HE is the Caerleon chef who served up a Michelin star for the Monmouthshire-based eatery The Crown at Whitebrook, and now James Sommerin has opened his own fine dining restaurant in Penarth. ROB OWEN samples his new menu.
LOCATED along an iconic slice of South Wales coastline, close to Cardiff and with spectacular views of the Bristol Channel and historic islands Flat Holm and Steep Holm, James Sommerin's new “dream” venture could not have a chosen a more picturesque setting.
There are a number of restaurants along Penarth Esplanade offering fresh seasonal produce grounded in the local area, but it is safe to say Sommerin's effort truly takes the cake.
Named simply after it’s owner, there is little that stands out from the outside. A mix of reflective glass and understated colours means it tends to blend in with its seaside surroundings, almost as if it is part of the pebbled beach below it.
But it is chic and contemporary; and would have enticed me inside whether I been there to review it or not.
Once inside though it is bright and spacious with a neutral modern interior of greys, creams and browns.
The focus is very much on the food, and making diners feel as relaxed as possible so as to fully appreciate it.
Dining on a summery Wednesday evening, my guest and I were treated, as we sat in the bar area, to some tasteful amuse bouches, including an intensely cheesy but light gougere, a dainty truffle arancini, and a sweet corn panna cotta topped with smoked haddock and crispy bacon – served in dainty glass jars.
It was quite the opening statement.
It is fair to say the menu isn’t cheap; there is a five-course offering for £55; seven-courses for £70, or a surprise 10-course menu for £85.
That might take some people aback. Those are prices, in terms of general standards, way above what most local restaurants would charge – but then the James Sommerin restaurant is nothing like the average, or general standard.
If you want to spoil yourself, or someone special, this is the place to do it.
James had kindly picked a seven-course ‘taster’ menu for us, we were told, and with that we headed to our table for the first course.
It was one of the chef’s signature dishes: pea ravioli. And with the first mouthful I was sold.
Accompanied by fresh peas, deep-fried sage leaves and salty ham crumbs, it was sophisticated and elegant.
I am not going to pretend I am some sort of experienced food critic, by any stretch of the imagination. But I know good food when I taste it.
The kitchen had even managed to create some sort of foam concoction which tasted of intense parmesan. Each course as also to be accompanied by a different wine, we were informed, hand-picked by our host for the evening. The first was a Spanish offering, light and fruity; the perfect accessory.
Course two and three were toasted brioche bread, with buttery asparagus pieces, truffle foam and wild mushrooms; and slow cooked shredded oxtail, with caramelised onion pieces, sweet onion and a parsnip skin crisp. A French zesty wine, and a medium to full bodied red from Italy were served respectively, adding to the aroma of each.
The courses were swift, but we didn’t feel rushed and the friendly staff were talkative and attentive without getting in the way.
From our table we had the perfect sea view, through the large window outside. Diners are also given a glimpse into the kitchen where Sommerin and his team are hard at work.
Course four was seabass, with mussels and a tomato puree, and a sparkly full bodied Chilean wine.
Presented as elegantly as they were prepared, each dish was served on a different style of crockery, including our next course; duck, with butternut squash, beetroot and date sauce.
Like the serving of butter, with a warm white and wholemeal bread selection, it was served on a large pebble, said to have been pulled straight off Penarth beach itself.
It is one of many nice touches which help to ground the dining experience and restaurant as a whole in its seaside surrounding, and which edge on just the right side of pretentious.
The duck was served with an Australian red wine, full of oak and spices. Again it accompanied the dish perfectly.
The first of two desserts was honeycomb chocolate with toffee ice cream, the second a light and refreshing pineapple offering.
I was stuffed but still I craved more.
Between the idyllic setting and the fact that the restaurant has been built as part of an eagerly anticipated renovation of historic Penarth property Beachcliff, years in the making – not to mention Sommerin’s obvious reputation – it is safe to say that expectations are high for what is undoubtedly one of the hottest new restaurants in Wales.
Fortunately it delivers, and then some.
It is everyday ingredients used in the most creative and inventive ways, and it really was a delight to have eaten there.
If you are looking for somewhere to pop in for a quick bite to eat, then this isn’t the place for you. Or certainly not with evening menu anyway.
This is a good three-to four-hour experience. But one that will provide culinary delights for the duration, and which will be worth every one of a great-number of pennies for the pleasure.
I have never tasted anything like it. I might never again. But if this was to be my last experience of fine dining I will remember it fondly.
l To try it yourself call James Sommerin, the restaurant, on 02920 70 6559.
Argus readers can also benefit from a special lunch offer at the James Sommerin restaurant, with two courses and a glass of wine for £27. Just mention the review when you call or pop in.
JAMES SOMMERIN'S FAVOURITES
James also picked some of his personal food favourites for the Argus.
He chose the pea ravioli. It is the dish which took him through to the final of the Great British Menu.
He also enjoys the sea trout ‘sewin’ dish, which is on his current menu and in season, his trout miquis, and his raspberry and chocolate dessert.
But his diet is not confined solely to fine dining dishes.
On a rare day off he likes to have a home cooked meal with the family.
He also said he is partial to the odd Indian takeaway.