Thursday, 24 October 2019

Chef Tom Martin - Pop Up at Little Man Coffee Co


A new wave of pop-ups, residencies and supper clubs have been trickling into the Cardiff food scene over the past couple of years and it doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon. At a time where committing to a lease for a permanent restaurant is increasingly tricky, due to the rising costs (we've sadly said goodbye to some cracking restaurants in the city this year), the kitchen takeover is proving to be a viable option for an emerging chef looking to build their brand. I can see the appeal - there’s a huge sense of freedom in it - chefs have complete control over their menu, as well as the ability to test out dishes in an intimate environment, getting face to face feedback.

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I’d noticed Chef Tom Martin's name cropping up over local social media channels throughout the past couple of months. His cooking style has been influenced and shaped through experience in some top London restaurants as well as through his work in kitchens in Cardiff, including Chapel 1877, Manor Parc Country Hotel and Holm House Hotel . He’s been the runner up ‘Junior Chef of Wales’ twice and last year was named Foundation Apprentice of the Year in the Apprenticeship Awards Cymru. The opportunity to sample his cooking arose when I received the invitation* to attend his third pop up at Little Man Coffee Co, which took place last Friday.

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This time, Tom was showcasing a seven course tasting menu featuring local produce and the finest ingredients of the season. A small room with stark decor and wooden chairs and tables, Little Man Coffee's basement area was warm and well lit, perfect for that contrast of sophisticated food and informal setting. I later found out the the kitchen had been incredibly small, which made the quality of the food even more impressive, considering the space had been less than ideal for a chef cooking so many courses in succession.


Cauliflower & Black Garlic Ketchup

This was the course that sounded least appealing, but I was shocked how much I liked it. Through attending dinners like this where there's a lot of interaction with the chefs, I'm finding out a lot about food and testing my taste-buds with dishes I'd never have chosen to try. I'm a novice with all this, so am also having fun bugging the chefs with my non-stop questions and childlike intrigue. I won't learn if I don't ask...

Tom describes this as a classier spin on cauliflower cheese, made using every part of the vegetable. The florets are used for pickling and roasting, the stems are roasted then puréed with a small amount of potato and chicken stock. The pesto is made from the leaves and then the black garlic and roasted yeast bring the dish together. All of this with that subtle nutty flavour and soft creaminess of the cauliflower - superb.


Slow Proofed Bread, Roast Chicken Butter

Tom told me this course takes him back to his favourite Sunday feast as a child, reminiscing over all those lovely smells at the dinner table; sneaking a crispy bit of skin from the chicken and dipping his mother’s homemade bread in the chicken juice.

The butter, made with rendered chicken fat, was super meaty, smooth and pleasantly salty. I was a fan, but I did find the bread a little too dense and could have done with half of the amount of it, or perhaps if it was sliced thinner. My dining partner disagreed and ate both of his slices plus one of mine.


Roasted Cabbage, Pork Broth, Smoked Snowdonia Cheese

Goodness, that has to be the nicest cabbage I've ever eaten. I am such a weird one with broths, it's a love hate relationship, but I loved this one. Tom adores Asian cuisine and there are elements of this influence throughout the menu, particularly in this dish which hes describes as his tribute to Japanese ramen noodles.

We tasted his Tonkotsu ramen broth, which was made using pork tails, cheeks and trotters. A lot of time and care had gone into this dish; the stock was boiled for 48 hours until the fat had emulsified with the broth, producing a creamy, full-bodied, steaming bowl of goodness. So you get this rich porky taste with the shredded ham hock as well, paired with charred cabbage then topped with smoked cheese, puffed pork skin, fresh coriander and coriander oil.

The sweetness was brought out nicely in the cabbage, there was this beautiful caramelised texture with those charred edges - heavenly. A comforting, hearty dish with amazing flavour.


Poached Cod, Greens & “Tartare Sauce”

The fish course is another nostalgic one, paying homage to happy afternoons when a young Tom would pop across to the local chippy for tea, back in the day where you'd also get scraps for twenty pence a bag. The cod was beautifully tender and melt in the mouth, with that moisture preserved through the gentle cooking process. Capers gave a tangy, sharp pop of flavour to each bite and added to the interesting texture mix with those scraps and greens as well. A simple and stunning dish. I probably shouldn't admit this, but someone on a table to the side of me didn't touch hers as she didn't eat fish, so I just asked if I could eat it and she said sure - happy days.


Welsh Lamb Rump, BBQ Lettuce & Anchovy

The lamb was based on the first dish Tom ever put on a menu, in his role as first Head Chef at the Brook Bistro in Llandaff. This one throws it back to the moments where he started to establish his personal style and creativity in the kitchen.

The lamb was cooked in foaming butter and served alongside a tangy barbecue lettuce, which was cooked in the fat from the lamb for more depth of flavour. There are touches of anchovy and basil in the purée on the side and soy pickled onions are tossed in as another hint towards his Asian inspiration. Lamb fat fried breadcrumbs add to the crispy textures on the outside. The generous layer of fat across the top made for maximum juiciness...I relished every bite, it was possibly my favourite of the evening.



Coffee, Cream & Chocolate 

Tom spoke about how he was always noting that the adults in the room would have coffee and chocolates at the end of the meal. He came to see it as a decadent, grown up treat and incorporated it to the menu here, putting his own twist on things by mixing the two together. I can appreciate it was well done and it was a pleasant chocolatey taste, light and not too rich, but it wasn’t my kind of dessert (I usually would opt for cheese).


Pear, Nuts & Berries

The final dish of the night was my preferred of the two desserts. Tom designed this as a sweet, dressed salad with the pears as one ingredient rather than the main component. The pears are poached, puréed and pickled and mixed in with the marinated berries, berry purée and berry granita. Topping it off are nut cream, toasted nuts and winter berry powder. A vibrant, delicious and striking dish that worked well as the finale when we were full and winding down.

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Priced at £40 per person, I believe this is fair for what you get for your money. I had a really lovely night, for me it was all pretty spot on. I also much prefer the ambiance here when trying this type of tasting menu, rather than a stuffy, overly formal restaurant. I would highly recommend keeping your eye out for whatever Tom gets up to next.

Tom's next event is fully sold out - he'll be at Mr Brightsides on 7th November serving up a 7 course welsh showcase. You can follow him on Instagram here.

Notes:
  • *I was invited to dine in return for social media coverage of the night. I was not required to be positive in my review, nor was I obliged even write a full blog, but I loved it so much I felt it deserved it.
  • I referenced this source for the first part of this write up.

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