In a nutshell
Sleek service, creative cookery, and one of the few fine-dining joints this side of the Severn Bridge, this is the kind of place that can serve tapioca crisps on a bed of pebbles and get away with it.
Located just four miles from Cardiff, James Sommerin opened his self-titled restaurant overlooking Penarth pier in 2014. Since launching his first solo venture, the chef patron has bagged three AA rosettes, an impressive Good Food Guide ranking (24) and, in January, added nine bedrooms to the restaurant’s repertoire.
After cutting his teeth on the Scottish dining scene, James moved back to his homeland in 2000 taking up a residency at The Crown at Whitebrook near Monmouth where he earned his first Michelin star in 2007. His daughter Georgia now joins him in the kitchen, along with a band of other young talent, and you’ll find wife Louise spreading Welsh charm through the restaurant as host.
What are they cooking
With fish from Cardiff fresh fish market, Barry Island veg and Cwmbran’s finest meat arriving in the kitchen each day, it’s no surprise that James’ inventive menus take a hefty dose of inspiration from the seasons. Opt for the six- or nine-course tasting menus – however many the waistband (or bank balance) will stretch to – or leave the decision up to the culinary gods and plump for the bespoke surprise offering.
For a formal venue, Sommerin’s pulls off the theatrics of fine dining without appearing too pretentious or unapproachable. With an entirely glass frontage, guests are treated to panoramic views of Penarth’s pebbly beach and out onto the Severn Estuary below, with the vista continuing into the kitchen thanks to a large framed window allowing a privileged peek into the chefs’ work space.
You won’t find a buzzy or lively atmosphere here, but then again that’s not what you’ve come for. Take pleasure in the company and food instead, and soak up those enviable views.
Starting the six-course tasting menu with a rosemary salt focaccia and a healthy smothering of homemade salty seaweed butter, there was no doubt we were in for a delicious ride.
A salad of warm, earthy beetroot topped with goat’s cheese and a littering of crisp pine nuts kicked things off to a delectable start. The fish course that followed – a meaty slither of cod perched upon a splash of deep black squid ink, al dente samphire balanced on its back, bathing in a sweet sea of foaming crab bisque – was potentially too beautiful to eat, but we were way past any level of restraint.
A cauliflower risotto with truffle and Japanese mushrooms was too bitter for us, though that was quickly forgotten once the apple tarte tatin reached the table. Sweet cinnamon-spiked apple, concealed behind a crisp pastry fort and a quenelle of vanilla cream was seen off with a rich, sticky caramel sauce (the good stuff that leaves your jaws sticking and the spoon scraping the plate for every last morsel of sugary nirvana).
Food of this standard deserves an equally decadent sidekick, so opting for the matched wine flight is a must. With a number of the bottles from biodynamic, organic and boutique vineyards, it’s well worth the extra spend on a special occasion. There’s also a good choice by the glass (we enjoyed a couple of crisp Paparuda sauvignon blancs) and a solid selection of gins for the obligatory pre-dinner drink.
Avoid the ‘but I drove last time’ saga and end the evening on a high, retiring to one of the nine new contemporary rooms above the restaurant. With floor-to-ceiling windows showering the rooms with light and offering a handsome vantage point, an upgrade to sea view is well worth the extra expense.
After enjoying some of Wales’ finest produce downstairs, the sachets of instant coffee and UHT milk seemed a little ill-fitting; but come morning, softly stirring to the sound of the waves lapping at the pebble beach below, we soon got over it.
A trip to Restaurant James Sommerin doesn’t come cheap by South Wales’ standard, but this innovative restaurant is well worth the bank balance groan for its impressive food and enviable setting.
Written by Kathryn Lewis, March 2016