Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Restaurant review: Las Iguanas

Las Iguanas Mermaid Quay
Unit 27,
Ground Floor
Mermaid Quay
Cardiff, CF10 5BZ
Tel:029 2045 9165
Fax: 02920 373 256

Firstly, a much belated new year to all my readers! I hope Christmas and New Year treated you well and included much good food and drink. Secondly, the blog is not dead. It has just been hibernating over the festive period. As some of you know I'm getting married in the Autumn and wedding things have a habit of taking over. Do not fear that this will become some sort of wedding blog, however! It will continue to focus on foodie things, although posts may be more sporadic than they were last year.

I'm kicking off with a review of my favourite chain restaurant, Las Iguanas. I don't usually review chains if I can help it since they tend to do alright without reviewers like me but I've been a fan of Iguanas for over ten years and wanted to just see if I can tempt a few of you to try it out.

I visited the relatively new Mermaid Quay branch which is well decorated and was incredibly busy, even for a cold Thursday evening in January. Being regular diners, I was fairly certain of what I would go for but I perused the menu nevertheless. Las Iguanas offers a comprehensive range of burgers, fajitas, and other Latin American dishes such as my partner's favourite Xim Xim, a chicken crayfish and lime dish, Pasteles (a Chilean shepherd's pie that I'm keen to try) and a range of steaks and grills.

On this visit, I opted for the nachos with chilli beef (£5.70). These emerged in a huge metal dish and were easily enough to share. The tortillas were home-made (rather than the result of someone tearing open a bag of Doritos in the kitchen) and the salsa was spicy and hot. It made the so-called nachos often served up in pubs seem rather sad. The Mr. went for the Cha-Cha Chorizo (£4.90) which consisted of pork & garlic chorizo, braised slow & lazy with onions in red wine, tomato & smoked jalapeño sauce. Served with large hunks of bread, this was a hugely tasty dish, full of depth of flavour and with just the right amount of spice.

Truth be told, after this we could have given up and gone home full but there were main courses to enjoy. Regular blog readers or Twitter followers will know that I have a weakness for fajitas and I plumped for these at Las Iguanas, going for the classic chicken option (£13.60). Steak, prawn or mushroom options are also available. These came served with the usual accompaniments of guacamole, soured cream,and jalapeños with homemade salsa & soft wheat tortillas. As a fan, I've eaten fajitas in a range of other places in Cardiff including Chiquitos, Old Orleans and the West Coast Bar and Grill at the Red Dragon. In my view, the ones served at Las Iguanas are by far the best; I don't know whether its the spice mix which I find pleasantly tangy without being too hot, and with a subtle hint of lime, or whether the quality of ingredients and cooking is just better. Either way, this meal was no exception and proved incredibly tasty.

I wish I could tell you some detail about the other half's shredded beef & caramelised onion burrito (£9.90). It looked well presented on a nice salad and looked full of filling including rice and cheese. However, I was not allowed to sample this since it was, apparently, too nice to share. Next time, I shall steal a forkful when he's not looking!

Las Iguanas isn't the cheapest chain place you could visit and those who aren't partial to Latin American or Tex Mex food might not be impressed. For my money though, it's a chain restaurant that doesn't really feel like one and, on the plus side, there are often 2-for-1 vouchers floating about online for the place. It's also a great place to sample some of the small dishes and appetisers as tapas where £13.50 will get you 3 dishes and £22.50 will get you 5. Having tried a lot of the tapas on a previous visit, I can recommend the Empanada, the Chubby Gambas prawns, and the mushrooms. If you're looking for a cocktail and some quality food, why not give it a go?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Festive afternoon tea, Park Plaza

Greyfriars Road
Cardiff, CF10 3AL, Wales
United Kingdom
T: +44 (0) 2920 111 111
F: +44 (0) 2920 111 112

I'm a big lover of the classic afternoon tea and have sampled the one on offer at St David's Hotel's Tempus at Tides on a few occasions. Judging by my recent experience of the Christmas Afternoon Tea on offer at the city centre's Park Plaza hotel, however, I think I may have a new favourite.

The Park Plaza isn't the only Cardiff establishment offering a festive twist on the traditional tea. The Hilton also has a similar experience over the Christmas season, which has been reviewed by Ur Last Mouthful here. We chose the Park Plaza, however, purely on an image they posted on their Facebook page - the power of social media is still strong!


We were lucky enough to be seated by the roaring fires in the lobby of the hotel - the restaurant and bar areas were fully booked with Christmas lunches and parties. The lobby proved to be an oasis of calm, however, and we were well looked after by the professional and friendly staff. The teas on offer included standard English Breakfast and Earl Grey but I opted for the festive choice of a cinnamon infused blend which was subtly flavoured but tasted perfectly Christmassy. We also decided to opt for a glass of champagne with the tea, raising the cost from £15 to £25 each. Still, we reasoned, it's Christmas!

The food itself was lovely and, as with many afternoon teas, almost overwhelming in volume. There were salmon and cucumber sandwiches, as well as egg and cress, cucumber and cream cheese and the festive twist of turkey and cranberry. The sandwiches kept coming for as long as you wanted and they were well presented and tasty.


The bottom tier offered freshly baked scones (still warm from the oven) with jam and cream, as well as delightfully firm but moist Welsh cakes. The standout of the tea was, however, the mince pie - possibly one of the best I have ever tasted. Crumbly pastry with a light mincemeat filling, I could have eaten another two and taken a half-dozen home with me.

The final touches were two tiny festive macaroons, a large slab of Christmas cake, and a generous slice of cherry cake. The final tier was too much, sadly, and we reluctantly abandoned the cakes. The macaroons, however, were gorgeous; full of clementine flavour and a good balance between the crunchy outside and the smooth filling.


Overall, we were really impressed with what the Park Plaza was offering. Sat by the fire, in front of the Christmas tree, the whole afternoon put us resolutely in the Christmas mood (as did the sight of slightly inebriated Christmas party-goers in their paper hats). If you have time and can get a booking, try to go along before Christmas. It'll certainly make you feel festive. :)

Food Bloggers Unplugged

There's a great food bloggers challenge on at the moment, called Food Bloggers Unplugged. The aim is to learn a little more about the foodies we follow on Twitter or read about on their blogs. I was challenged by Hannah at Love to Dine so, here goes...

What, or who inspired you to start a blog?

It came about in a few ways earlier this year. I’ve always loved eating, dining out, and cooking and I had a spate of eating in some really great places that I wanted to tell people about. I wasn’t really sure how to start, though, so I joined Twitter and loitered on there for a while, starting to follow some people who were posting really interesting blogs. The real catalyst was when Pier 64 opened round the corner from my flat. It seemed like most people I followed didn’t realise this was opening, and so my review of that in its first week or two got a lot of views. Things really took off from there in terms of the blog and getting to know some great people online.

Who is your foodie inspiration?

My favourite chef is Michel Roux Jr. I love his passion and precision and though I don’t aspire to cook in the same style as him I enjoy watching him work in his shows. Meeting him earlier this year was a genuine moment of excitement.

Your greasiest, batter-splattered food/drink book is?

My most loved cookery cooks are actually Weight Watchers ones! Balancing a love of food with trying to stay on the healthy straight and narrow is hard work (and involves arduous gym sessions) but I try to use as much fresh produce and make as much from scratch as I can.

I also love Gordon Ramsay’s cookbooks. I think his books are easy to follow and always seem to work, and are actually a big contrast to his on-TV personality.

Tell us all about the best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it, what was it?

This is a tough one. Barcelona has some amazing food and one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had was in a tiny tapas bar called El Xampanyet around the corner from the Picasso museum. We were brought out a range of dishes we could choose from or send back and we had some amazing Cataluña tomato bread, cheeses, and meats. They also made their own cava and sold it by the litre bottle – we ate like Kings for around 30 Euros. The cava, however, made negotiating the Metro a little tricky…

Another food blogger’s table you’d like to eat at is?

All of them! I’m always impressed by what Cardiff Bites is cooking up – it always sounds really comforting and tasty. My friend Mudpies and Fries is also one I’d happily dine at – she’s really good at taking well-loved recipes and giving them a little twist.

What is the one kitchen gadget you would ask Santa for this year (money no object of course)?

A set of Michel Roux kitchen knives. I really do need to improve my chopping skills since everything always looks like its been hacked to pieces! Or a Kenwood food mixer with all the proper attachments. Or some mini Le Creuset casserole dishes...

Who taught you how to cook?

A combination of my Grandmother and my Mum. One of my earliest memories is making sausage rolls and Scotch eggs with my Nan, and helping her to pick elderflower to make cordials and wines. My Mum was always happy to let me cook at home and create a mess (I’m a cook who doesn’t care about the washing up!) and from there, I’ve kept trying to learn more skills and get better.

I’m coming to you for dinner. What’s your signature dish?

I make a mean drunken lamb. It’s a combination of lamb, vegetables, sesame seeds, and lots of chilli and ginger. It tastes better than it sounds. There’s no alcohol in it – it’s called Drunken Lamb because I concocted it one night after too many Chenin Blancs at the pub. It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever cooked up.

I also make a pretty good roast duck with Thai flavours, and a suprisingly tasty open lasagne with home-made pesto, feta, sundried tomatoes and roasted butternut squash.

What is your guilty food pleasure?

I have too many! I have a weakness for nachos and can happily munch my way through plates of them, loaded with melted cheese and salsa. I also have a soft spot for the Big Mac meal, especially when I have a hangover.

Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn?

I’m a useless baker. I can work savoury dishes out fine but every single time I try to make a cake or pudding it fails. I think it might be too mathematical for me. Tips and advice are more than welcome!

The next nominees are:

1. Beth at Mudpies and Fries
2. The ever-lovely Project:Goddess
3.Dining Out in Cardiff
4.Stephen Nottingham
5. I don't have a fifth because I think everyone I know has already done this!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Aegean Restaurant

Aegean Restaurant
72-74 Whitchurch Road
CF14 3LX
Phone: 02920 345114
Open Tues-Sat 6-10pm

After a successful holiday to Zante a few years ago, my partner and I have developed a bit of a taste for Greek cuisine. We were, therefore, delighted when Groupon offered a recent deal of a two course dinner and a glass of wine for two people for a reasonable price of £16(total value of £40).

The Aegean restaurant on Whitchurch Road is a long walk or a short bus ride from the city centre (depending on your laziness) but we found it well worth the effort to trek out a little further.

The place looks authentic, with plain white walls, tiles and some Greek music for atmosphere. It has an open kitchen, which I always like, and the staff were plesant and attentive throughout the evening.

We kicked off with some calimari for me and saganaki cheese (Kefalotyri cheese fried with honey) for the mister. Without the Groupon deal these would set you back £4.80 and £4.50 respectively. My calimari wasn't the best I've ever eaten but it was piping hot, plentiful and just the right side of chewy and certainly better than some I've had in other Cardiff places. The cheese and honey, however, was delicious, both sweet and dry and the portion was very generous. It was divine with a squeeze of lemon. We also ordered some houmous with pitta (£3.90) which was clearly home-made and full of chunky chickpea. Our only issue was that the starters took quite a while to arrive - almost 30 minutes which was a little too long. However, the dishes were worth the wait and the main courses suffered from no such time delay.

When in Zante I had become addicted to Kleftiko, a dish of lamb, vegetables and cheese. The Aegean version was different to what I'd had in Greece but was delicious, offering diced leg of lamb, cooked with in the oven in greaseproof paper with carrot, potato thyme and garlic, topped with melted mature cheese (£13.50). Opening the greaseproof paper to reveal the dish inside was a nice moment of anticipation and the lamb and potatoes were perfectly cooked, moist and tender with a good amount of flavour from the herbs and garlic. It took me back to balmy evenings on the Greek island, as did the dry Greek wine we ordered with the meal. The Mister opted for Lamb Souvlaki, which came served with pitta bread, salad, and a healthy dollop of tzaziki, and was equally well cooked.

Although full I couldn't resist the dessert of champagne and raspberry torte (£4.50), which was full of creamy mousse, sponge and raspberried. Not too sweet but with a kick of champagne, it was a good end to the evening.

Overall, aside from the slightly disappointing calimari and the longer-than-average wait for the starters, the Aegean was a good experience. The food reminded us of the dishes we'd tried in Greece, suggesting a good level of authenticity, and the cheese and honey starter and my Kleftiko were particularly tasty. We'll definitely be back for another visit to try some of the other Greek dishes or the mezze.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

All I want for Christmas

Some pointless food-related nonsense I wouldn't mind finding under the Christmas tree on December 25th. Maybe some of it will be suitable for the foodie in your life?

Ninja Bread Men - (£5.00)

I'm a terrible baker and maker of cakes, biscuits and, generally, anything sweet. Next year's resolution is to get better and I think the opportunity to make ninja-shaped cookies might be the inspiration I need.

Scrabble teatowel - The Literary Gift Company (£9.25)

Any cook knows that washing up the piles of pans, pots and plates is the worst part of any kitchen experiment. Maybe this excellent Scrabble tea-towel will make it more bearable? Handy if you cannot afford to buy a dishwasher.

A Welsh food hamper - The Welsh Hamper Company (various prices)

Too many selections to list here, but I'd be quite partial to the wine and cheese hamper or the afternoon tea one. Great to showcase some of Wales' best food and drink.

British Gastronomy Map Print - Not On The High Street (£25)

As someone with a limited grasp of geography and a keen interest in food, this would look excellent on the wall of my kitchen or study. It's also incredibly awesome for those who do know their Derby from their Durham.

Retro Sweet Tuck Box - Handy Candy (£6.99)

I'm not sure if the retro sweet fad is over and, frankly, I don't care. As a reminder of my childhood, this is a perfect gift. There's also boxes and sweet hampers for the Christmas period.

Blood Energy Drink - (£4.99)

The sort of gift that would be amusing for Christmas Day but probably no further. But as a fan of vampires, I'd laugh when I removed it from the wrapping paper. And then probably never drink it. (Also available in green Zombie blood flavour).

Vampire Chutney Gift Pack - The Garlic Farm via (£12.99)

Another vampire related gift. This time, one I would probably actually eat.

A Recipe for Murder cookbook - (£8.99)

Confession - I already own this but it's another great present for foodie friends of a more macarbre disposition. Featuring recipes inspired by Dracula, Lady MacBeth and other fictional legends, it's also a very easy-to-use and beautiful book.

Cupcakes and cocktail experience - (£47 on offer)

I'd love to be whisked off to London, taught how to decorate some lovely cupcakes and to make some cocktails. Sounds wonderful.

Christmas Goody Bag - Hotel Chocolat (£17.00)

Some may balk at paying so much for a bag of chocolate but for us, a goody bag or a giant cracker from Hotel Chocolat is a Christmas tradition. Much better than your usual selection box.

Cottage Delight Creative Cooks Mexican Kit - John Lewis (£15)

I love cooking and eating Mexican food but never get much more adventurous at home than ripping open an Old El Paso Fajita Dinner Kit. This might help with that.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Days out don't get better than this: Experiencing Masterchef Live

MasterChef Live
11-13 November, 2011
Olympia London

Like many people with more than a passing interest in food, I am a self-confessed Masterchef addict. I'll watch any version; the normal one, the celebrity one, the Professionals, heck, I've even enjoyed John Torode praising spag bol on the Children's Masterchef. It follows then, that I've wanted to visit Masterchef Live for a few years but have never quite managed it. This year, however, my trusty friend Project: Goddess and I set off for Kensington Olympia armed and ready for a day of foodie fun.

Offical publicity shot of day one

The basic ticket cost around £20 but we also signed up for sessions in the Chef's Theatre where Gold tickets set you back a tenner and the back rows a fiver. Our first session was with Michel Roux Jr, a man we both love to watch on the Professionals. His recipe of gnocchi with wild mushrooms looked delicious and easy to replicate. He was interesting and informative as well as being much funnier in the flesh than he is allowed to be on Masterchef where he is positioned very much as a man to be feared.

Waiting for Roux

At the end of the half hour slot, it was announced that Michel Roux would be doing a book signing which led to an enthusiastic stampede of foodie fans rushing to purchase copies of his 'Cooking With the Masterchef' tome. Meeting him was a true delight, he's genuinely a lovely bloke and this was the undoubted (and unexpected)highlight of our day.

After this, we tried out the Masterchef Restaurant Experience which offers the chance to sample small plates of dishes from a range of restaurants. Firstly we tried the Cola-Braised Pork Belly, Carmelised Celery, Fondant Squash, Roasted Baby Turnips, Shelled Peas, Miso Mustard and Dashi Sauce from 2011 Masterchef champion Tim Anderson which was flavoursome and well cooked.


I then tackled a Cape Sante in Padella – pan fried scallops served in their shell with lentils de Castelluccio, pancetta, red chilli, parsley and chopped wild rocket (5DC) from Theo Randall and was especially thrilled to see Randall himself cooking away in the tiny kitchen! Project Goddess sampled an apple crumble and custard from Gregg Wallace's Wallace & Co and reported it to be delicious, as you might expect from a man so famously in love with puddings. The restaurant experience isn't cheap - the dishes we tried were 5 DC (dining currency) each which equates to £5 of normal money, and the accompanying wines are also priced at 5 per glass. It's a fun experience though, allowing you to work out what types of food you want to try, and which restaurants you'd like to add to the do-to list.

Scallop by Theo Randall

Our second chef's theatre session was a cook-off between Tim Anderson and 2010 Professionals winner Claire Lara. It was hosted by Gregg Wallace and John Torode and characterised by a great deal of banter between the two. Claire cooked a red mullet dish with potatoes and braised lettuce whilst the ever-quirky Tim produced an edible hen's nest (!). He was judged the winner and we were just disappointed that we didn't get to try either of the dishes for health and safety reasons.

After this we wandered the veritable banquet of stalls and suppliers on offer, sampling a good range of cheeses, wines, liquers and oils. It's tempting to spend hundreds of pounds on the produce but I came away with some artisan chocolate, some Shropshire blue cheese, and some banana and garlic chutney from The Garlic Farm for the other half. You can easily while away several hours on the producers' stalls, and if you're in the market for gifts it does offer some unusual options.

Our final chef's session was a cook-off between John and Gregg. Both made fairly predictable dishes - John went for beef and Gregg a pudding, knocking up a fabulous looking Christmas Yule Log. Like the earlier session, they were hilarious, keeping the audience entertained whilst also offering some good tips on how to cook perfect steak or whip up the ideal butter cream.

The show at dusk

As the day wore on we began to flag a little but found the Masterchef demonstation stage to be a little oasis of calm. At this point, many people were starting to leave but we enjoyed demos from recent Masterchef contestants Sara Danesin, who created a venison and chocolate dish, and James Perry who produced some interesting looking chocolate spring rolls. Feeling a little peckish again, I tried a Rice Noodle & Beef Salad with Mint & Peanuts from the stand from John Torode's Smiths of Smithfield restaurant and found this full of fresh mint and crunchy nuts.


Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed the day and were especially impressed with how much contact you can have with the stars of Masterchef. Admittedly, whilst John and Gregg and possibly Michel Roux Jr are recognisable to the wider public, not everyone would be as excited as we were to see Tim Anderson or Alexis Gauthier walking around or to have a photo taken with Monica Galetti. Throughout the day we caught sight of these and others including Michael Caines, Nick Pickard, Andi Peters, Jackie Kearney, and Tim Kinnaird and even John Torode was freely roaming around, giving us a cheery "hello" at the book stand. If you know who all these people are then you can see why we had such a good time. If you don't, then I think you'd still enjoy the live shows, the competitions and the food stalls.

We're already planning next year's trip and maybe this will inspire some of you to go along as well.

PS - Apologies for the cheesy title but I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Garden by the Sea - Penarth dining to-do list

Since moving to Penarth last year, I've tended to frequent the same few places to eat; the new Pier 64 in the Marina, the tiny Japanese San Kai which I constantly rave about, La Marina at the Custom House, and Ocho Lounge in the town centre.

However, Penarth is teaming with other places to visit so in the interests of research, I'm going to make a more concerted effort to try some new places and report on their foodie offerings.

So far, I've amassed the following. Do let me know if there's anywhere brilliant you think that I should try.

* The Fig Tree - I've heard mixed reviews but am intruiged by their chef's evenings and vegetarian Mondays. I'm also a sucker for places with sea views so their spot, on Penarth Esplanade, is enough to tempt me in.

* Cafe des Amis - Only noticed this place nestled next to the Washington Gallery a few weeks ago. Tea and cakes by day, candlelight and some tasty-sounding dishes by night mean that this is probably number one on my list.

* North Meets South cafe - Located at the top of Windsor Arcade this offers a range of interesting burgers and dishes from various cuisines and South African theming. Intruiging.

* Villa Napoli at the Glendale Hotel - The website promises an award-winning Italian experience whilst the menu offers a comprehensive range of dishes and a well-priced set menu.

* Neale's Restaturant at Holm House Hotel - A confession: I've looked for this hotel on Marine Parade a few times and never been able to find it. But once I do I'll be raring to try their Welsh inspired menu including dishes like Wild Sewin, or Welsh Pork Filler with Gwnt Y Draig cider, Carmarthen ham and mushrooms.Grady Atkins was their Head Chef before his recent move to the Park House in Central Cardiff.

* Jaflon - A Bangladeshi restaurant on Albert Road that was recommended in a Wales Online survey of best Indians in the area. They say "The lamb tikka starter is beautifully sweet and crispy on the outside and tender all the way through. The side salads are perfectly presented, the main course curries all haveconspicuously different, and interesting flavours and the service is polite and friendly". And that's good enough for me.

* Last but not least, The Olive Tree on Glebe Street. Recommended in the 2011 Michelin Guide and with a Head Chef trained by a chef from Le Gavroche, it's certainly on my do-to list asap. There are the usual A La Carte menus, an epic looking Sunday Lunch, and an early-bird option of 2 Courses £13.50 and 3 Course £17.50 before 7pm or 2 Courses £18.50 3 Courses £22.50 after 7pm.

If you've never ventured to Penarth to eat before, I recommend it. There's a range of choice and cuisine on offer as well as some great places to drink. That, however, is for another post...