Perhaps this is less a review than a reminder.
After all, Bar 44’s reputation is increasingly well known across Britain, let alone Cardiff, so unless you’ve been living in a bunker (or Bridgend) you probably already know.
We are here for the new lunch deal, which runs on Thursday and Friday in Westgate St, and until Saturday in Penarth. Cardiff’s set lunch options have never been more interesting, after all.
I wrote about them recently here, with my pick of the best all-week options in the city centre.
It’s a delicate balance: get it right and you have a treat on your hands, a way to eat in a good restaurant, at an accessible price, and perhaps for the first time.
With sibling Asador 44 just around the corner and its new ‘3 courses for £30’ set lunch the reigning heavyweight champion (City Centre division), it’s unsurprising Bar 44 has followed suit.
15 choices, 7 vegetarian. Three for £20, including a drink- from a healthy list. Your only challenge is knowing which three to pick for your £20, because the menu leans heavily on a repertoire of ’44’ favourites, and many have become local classics: skilful versions of standards, supplemented by a seasonal roster of more inventive specials under the leadership of Tom Maynard and Ian Wood. (We are given a complimentary preview of an imminent addition, a crisp, golden potato pave topped with a tuna tartare take of ensaladilla Rusa- a clever riff on fish and chips. No picture, as it has been tweaked since then, but it will be popular).
Patatas bravas, which took on formidable competition in London and won, are served on a smoky pimentón sauce. That trademark tangy sherry alioli never disappoints. It would be a shame to spend such a time-consuming process making sure these triple-cooked ruffs and inlets are preserved, then drench them with sauce. So they don’t.
Jamón croquetas are as good as ever. We could argue the toss over the shape- I prefer the cylindrical home-style, though that’s hard-wired childhood memories of home, I expect- but it’s hard to quibble with how good these are, with that consummately constructed intersection of fragility and flavour. If you eat out in Cardiff, you knew that.
Tortilla has just enough wobble, but again: you knew that. It’s the classic onion and potato mixture, the cornerstone of any Spanish kitchen but served here with the restaurant flourish of an undercooked centre so Cacklebean eggs ooze sunshine on to your plate. It’s consummately well done.
Chorizo is braised into something mellow, the best thing to come out of Castilla y León since, well, my bloodline: subtle sweetness among the spice. Sticky sherry chicken, a mix of free range ‘oysters’ and thigh meat, is poached in sherry, honey and dressed with hazelnuts. It’s a perennial favourite: glossy, sticky-sweet and compelling.
Market fish wears its craggy batter lightly with smoky piquillo pepper dressing. It changes daily- ours is the quintessentially Spanish hake, but yours could be cod, whiting or pollock, picked after daily discussions with suppliers (Ashtons and Brixham’s Wright Brothers). The kitchen prioritises what’s caught as close to Cardiff as possible, so fish typically comes from the waters of Wales, Devon or Cornwall.
There we go, then. Careful sourcing, careful cooking.
But here’s the thing. I have assumed you already know this. ‘Less a review than a reminder’. After all, Bar 44 is a cornerstone of Cardiff hospitality, and often the answer to common questions. Large party booking? Bar 44. Gluten free menu? Bar 44. Vegetarian and vegan menus? Bar 44. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad report from this place. (And trust me: people love to tell me about bad meals, seemingly more than good ones. Odd but true. But I can’t recall any reasonable complaints here.)
Perhaps I’m too much ‘inside the bubble’. Perhaps, though, it’ll be your first time, even if you love to eat out.
After all, I had this lunch with a friend who often eats out in Cardiff- so often, I sometimes wonder if he owns an oven- and who turns up many an interesting find on the way, typically ahead of bloggers and their ilk.
Annoyingly, he’s also still thin enough to get away with wearing band t-shirts: I shall forgive him, because he loved this lunch, and because he often puts in the hard yards alongside me. And yet, he had never been here.
You may well be a Bar 44 regular who is yet to try this new set lunch: in which case, call it a gentle nudge in the right direction. But it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the time that goes into this menu. It’s easy to assume that over 130 seats in Westgate means an emphasis on quick and easy. And then you remember that, from the main menu, the pork belly take 3 days to make and there is a two-day process for the ox cheek.
It takes even longer to make those bravas which disappear in seconds.
Two and a half days, in fact. It’s a winning formula: the Battle of the Bravas saw them serve fifty-five portions to the paying public with five going to the judging table, where judges including Nieves Barragan and Felicity Cloake rated them against portions from Jason atherton restaurants, Barrafina, Salt Yard Group, Donostia and Victor Garvey, (now of Sola) and other substantial London names.
The majority of tapas bars will simply slice saute the sausage, add red wine and reduce. Here it starts with a high-grade chorizo, free of artificial additives, poached very gently in Asturian cider and chilled overnight. The fat is skimmed and reserved (it doesn’t go to waste, ending up in their Sunday Yorkshires) the next morning. It is now ready to be cooked to order, the reserved liquor reducing to a syrupy gloss and clinging to the chorizo.
Any Spanish home kitchen puts time into its tortilla: few, though, caramelise their onions on the hob for 4 hours, and fewer still use their own brand of olive oil, produced in collaboration with a second-generation family of producers in Grenada, to bake the sliced potatoes in strained Rama 44 oil. There is a final, secret step they believe makes all the difference. And no, I’m not telling you what it is.
Details. They’re everywhere here. Take the pringa, inspired by Bodeguita Romero in Seville, an infallible hangover cure given an unobtrusive but laborious reimagining. Duck is first cured, then confited, cooled and picked. Plump morcilla Asturiana are split and sautéed and stirred through that leg meat, all enriched with some of the confit fat. The mixture is rolled into shape and chilled overnight, ready to be sliced to order for the plancha and stacked into a challah bun.
I’m labouring a point, of course. You know that this style of Spanish cooking depends on getting the basics right. But Bar 44 wears its craft lightly.
Too lightly, I think. That thing about lights and bushels springs to mind: perhaps Bar 44 is hiding in plain view.
So perhaps there is nothing novel, nothing shiny and new here. There’s nothing headline grabbing or sexy about consistency, or taking the time to build relationships with suppliers over decades. And yet it’s what good restaurants are so often built on. And this lunch menu is more evidence of that consistency: just a remarkably consistent kitchen doing remarkably consistent things. And when you’re choosing where to spend your money today, that matters more than ever.
Bar 44 Cardiff 15-23 Westgate Street, Cardiff CF10 1DD
Bar 44 Penarth 14 Windsor Road, Penarth CF64 1JH
Wednesday: 4.30 – 5.30 pm/Thursday and Friday: 12 noon – 5.30 pm
Saturday: 12 noon – 3pm (Penarth only on Saturday)
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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.