I think I was one of the first local foodies to pick up on the fact that “ex Michelin two star Chef Martin Blunos” was going to open a restaurant in Cardiff. The fact that he was going to do it in conjunction with Crown Hotels and Restaurants (CHR), owners of the one Michelin star ‘The Crown at Whitebrook’ and the three rosette ‘Crown at Celtic Manor’, made it all the more interesting. Would the new restaurant become the group leader? Certainly with Blunos at the helm it had the potential to. How would Whitebrook’s head chef James Sommerin, previously quoted as saying that Cardiff by night was one of the dirtiest places around and needed to mature a bit before a fine dining establishment would work, feel about having to share the spotlight. Only time, as they say, would tell.
The new restaurant was to be called “Crown Social” and was to open at The Thistle owned Parc Hotel. To quote the official CHR press release “The innovative concept, ‘speak easy’ style of dining, will see sensational Welsh produce sourced to create a distinctly different, social dining experience right at the heart of Wales’ capital city. Crown Social will offer remarkable food fusing world tastes and contemporary flavours.
We’re confident that this lively new social hotspot will become the place to meet, chill and socialise. It’ll be a social hub to see friends and to be seen. Crown Social is chic and casual with an eclectic atmosphere and unique ambience. The exhilarating food Martin will be producing will be as fashionable, funky and as fresh as the wonderful new interior. And all this inside one of Cardiff’s most established, revered and iconic hotels – the Parc.”
Shortly after the launch I was contacted by one of the PR companies involved and asked if I’d like the opportunity to visit and also to interview Mr Blunos. I was a little undecided at first as at every other restaurant I’ve ever written about I’ve bought and paid for the meal with my own hard earned cash. However the chance to conduct an interview swung it as I doubted I’d get any other opportunity and I duly accepted. (OK so maybe my ego did get a massage as well but that was only a secondary consideration, honest!) However, dear reader, you need have no fear about the integrity of this review as in the end no free meal or interview was received. Despite a flurry of exchanged emails concerning dates and approvals we hit a brick wall in the shape of, would you believe it, the crockery. Apparently Chef Blunos wanted to wait until his new crockery arrived before cooking for us and so things got put on hold until it turned up and I can only assume it never did!
So, free of accusations of bias, let’s wind forward a few months. Just two months after opening the Crown Social is awarded two AA rosettes, good going by anyone’s standard. Reviews have been a little mixed but generally positive, although it’s still early days. Oh and they’ve done a 50% off deal via Travelzoo, which I find a bit surprising as I’d be expecting a new place of this calibre to still be packed to the gunnels! So bearing all this in mind, I decide that it’s high time MrsA and I go see what Crown Social is all about for ourselves.
The Online Oxford English Dictionary has a few definitions for “social” but the one that seems to fit this context is “relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure”, well I’m all up for that so let’s go.
The entrance to the Crown Social takes one into a large spacious bar area, where one presumably can socialise over drinks and nibbles, but we have booked a table and decide, being hungry, that we’d rather just go straight to it. Inside the Crown Social looks exactly what it is; a restaurant in a hotel! Dark woods, big hanging lamps, muzak and no atmosphere, pretty much sum it up. For a restaurant with social in the name the staff, unusually, appear to be all formally dressed; the males in well-tailored suits for example. This formality seems to have invaded their personas as well and I wonder if, in fact, this is the crew from the starred Crown at Whitebrook on a staff exchange programme.
At the time of our arrival there is just one other couple in the restaurant and the maitre d’ decides that we should sit on the next table to them. Now I understand why in an empty restaurant you want to create a little grouping to try and generate some atmosphere, but really! Put me two maybe three tables apart but don’t put me two feet away especially when there is no background noise. I don’t want to listen to their conversation all night nor do they mine. This is not social this is intrusive. I’m just about to mention this when MrsA beats me to it and requests a different table. Interestingly ten minutes later when the next guest arrives he is shown to exactly the same table we were and likewise asks to be re-seated. By now I figure that the initial couple have got a complex!
The waiter comes to explain things to us. Basically if you haven’t worked it out yet then the concept is either “up-market tapas” or “little dishes”, you decide. Order lots of dishes and share! Simple, eh?
We decide to start with –
“Seared lambs liver, cauliflower, hot caper butter” – More cooked through than seared but tasty none the less.
“Grilled mackerel, Russian Salad” – Slighty under seasoned, but otherwise a very nice dish.
“Welsh pork boudin, shallot piccalilli” – Not really a boudin, the consistency but not the taste of a chorizo. Really porky and really nice.
“Poached duck egg, rarebit topped choux bun, béarnaise” – A flashy eggs benedict.
“Swiss pasta, Welsh streaky, morel cream” – Something of a high point as I loved the way the texture of the dish worked to complement the intensity of the morels.
“Leek & potato terrine, roast garlic, toasted hazelnuts” – cold and bland. This is the poorest dish we tried.
Dishes on this menu page are priced between £3.65 and £5.95 so I’m treating them as starters. The only dish that I didn’t think tasted nice was the Leek & potato terrine and that was because it was served cold. Now I know that terrines are normally cold but this is basically a slice of cold potato and that’s just not pleasant. The application of heat would have improved it immensely.
For the rest one cannot fault the presentation and the dishes were nicely cooked but the issue comes in the concept. The dishes are minute, really almost bite sized, totally not meant for sharing. The pictures really don’t show just how small they are, more of which later. As for the sharing, well we just got frustrated over how to divide each dish in such a way as for us both to enjoy.
Page two of the menu introduces us to the “main courses”, more substantial in price if not size. Here we chose three dishes and two sides, comprising of
“Roast quail, satay, straw potatoes” – The satay worked well with the quail, which was rich and tasty. If I was splitting hairs then it could have done with 30 seconds less cooking but really no complaints on flavour. I liked the straw potatoes too.
“Welsh pork belly, apple, Pease pudding, cider sauce” – A tiny sliver of belly pork, size wise more like half a strip of streaky bacon. Again good flavour but not enough of it.
“Cornish turbot, leek and Penderyn taglietini” – Well-cooked turbot and the Penderyn Whisky bringing an interesting dimension to the taglietini.
Mr. Little’s Yetholm Gypsy dripping cooked chips and Fresh asparagus – roughly chopping a potato, leaving the skin on and frying it does not a chip make. Sorry Martin they were OK but I’ve had better. Nice asparagus though!
Again I can’t really complain about the cooking on these courses but these are simply not sharing dishes. Also one has to seriously question the value here. Two bites of pork belly for just over a tenner is ludicrous and you can add another two pounds to that for a mouthful of turbot, with the quail sitting somewhere in between.
By the time we reach dessert I’ve given up on being social and have decided to order just what I want without thought to sharing. Of course this take on a banana split is called a Social Split so I can’t escape social for very long.
I have to admit it’s an interesting take and quite a clever one too. Nicely executed, I was impressed. MrsA opted for the Bitter Chocolate Tart and Orange.
Whilst the quality of the cooking and the presentation is, on the whole, very good I can’t help but feeling that naming this place “Social” is something of a misnomer as it fails on just about every level. The dishes are ill conceived for the concept, being too fancy and too small for proper sharing.
Unfortunately my pictures really don’t show just how small these portions are. Some of you may be old enough to remember back to when Nouvelle Cuisine was all the rage and we moaned about going to a restaurant and paying a fortune for miniscule portion accompanied by three peas and a baby carrot on a plate. Well here we have the Nouvelle Cuisine of tapas and that just isn’t made for sharing. I’m sorry but I just don’t get it. The food is nicely cooked and nicely presented and apart from the portion size would be great if all they were doing was aiming to create a bog standard fine-dining restaurant, but they are not. They are selling sharing, socialising, passing the dish on to the next person and you simply can’t do that when there’s only a forkful on the plate. Oh, and just in case you think I’m just moaning about the price here then I’m not. I’m moaning about the fact that I’ve bought into their sharing concept and now I can’t actually share.
The décor is straight from “Hotel Restaurant Interior Design for Dummies” and only enhances the lack of atmosphere. I have to totally disagree with that press release again when it says “We’re confident that this lively new social hotspot will become the place to meet, chill and socialise. It’ll be a social hub to see friends and to be seen. Crown Social is chic and casual with an eclectic atmosphere and unique ambience.” Repeat after me “Oh no it isn’t!” I thought that the main advantage that Crown Social had was that it was attached to a hotel; thereby ensuring a regular flow of diners who hadn’t been there before. I really couldn’t see this becoming any ones regular haunt.
Then, just as I was writing this up and only nine months after opening, Crown Hotels and Restaurants announced it had ended its contract with Thistle Hotels and was planning to move the Crown Social out of the Parc Hotel and into an, as yet, unknown premises in the city. The old restaurant will reopen in September as “The Social” and be run by the hotel’s food and beverage team.
According to CHR, Blunos will remain with the group and is “currently reviewing a number of different locations in the city centre in which to establish a new, independent fine-dining Crown restaurant.” I wish both CHR and Martin Blunos good luck with this venture as Cardiff really is a capital city in need of less chains and more independent fine-dining. One thing I do know is that either the dishes need to change if they are to retain the sharing concept or the concept needs to change if they are to retain the dishes. Either way you have until the end of August if you want to see how social the Crown Social really is.
The Park Hotel
Tel: 02920 785593