It’s 25 miles from Aberdare to Cardiff and nearly 20 of that is dual-carriageway. So leaving home at 1.45pm to catch the 2.55pm to London Paddington should have been a breeze. The atmosphere inside of my car however turned from breezy to ice fields of Antartica when I arrived in Cardiff to discover the Kingsway had more holes than a Emmental and more cones than a pine forest. With the clock ticking Mrs A was becoming less and less impressed with my pre-planning.
Eventually we got through and sped down Westgate St to find the Station car park full. The drive to the Penarth Road Car Park was probably the longest of my life as Mrs A quietly fumed beside me. We pretty much abandoned the car and ran (no mean feat as those of you that know me will appreciate. For those that don’t well let’s just say I was built for comfort and not for speed) for the platform. I made the top of platform stairs just as the guard was closing the door and fortunately still had enough breath left to scream “STOP!”.
I don’t think we’d got two steps into the carriage before the train lurched off and it was fully Newport before I’d got my breath back enough to use British Rails clever pay for parking by mobile phone to save myself a ticket.
The rest of the journey was pretty uneventful and Mrs A had even started to see the funny side by the time we got to London. Our Kensington hotel room had a few issues with the A/C which meant 2 room changes but eventually we were sorted, showered and changed ready to hit the town.
We had travelled up to meet Mrs A’s friend Nagmeh, from Chile, who was in London for 2 weeks with her work. However, tonight it was just the two of us and I had booked a table at ‘Theo Randall’s at the InterContinental’, Park Lane.
We had seen him cook on Saturday Kitchen and then mentor on Masterchef so a trip to his restaurant was on our must do list.
The hotel arranged a taxi, it was an owner/driver operation just set up to service the local hotels and provide a service that was 25% cheaper than a black cab. We were their first ever passengers and I would have felt honoured except for the fact that they ended up charging us about 25% MORE than a black cab would have and did on the way home.
So I arrived at the InterContinental feeling a little apprehensive. We’ve all had one of those days that go from bad to worse, right? Would we end the day on a catastrophic note or could Theo pull us back from the brink?
The foyer of the InterContinental is all you’d expect being a homage to marble and gilt. Down a few steps from the doors is the main area and on the right is a short passage way, discreetly lettered with ‘Theo Randall’.
Arriving at the other side we were met by the friendly Maître d’ who offered us the choice of straight to table or drink at the bar. We chose the latter as it gave us a little extra time to study the menu, which is divided into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi.
This is Italian food at its finest, as Theo says ‘unfussy yet utterly delicious, a million miles away from the complicated fancy fare you would normally expect to eat in Park Lane.’
The Maître d’ was happy to answer our questions about the menu and told us that whatever we wanted them to do if they could they would. Even to the extent that if we wanted ½ of our main course on each plate that wasn’t a problem.
Feeling more relaxed we decided to split an Antipasti of Carpaccio di manzo – thinly sliced Aberdeen Angus beef fillet with rocket, aged balsamic vinegar, parmesan and pinenuts. Mrs A them moved to a Primi of Tagliatelle al pescatore – fresh pasta with squid, sea bass, vongole. Mussles, tomato and parsely; whilst I opted for Cappelletti di vitello – fresh pasta stuffed with slow cooked veal and pancetta with summer truffles from Umbria. Both were delightful!
For Secondi I plumped for Piccione al forna – Anjo pigeon marinated with marsala, wood roasted and served on pagnotta bruschetta with fresh cannellini beans, ox-heart tomatoes and pancetta. Mrs A chose Taglio di vitello – chargrilled Limousin veal chop with Chanterelle mushrooms, Italian spinach and salsa verde. These were both full of flavours to die for, with every taste being defined yet cohesive. You can tell that this is seasonal cooking at its best, and that chef and staff go to the markets every morning in search of fresh produce you believe them not only because you trust them but because you can taste it.
The restaurant itself is larger than I expected and there is an area at the rear that is not normally open as it is too hard to service properly. I guess this becomes the area for private dining when the rich and famous are in town. An average Friday sees 140 covers according to the wait staff with 185 possible with the rear open. Despite this and the lack of windows it manages to achieve and interesting ambiance, it has the feel of a hotel dining room about it with its brown on brown colour scheme but also manages to bring in the relaxed atmosphere that Randall says he is striving for. During the evening we saw everyone from Italian suited high flyers to jean clad fathers with sleeping babies swaddled to them.
Taking a short rest before dessert we were approached by the Maître d’. After the usual enquiry as to our enjoyment and satisfaction he, quite out of the blue said, “Chef Randall is in the house this evening and was wondering if you would like come and meet him and take a tour of the kitchen?” Well what do you say to an invitation like that? Handing him back the arm I had just ripped off I sort of nodded in agreement and was told that someone would be along shortly to act as escort.
A few minutes later she arrived and whisked off to the kitchen were Chef Randall was waiting, pink of face, no doubt due to the heat of his prized wood-fired oven, to greet us at the ‘pass’. He was welcoming, engaging and not at all pretentious. We discussed dinner, kitchen size and Masterchef before moving on to chat to some of his staff, confirming to me at least that life in a top kitchen was nothing if not hard, hard work.
Back at our table, Mrs A wondered if Chef would sign a menu for us. “He’d love to!” Not only did we get the signed menu we got the fancy little monogrammed stainless steel clip as well.
All that talking and touring had revived our appetites and dessert was called for. Me, I have a love/hate relationship with the lemon. I love it if it is strong and tart; hate it if it is just a hint. Don’t put a single slice in my drink but do give me a whole one to squeeze over my fish or chicken! I felt I could trust my new friend Theo with a lemon and so ordered the Amalfi Lemon Tart. Mrs A felt a more delicate Peach Sorbet was called for.
The peach sorbet was everything a sorbet should be she said. The lemon tart wasn’t! It was much, much more; the standard by which all lemon tarts will now be judged. I will probably never taste another one like it until I go back again.
Before coffee I slipped to the little boys’ room. If you are fortunate enough to dine here then you have to visit the loos, to see the designer sinks where the water runs off plates of frosted glass into the wall. Mrs A was despatched to the ladies to confirm the same arrangement.
A rich, mellow Espresso rounded off a great evening.
To sum up, this was without a doubt one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Certainly not the most complicated or constructed using the finest techniques but in terms of taste and enjoyment certainly a culinary high spot. Frankly I can live without the foams and the spun sugar creations that look wonderful but often leave your taste buds flaccid and un-excited. Cost – Hugely Expensive! It’s Park Lane after all. Read any review, they’ll all mention how expensive it is, but everyone will also tell you what a great meal they had and how it was worth nearly every penny. Me? I’m saving up to go again.