I finally broke my Michelin Star restaurant duck – but did it live up to the hype?
The older and more curmudgeonly I get, the harder it is to get me out of the house, especially during Cardiff’s ever-extending monsoon season. But the chance to pop my Michelin Star cherry for a mate’s birthday was just about enough to get me out of the house and down to the Vale of Glamorgan’s slightly soggy answer to the French Riviera.
Restaurant James Sommerin doesn’t need much of an introduction – the Caerleon-boy-done-good’s place is at the top of most right-thinking Welsh foodies’ hit lists, and with good reason; he’s a local(ish) hero who’s been at home in the kitchen since he was 12, and his Great British Menu appearance a few years back cemented his place as one to watch on this side of the Severn Bridge.
His joint on the windswept Penarth seafront looks every inch the den of a classic rockstar chef. From the aggressively tasteful drinks menus to the decor that wouldn’t be out of place in Patrick Bateman’s favourite restaurant Dorsia, it’s clear from the off that this is going to be something of a swanky affair. Not my natural habitat, but for a six course taster menu I’ll be strong.
First up we’re introduced to an amuse-bouche-y mini bonus course of three small plates. Little extras like this are always the most fun part of taster menus, partly because it feels like you’re not paying for them, but mostly because it seems like the chef is being let loose to do the most mental thing they can think of and see how it goes down. Bloody well, as it happens.
The aerated garlic mousse is Schrödingers starter; sumptuously creamy while paradoxically lighter than a feather in zero gravity. The granola-ish topping, featuring a healthy whack of fennel seed, takes it to another level. Certainly the nicest thing I’ve ever had out of a shot glass.
The goats cheese dough balls – they probably have a fancier handle, but that’s essentially what they are – are nothing short of divine; perfect little packages of oozy, gooey, melty wonderfulness. Handle with care though – take too enthusiastic a chomp and your shirt will be left looking like the victim of a divebombing by a particularly belligerant Penarthian seagull.
The seaweed tapioca with taramasalata is probably my least favourite of the trio, partly because at first glance it looks like a Snack-A-Jack in a fancy frock, but the topping is a hyper-savoury treat; I’d rarely use the phrase ‘fishy intensity’ in a positive way but I reckon it’s warranted here.
After some spankingly good homemade bread rolls (I would do unspeakable things for another one of the caramelised onion ones right now), it’s onto the menu proper.
Of course the one off the telly is the opener – the Pea ‘GBM’ ravioli is probably Sommerin’s most famous dish, and with good reason. The man doesn’t just know how to make peas sing; he gets them up on their feet belting out the entire score of Les Misérables.
It’d take a paragraph to explain just how gorgeously sweet and creamy the pea puree filling is, and no-one’s got time to listen to me wank on for that long about vegetables, but suffice to say it is more luxurious than a Swarowski studded gold Rolls Royce wearing a mink coat.
Crispy shards of sage and serrano ham add texture and jagged bursts of herby, smokey flavour, making it the best thing I ate all night. Or all month, if I’m honest.
Given that you could just about see the gunmetal grey sloshing of the Bristol Channel through the rain spattered windows it would have been rude not to have had some kind of seafood course.
Enter the butter poached lobster. While the meat is just as good as you’d expect – tender, juicy, fresh – this dish was all about the bisque. Again it’s a symphony of those rich, sweet flavours, only this time balanced with a tang of fruit (orange maybe?) and a hum of aniseed. I’d happily drink a pint of the stuff if doing so wouldn’t do instant irreparable damage to my digestive system.
The open root vegetable lasagne up next is maybe the weakest dish of the evening for me, but given everything else on offer there’s no shame in that. It’s one of those dishes where you have to meticulously ensure that you have every component on your fork to get the full effect; a quick exploratory dabble with the vegetable ragu on it’s own almost tastes a bit raw, but properly paired with the rest of the plate it all comes together. It’s definitely not a lasagne though lads.
Time for the main event, and I’m afraid your guilty little secret is out. Whenever there’s a ‘surprise’ menu you always secretly hope the main will be beef. You might pretend you’re excited for the seabass or the woodpigeon or the komodo dragon or whatever bollocks is in this week, but really, deep down, you just want a honking great slab of cow with all the trimmings.
You might not get the the heftiest chunk of beef here, but you will get an exceptionally tasty one. The nugget of beautifully cooked sirloin is very good, but the 24 hour slow-cooked oxtail it sits on will make you weep tears of beefy joy. Which, come to think of it, describes the sauce pretty well.
You could say it’s just meat and two veg with gravy if you wanted to be reductive, but you could also say a 1957 Les Paul Custom is a plank of wood with some strings on if you’re going to be a knob.
For an extra tenner supplement a head (more on that later) we had the option to add a few shavings of fresh Monmouthshire-grown truffle to our main. The man himself brings it out in a theatrical looking glass bell jar, and it’s magnificent to look at – blacker than black, like the heart of a dead star. It looks like it’ll be the flavour equivalent of a neutron bomb.
It is not.
At first I thought my tastebuds had finally given up the ghost after my daily regimen of dousing every available foodstuff with sriracha sauce on a daily basis, but no. Four of us tried it. None of us tasted very much. As with Michelin Star cooking, my experience of truffles is admittedly limited- a drizzle of oil here, a tiny grating there – so maybe I should have expected it to be (extremely) subtle. But it was a bit underwhelming nonetheless.
We’re back on track with dessert number one though – rhubarb crumble topped with a dome of tempered white chocolate. It isn’t just right up my street, it’s in my house wearing my slippers and dressing gown watching Game of Thrones on my telly. The sharpness of the rhubarb kicks the richness of the white chocolate in the shins every time it threatens to get a bit too big for its boots, balancing everything out beautifully.
Finally, dessert number two – a raspberry souffle with violet ice cream – and this really shouldn’t work for me. I’d rank Parma Violets up there with arsenic, Domestos and a live tarantula as things I’d really rather not have in my mouth, so ice cream that tastes like the horrid little purple sods should be my Kryptonite. It does work though – the violet is subtle enough not to overpower, and melts gorgeously into the hot raspberry both literally and in terms of flavour.
So there we go. Six gorgeous courses. Great meal. Good time had by all. Highly recommended etc etc.
Well, nearly. Always a catch with me isn’t there?
Here’s the thing; you obviously don’t go to a Michelin Star restaurant for a cheap date. A restaurant producing top quality grub has overheads to match, so when you book somewhere like this you need to be prepared to come home significantly lighter in the pocket. And I’m ok with that for a special occasion.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the level of upselling. At the risk of being flambéed in my own jus, I have to say that after being asked if we’d like to upgrade to everything from cheeseboards to truffles to surprise menus, the amount of optional extras we were nudged towards started to feel a bit… RyanAir.
Of course you can say no – but no one wants to be the ‘I’ll just have tap water’ guy in the group do they?
Maybe it’s my inexperience with Michelin Star establishments, but I’ve never encountered that in a restaurant before, and I wasn’t a fan. When everyone at the table ends up joking about there being a £10 supplement to get up for a wee then you know it’s getting a tad excessive.
Don’t let that put you off by any means; my first time at James Sommerin was one of the best nights out I’ve had in a restaurant for ages, and the food was impeccable.
If you have a special occasion worthy of it coming up, go for god’s sake – you’ll not find many places this side of the Severn Bridge as good. But do keep your shields up and go in prepared to say ‘no’ to a few things.
Are you Sommerin or out? Let me know in the comments or hurl abuse at me on Twitter at @fuudblog.