The long banquette that runs the length of the seaward facing window in Restaurant James Sommerin is a soft shade of teal; it’s the colour of seafront railings, summer waves and cloudless evening skies. I love the way it echoes the view.
This sense of place, this aura of relaxed refinement, this apparently effortless harmony – all were reflected in my meal, which proved to be one of my very best of the last couple of years (and these are years which have taken me to such stellar places as L’Enclume, The Fat Duck and the Pollen Street Social, so I do not say this lightly).
James Sommerin has come a long way since the days when he was first singled out as an ambitious young chef who could put Wales on the map. He initially made his name at The Crown at Whitebrook, but then headed south to Penarth to open his own gaff in a slick seafront building, smack bang on a vintage esplanade strung with lights and bunting. From the windows you can look across to the low lying islands of Flatholm and Steepholm, and beyond them, in a haze of blue, Weston-Super-Mare.
Penarth is resolutely well-to-do, its houses large and looming, its residents clearly moneyed enough to afford a fine dining restaurant with serious ambition – I say clearly, because the restaurant is busy. When I phoned to book I ran through several possible dates before giving up and saying, “just tell me when you can fit me in”.
I last ate there soon after it opened and the meal was good, but frankly not a patch on what I experienced on this visit. They’ve got all the other bits right, too: with James’ wife and sister-in-law overseeing all things front-of-house, there’s a sense of being welcomed by the family, with all the care and attention to detail that this implies. Service is efficient but informal enough to make you feel at home, and through the large window at the far end of the restaurant you can see the action in the kitchen. Despite its busyness on the day of our visit, everything looked calm and orderly – no macho banging about and shouting here; it simply works, ticking along as crisply and smartly as clockwork.
I went with my friend Sarah – an academic authority on Angela Carter, maker of extraordinary art and owner of many dogs – and the combination of her lively company and a rapid fire of beautiful dishes, three hours and six courses felt like 20 minutes.
It all began with a run of canapes, each following the other as naturally as a peal of bells: a little pot of creamy, gently garlicky espuma topped with toasty puffed grains that felt like an oblique take on garlic bread; airy tapioca crisps topped with taramasalata – all blousy pink and seductive smokiness – and then one of the best gougeres I have ever tasted – crisp and airy as a Yorkshire pud, and filled with gloriously pungent, molten goats cheese. I was floored.
Next up came a basket of bread, and my only gripe about the whole meal is that we were given just one go at it. Sarah chose tomato bread while I opted for a caramelised onion spiral that unravelled in layers of sweet-umami, crusty warmth.
The first starter was billed as ‘liquid pea’ ravioli with Parmesan foam, sage and Serrano ham: a fat pillow of silken pasta which spilled out a verdant pea puree – perfectly seasoned, and evocative of fresh peas eaten straight from the pod. The parmesan foam, crisped serrano and crunchy sage leaves rounded up the flavours but also added textural interest – something that Sommerin has mastered every bit as much as flavours and seasoning.
Next came butter poached lobster with pureed sweetcorn, lobster bisque, broccoli and sweet/tart marinated carrot. It was faultless, the bisque speaking of shellfish bubbled for hours on the hob – all buttery, deep, velvety goodness.
Staying with the seafood theme, the next course was making its debut on the menu that day, and we urged them to make it a regular fixture. It combined lightly pan-fried scallop with matchsticks of fresh apple – and a rich caviar sauce was spooned over by chef Sommerin himself at the table. A perfect pairing of sweet and salty, it was technically faultless and a joy to eat – real melt-in-the-mouth perfection.
Onwards we went, marvelling at Sommerin’s inability to sound a single duff note. The main course was Welsh lamb – rosy pink, juicy and tender – teamed with broad beans, wafer thin slices of turnip and a showstopping cumin sauce – darkly rich, intense, subtly perfumed and with a hint of sweetness, it rendered flavours in such vibrant technicolour that I felt certain subsequent meals in other places would seem monochrome.
Vivid flavours are, for me, one of the most important markers of cheffy brilliance, and Sommerin achieves these at dessert just as confidently as with his savoury dishes. The first of two puddings was a deconstructed lemon tart – quenelles of perfectly sweet/sharp lemon tart filling and a lemon cream, little dollops of liquid meringue, a sprinkling of sable crumbs and – joy of joys – fat, jewel-like fermented blueberries.
Then came simply the best soufflé I have ever eaten: a great cumulus cloud of a thing with a dollop of rosemary ice cream popped in the middle. As you ate your way down you reached a rich, tangy burst of raspberry coulis, and the soufflé itself was flavoured with raspberries, while its outside was crisped to sugary perfection.
What more can I say? We could have – should have – lingered over the marvellous looking petits fours we saw arriving at other tables, but time and budget were running short, so we called time on our visit, vowing to return again soon. Restaurant James Sommerin has guest rooms, and I can imagine few better ways to enjoy a decadent weekend than with a room and a meal here. Penarth has something truly special in this restaurant, and Sommerin now ranks alongside Ynyshir Hall’s Gareth Ward as one of my favourite chefs in Wales. At £70 for six courses of unremitting brilliance, I’d say this is outstanding value, and I urge you to try it, soon. You won’t be disappointed.