Review: West Coast Grill & Bar

Old Orleans in Cardiff Bay has never been a place I would have said to go to if someone asked me for restaurant suggestions. The last time I went there I still had long hair and my parents paid for my meal. From what I remember, the food was not up to much and I hadn’t felt an urge to go back since. This was 7 years ago.

The company that own the Old Orleans brand, Punch Taverns, selected 6 of their outlets and have rebrand them under a new moniker, West Coast Grill & Bar, changing the fayre on offer from deep South fiery cajun dishes to Californian style ribs and burgers.

Firstly, I’m pretty sure, and correct me if I’m wrong, that ribs and burgers aren’t especially Californian. I’d say they were more mid-Western, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio – that kind-of area; but, I suppose how do you decorate a restaurant to look like Sioux Falls, South Dakota? So I guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

The refurbishment has been done adequately, the smouldering red colours replaced with sea blue and the New Orleans style Bourbon Street signs and decorations have surfboards in their place.

We were invited to the re-launch night, a “soft launch”, so no fireworks, prowling CEOs or any of that malarchy – just a night for invited guests and the occasional walk-in, so the staff could get used to the new menu. @MisiaKuczys, @DanielGrosvenor and @CardiffBites came along with me.
The good thing about this being a re-launch is that the staff are all the same, so we wouldn’t have to deal with a whole bunch of waitstaff on their first day tripping over each other and bringing us potatoes instead of pork and margheritas instead of martinis.

The new menu is a big one and I can see why the kitchen staff would need a while to get to grips with it, with no less than 34 items available as a main course it took us a while to decide and had to ask our server to come back, twice.

Once we finally had a handle on the menu, starters were ordered in the form of two of the biggest sharers – there were 6 of us after-all. This platter, the simply named “West Coast Platter” had pretty much every starter on it – so this helped for me to sample everything so I could be fair in my review.

In true American style the prawns were dubbed “shrimp”, but surely they must be prawns since it would take a lot of effort and a hell of a lot of food miles to source and import shrimp to the United Kingdom, especially since we have an abundance of their larger brothers.
The two huge oblong plates also had on them small ribs, chicken wings, tortilla chips, corn, onion rings and sweet potato fries.

One of the first things I noticed were that the onion rings were clearly bagged and frozen, quickly deep-fried on site. TGI Friday’s have absolutely awesome onion rings – I don’t know their method, but however they do it they make them taste as though they have been prepared from scratch. The rings here were disappointing, even for the frozen kind.
On the plus side, I love sweet potatoes, who doesn’t? So having them cut into gourmet style fries, thick and crispy, was an absolute delight. They were cooked well and could have been sliced freshly? I have no reason to doubt that they were.

After our epic menu reading session, where I could have mistaken our group for a book club, we had all ordered main courses and now they started making their way to the table. I had made a joke with our server that since we were eating for gratis that I should order the most expensive thing on the menu, and she duly pointed out the “The bigger rib gig”. It’s description  “Share the stickiness for even better value; an extra large portion of the big rib gig, it’s a real belt strainer ideal for sharing”. I’m not a big eater, I like to eat “nouveau” – small portions of awesome flavourful food; but this is what the West Coast Grill & Bar is supposed to be modelled on – good ribs and wings – so what better way to get a taste of it all than to have them all on one big plate?

Out of shot: The rest of the pig.

It was a monstrosity, 3 different cuts – pulled pork, a rack of ribs, and pork hammers with corn, fries and coleslaw. Not knowing where to start, I went for my favourite piece of the pig, the ribs. The meat fell from the bone easily, as good rib meat should. The texture of the meat was smooth and succulent – no problems here, this is good quality meat. The barbecue sauce that almost all of the pork on the plate was covered in however wasn’t the greatest. Quite salty to taste and a way too sticky, as if it had congealed. Covering 2 out of 3 types of meat, this really put the good cuts of pork in a bad light; like making parsley sauce with old milk and pouring it all over nice, fresh turbot.

The pulled pork had an entirely different barbecue sauce applied to it; darker in colour and thicker in texture, but thicker as if it had been aged or a bourbon had been used to thicken it, not like the other stuff which seemed it had become thicker through being left in a bottle with no cap in a fridge for days.
Yes, this was an entirely different specimen of marinade – fruity and smooth, topping off some of the best pulled pork I have had in a long while. It literally fell apart with my fork lightly jabbing at it. Moist and succulent, it had all the flavours of the flame grill ingrained in it and the sauce covering it just topped everything off – this single piece of meat, in my opinion, saved the whole dish.

The fries that we all had on the side became a topic of conversation between the members of the group, both over the table and after the visit – yes, this is how bad they were. The West Coast Grill & Bar need to source new fries immediately. They might as well have not been there, and quite how you suck all flavour out of potatoes like they have managed to do, I have no idea. You put them in your mouth and you could have been eating anything, it was a blank canvas, they tasted of absolutely nothing. I can’t even say anything more than that; they weren’t greasy or oily, they weren’t too thick, thin or potatoey, they weren’t dry, they weren’t cold, they weren’t hot, they weren’t salty, they were actually nothing. I have never tasted anything like this before, and this was resounded around the table. Making fries is both an art and a science, one that many companies invest thousands of hours to get right – if you’re going to be putting them on the side of every dish, they need to stand up to the challenge; these do not.

After managing to finish almost everything on my plate, despite the drawbacks of the one kind of marinade (I hasten to add that while it wasn’t the greatest, it was certainly edible, and the meat was worth salvaging), it was time for the third course, dessert.
Even though I have a relatively small frame and only weigh about 10st, sometimes I can manage to put away quite a lot – not often, but I have my moments, so I went with the apple pie – a dessert you cannot get wrong, and I was right, it was great, heated to the right temperature and not overdone – it went down a treat.

The other thing that this restaurant seems to be focusing on is their cocktail menu – there was an array of good looking “fun & fruity” cocktails like “jelly baby” and “tutti frutti”, Unfortunately I’m not a “fun” cocktail drinker – I’m completely buttoned down, my favourite being a whiskey cocktail, the Old Fashioned. @DanielGrosvenor did try a milkshake, the “chocolate banoffee” – he finished it all and didn’t complain, so I assume it was good – I’m sure you’ll hear about it in his review.

Service all night was great, our server was very attentive, friendly and welcoming – giving us as much time as needed to decide; but not overbearing – making sure that we were always with drinks.

Rating 4/10

The food was mostly phoned in, better than pub food, but you’d think that as a restaurant they would do more cooking – rather than using so much ready prepared, “3663 style” delivered dishes.

Choosing a political party – head or heart?

How do you choose a political party? I was having a discussion with some friends over a pint the other day, concerning a friend of ours who is extremely liberal – but who votes Conservative because her parents do, and she wouldn’t ever consider changing her vote. To me this makes no sense, and I wonder how many other people act in a similar way and if they were to change their vote would it cause a swing?

I have also been having thoughts about my choice of political party and whether or not they suit my changing needs.

When I was 18 years old and first able to vote, in the 2003 local elections – the country had just launched a war on the nation of Iraq and tensions were running high. The Liberal Democrats were a protest vote against the war and they courted it well – they even managed to take over Cardiff council and two years later Jenny Willott (Liberal Democrat) took the Cardiff Central Parliamentary seat from the Conservatives. But at 18 I had different priorities, different ideals.
I was able to vote for whoever I wanted, since a lot of their policies didn’t affect me. I didn’t have children, I wasn’t a homeowner, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a high paying job – all of the things that are really affected by Government policy. I was able to be idealistic and vote for the party that played up to my only view – that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and totally illegal – this is why I chose the Liberal Democrats.

Now I am learning to drive, I have a well paid job and formerly owned my own company, I am due to have my first child and I will also soon be a car owner. Government policy now really affects me. If the wrong people are in power I could end up being taxed astronomically and have entitlements curbed – for example family tax credits and free school milk, both of which are under threat from the new “Com-Dem” coalition.

I will stop here and say that I think almost everything I have written previously, and will write after this, may actually be quite moot since the United Kingdom Government as it stands right now is a Frankenstein’s monster that not a single person in the country voted for, so “choose a party” in the case of the last general election is a pretty laughable concept – but I am confident that as soon as this coalition breaks down and a new election is called we will get back to the Government > opposition status quo will be re-established.

Previously I would never have considered voting Conservative – but their policies actually favour me and my situation. Voting Liberal Democrat, it’s entirely possible that in a few years time, once I hit that salary threshold, my income tax would be set at 50% and that is unacceptable. The Liberal Democrats speak to the working poor, students and idealists. Their policies cannot be favoured by successful people as they are the very people that their policies single out to be held upside-down and everything shaken from their pockets to fund lavish welfare schemes and initiatives.

I do still have my beliefs and ideals; especially when it comes to foreign affairs, I am a very apathetic person. I believe that as a well-off country we should be helping countries by providing aid, expertise and the United Kingdom should be a sanctuary for the downtrodden (i.e. asylum seekers). We have built a great nation where we can feel free from fear, repression and persecution – why should we not allow others who are not as fortunate, to bask in our welfare?
But this doesn’t conform to Tory ideals. This is very much a liberal view, so this goes back to my initial question: Do I vote with my heart of my head?
Voting Conservative will always be seen as the “selfish” vote, a vote of self-preservation, while a vote for the Liberal Democrats is seen as an idealistic vote.
This is the conundrum that I faced at the last election, and I continued as I always had, but who knows next time around?

Review: Ruby Tuesday

Going to a restaurant on its opening night is always perilous, anything can happen – the staff have never worked in this store before, probably half of them have never worked together before – all brought in from other locations or trained at other restaurants in the franchise before all being lumped together and told to get on with it.

Going to the opening night of Ruby Tuesday could have been even more perilous, being that it is the first UK location in this massive US operation. Not only have all the staff never worked in this restaurant before, but there is nowhere else for them to go to get their training out of the way – the best they could have done is some dry runs for family and friends of the franchise owners. I had been waiting for the restaurant open since it was announced back in March, I have visited many Ruby Tuesdays in the States and do enjoy their food.

It was immediately apparent that the glue sticking the team of hosts, servers, bar staff, management and kitchen staff had not quite dried yet. Servers were stood around looking quite bored, or confused, the host stand at the front of the restaurant was surrounded by a gaggle of personnel – nobody quite sure if there were any tables free, so we decided to wait at the bar while they made up their minds.

I should hasten to say that all of this I have no problem with – I was well aware that it was opening night, and I’m not being insensitive to the pressures, I am merely reporting what I experienced. We sat at the bar and finally got the attention of a bartender so that we could get some drinks menus, they were pretty backed up with drink orders from the tables that had already been seated so we sat there for ten minutes trying to get their attention to no avail so we didn’t manage to get any drinks before we were seated in a booth.

The decor in the restaurant is very understated, as is the mantra of the company “Simple Fresh American Dining” – nothing like the out and out extravagance of TGI Friday’s which is directly across the food court at St David’s. The whole place is decorated in soft, dark colours with the odd large picture adorning the wall, very easy to get on with. Evidently their food is meant to do the talking.

The menu is simple – a single sheet with about 20 or so dishes to choose from. No pictures, which delighted me, and some awesome sounding burger choices, along with steak and quesadillas, this is only a portion of the US menu  – it didn’t take long to make a choice and we were away. We did manage to get a drink order in, I had Blue Moon beer – an imported Canadian wheat beer which is served with a slice of orange on the glass. The beer was ice cold and this made it ever more drinkable. A very nice, smooth beer – I would have another one at the end of the meal, a delight.

My dining partner, the effervescent Misia – now 7 and a half months pregnant, had a lemonade, which they promise will never be less than half full, a promise the attentive staff followed through on. From the menu I chose a mini burger combo, I went with buffalo chicken and pimento cheeseburger, for £9.99 this option comes with access to the “Garden Bar” (read “salad bar”), which, once bought, you can use as much as you want during your visit. With a good selection of green salad, potato salad, cheeses, coleslaw and dressings we ate this as an appetiser.

All the produce was fresh and tasted good – it hadn’t been left standing for long, though I suppose it couldn’t have had a chance to really, with the restaurant only opening two hours before our visit. The food was delivered to the table very quickly – this would have been a bonus in most circumstances, but since we had opted for the “Garden Bar” we were still eating salad when all of a sudden we had main courses dumped on the table, so we quickly discarded the salad to stop the main course from going cold. One tip to Ruby Tuesday UK staff – if the order includes the “Garden Bar”, hold up the main courses by 10 minutes or so to give patrons a chance to actually digest (or even ingest!) their potato salad. So, with hot food staring at us from the corner of the table we moved on to the main course.

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My mini burgers looked good, I don’t call myself as a foodie – but I do like to think that I’m somewhat of an expert in the field of burgers (Look out for an upcoming feature where I try to find the best beef burger in Cardiff). The buns were soft, but not soggy. The ratio of filling to bun sizes was good (i.e. there wasn’t more filling than the bun could handle) and the chicken burger held together well when picked up from the plate. As I previously mentioned, I had ordered the pimento cheeseburger – this is a burger that is made entirely of cheese – unfortunately I was not overly impressed with this particular burger. The “patty” did not hold together well, it was very wet and broke down easily. I ended up with most of it having fallen onto the plate, easily eaten from there with a fork. The chicken in the other burger was quite chewy, definitely undercooked, but not dangerously undercooked – it wasn’t pink, but I could tell that it was only just past this point as the meat had a slight pinkish hue. The rest of the burger, the buffalo sauce, the gherkin and the lettuce really were excellent and performed a massive save, though a person with less patience would probably have sent it back to the kitchen.

My mini burgers were also purported to come with “endless fries”, although I didn’t have this explained to me so I don’t know how this works – I certainly wasn’t offered any more after I had finished all on my plate, but I’ll be honest in saying that I probably would have refused the offer anyway. The fries themselves were excellent – cooked with skins on, they were fried just to the right point, crispy and they kept their heat very well.

Misia had the parmesan chicken pasta which she indicated to me was very good, although a bit on the salty side. The portion was certainly of a decent size, though she managed to finish it all – probably because she’s eating for two. She also had dessert, her choice of the double chocolate was commended by two passing members of staff, evidently they had a chance to try the food and were impressed by this dessert, Misia was too. It did look delicious from my side of the table, but I was relatively stuffed so I made do with my second bottle of Blue Moon.

Overall we were satisfied with the food and the experience; I have no doubt that after the staff have gelled and a few busy dinner services have been completed the place will be akin to its American parent, restaurants will open in more locations around the UK and become a major player in the American imported restaurant market alongside TGI Friday’s which made the move very successfully more than 20 years ago. We will most definitely be visiting again soon, I may even pop in for a Blue Moon after work at some point.

Rating 5/10
Bill: £40 + tip

Ruby Tuesday is at St David’s Centre, Upper Eastside, Cardiff, CF10 2EF

Time to address our plastic addiction

The Welsh Assembly Government have made plans to enact law from March 2011 whereby any outlet within the confines of the Welsh border that supplies plastic carrier bags to consumers charge a mandatory minimum of 7p per bag – instead of the usual practice of giving them away for free that has stood firmly for as long as I have been alive.

Some retailers already impose a charge, in the case of the small retailers to recoup the cost of purchasing them, but in the case of department store Marks & Spencer – for environmental reasons, where the money made from charging for these previously free commodities gets put back into the local community.

The CBI, whose very business it is to challenge new legislation on behalf of UK businesses, have been sounding their tannoy – as is to be expected. They warn that consumers could be “confused” and that the levy could cause tension at the checkouts, but what is a brief explanation that “bags now cost 7p” in comparison to the environmental devastation the millions of plastic bags that are put into landfill every year causes?

It is my view that people generally do keep as many plastic bags as they can, often using them as bin-liners, and incentive programmes set-up by large supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsburys – where if bags are brought back to the store to be re-used a reward in the form of extra reward points is given – are working, but the sheer numbers that are required to stem an ongoing environmental disaster are not yet being hit.

Making a law that enforces environmental awareness is a good step forward, a step that will force the everyman to change habits of a lifetime – habits that have seen big-business as the enablers for so many years, so why should they not be the ones to break the bad news?

Big-business started giving away free carrier bags, as much for advertising as for convenience, and the world has become hooked on them. Now we all need to be held accountable and change our ways.