Update July 2011: the Volcanic Steakhouse has closed.
The essence of eating out, it might seem, is to employ an expert to cook your food and present it to you. Indeed, it’s a well-established concept, exemplified in almost every other review Matt and Cat have undertaken – the sorry exceptions being the very few places where one is obliged to employ an incompetent to ruin one’s food.
Clearly, people will pay handsomely for the normal, professionally-administered eating experience. How can it be, then, that in some restaurants they will also pay as much – if not more – for the privilege of cooking their own food? The Volcanic Steakhouse in Newport’s Holyrood Street is such a place: the special feature of this restaurant is that diners cook their steak upon a hot volcanic rock on the table in front of them. It’s one of those ideas that sounds intriguing – but is it just a gimmick, or would it make for a good meal? Matt and Cat set out to put the Volcanic Steakhouse to the test.
Outside the Volcanic Steakhouse the elegant Georgian frontage of Holyrood Street was decorated with some decidedly down-market signboards. A temporary sign was flapping illegibly in the breeze, and gaudy notices of a style found more often decorating market stalls advertised ‘The Ultimate Dining Experience’. There was no menu or price list displayed, but M & C were hungry and determined. They were undeterred by the wholly rude street scene, and soon found that the interior was a complete contrast. A spacious, clean and newly-decorated restaurant lurks inside, bedecked in a tasteful and sympathetic manner. A friendly waitress sprung forward and began chatting in a most welcoming way. Very soon your reviewers were installed at a comfortable table nursing drinks. Returning, the waitress established that her charges were hot rock virgins. She explained the process – with very good grace and enthusiasm given the fact that she doubtless has to rehearse this speech about twenty times per night.
This is the set-up. A hot rock is heated in a big oven, and brought out to the diner with their choice of steak on it. The steak is already seared – not raw, as some might expect – so it is in fact fit to eat right away, if you like your meat rare. Assuming you don’t, then you leave the meat on the hot rock until it’s done to your liking. Or you can take it off the rock and cut bits off, cooking them on the steaming rocky rectangle a bit at a time. All steaks come with salad and chips, and up to eight dips. The short menu was delightfully simple: rump steak, fillet steak, sirloin steak, king prawns, salmon, tuna, scallops, and even an unexpected veggie option of halloumi and pineapple. There were also a few specials – a Jack Daniels and honey dip, no less, lamb steaks, and ‘surf and turf’ (four prawns) for an extra £5. Cat snubbed her nose at her usual fillet steak and ordered tuna at £14.95. Matt took a deep breath and ordered the 20oz rump steak at an eye-watering £23.95.
After just a few minutes of enjoying the classy interior, the food arrived. Of course – there was no delay in the kitchen, the cooking was going to happen on the table! What a spectacle the arrival of the hot rocks proved to be. Sizzling and steaming, the weighty stones landed on the table in front of the eager diners. A cute little flag on each slab of meat advised them not to touch the rock – a warning that was hardly necessary as the radiant heat was obvious. Cat’s tuna was a big, thick slice, bubbling gently on its plinth. Matt simply beamed with delight as his vast rump steak dribbled juice down the edges of the hot rock, the irresistible smell of cooking beef rising into the air. For presentation and drama, it would be hard to better the arrival of this meal. Alongside came the dips, a big bowl of really good, thick, fresh chips, and a decent salad to share. A pot of onion rings was available, and M & C were just about to make their usual protestations about raw onion when the obvious dawned upon them. Raw onion need not remain raw when a hot rock is to hand. These onion rings were intended for cooking! Soon the smell of freshly-cooked onion was also rising to join the meaty miasma.
Eating the feast was as splendid an experience as it promised to be. Matt’s steak was delicious, and perfectly prepared: not a scrap of rind or chewy stuff was to be found. Cat’s tuna was similar. Both diners made a good start on the meat before yet another feature of the Volcanic Steakhouse became apparent. The attentive waitress, noticing her charges had nibbled their way well down the supply of extras, returned with an offer of more chips and salad. Would there be a charge? Certainly not. Matt and Cat agreed with pleasure – they’d have more please. In a trice the side-dishes reappeared, replenished with more fresh hot chips and salad. The diners finished their meal in the comforting certainty that they’d do so without a danger of running low on chips and salad. When, finally, the dessert menu of tempting home-made waffles arrived, it was all M & C could do to weakly wave it away and settle on a cup of coffee to aid digestion.
Tuna steak £14.95
20oz rump steak £23.95
By that time, as they supped their coffee in replete satisfaction, your reviewers observed the restaurant filling up. For a mid-week night, it was pretty busy, and the bustling staff were giving their enthusiastic attention to every diner alike. Another side effect of this influx of people was an increase in the smoke levels – in fact, the room soon began to fill with the smoke and steam from dozens of delicious steaks sizzling on hot rocks. Imagine, if you will, sitting in a kitchen where twenty steaks are sizzling on a skillet. Perhaps those sensitive to such an atmosphere – or particularly squeamish vegetarians – might be best advised to enjoy the hot rocks experience early in the evening.
Strolling back out into Holyrood Street with cheerful farewells ringing in their ears, Matt and Cat reflected on an unexpectedly enjoyable experience. The venue’s temporary signage belies a really exciting and interesting eating experience. The fun of cooking your own food is indeed worth the money. Although the main dishes were priced quite high, there were no hidden extras – and nobody would dream of ordering a starter. Matt and Cat’s meals and drinks came to a total f £45.40. Did you get that, Lugleys? You don’t pay extra for your vegetables here. In fact, you can have as many more as you want, all inclusive. So overall it’s not bad value. Drinks too, were reasonably priced. What’s more, it had some really great service: friendly, well informed and attentive. This one gets top marks.
Update: Matt and Cat paid another visit in May 2009, finding the menu expanded and changed. Gone is the tuna (not popular enough apparently) and instead there is salmon, and even, amazingly, a veggie option of halloumi and pineapple. Although any veggie dining there would need to be pretty indifferent to the smell of roasting, dripping steaks!
Update July 2011: the Volcanic Steakhouse has closed.