Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth

My favourite meal with Bethan was the Crown at Whitebrook in 2010, where Welsh chef James Sommerin earned his reputation (and a Michelin star) for inventive, skilled and delicious cooking.
The atmosphere was serious without being sombre, and prices were very reasonable (£40 for six courses).
Crown SouffleThe chocolate souffle, with a quenelle of Bailey’s ice cream added at the table, was a thing of wonder.
I went on about it so much, I made a version for my nephews
Boys SouffleSadly, The Crown closed in 2013, but in 2015 James opened his own restaurant in Penarth, and we were very excited to give it a try.

One obvious change is that, understandably, prices have gone up during those six years.
The 6-course tasting menu is now £60, with 9 courses £80, and you can add matched wines from £40.
All of which is what you would expect in 2016.
However, we did some research and managed to find vouchers on Travelzoo, which brought the price down to £40 each – the same as 2010! – so we booked right away.
You can only use them at certain times, but a Saturday lunchtime suited us fine.

The restaurant is on the beautiful esplanade at Penarth – we thought it was lovely, with well-maintained public gardens and a pier.
01 Penarth EsplanadeThe restaurant is right on the front –
02 Sommerin External– and the dining room benefits from lots of natural light
It is discreetly luxurious, welcoming and modern.
Our table gave us a fine view of the room.
03 Sommerin Dining RoomThis is “Restaurant James Sommerin”, and he has designed many of the features himself, from the large glass door of the private dining area to an innovative window right into the kitchen.
Always nice to know the big-name chef is in the kitchen, and we gave James nervous, fan-girl waves.
(Windows are two-way, of course. This lets him keep an eye on the dining room as well as letting punters see an absence of microwaves.)
04 Sommerin KitchenIf we hadn’t done research online beforehand, the wine list would have been quite a shock.
James Sommerin Wine List
I know margins are tight in fine dining – as the sad failure of the Crown shows – but this list feels steep.
Prices start at £30 and quickly  accelerate.
Their cheapest Argentine Malbec is £33.50 but £10.50 in Oddbins,
Similarly, their 2010 Bordeaux costs £46 but (at time of writing) can be had for £12.99.
Even a whisky has a 3x markup.
We stood firm, declined drinks on arrival, and stuck to water thought our meal.
We came here for Sommerin’s cooking, not the wine. Good luck to you if you can afford it –  and many happy tables could – but £35 for a bottle of wine at Saturday lunch felt too decadent for me.

The first food out was an amuse bouche – an extra course! – to show us we were in safe hands.
05 Garlic SpoonerThese were “spooners” of wild garlic, cheese gougères and tapioca crisps with taramasalata and hummus.
Oh yes we said, as we tasted the first velvety garlic, Sommerin can still cook.

Next out came a selection of bread – we chose an organic roll and a slice of tomato bread.
06 Bread Butter SommerinNaturally the bread was excellent, but the real star was the butter.
One plain, one whipped with seaweed (laverbread) and sea salt.
07 Sommerin Seaweed Butter LaverbreadHow I loved that seaweed butter. How thickly it was spread.
“Stop eating all that butter!” hissed Bethan. “You’ve gone shiny and tired and there are SIX courses on their way!”
I calmed down, ate some more butter when she wasn’t looking, and welcomed the first course, “Pea GBM”.
08 Sommerin Pea GBMBased on a dish from his successful appearance on “Great British Menu”, this is a pea ravioli, pea puree, parmesan foam, sage and Serrano ham.
The flavours were big (PEA!), but the dish itself remained light.
The presentation was superb – this is a great example of why fine dining exists. You simply can’t do this sort of thing at home.

Similarly with our next dish – wood pigeon, black pudding, raspberry and beetroot.
09 Sommerin PigeonThe black pudding had been puréed  and piped into a whirl – where else are you getting that? Not in my house, that’s for sure.
The breast was perfectly medium rare, bags of taste without going too liver-ish.
A dab of raspberry and a sprinkle of beetroot gave a sharp element to contrast with the earthy pigeon and black pudding.
Things were going very well!

Normally there would have been fish next, but I don’t do the aquatics, so they substituted a vegetarian dish.
This was very good news, as not every kitchen can be bothered with changes like this.

Celeriac had been cleverly cut into linguine, and the greater surface area seemed to give a bigger taste in the mouth.
It came with smoked girolles and burnt shallots, although it didn’t seem very smoky.
10 Sommerin CeleriacThe high-sided bowl was a little unnecessary – it just made eating more difficult – but we enjoyed the earthy, rather autumnal flavours.

The final savoury course was two cuts of pork with wild garlic, parsnips, parsnip purée, Calvados jus and crackling.
11 Sommerin PorkNone of these courses are huge but this one felt substantial, and Bethan began to struggle with what was her favourite plate.
The pork and parsnips two-ways paired well, the hint of apple in the Calvados fitted right in, the powdery crackling was a clever touch.
We felt very pleased.

At least until the dessert was announced as “Kalamansi“.
A new type of fruit at my age?
Kalamansi resembles a satsuma, but is bitter like a lime. Who knew?
This was fashioned into a posh Solero with a black sesame cake, “snow”, orange blossom and tiny meringues.
12 Sommerin Kalamansi DessertIt was delicious and refreshing and unique. And just just look at that presentation!
Not only are the plates smart, they’re identical.
Each serving will come out the same – this is a high-end professional kitchen with a head chef maintaining quality.

By the final course, we’d been there over two hours and were feeling full.
The staff made valiant efforts to up-sell us a cheese course or the extra three courses, but that must take HOURS.
Deconstructed apple pie – stewed apple with toffee and puff pasty was our second dessert.
13 Sommerin Apple DessertBut I think we were becoming blasé about tasty, attractive food.
We enjoyed it, but at the same time, we felt it was time to leave.

We ABSOLUTELY LOVED the food.
Even without our vouchers, this was very good value for world-class cooking.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the restaurant got a Michelin star soon, and then prices will go through the roof (see also Ynys Hir).
These are classic techniques and flavour combinations brilliantly executed. Maybe some more adventurous combinations would be welcome.
Sadly, nothing is quite as impressive (to me) as the chocolate souffle of our first visit, but that’s just luck of the draw.

We’re not sure about the service.
It’s fairly friendly, quite formal, and there are lots of staff, but they don’t work very efficiently, eg  the person dealing with an adjacent table won’t clear plates from yours.
We had half a dozen occasions when empty-handed staff heading for the kitchen would notice our dirty plates, but keep on walking, so all the tables sat with dirty crockery for a long time.

We really noticed the difference when a nice friendly, chatty lady took over our table for the final few courses, and we later realised this must be Louise Sommerin, co-owner and wife of James.
Like the wine list, the waiting staff are aimed more at the more formal, maybe older customer spending their cash while they can.

We noticed several tables visiting the kitchen, and Louise encourage us to pop in and say “Hello” to James Sommerin when we’d finished.
I wouldn’t have wanted queues of people trooping into my kitchen back in the day, and I’m not sure this is quite his thing, as our picture shows.
14 Sommerin In His KitchenHe’s a busy chef finishing a big lunchtime sitting and prepping for a big evening. (Or maybe he just didn’t think much of us.)

If you can get the Travelzoo vouchers (£80 for two), you have to go.
You really, really have to.
The other options are still good value without any vouchers (eg two larger courses for £30) or you can really go mad and have the Chef’s Table – fourteen courses, seated in the kitchen chatting to the staff.

Considering we all pretend that Cardiff is a “Capital City”, its lack of a Michelin-starred restaurant is a slight embarrassment.
But I think James Sommerin could soon spare our blushes.
If we lived in Penarth, we’d be going here all the time, as they have interesting mid-week special evenings such as cheese pairing.
Penarth also has an excellent Bar 44, and it has –
No, wait. Probably best we don’t live in Penarth.
We’ll just visit Restaurant James Sommerin whenever we’re down south.

** Edit 4 October **
Well, four months after we said they should/could/would have a Michelin star, they go and get one.
Congratulations to James, the family and the team.
I suspect that means no more Travelzoo vouchers, alas.
**

Restaurant James Sommerin

The Esplanade     Penarth          CF64 3AU
029 2070 6559


 


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