Tucked away in a large conservatory at the back of the Manor House at Wales’ five-star Celtic Manor hotel, lies Cen (pronounced ‘sen’), a forward-thinking Asian restaurant headed by up-and-coming chef Larkin Cen. Larkin grew up working in his parents’ takeaway in Cardiff and rose to fame, reaching the final three on MasterChef in 2013. Since experimenting with a pop-up at the Celtic Manor last year, Cen has now become a permanent fixture and the first Asian restaurant in the hotel’s impressive portfolio.
The space itself is open and airy, with white wooden shutters, billowing fabric blinds on the ceiling and a stripped-back style. As you would expect from a five star hotel, the ambience and level of service at Cen are good, with staff walking the fine-line between attentiveness and intrusiveness with ease.
The menu is split in to small and large plates. The former ranges from fashionable, fluffy bao buns hiding slices of hoisin-smothered pork belly; to meaty, juicy scallops served with bonito flakes and bacon dashi. The beautifully presented sea bass ceviche with lime, chilli and jet-black sesame seeds is a welcome lighter addition to the varied offerings.
Main courses are divided into plates for one and generous sharing dishes for two. A creamy, spicy seafood laksa arrives in a huge earthenware bowl filled with rice noodles, juicy tiger prawns, fat scallops and coconut milk. Meanwhile Larkin’s twist on traditional beef in black bean sauce pairs Welsh rib eye steak with a wasabi Dijon, crispy triple-cooked chips, spring onion oil and a truly moreish black bean jus, that can (and should) be generously poured over everything – this dish is available as a 20oz sirloin sharer, too.
The duck pancakes to share are surprisingly pricey (£68 for this takeaway favourite), but when the brightly glistening slabs of hot, Peking duck arrive at the table next to us, accompanied by a duck consommé, soft pancakes, lettuce wraps, white steamed rice and triple-cooked chips, I make a mental note to try this upgraded version of an old favourite on my next visit.
For dessert, ‘chocolate’ is a dish with a minimal name concealing something far more complex; a rich and smooth dark chocolate torte, a chocolate ganache, chocolate ‘aero’, malted ice cream and shiny blobs of sharp mandarin jelly, while the syrupy honey and yuzu cake comes with a dollop of fresh yogurt ice cream and thick crisps of sickly-sweet honeycomb. The coconut ice cream served with an almond dacquoise, coffee gel and Thai basil hit just the right balance of richness and sweetness; the creamy coconutty flavours are a great way to round off a rich and spicy Asian feast.
The Usk Valley
By Jane Cook, written March 2016 hungrycityhippy.co.uk
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