Food hygiene ratings; excuses for low scores are a cop out and I can prove it, with my 5/5 rating

Guest blog from my partner, Misia (@safetypin_)

It was reported today that Adonis Kebab House in Cardiff has closed following an E.coli outbreak. Five people were affected – one was hospitalised. As far as I’m concerned, this simply isn’t acceptable.

E.coli is easily preventable in cooked food. If fresh food is stored and cooked properly and preparation areas are kept clean, it is highly unlikely that an E.coli contamination will break out. But Adonis is not unique in its failure to sell uncontaminated food. A quick Google search will reveal a staggering number of UK restaurants that have been forced to close after being linked to E.coli outbreaks.

It’s important to remember that E.coli is a serious disease. The infection primarily causes severe and painful gastrointestinal problems, but other complications can arise as a result of the infection. It can necessitate hospitalisation even for fit and healthy adult, but E.coli can be fatal for those who are already physically vulnerable. A pregnant woman who contracts E.coli has an increased risk of miscarriage or premature delivery. Children and the elderly are especially susceptible to developing hemolytic uremic syndrome; the symptoms of which include a low red blood cell count, a low platelet count and kidney damage, which can ultimately lead to death.

Many of us have heard the story of Mason Jones, a boy who died after contracting an E.coli infection in 2005, aged five. The outbreak of E.coli that killed Mason Jones was traced back to a local butcher who failed to meet basic food hygiene standards. This story is a sobering reminder that all the recent discussions about the Food Standards Agency food hygiene ratings aren’t just a big fuss over nothing. The FSA hasn’t designed this scheme for fun. It’s there to protect people; to prevent new cases like that of Mason Jones – which is why I’m always furious when I read a quote from a restaurant owner making excuses for their low food hygiene rating.

The most common excuse is that the restaurant failed “on a technicality”. I can say with complete confidence that there is no “technicality” that could leave an otherwise clean and safe food premise with a rating lower than 3. The reason I’m so certain that this is true is that I’ve recently been through an inspection from the Cardiff Council Food Safety Team myself. I’m in the process of setting up a food business in a residential kitchen, but the guidelines are exactly the same as for those working in a professional kitchen (and, for anyone who’s interested, we received a rating of 5. It’s really not hard to achieve).

The guidelines are simple. A booklet filled with information on how staff should keep themselves clean, how food should be stored, how to keep the kitchen clean, how to ensure that food is cooked properly and how to prevent pests is provided, and it is required that every staff member signs to show that they have read the booklet. The booklet is detailed but simple – it’s designed to be understandable even to those with a limited understanding of English. Most people would already do all of the things listed in the booklet instinctively – storing raw meat away from fresh vegetables, washing your hands before and after handling food etc. – but the fact that you’re required to have read it before opening a business ensures that nobody has any excuse to neglect to do any of these things.

The only part that could be considered a technicality is the record-keeping. The council inspector confessed during our meeting that one of the main reasons restaurants don’t receive scores of 4 (good) or 5 (very good) is that they don’t keep a record of what happens day-to-day in their kitchens (though I’d like to stress that he did also tell us that you can’t get a rating of 2 or lower based only on that). While this in itself isn’t going to affect the quality of the food, it’s still a very important part of running a food business. Kitchen workers aren’t expected to write an essay each day – all that’s required is that they sign to say that they’ve cleaned the kitchen and checked for any problems, and that they make a note of any issues that arose that day and how they were resolved. It takes less than two minutes to fill out and it ensures that everyone can see that they are complying with the food safety rules they promised to follow when they started trading.

So when a restaurant receives a low score and blames it on a technicality, this can only mean one of two things: Either they’re lying – and they haven’t actually been keeping their kitchen clean and safe – or they simply can’t be bothered to take a few minutes a day to prove that they are doing everything correctly. I would never choose to eat in a restaurant that does either of these things. For obvious reasons, I would avoid any establishment where I can’t be guaranteed food that has been safely cooked, but I would be just as likely to steer clear of somewhere that doesn’t take their duty to keep track of what’s happening in their kitchen seriously. If they’re that lax with such a simple task, where else might they be slacking?

I believe that we all have a right to know how committed a restaurant is to serving safe food to their customers, and I don’t think any of us should eat in a restaurant that has a score lower than 3 (generally satisfactory). I implore people to continue to name and shame the restaurants that are failing to meet the standards we should be able to expect, whether that’s because they genuinely aren’t doing the things they should be doing or because they simply aren’t willing to put in the time to prove that they’re doing everything right.

I don’t particularly want to have to deal with an E.coli infection myself, but with a young son the importance of knowing that the food I buy isn’t contaminated is more important than ever. All I require from a restaurant owner is that in exchange for the money I’m paying, you can assure me that you have done everything in your power to make sure that it’s safe for me to eat. And, let’s face it, that is not something I should have to ask for.

To find out the food hygiene rating of any UK restaurant, simply search for the restaurant here




Review: Cote Brasserie

I like Cardiff Bay. I lived there for a while and it was pleasant, but lacking in community – but I guess that’s what you get when you build 10,000 plaster of Paris carbon copy apartments into a new area that’s inhabited solely by chain restaurants.

Cote Brasserie opened in November 2010 to little fanfare, taking over the spot previously filled by the “The Bay”, a Chinese restaurant which – despite being right on the “Sunset strip” of the Bay – always seemed to be closed or empty.

Cote Brasserie is a British owned chain of faux French restaurants with dining areas dressed up to look like Café René from “‘Allo ‘Allo”, because that’s what all French restaurants are like, right?

We walk in at 7:30pm, and the first thing I notice is that the dining room is half empty, with diners dispersed sparsely over the 30 or so tables that they have. The second thing that I notice is something I don’t think I have ever seen in a restaurant before; some of the empty tables weren’t completely empty – they were being rough ridden by dirty plates and glasses, complete with leftovers and everything.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure the golden rules in the “front of house handbook” include;

  1. Never start clearing plates before everybody on the table is finished eating.
  2. Wait to be asked for the bill, don’t offer.
  3. Clear plates before bringing the bill.

From what I know about restaurant etiquette, there should never arise a situation where a patron is paying their bill over finished plates of food, dirty knives and forks and empty glasses of wine. But here we have it (and not only at one table) – we’re talking at five or six tables. I could immediately tell that service at this place was going to be “different”.

Despite the numerous empty tables, and those that were “otherwise occupied” by our dirty friends, we were told to come back in half an hour – alright, perhaps they’re busy and want some time to sort themselves out – it looks like they need it – so we go for a walk around the bay, to check out the new bridge that’s being built over to the BBC production studios.

We come back at 8 o’clock, and to our surprise nothing has changed. The same half a dozen tables are still in the same state, and the manager who asked us to come back has completely forgotten who we are, staring at us blankly when we said we were back. We’re told to “take a seat over there”, with an extended arm point to the corner of the restaurant, a table set up for 6 people. Bewildered, we head over to this table and sit awkwardly as we’re unsure what exactly we’re doing. Are we being seated, or are we being told to wait while a table is prepared? Do we take our coats off and get settled in, or are we going to be on the move again soon? We peruse the menu with uncertainty, I resign myself to ask after a few minutes.

“We’re just preparing a table for you,” the waitress clarifies when I ask. The whole experience so far has been nothing short of a shambles; it’s as if the place opened a day ago with staff who have never worked a day in a restaurant in their lives. Perhaps they hadn’t? I wouldn’t be surprised.

So, eventually we get shown to a table – huzzah! I’m prepared to reset and start again with an open mind. The dining area is bright and open, and the windows have been replaced since Cote moved in with big French windows which can fold open completely in the summer – I imagine this would be a pretty good spot during an event in the Oval Basin.

We got a glass of house red wine each, but at £4.50 a glass, in hindsight we would have been better off getting the bottle (in fact, we rarely buy single glasses; I was “off alcohol” at the time, so I was only intending on having one glass – something I wouldn’t follow through with, but I digress).

So, we had a good look at the menu and Misia was very happy to see foie gras in the list of starters – she’s forever complaining that she doesn’t have enough foie gras in her life (sometimes I swear she’s the cast off of some aristocratic family, with her penchant for expensive delicacies). I kept it simple, opting for the soup of the day, which was something with celeriac – I didn’t actually catch exactly what it was. We also chose our mains, the lamb shank for me and a half a chicken for Misia.
The grills menu looked pretty good, with choices of steaks with a multitude of sauces, but alas, I just had to try the lamb, if only to find out what a “veal and rosemary sauce” was like.

Our starters came out quickly and were tasty; Misia, usually hard to please, says it’s one of the best examples of foie gras that she has eaten, and the soup was of good consistency. I’m sure the secret ingredient was cheese but I couldn’t pinpoint it and I didn’t ask so I guess we’ll never know. Maybe one day I’ll write a book following my quest to find out what the soup was that I had at Cote brasserie, embarking on a round-the-world trip following clues to locate the chef that was on that day, eventually finding him in a remote jungle in north-west Burma, and he’ll tell me that it was in fact cheese all along.

Starter plates cleared out, and my six week run of abstinence abruptly ended as we ordered our second glasses of wine. Mains were up pretty soon, might I take this opportunity to tell you that the initially ramshackle service we had received has by now picked up, the restaurant is mostly empty now though.

My lamb shank looked good, in a “veal and rosemary sauce”, it’s always good to have an assortment of baby animal products on one plate – give me a suckling pig too, please!
Lamb is very easily overcooked, I did it myself so often that I gave up and leave it to Misia or the professionals now. I’m pretty sure that at one point in my life I lived primarily on a diet of overcooked, dry lamb. That was a very low point. Luckily, this chef knows how to do it properly and it fell from the bone like it was dying to get away.
The sauce was full of flavour, and not of oily fat as can sometimes happen. The rosemary was particularly evident, although there was some kind of berry in there too which made for a sweet taste.

Misia’s chicken looked pretty damn good too, a “Breton” chicken, for what it’s worth; “Corn fed and reared in the heart of Brittany”, so, a snooty upper class chicken. But in all seriousness, it wasn’t anything special. Without the garlic butter, the chicken was lacking in flavour, and the meat was a hair’s breadth off overdone.

Creme caramel for me and creme brulee for Misia is what we chose to round off with. Misia is something of a creme brulee conneiseuer, so if this stands up to her test then it must be a testament to how good it is – but it wasn’t, “a bit gloopy” apparently. I’m not so hot on desserts – I don’t have too much of a sweet tooth, as I think I’ve mentioned before. It was typical of a bought-in dessert, so I suppose I won’t be offending any of the restaurant staff by saying that it wasn’t anything special. A decidedly average end to an average meal really.

There’s nothing left to say really, our impression had been tainted from the moment we stepped foot into Cote Brasserie. It’s a chain and you can certainly tell. There’s just no passion, not even any fake passion like you get at other chains. Would I eat here again? Not likely, considering the other options available at similar prices in the same area.
My one line verdict; “If this was a pub, the food would have been good. As a restaurant, the experience went from harrowing to somewhat adequate and the food was lacking in ‘Je ne sais quoi'”

Rating: 3/10
Bill: £61.80

TGI Friday’s 25th Birthday

TGI Friday’s are celebrating their 25th birthday this year, and Dan from Clic and me were invited down to help them to celebrate in style.

Our top tip from the night is to seek out a bartender called “Dan” (pictured above with oranges in his hands) and get him to make you an Old Fashioned. Made of dissolved sugar with bitters then adding whiskey and a twist of citrus rind,  I have sunk many of these whiskey cocktails while on my travels, but it’s bloody typical that the best should be so close to home. Between Dan & I we attempted to try every whiskey cocktail on the menu, which did – except for one, but none could beat the Old Fashioned.

We also got to sample the new double glazed Jack Daniel’s ribs, and I would definitely say that one of my favourite dishes here has gotten better. Jack Daniel’s sauce is divine anyway, but coupled with meat that falls from the bone – it’s a definite winning match.

Fire alarms, dozens of cocktails, a chance to go behind the bar and make our own cocktails, party poppers on the hour – every hour, champagne at midnight – we were shown a good time and we soaked it up.

TGI Friday’s is at St David’s shopping centre & Newport Road in Cardiff.

Le Gallois: The final review

In a previous post I noted that Cardiff does not have a single Michelin starred restaurant, and this is still true – Le Gallois comes close, with three AA rosettes – and in my opinion it should have been handed the award; it certainly fits the criteria.

We have only eaten out together once since Tristan was born last year, and that was when a large group of us went to a tacky chain restaurant, so to make our first night out together since October special I proposed that we go to Le Gallois – long rated as one of Cardiff’s best restaurants, situated in leafy Pontcanna.

So we got dressed up and headed down there, I booked early in the week and I’m glad I did – it was fully booked and we wouldn’t have got a walk-in table. The same went for Saturday, I found out as I spoke to the maître d’ – who was actually Francis Dupuy, the restaurant owner.

As we were shown to our seats, walking through the dining area revealed how exposed the restaurant is, with an airy feeling that would be a pleasure to visit on a warm summers day – the frontage having large plate glass windows to let in all available sunlight, to be absorbed by the beech hardwood floors.

I immediately asked for the wine list – knowing it would not disappoint, being a fine French restaurant – and I was not wrong. The wine cellar is expansive, featuring bottles from around the world, and of course, a whole range from all regions of France.
Wine can make or break a restaurant experience, in my opinion – so choosing wisely essential. If you choose a wine that you are not used to, for example that is too dry, that can taint your palate and skew your taste of the food that you eat.

I settled on a Bordeaux, St Julien 2004 Les Chavaliers Des Templiers  a medium sweet red wine that would compliment the red meat dishes that we both had pretty much settled on even before we arrived.

We would go on to order, but not before being presented with a glass, that can only be described as a shot glass, containing a hot spinach-based liquid that was bright green, but a marvellous way to start.

To start, I had chosen Hereford snails and Misia the foie gras. I am an advocate of the consumption of snails – in the shell being my favourite way of having them served, but in this case they were presented out of the shell in a sauce, cooked to perfection – tender, but not soft.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was very relaxed; I have been to many fine dining establishments and often uptight is not the word – you daren’t put your feet in the wrong position for feeling that you’re being judged, but in this case the clientele was a mix of young and older couples, totally non-threatening, and an air of chattiness kept up so that you wouldn’t be afraid to talk at your normal volume level.

After having our starters taken away, Misia made a point of telling me how good the Foie Gras was – all the while being kept topped up with wine, we had some time to continue to chat before being served our main courses – I had particularly wanted the woodland pork belly, and Misia chose venison.

The dish that I was served consisted of a strip of pork with a delectably hardened strip of crackling left along the top and glazed with sauce, also presented with it was a creamed potato (I don’t think I could really call it mash), swede fondant and a small plop of chutney.
The pork had been cooked to perfection, after making it through the suitably crispy cracking my knife slipped through like I was cutting butter – a very good sign of what was to come.
On first taste the flavours come dashing through – oak, berries, smokey charcoal all rushing to the tongue, following that comes the texture; smooth and not chewy in the slightest – all the signs of a very well cooked piece of premium pork.
I was surprised at my liking of the swede fondant, for I usually find swede very boring and not an vegetable that’s able to hold its own, but as it was I would say it was a perfect accompaniment to the pork.

We were having a good time thus far – we’d definitely made the right choice of venue for our special night out. We were enjoying the food and each others company, and we were also being looked after very well – never devoid of a glass of wine each, our glasses being watched by hawk-like restaurant staff for the perfect time to refill. Keeping me topped up is a wise thing; if I go dry for too long then I start to get tetchy.

I like a good dessert wine, it helps to bridge the gap between main and dessert – makes it less of a big jump from savoury to sweet. Le Gallois has a good selection of dessert wines, and I went with the
Maury Solera 1928; Misia chose Muscat Nuy Wynkelder 2006. This reminds me that I need to get some dessert wines for the house, the Maury Solera was delectable, very strong – a true palate cleanser.

Suitably happy, dessert time had arrived – I’m not one for too much sweetness, unfortunately – I have more of a taste for savoury treats, so I had chosen the cheese board to finish with; not an uncommon choice, you’ll know if you’ve been in my company before. Mr Dupuy reeled off a list of cheeses to me, of which I could choose five – though my preference is to have only a few, for too many distinct tastes can distract me and I end up not enjoying the individual cheeses as much, so I just chose two – a Cornish cheese that resembled Roquefort in look and texture, which I was informed is made on a tiny farm, and that only a small amount is made each year – and the other was a soft cheese, a brie of which I unfortunately cannot remember the name. The green veined Roquefort-imposter was delightfully strong, and crumbled like chalk on the slightest touch just how I like it to, the taste of the age hitting the back of my throat, letting me know in no uncertain terms – “I’m a good cheese, and I’m here to cap off your night”. The brie helped to calm down my sensory system, complimenting the green cheese and taking away some of the residual strength left on my breath.

My board and Misia’s plate were taken away after we had signalled we had finished, which wasn’t hard to notice really – since I had devoured almost all of what was probably near a quarter kilo of cheese, along with crackers and biscuits.
We were offered tea or coffee, but declined – it was getting late, we had arrived at 8pm, and in a whirlwind of culinary delight, laid-back humourful conversation and being in such relaxed surroundings we had managed to while away three hours, and it was just after 11pm, surely one of the longer dinners that we have had, and without even noticing it – we were both surprised when we found out the time, a true sign of a good date.

Our coats were fetched, polite conversation was exchanged with Mr Dupuy about how we had enjoyed our evening – he asked what we were going on to do now, and I told him that since we were in such good spirits that we would take a walk to Chapter for a nightcap, seeing as it was a Friday night and they would be open for a while longer.

This evening was less of a meal and more an experience, how food should be done – Mr Dupuy clearly understands how to create this mix and how important it is to treat customers like royalty, and that no detail should be overlooked in the quest to make every patron feel special. Everything about Le Gallois had been well thought out, from the art on the walls to the knives and forks, lighting and especially the service – which was unlike anywhere else in Cardiff, the standards have been brought from Paris and high-society establishments in London and to lose Le Gallois is a real blow to the city. If nobody influential in the city tried to talk him out of it, then they don’t understand how to build a reputation of a good city.

Will Le Gallois be bettered? Not soon. Will other try? Yes, they already have – with The Crown Social at the Parc Hotel having opened just a few weeks after the closing of Le Gallois. Will they get the recognition that Le Gallois did? Not quickly, and not without a fight.

Bill: £152 inc. tip.
Rating: 10/10.

Le Gallois closed its doors for the final time seven days after our visit – on February 5th 2011.

Review: Boof rotisserie & grill

I can sometimes be hypocritical in my musings, but I think that’s only human – as long as it doesn’t happen too often.
I advocate  local business over chains, especially when it comes to eating out. The food at chains is usually daudry, plain and shipped in frozen – but on this blog I have still reviewed places like Ruby Tuesday.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Ruby Tuesday – and I think it may even be an exception to the rule because it’s Cardiff branch is the only one in the UK and is run by a pair of Welsh businessmen who bought into the franchise – so technically it’s independent, right? Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself to make me feel less like a sell-out. Their food is good though, and definitely not shipped in.

Anyway, I talk about chains but this review is not of one – but Boof is situated in the domain of the chain, inside a shopping centre. Adjoined by a chain baked potato place and a chain chocolatier, directly across from a chain coffee shop and a chain sushi restaurant, it’s firmly in the land of big business.

Boof opened at the same time as St David’s 2 – in October 2009 – and is owned by the team who ran the stylish and classy Le Gallois in Pontcanna until their decision to close down a few weeks back. Boof remained open and has appeared to be doing quite well since; the majority of tables are taken whenever I walk past – granted there are probably only about 12 tables – but still, that’s not bad for an unknown. When people go to eat at a shopping centre they stick to what they know – this is why the mall concept does well; familiarity and well known brands all under one roof.

Boof intrudes on this party and seems to be doing quite well for it. They have the mall concepts figured out too, a simple menu with familiar favourites – burgers, steaks, salads – and the service is quick too, with our food delivered to the table within a couple of minutes.

We all chose the Boof burger, with varying degrees of cheese and bacon – not being a fan of bacon I opted just to have cheese.

The first thing you notice is the cheese, in fact – you can’t even see the beef for the dairy – all melted over the patty, whitish in colour, proving that it is indeed cheese and not a single wrap slice made in a factory out of pencil sharpenings.
Once you do get to the burger however, it is different. Good different. It’s very hard to describe, I haven’t had another burger like it on my burger conquest (post coming soon!)  – it has to have been ground in a very different way, a method that I have not come across before. Here, look at it:

It’s too tightly packed, too well formed – it’s as though the beef has never been minced. Answers on a postcard please, if you think you know the method to making this type of burger.

Anyhow, once I got past the make-up of the patty I could really enjoy the food. The cheese, beef, moist lettuce and seeded bun all seemed to work together very well. The burger wasn’t too moist, but also not too dry – although I’d probably say it was closer to the dry side than not, but that’s generally fine, a little longer and it would have been overdone.
In my burger conquest post you will hear me rant about burgers that are gratuitously  large, bigger than they need to be in order to satisfy the “bigger is always better” mentality that has seeped into consumers expectations – that if the burger is not massive and popping out at the sides, and holding the bottom and top parts of the bun 10 inches apart then it isn’t a good burger. The Boof burger doesn’t suffer from this, but it fills you up and you will leave happy.

Fries, fries, fries. Fries are a real wildcard, is something I have learned on my burger conquest (post coming soon!). No two establishments have the same method around making, cooking and storing and presenting their fries (or chips), and this makes for some very interesting analysis. With Boof’s fries, the little holder is a nice touch, I think – especially with the little ketchup receptacle on the side, it saves wastage as I’m a real “big splodge, use hardly any” kind-of guy. The fries themselves were hot, straight from the fryer and crispy – just how you would expect them to be. All too many times I have been presented with soggy, nearly cold fries – and this is a real turn-off. So, Boof fries = 8/10.

Service at Boof is odd – semi-table service is the name of the game here, a waiter seats you – but refuses to take your order, you order and pay at the counter, and then the waiter who seated you brings you your food. I can kind-of see how this works to cut staffing costs, because then patrons do not have to wait to get the attention of the one waiter who is on shift to order food or drinks or to get or pay the bill – it’s all done at the counter. In fairness, the more I think about it now the less uncommon I am realising it to be – it’s  just the same as at a pub, except with somebody seating you first.
Food arrived relatively quickly, i.e. not in a second like at a Wetherspoons – which usually denotes microwaved produce, but still quickly enough for us not to think “where is our food” and the service was pleasant.
We took Tristan with us and there was a choice of highchairs – in fact, this was the first time he had ever been in a highchair so we tried two of them, the server was good enough to bring each of them to us to try.

Rating: 7/10
Bill: £21.90