Mental health campaigners My Discombobulated Brain invited me along to their fine dining pop-up at Cardiff’s Little Man Coffee featuring Masterchef contestant Caerwyn Ash. What was it like, and did he ever manage to get hold of those spoons? Read on to find out…
I’ve always been a bit conflicted about Masterchef. “What a beautiful minimalist work of art” I think to myself on the one hand, as Geoff from Cumbria unveils his lightly-smoked sous-vide dodo breast with unicorn veloute and kumquat foam. Meanwhile, I’m also thinking “The frothy stuff on the side looks like phlegm and he’s going to need chips on the way home after that.”
Part of me, being a massive foodie ponce, loves all that stuff – the flair, the artistry, the drive to push the boundaries. But then there’s the part of me that grew up on a Valleys council estate post-miners strike when haute cuisine was a tin of unlabeled stewed steak out of a food parcel. That part of me has the sneaking suspicion that it might be a load of pretentious guff.
I suppose it’s a classic example of the human mind’s ability to simultaneously hold two conflicting opinions at once – the sort of thing that differentiates us from other apes, and people who go to Trump rallies.
To draw a quick analogy, I think Guns N Roses are one of the greatest bands who ever lived. However, at the same time I think that at least 60% of Use Your Illusion I and II is a horrific pile of unlistenable toss. They were also ridiculous – Axl once caused a near riot by coming onstage hours late because he wanted to watch the end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze for Christ’s sake.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t tell anyone who’ll listen that Appetite for Destruction is one of the most perfect albums ever recorded in the history of music, or that I wouldn’t sell the majority of my vital organs to go back in time and see them play Wembley in ’92.
So when I was invited to try a seven course taster menu at the lovely Little Man Coffee cooked by honest-to-god Masterchef quarter finalist Caerwyn Ash, I didn’t know quite which way I’d land.
Laura is a Cardiff mum who, despite being unceremoniously steamrollered by postnatal depression twice, somehow picked herself up enough to raise two face-meltingly adorable miniature humans while also holding down a day job and spending her spare time promoting mental health causes. This latest venture aims to tackle mental health stigma so that those who need help aren’t afraid to ask for it.
It’s a subject that’s pretty close to my heart; I’ve worked in mental health for the last few years, and I’d describe my own brain as being a bit like a VW camper van; it’s a good little runner, and mostly reliable – not the quickest or most practical, but with a certain quirky charm. However, just like owners of the venerable little Vee Dub the world over, I absolutely had to learn how to maintain it, because it does crap out on me occasionally.
I find that as long as I do a fair bit of regular exercise and write the occasional pop-culture reference filled quasi-comedic rant about burgers or something, it (probably) won’t burst into flames on the Severn Bridge.
I have to admit there is a slight disconnect for me between promoting better mental health and a TV show involving a stroppy Australian vowel-strangler berating people about their cooking until they cry, but never mind – on to the food.
For the sake of brevity (guys, the sun’s out, I’m not staying in all day doing this) I’ll pick out a few highlights rather than going deep on all seven courses.
The opening act kept it simple yet surprising – cherry tomatoes sneakily stuffed with homemade ricotta (hopefully referring to the recipe rather than the origin of the milk) and decorated with adorably tiny basil leaves so they look fresh off the vine. These sweet, creamy little flavour bombs have just enough herby follow-through to prevent them getting sickly – so you can have another one. Or three.
On to the starter proper – the ‘as-seen-on-TV’ Pernod and Garlic Prawns. Until now I thought the only use for Pernod was de-greasing engine parts and making Molotov cocktails during the zombie apocalypse, but it turns out to be pretty good for flambé-ing prawns too.
Speaking of which, the prawns themselves – mercifully shelled, rather than served in their full xenomorph exoskeleton glory – are meaty, sweet and fresh enough that I think one of them might have winked at me.
This is one of the dishes that the judges raved about on Masterchef and I can see why. Pernod and garlic are a hefty pair of flavours that square up to each other satisfyingly before hugging it out and telling each other how wonderful they are like a pair of drunk best mates.
Chicken liver pâté next, and I must confess that this is a dish with which I have an uneasy relationship. The gamey, cloying flavour of what is – let’s be honest – squished up organs, has always been a bit rich for my blood.
But you know what? I liked this. The pâté was meaty yet mild (terrible tagline for a moisturiser), and Caerwyn also unleashed a secret weapon; homemade piccalilli, several months in the making.
I’ve written before about my unhealthy preoccupation with piccalilli, and once again, it proves to the be the answer to all of life’s problems; the pleasantly mustardy, vinegary tang of everyone favourite radioactive condiment cuts right through the richness of the pâté, balancing everything out perfectly.
Course number 6 (I think? Genuinely losing count at this point) was the enigmatically named Salmon Not in the Dishwasher (possibly a deliberate case of protesteth-ing too much, as believe it or not you can sous-vide in a Hotpoint).
I’m never going to be able to wax too lyrical about salmon – apart from the smoked stuff it tends to be something I endure rather than enjoy, but I’ve rarely had it as well cooked as this; perfectly juicy thanks to being sous-vided, and finished with a blowtorch on one side for a light smoky crust. Predictably, the dill and cucumber sauce fits the salmon like a glove. Or at least it would if fish had hands.
Cut to dessert, and we’re getting to the stage where I no longer fit through the front door. Again, it’s a dish that I’ve never played well with – rice pudding. I can’t help shuddering whenever I see it on a menu – the words alone transport me back to the claggy, ectoplasmic mush that ended many a school dinner with a whimper. But, *cue seductive M&S voice* this is no ordinary rice pudding.
This particular specimen, which unsurprisingly made Gregg Wallace orgasm noisily across the nation’s TV screens, is loaded with a detectable hit of Penderyn whisky and a touch of Earl Grey herbiness. Pop in one of the chocolate ganache sugar cubes, stir, et voilà – a sweet, pleasingly chocolately, boozy cup of happiness that you can scoop up with the conveniently provided shortbread. Quite possibly the dish of the night.
A final, special mention has to go to the petits fours which, as course number seven, had the potential to be a wafer-thin mint for all concerned. As good as the mini-bara brith, Welsh cake and chocolate ganache were, the fudge – so soft, sweet and buttery it should have come in plain packaging with an all-caps health warning – stole the show.
At this point, it was time to roll home and lie doubled up on the sofa for an hour whimpering and praying for death. But in a nice way, like.
Verdict: Magnificent Seven (courses)
Despite my reservations on high-falutin’ Masterchef-y grub, it’s impossible not to love the Henry VIII level opulence of a humongous taster menu – plus it’s not often that you can enjoy seven courses AND do a bit of good for a decent cause. Kudos to Caerwyn, Laura and the guys at Little Man. Same time next week, yeah?
Think Cardiff could use a second helping of Caerwyn’s pop-up? Let me know in the comments or on twitter at @FuudBlog
If you’re having problems with your mental health and you’re not sure what to do about it, check out Mind’s website – there’s tons of useful info and resources.