Friday, 1 August 2014

Varsity - Wind Street

Whereas many of Swansea's bars come and go, there are a few that stand the test of time. One of these is a Wind Street staple which, happily for me, doubles up as a good eatery in addition to its primary function as a late-night drinking establishment.

Varsity, the British student-focused pub chain, sits in a grand neoclassical building - once upon a time a bank - at the top of Wind Street. And despite being home to hundreds of revellers on the weekends, the atmosphere on a Monday lunchtime wasn't dingy in the slightest.

It's quite a cavernous room, but it's bright and there's no lingering smell of stale beer. In fact - apart from a few sticky patches on the floor - it's quite a pleasant environment in which to eat, helped by staff who were efficient and polite when it came to service.

They used to offer a massive menu full of 'big eats', which has now been toned down a little, although there's still plenty of pub grub to choose from, including sandwiches, burgers, wraps, pastas and 'things with chips'.

This time I went for the safe choice of a Southern-fried chicken burger and curly fries (an optional upgrade), along with a glass of Coke (they do serve plenty of beer but it was a Monday lunchtime after all...).

My satisfying chicken burger.

The food has always been pretty solid in Varsity and this visit was no different. The chicken was hot, moist and had enough of that peppery southern-fried taste, while the brioche bun was robust, if a tiny bit dry. The chips were equally as appealing, with a portion size that satisfies any lunchtime belly.

My dining partner had a Mexican chicken wrap of sorts. I'm not sure what the exact name of it was, but I was assured that it was very enjoyable, served with chips and a small salad garnish.

The Mexican wrap (of sorts)

So in all, I deem Varsity well worth a visit. It's nothing spectacular, but when you're paying around £8 for a tasty and filling lunchtime meal with a drink, there can't be too many complaints.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Mumtaz - Mumbles Road

Maybe I should rename this blog 'Curry on a Plate' to reflect the amount of curry houses I've reviewed? I do love curry.

But, attempting to introduce some variation on the theme, I decided to move away from the 'curry quarter' that is St Helen's Road and ventured towards Mumbles, where I enjoyed a cosy evening out in Mumtaz.

Firstly, you can't miss it. Sticking out like a curry-stained thumb, Mumtaz is a massive cream building on Mumbles Road, right on the sea front with great views of the sweeping bay (providing you can grab a window seat)

On such a busy road there's no street parking, but if you are arriving by car there is a convenient car park directly opposite or just behind (you have to pay and display for both though unfortunately). Or just get a taxi.

Inside there's a relaxed feel about the place. It's light, bright and aesthetically pleasing, with plush seating (possibly the most comfortable seating in a curry house ever) and a good dose of luxury. I noticed a grand piano and am aware that there is often a live pianist playing, although they weren't around the evening I visited.

The menu is pretty much what you can expect from most curry houses. There are other Indian restaurants in Swansea that offer more variation and maybe a little more adventure, but Mumtaz still provides several pages full of choice. I do applaud their 'Health Conscious' section on the menu, which includes salads and more vegetable-oriented dishes for those watching their weight.

Alas I have given up my dreams of a six-pack so I went for a Prawn Balti with a mushroom rice and a tandoori roti. As a table we also ordered the traditional 'poppadoms and chutneys' to nibble on while we awaited our main course.

I'm glad we did go for the appetiser because, unfortunately, we were waiting ages for the main course. I know it was a Saturday night, but I've rarely had such a wait before for a curry. I assume the takeaway orders were pouring in and swamping the kitchen, but regardless the slow arrival of our food was a little disappointing. I also noticed a few similar complaints from other tables, so this is something worth noting.

I crammed it all on the plate to get the photo!

My meal when it eventually turned up was very enjoyable. The Balti itself was tasty, not too oily and freshly cooked. I do regret ordering the roti - I found it a little dry, and was envious as everyone else tucked into their buttery naan breads. You live and learn I guess!

One custom I enjoy in Indian restaurants is the post-meal hot wipes and I was thrilled to find real flannels in Mumtaz (instead of the pre-packaged wet-wipes). So thrilled, in fact, I took a photo. The small things...

There's nothing quite like an actual flannel!

After such a good flannelling it seemed everyone on my table was keen for desert. I rarely opt for something sweet after my meal, but fancied one this time so chose a 'mint bombe' of sorts, which was nice and refreshing (almost as refreshing as the flannel).

A rare desert for me, but satisfying.

In all I will definitely be heading back to Mumtaz in the near future. While I've enjoyed better food and quicker service in other Indian restaurants, the atmosphere and attentive staff were brilliant and made for a very enjoyable evening in the heart of Mumbles.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Favourite Cafe - Brynymor Road

I eat out in Swansea a lot, as you may have guessed by now. And when it comes to Eastern cuisine I probably choose Indian over Chinese in a ratio of about 20:1!

So last week I decided to ditch the Saag for Sweet n' Sour, and checked out a relatively new Chinese restaurant that's been on my list for a few months, The Favourite Cafe on Byrnymor Road.

A simple exterior

It's a place you can probably walk past twenty times before actually noticing, but you'll be glad when you finally take the time to investigate. It's one of the new breed of Chinese eateries that seem to be cropping up in the centre, with the focus on authentic Chinese cuisine instead of the more familiar Cantonese style.

The small restaurant offers a modern and relaxed atmosphere, with plenty of traditional decoration which is familiar, yet tasteful (think more bamboo, with less golden dragons and waving cats).

The seating, as far as I can remember, is primarily wooden benches. Quite relaxed and comfortable, although the benches were considerably lower than the table, so I had to prop myself up on some cushions (like a little baby).

Nice and relaxed atmosphere, washed down with a refreshing beer!

The waitress took our order pretty quickly and was happy to reassure us that the dishes we were ordering were spicy but not lethal, which we were thankful for! So I went for the Kung Pao chicken and fried rice, while my dining partner settled on the Sizzling Pork. We also split a side dish of steamed dumplings and the intriguing 'Traditional Chinese Meat Pie'. (The full menu can be found here).

As our drinks arrived (they serve a couple of beers, though we went for a Chinese favourite in Tsingtao), we were also given a small plate of diced cucumber in a soy and chili sauce. A nice complimentary snack while you await the main event.

My Kung Pao chicken, which was delicious

I must say the Kung Pao was lovely. Everything I enjoy in a Chinese meal - moist meat, crisp vegetables and a fresh sauce with a bit of a kick. This also had cashews and peanuts and proved very filling, along with a dish of fried rice on the side.

I mentioned that we ordered steamed dumplings and 'meat pies' (which turned out to be a kind of dumpling/pasty hybrid). Both were tasty and quite generously filled, and made for a nice accompaniment to the main meal, although I preferred the meat pies (not pictured) to the dumplings, which were a little too stodgy for me.

Steamed dumplings - maybe I should have taken a photo of the vibrant filling instead of just the dough...

Afterwards we shared a hefty pot of jasmine tea which was very fragrant and - despite the searing heat outside - quite refreshing. Not as refreshing as a cold beer, but still a nice way to end the meal.

Overall a portion of Kung Pao chicken, rice and two dumplings along with a bottle of beer and a few cups of tea came to £15, which is a very wallet-friendly price for the amount of food you enjoy.

Jasmine tea to finish

It seems like a popular little place and became pretty busy by the time we left. I will certainly be checking out some of the other similar Eastern cafes in the area very soon, and if they are anything like The Favourite Cafe I won't be disappointed.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Pizza Express - Castle Street

I was in a bit of a rush the other day when meeting someone for lunch - I had one hour to spare. And there's nothing worse than ordering food in a restaurant then watching it arrive 50 minutes later, leaving you still chewing as you pay the bill and reaching for the indigestion pills for the rest of the afternoon.

So I decided to head for a quick pizza, knowing that even the slowest pizza cook wouldn't take much longer than half an hour to make it.

We were in the centre of Swansea and decided to pop into Pizza Express. It's a chain restaurant that I've had mixed feelings about in the past - my first few visits were really enjoyable, but the last time the pizza was too dry and service a bit indifferent.

However, the service this time was quick, friendly and helpful, with our lunchtime orders taken within the first few minutes of sitting down.

An formal but stylish interior, complete with inspirational localised quotes!

We decided to share a plate of the polenta chips as an appetiser. It's the first time I've tried them and I really enjoyed - crispy on the outside, hot and squidgy on the inside, served with a tasty mustard dip.

The morish Polenta Chips

The pizza on the new Express Lunch menu is a smaller one than you'd find on the regular menu, which is reflected in the price (around £6 per pizza). So, naturally, we both went for a pizza. I went for a classic La Reine (ham, mushrooms and black olives) while my dining partner had the more American style pizza called the American Hot (pepperoni, with a choice of three different hot peppers).

My pizza - La Reine

And it was a great size for lunch, with a thin and crispy base, enough flavour in the sauce with a decent amount of toppings (although I'd have liked a few more olives). What's more, it all arrived within 20 minutes. I had spent so much time worrying about not being able to eat quick enough that I hadn't anticipated it being so prompt. So, with half an hour to kill, we decided to have a coffee.

One thing I have always enjoyed about Pizza Express is the Dolcetti - a small version of a desert along with a coffee (you pay an extra £2 on top of the price of whatever coffee you have). In the past I'd really enjoyed the Cafe Reale, which is a couple of baby figs in a spiced syrup along with a large dollop of mascarpone. Rich, delicious and just the right amount for desert (especially at lunch time).

Overall I am happy to say I left the restaurant satisfied with my meal, the service and the speed everything arrived. Even if it was slightly more than I'd usually spend on lunch (it worked out at about £27 for two people), it's more than a snack - you certainly feel you've had a good meal. I will be returning...

Friday, 6 June 2014

Istanbul - St Helen's Road

No, I'm not reviewing the whole city of Istanbul, just the Turkish restaurant on St Helen's Road, which turns out to be a pleasant dining experience in the heart of Swansea.

It's in one of the buildings that always seem to be restaurants, but never seem to stay open for more than a few years, so it will be interesting to see how long it lasts. However if their food is anything to go by, there is no reason it shouldn't remain open for a long time.

Nice and pink - you can't miss it!

I visited with a group of six, joining the table slightly late to find a mixed sharer starter had already been ordered. This consisted of dishes like hummous, Russian salad and a cucumber/yoghurty thing, served with a couple of baskets full of thick, but light focaccia. Very nice, but I had to stop myself eating too much to save room for the main event.

My appetiser and a nice cold beer

With the starter plates cleared, the waitress - very polite all evening I must add - brought us three big platters full of food which was shared around the table. It was essentially a sample of most things on the menu, split into three plates: meat, fish and salad.

The feast of meat!

The meat plate boasted a pile of flame-grilled chicken breast, lamb kofta, lamb chops, chicken wings and legs, another meat (I forget exactly what it was, probably lamb) and an array of very spicy chilis. It was all cooked well and had a delicious authentic barbecue flavour, with the chicken in particular proving very moist.

The fish dish was nice, containing a few fillets of white fish (it may have been cod, but I can't be sure...) and big king prawns, with various garnishes. The photo of the fish came out too blurry as I was fiddling with my camera settings all night, so I won't publish that one (...sorry). Instead here's one of the hefty salad!


Afterwards we managed to stuff down some Turkish cakes (similar to an Italian cannoli, but much sweeter) and ice-cream. Probably a little too sweet for my liking, but it was a nice way to end the meal.

There's not much to say about the decor, which is simple, but it allows for a nice relaxed environment. There are a few cosier tables towards the back of the restaurant, so worth booking those if you want a more intimate meal.

The cosier tables I talk about.

Like many restaurants I visit, it may be a while before I return to Istanbul, but I did really enjoy myself and found the food and service was great. Well worth considering if you are looking for somewhere a little different.


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Sunday, 4 May 2014

Gilligan's - Eversley Road

Up until a few years ago, Sketty residents were a little limited in choice when it came to eating out on their doorstep. But after a mini revolution we now have a good handful of evening eateries worth trying in the Sketty Cross area.

I had written a review of Vincent's on Eversley Road in the past - however this longstanding restaurant has now closed down. It wasn't a bad place, although they seemed to price themselves out of the market (Sketty may be an affluent area, but the residents aren't stupid with their money!). The overall execution wasn't to everyone's taste either and it seemed to lose heart in the final stages of its existence.

Though it was sad to see it go, spirits were lifted again when the announcement came that the building would soon be occupied with a new venture – Gilligan's, which eventually opened last month.

Firstly I must mention that Gilligan's has a 'bring your own booze' policy, which I'm fast becoming a fan of. Providing you aren't lugging in a magnum of vodka you are welcome to save money on drinks by bringing your own beers and wines to enjoy. However, should you forget, the restaurant is fully licensed and they sell a variety of tipples to accompany your meal.

A rustic, cosy interior

For the price-conscious, the advantage is that you only have to fork out for your food, which is available from a reasonably priced set menu – two courses for £16.95 and three for £19.95.
I found the variety of dishes good, with something for everyone. Choices of starters included soup, mackerel fillets and pate, while braised beef, belly pork and grilled salmon all feature on the main menu, along with the vegetarian option of cheese and onion Portobello mushrooms (not something that really appealed to me).

My dining partner's mushroom main - didn't really appeal to me, but tasted nice enough!

There's also a blackboard full of weekly specials, which ensured I was umming and ahhing over my order for at least five extra minutes. Finally I decided to start with the spicy meatballs in tomato sauce, served with sliced French stick. A nice amount of spicy, without being over the top. I was a little disappointed with the amount of meatballs (which I forgot to take a photo of), but it's only an appetiser, not the main meal I guess.

For my main course, I chose the chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in pancetta, served with a rich cream sauce. This was succulent and tasty, and came with a decent portion of crispy sauté potatoes and (hallelujah!) a medley of seasonal vegetables. I hate it when restaurants charge you extra for veg... it's criminal.

My main course (vegetables were on the side!)

Ultimately, the first two courses proved very filling and this is when I came across the only real flaw. Because we visited on a Saturday night we were unable to select the two courses on the set menu – this option is only available on Wednesday and Thursday nights. While it's not a major problem, I was pretty full after my main and it was a shame that two courses wasn't an option.

In the end - because I would be paying for a desert anyway - I let the profiteroles take my fancy, ahead of the crème brulee, chocolate mousse and lemon cheesecake which all looked as appetising.

Overall, we had plenty of praise for the quality of the food and the service. The waitresses made our tight-squeeze table very comfortable and were quick and friendly all evening. As the night went on the restaurant soon filled to capacity with jolly diners, creating a lively, enjoyable atmosphere in the heart of Sketty.

While there is a still some way to go before Sketty catches up to its bustling neighbour The Uplands in terms of food choice, things have definitely started to improve and Gilligan's goes a long way in the catch up.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Grosvenor Casino - High Street

Unless you're a high roller in Las Vegas or Monte Carlo (which I assume you are not), eating in a casino may seem a little seedy. However this doesn't prove to be the case with the Grosvenor Casino on High Street, which is a great alternative for the adult diners in Swansea.

I've been going to the casino for the past ten years - not just to consistently lose £20 on the roulette tables, but to enjoy a decent meal in a lively, generally friendly and comfortable atmosphere which is guaranteed to be free from screaming children – usually the number one cause of indigestion in my experience.

The small, first floor casino is roughly split into three areas – the main space, filled with roulette, blackjack and slot machines, with a cordoned-off restaurant area and a bar space, where live sport is shown on the TVs. For reviewing purposes I went for the restaurant menu, served in the more stylish seating area towards the back of the room.

You'll find a pretty extensive menu, with a variety of steaks and grilled meats, alongside lighter salads and hearty pasta dishes. The bar menu also adds several burgers, pub grub and smaller snacks to this list.

Coconut shrimp (slightly blurry)

To start I went for the coconut shrimp, which was delicious. I rarely see coconut shrimp on a menu in Swansea (perhaps I am looking in the wrong place), but they were moist and meaty, with a crispy coating and delicate flavour of coconut, served with a tangy sweet chilli sauce. A decent portion size too, which made it a nice warm up for my main course. 

I looked at the Singapore noodles with beef to quench my hunger. The noodles were nice enough, although I'd have liked a few more vegetables than just green peppers and onions - mange tout or carrot would have livened it up a little. However the strips of steak scattered on top were superb – I was expecting a plain rump steak, but the meat felt very tender and had a freshly chargrilled taste.

After the prawns and beef noodles, I was full. My partner – who had sampled the mushroom and pumpkin ravioli for her main – found some room for a salted-chocolate caramel torte, which looked very rich and definitely satisfied her sweet-tooth.

Being a casino, there is plenty of scope for after-dinner entertainment – namely trying your luck on the array of gaming machines and croupier-run tables – although they have a range of themed evenings and live singers from time to time.

And though you have to be a member to gain access to the casino, becoming one is a pretty quick and simple process which involves bringing along your driving licence to prove your age and address.

Prices for food aren't the cheapest, but decent considering the quality. We had one starter, two mains, one desert and a pint of beer (the soft drinks are complimentary), which came to just over £30, leaving me with a little change which, naturally, I lost on the roulette machines! You can't win them all...