As every other Cardiff institution is called the St David's something or other, the Hotel & Spa, which, needless to say, officially opened on St David's Day, is already known as the Rocco Forte in some quarters. For this is part of the renaissance of the hotelier who lost control of Forte to Granada and has been building up an impressive replacement empire. It's a big deal for him - his first newly built project in the UK, and for Cardiff - Wales's first purpose-built five-star hotel. The architect is Patrick Davies.
Just now Cardiff seems like a city on the brink of a bonanza, in a frenzy of development to make it an international attraction. The Welsh Assembly opens across Cardiff Bay later this year but construction has barely started and, until more buildings arrive, the hotel looks forbiddingly isolated, positioned to make dining there something of an expedition. It doesn't appear to be on a bus route, and the cab driver took the long way round through some of the most terrifyingly desolate urban wastelands I've ever seen.
But St David's Tides restaurant, with a chef from the classically minded Connaught Hotel in London, promised food worth going some distance for. Five-star cuisine, they were calling it at the inauguration.
Beyond the revolving door in the stunning vortex of the hotel's atrium there is no cosy corner of temporary succour in a strange city. This is because it's designed to whisk guests up to their rooms with minimum fuss. An uncomfortable-looking wire circular seat and stern-looking men in grey frock coats gave the impression this is not somewhere to sit around.
I shot into the bar and was rapidly engulfed by couples in evening dress speaking Welsh. The only words I could understand were "gin and tonic". As I tried to look inconspicuous, I looked up to see an enormously tall blonde woman in a severe white uniform looming above me and asking in a faintly Scandinavian accent what I'd like to drink. The sense of altered reality was enhanced by the arrival of a glass that appeared to be tilting at an angle to the table. The restaurant's design, by Rocco Forte's sister Olga Polizzi, may make chic references to the Sixties, but under these circumstances I knew how Patrick McGoohan felt in The Prisoner. The tone of the room seemed to change slightly every five minutes or so, which I eventually realised was the unsettling effect of the kitsch backlighting behind the bar switching from pink to blue to green. Later, the reflection of these garish colours in the restaurant's wraparound windows overlooking the harbour enhanced the view of the neighbouring Harry Ramsden's and the Atlantic Wharf Leisure Village.
My sanity returned when the couple I'd been waiting for arrived and this fabulously groovy-looking but unnervingly mood-altering bar became, with company, an enjoyably unlikely venue for a reunion. But moving a few feet into the restaurant, events took a different course. Our table wobbled perilously - not, like the tilting glasses - deliberately. The man who took our order performed a look-no-hands act by not writing it down, but if they're cool enough to memorise, the staff should also make a mental note of who ordered what.
Starting on an upbeat note, the warm bread was good, though we weren't offered seconds. On a cautiously composed menu of sound ingredients with few distinguishing features, the most daring combination, pan-fried duck foie gras, savoury Welshcake, caramelised endive, sauce aigre doux - sweet and sour - also sounded the most resistible. Other nods to the host nation included Welsh goat's cheese, and the unspecified Brecon game in a terrine. Salmon with citrus dressing, and cappuccino of sweetbreads and langoustines were our other starters. There was disappointingly little added tang or zest or interest to any of these. My guests scraped their plates searching for it. I dug deep into the soup where, under hot frothy cream, the pieces of precious sweetbread lurked, along with seafood that somehow lacked succulence.
Lamb with couscous was prettily arranged, but my friend observed that this made her imagine every morsel had been manhandled. Superb venison - as medallion-like as Tom Jones' chest jewellery - with blackcurrants, came underpinned by sawdusty celeriac puree and potato rosti. I passed half the meat over to one of my rural companions, who was still rather peckish after his pleasant but pale assiette of grilled fish surrounding a skein of pasta.
At last some flavour, said the horny-handed one connecting with his fine lemon tart and strawberry ice cream from a rather pedestrian list of desserts. A two-tone chocolate parfait, and an "exotic" fruit salad of pineapple, melon and mango, with a couple of strips of lemon-grass across it, were not an unusually thrilling ending. Though the wine list had been presented in a metal folder, the bill - pounds 34 a head without service - came in regressive leatherette, as if they'd lost the will to go on being modern and reverted to tradition.
A jazz trio, the cocktail cabinet lighting, and coffee and petits fours kept up the tempo in the bar until the end of the evening, but any enthusiasm which we may have felt originally for the Tides restaurant had, by this time, ebbed away
Tides restaurant, St David's Hotel & Spa, Havannah Street, Cardiff Bay (01222 454045). Lunch and dinner daily. Set-price lunch pounds 14.50 two courses, pounds 19.50 three courses. All cards.Reuse content