Thursday, 7 November 2013

Zest + River Cottage, Cardiff Marriott

Parsley Salad, with Crab, Soft Boiled Egg and Garlic Mayonnaise

Shock horror: I am going to do a restaurant review.

I get a lot of promotional emails through my blog, usually asking me to review things. I tend to ignore them, since I have had a few annoying experiences in the past when PR types try and control what I write and get angry when I write what I want to anyway. I have never done restaurants on here, largely because in the main I find blogger restaurant reviews so unbearably cringe-inducing to read (everybody starts talking about how well-excecuted the dishes were - blurgh!) and I assume my readers feel the same way I do. So this review isn't going to be like that.

I have made no secret of my adoration for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on these pages. I love the man. His River Cottage team have been working with Marriott Hotels to develop new, sustainable ways to serve diners at the hotel chain's restaurants, and Cardiff is one of two pilot hotels trialing the scheme. The emphasis is on local (within a 60-mile radius) suppliers and producers, seasonal menus that change daily and organic produce. I know that doesn't sound like the sort of thing you'd find at a hotel restaurant (and believe me, I stay in enough hotels to know that!), so you'll just have to take my word for it when I tell you it is really happening. And, if it works well in Cardiff, the new restaurant format is going to be rolled out nationally, bringing the taste and ethos of River Cottage to Marriott customers all over the UK.

Percy. Oh, and Pollock with Red Cabbage, Apple and Horseradish.
Rainbow Carrots and Potato Gratin with Anchovies and Fennel.

I am suitably impressed to want to share this with you. But rather than give you a (yawn!), blow by blow account of the meal we enjoyed, I think I'll instead just focus on the core areas that matter to me as a customer.

Service

Well, after all, I do work in the service industry. It makes sense to start here.

I don't know how to say this without sounding really down on Cardiff, but the staff were wonderful. I don't think I have ever eaten at a restaurant in this city where the employees were friendlier and more polite, or as knowledgable about what they were serving. It really reminded me of the actual River Cottage Canteen in Axminster: Caroline, our server, took time to explain to us where the ingredients in each dish came from and recommend side dishes to complement our choices, based on what seasonings and flavours were dominant in the main courses we ordered. She really knew the menu and it was obvious that the team care and are enthusiastic about the new concept.

Venison. Yum.

Food

I have to say that it was really difficult to choose from the menu, because each dish had at least one gorgeous sounding seasonal ingredient. There were five or six different options for each course to choose from, and a definite simple, fresh feel to everything. Brilliantly, and in true River Cottage style, fish and seafood was well represented. I had a crab and parsley salad to start (which I shall be recreating at home!), and pollock and mussels were on the main course list. Hugh has spent years trying to raise awareness about over-fishing and championing pollock as a delicious alternative to cod, so it was good to see it on the menu (and our plates).

Our mains were delicious - we had lamb and fish - but I think you alway expect that in a restaurant. What really made us want to go back to Zest were the starters and puddings. I already mentioned my salad; Percy chose cold venison with crisp fried garlic and mushrooms. It was beautiful and a truly appetising way to start a meal. Caroline also told us that the restaurant now bakes all their own bread and brought us some salt topped focaccia to nibble on between courses, with organic Calon Wen butter.

I remember the desserts at River Cottage Canteen were lovely: simple and uncomplicated, but just treaty enough to be impossible to turn down. They're the same at Zest! We chose panna cotta (that was nicer than mine, boo!) with apricots and biscotti, and sticky date pudding with homemade ice cream. They were lovely. I'll be telling everyone about them for weeks!

Panna Cotta.


Local suppliers

I shall be honest: this is something I like to know about and would choose a restaurant because of. I find it so irksome that in Wales, where we have the best lamb in the world, so much of what you see in the supermarkets comes from New Zealand. How does that make financial sense? It's ridiculous.

At Zest, the lamb and pork comes from Slade Farm, just down the road in Bridgend. The fish comes from Cardiff Market (less than five minutes walk from the restaurant) and the vegetables are from Wales too. I can't tell you exactly where from, since I have forgotten, but Caroline will be able to let you know, I am sure. Nothing is imported from far-flung corners of the globe, and if the chef can't get something because it isn't in season and at market, the menu gets changed.


Sticky Date Pudding and Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream.

I thoroughly recommend a visit, and am hoping that Marriott adopts this concept in all of its hotels. I can't tell you how many times I have been exhausted after long flights and had to force myself, begrudgingly, to leave the hotel to get dinner when I am away on trips. If all hotel restaurants were this good, I wouldn't have to.

Disclosure: We were the guests of the Cardiff Marriott hotel and as such our meal was complimentary. However, we are already planning to go back!

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