, roasted beef trim and a payload of onions, then clarified. As you’ve already concluded, it really is a hefty broadside of umami which you can easily imagine sinking into as the evenings lengthen. As Thomas Becket said to the actress: the nights are drawing in. And this is precisely the sort of thing you’d want to find waiting for you.
The next course takes the idea a step further. A well aged price of ribeye, salted for several hours then cooked classically in foaming butter and thyme, sweetened with a puree of barbecued leek and an emulsion of confit roasted garlic. It’s an alliance of alliums.
An oil blends the remaining parts of allium with Welsh Rapeseed oil, and it’s all crowned with a classic beef sauce finished at last minute with some rendered beef fat. Yes, again. The onion becomes something opulent, something luxurious in the mouth. The cooking of the steak is nothing short of impeccable, a prime piece of Welsh beef treated with respect. The plating may not be to everyone’s taste. Close your eyes, think of Wales, and savour.
Desserts, and strawberries, both fresh and gelled, team with a sponge cake which carries a subtle black pepper bite which sneaks up on you, before being cooled with a vibrant strawberry consommé. It’s unusual, especially the daub of tarragon oil, but it’s a zesty little thing.
As Tom says afterwards, when asking our table for feedback, the last course should have just been called ‘chocolate with North African spices’. Whatever you choose to name it, it’s impressive: a chocolate cremeux infused with cardamom, cumin and turmeric, with a fennel pollen and lime yoghurt, and a shortbread perfumed with even more cardamom; an oat crumble spiced with cardamom, a chocolate crumble spiced with cardamom, and a cumin-perfumed caramel.
It all works harmoniously, the warm notes of the spicing balancing the caramel’s sweetness without ever dominating to its detriment. It’s not quite like anything I’ve tasted for some time, but in every good sense.
It’s a happy room; everyone there seems enthused by what they have eaten, and the applause at close feels warm and genuine.
It’s not often I’d complain that a meal wasn’t expensive enough, but at £35 for ten dishes this goes down as a steal: I guarantee you’ve paid more for a lot less. He should certainly think about raising his prices by a fiver or more, though, and you’d still leave happy. As he holds more and more of these events, this is a Chef to watch.
For tickets to future events, follow Tom Martin on his Instagram page- https://www.instagram.com/cheftommartin/ – or follow @findmydine (Twitter/Instagram) or https://www.facebook.com/findmydine/for news of future events.
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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.