Open for just over a month as I write this, Clare Road’s Al-Madina is another unadorned, uncomplicated Grangetown find. It’s not just the plastic sheet-covered tables and it-would-be-an-upgrade-to-call-it-bare- bones decor: there’s no social media, no Google listing yet, no invitation evenings with prescribed hashtags and 13 identical captions.
How utterly refreshing.
The bilingual menu- Arabic and English- includes breakfast (liver, shakshoka, eggs, beans, falafel), as well as biryani and the similar kabsa, and leans heavily toward lamb mandi with five versions of that alone. Meat or fish and rice: variations on a Yemeni theme.
That titular lamb is the headliner, then, coming in everything from individual portions to an entire quarter, all the way to a feast-sized whole. And given I’m (hopefully) wiser after what happened the last time I tackled a quarter lamb in Segovia, I’m playing it safe with the medium. Which is the smallest version, before you accuse me of not knowing my limits.
A whole leg of chicken mandi is golden from the traditional hawaij rub (a perfumed mix of cumin, turmeric, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and more). It has been steamed over the rice it is served on top of, and it’s all every bit as tender and as aromatic as you’re imagining right now.
Yes, ‘tender’ can be such a bland thing to say. But after all, ‘mandi’ comes from the Arabic nada (‘dew’) and it’s all there in the way the meat eases apart without protest. Or knife. I eat the entire plate with a spoon. And my fingers, of course, because this is not a place to stand on ceremony.
My neighbour on the next table savours his meal with gusto, beaming as he eats with busy fingers straight from the table top, rather than my lily-livered plate.
As he finishes and we talk football and food, the plastic sheet is gathered up for easily disposal and the table sprayed and wiped down. And so it goes, on and on, as people drop in, some to eat, more just to catch up, switching between Arabic and English from moment to moment. It’s as much somewhere to eat as a place to meet friends, with many a assalamualaikum as the place fills after Friday prayers.
Lamb is inevitable. That rice, again, is buttery and tender, wafting whole cardamon and studded with raisins. The meat is impeccably cooked. Again, you could eat it with a spoon, or you could pick it up and suck it from the shank. I’m not here to judge, and besides, part of the pleasure is smelling those sumptuous juices on your hands after you finish.
There’s a smoky tomato and potato stew and a strapping sauce of pulped raw tomato speckled with chillies, seeds and all. We have met these before, in the nearby Somali menu at Harafs and with Yemeni sibling Hadramowt respectively: but less familiar in this context is tahini with lemon and black pepper. Stirred through the rice, it becomes something else altogether, a final silky stroke of alchemy on what is a hugely wholesome and satisfying plate.
Ludicrously, it’s nine pounds. The chicken? Seven. And if you’re mentally ticking off what that buys you elsewhere in the city right now, I can’t blame you in the slightest.
Please don’t overlook places like this. Don’t pigeonhole them as appealing only to their own community. There is more to eating out in Cardiff than trundling back and forth between Pontcanna and the city centre. Because if there’s a central thing places like Al-Madina understand, it’s getting the basics absolutely right, time after time, to an envivable degree.
There’s such uncomplicated fun to be had here, free of fripperies and anything resembling luxuries.
Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.
Al-Madina Mandi, Corporation Road, Cardiff
Monday 3pm – 930pm
Tuesday to Saturday 2pm – 930pm
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.