The son of takeaway owners and a former MasterChef finalist, Larkin Cen is enthralling Welsh diners with his modern take on pan-Asian dishes. Katey Pigden reports
Former lawyer Larkin Cen was thrust into the limelight in 2013, when his creative Asian cooking earned him a place in the final of BBC's MasterChef. Having grown up in his parents' Chinese takeaway in Cardiff, Cen has always had a passion for food. And in January this year, he fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant.
Cen at Celtic Manor, which is situated within the Manor House of the five-star resort in Newport, South Wales, is the venue's first Asian restaurant. Following a refurbishment, it took over the site of Le Patio bistro and joined the resort's portfolio of seven restaurants.
"The Celtic Manor has a reputation for fine dining," he says. "I'm over the moon to be working with the culinary team, bringing a different Asian food experience to diners."
The 100-cover restaurant, which has a team of eight chefs, produces what Cen describes as "stereotypical dishes with a twist". Favourites such as sweet and sour chicken feature pomegranate, strawberries and kiwi in addition to the usual pineapple and pepper. The free-range chicken is cooked with crispy chicken skin and balsamic shallots.
"I like to stay true to flavours but also to do things a bit differently," he says.
Fluffy steamed bao buns are popular and are filled with roast duck, Peking sauce, cucumber and spring onions, or Korean chicken with gochujang and yuzu mayonnaise. The baos are made with strong white flour, milk,
fresh yeast, sugar and baking soda. After the mixture has been left to rest, it is divided and the buns are shaped before being cooked in a bamboo steamer. Cen was inspired to introduce baos to the menu after he tried them
in a tiny restaurant in Hong Kong and an ice-cream bao slider with salted caramel even features on the dessert list.
Crispy aromatic duck wraps with Peking sauce, cucumber and spring onions are certainly crowd-pleasers - "nearly every customer orders them," says Cen. But the chef also makes sure he listens to diners, and the menu has been tweaked a few times since the restaurant opened, with more additions expected to be introduced next month.
"I plan to keep the core and add a few more dishes," he says. "Now we're more than six months in, it feels like the right time to be a bit more experimental. We've built up trust with customers and have received some great
feedback from them."
Cen plans to introduce a modern take on chicken satay, with toasted sesame, sweetcorn pancakes, Asian 'slaw and an oriental dressing, while an Asian-style passion fruit and mango panna cotta will be added to the dessert menu. It will be served with mini meringues, mango and mint salsa and chilled mango soup.
Having originally tried a small plates concept, Cen soon realised a three-course menu feels more like part of the hotel experience for guests. He recognises the need to adapt and evolve to keep customers coming back.
"It's about keeping things fun and lighthearted, but also fresh and tasty," he says. "It's easier to manage your menus if you have a good relationship with local suppliers."
Cen previously developed Hokkei - an Asian takeaway business in Cardiff - along with fellow MasterChef finalist Dale Williams.
In 2013, Hokkei launched as a pop-up venue at the Celtic Manor for four days. The pop-up sold out each day. And despite the takeaway in Cardiff having since closed, Cen plans to open a similar concept in Bristol in the coming months.
"It was a tough ending for Hokkei. The food was popular and I wanted to cook and make people happy. It was a bad but good experience. Then the pop-up went really well and I stayed in contact with the team at the Celtic Manor. I bit their arm off at the chance."
Reflecting on how he now has a restaurant to call his own, he admits that his parents have always "found it difficult to get their head around why I wanted to open a restaurant".
"There are certainly easier ways to make a living… but you have to love what you do."
From the menu
Small dishes •Tiger prawn toast coated with almonds and black sesame seeds, sweet and sour dressing £11
•Asparagus tempura, burnt onion, 65Â°C egg £8
•Korean chicken bao, gochujang, yuzu mayonnaise £8
Large dishes •Seabass - seared bass fillet, lemongrass consommé, Asian greens, tiger prawn and pork won ton £24
•Seared duck breast - roasted duck breast with a rich coconut and tamarind sauce, bon bon of confit duck £25
Desserts •Honey and yuzu - Welsh honey and yuzu cake, yogurt ice-cream and honeycomb £7
Cen at Celtic Manor, Coldra Woods, the Usk Valley, Newport NP18 1HQ
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