When multimillionaire Martin Morgan opened his five-star hotel Morgans in 2002, it had an instant impact on Swansea. Two years on, despite increased development in the town, the 20-bedroom hotel in the town's imposing former port authority headquarters looks equally impressive. And this year it picked up the AA's 2004 Welsh Hotel of the Year award.
Entering the building through Morgans' Bar, there is a stylish balance between formality and cool. It is a mix that instantly appealed to 47-year-old head chef Chris Keenan, who joined the operation last year. "As soon as I walked in, I knew I wanted the place to be mine," he says of the 82-seat restaurant housed in the former boardroom - now a large, airy dining room decorated with the original plasterwork and a huge maritime fresco over one set of doors. "It is a special occasion restaurant," he adds.
That said, like the interior, there is a balanced tone to the dishes that steers away from out-and-out fine dining. The … la carte menu features a vegetable soup (£4.50), Carmarthen ham and melon (£6), and rabbit braised in cider with big chunky bits of leek, served with Dijon mustard and field mushrooms (£13.50). "The rabbit sells really well, and it is a comfort dish," Keenan says. "That is the beauty of this place - the room will take the mix, and the clientele will take it." He plans to bring in cassoulet in the autumn.
Other dishes, such as a mixed grill of salmon, monkfish, hake and king scallop (£18.50), appear more formal, with the fish arranged in a neat line across a large square plate. But a theme of generous portioning is apparent: the piece of salmon alone is as large as many London restaurants would serve in a single dish. "In Wales, it has to be good value," says Keenan.
With that in mind, the lunchtime menu offers three courses for only £10, while in the evening Keenan serves complimentary side vegetables and potatoes with every main dish. One of the puddings, an enormous Morgans' Pavlova (£6), could run a man over.
Keenan certainly knows his clientele. A Swansea boy by birth (and something of a local name, as presenter of a weekly food programme on BBC Radio Wales and vendor of home-made sauces to the town), he also ran his own restaurant, Keenan's, in Mumbles for more than five years before joining Morgans. He also had a stint as head chef at the nearby Oxwich Bay hotel.
His local knowledge helps to keep the customers satisfied. "I am still developing my team," he explains, "and I have some younger guys and a few Aussies who often come up with more outlandish dishes. I want to incorporate their ideas into the menu, but you can only introduce the flavours alongside something well-known."
Keenan also uses plenty of Welsh produce - lamb, beef, ham and fish - but doesn't shout about it. "It's right to use local produce, but it should just be fact," he says. Food-wise, it is about giving a Welsh finish to more classical French principles, as with a starter of rillettes of Welsh lamb with a redcurrant glaze served with leeks … la grecque (£6), or warm Brecon Blue and pear quiche (£5.50). For the latter, he puts whole chunks of cheese in the blind-baked casing to give big, melting textures when the quiche is cooked.
He also stocks Welsh cheese - "Wales's best product," he reckons - including Celtic Promise and Llanboidy. And he has advice for anyone put off keeping cheese: "It's not the easiest thing to look after, but if you just get three or four, and concentrate on them and respect them, then it works."
Tel: 01792 484848.
What's on the menu?
- Salad of French smoked chicken, green beans, sesame dressing, £6
- Almond soup (hot with crispy prosciutto or cold with grapes), £4.50
- Oriental duck spring roll with hoi sin and plum glaze, £7.50
- Warm salmon and asparagus salad, sauce vierge, £6
- Grilled fillet of local sea bass with bell pepper mash, balsamic pesto, £17.95
- Noisettes of Welsh lamb and Mediterranean salad, sautéd courgettes, roasted tomato dressing, £16.50
- Pan-fried loin of wild boar, raspberry and mustard seed jus, £15.50
- Millefeuille of asparagus with tarragon butter, £13.50
- Chocolate pot, prune and Armagnac ice-cream, £6
- Raspberry and clotted cream brûlée, £6
- Tarte tatin of figs with vanilla ice-cream, butterscotch, £6