I don’t like people telling me what to have for dinner. Anticipating the menu is half the fun, a few minutes of weighing the claims of each dish, making those decisions, playing them off against one another in your head. Delaying the pleasure: an act of culinary foreplay. A well written menu seduces.
A ‘large party menu’, then, is usually not my thing. It’s someone else’s diktat, based on convenience. Theirs, not mine. And I understand the reasons. It’s just not my preference.
But if anyone gets a pass, it’s the Bar 44 group, because they have done more than anyone in South Wales to bring the flavours of Spain to South Wales. To make the food I love, the food of my little strand of culinary heritage, popular and respected. Understood.
This wasn’t an easy thing to do. While writing about new places to eat out is the meat and potatoes of any restaurant blog, it is perhaps just as important to run the rule over established fixtures, to celebrate those who have not only stayed the course but still set a high bar. As shutters close across the area, what makes others a perennial success?
By those standards, Bar 44 is a local warhorse, so an obvious choice for a family celebration. It’s an promising menu, the Sanlúcar, at £22 a head; if you’re in the mood to indulge your inner glutton you are always free to supplement from the daily specials. I start with this intention: I am foiled.
On a Saturday ending, the place is full: of young families, older couples, large groups of friends, faintly awkward first dates.
Huge, sweet Gordal olives and habas fritas, crisp and tangy, have me teaching for the fino. There’s some top quality Córdoban chorizo which is a lesson in balancing fat and spicing, and some excellent bravas-style potatoes with a honking alioli and smoky paprika sauce.
Alex Gooch breads are typically impeccable. Padrón peppers, salted and scalded, all bitter-sweet; they are even better when others pass on the chance, leaving me with three plates to myself, though this puts a dent in my plan to try the specials (crisp squid and an ink alioli, dry aged Welsh beef with confit king oyster mushroom, that kind of thing).
Croquetas are comfort food classics: here they are no less than superb. Light, just fragile enough, just sturdy enough: a balancing act which is harder to achieve than it looks, its rich bechamel flecked with savoury little nubs of jamon. They are good enough for me to tease my mother that she has competition. They are so good, she agrees I may have a point.
They are so good they banish the memory of James Martin’s bastardised version with drizzled dressing and chunks of cheese earlier that morning.
A salad is the only disappointment: it reads very well, promising pomegranate and manchego, hazelnut and apple: sadly it is slightly over seasoned, so it loses its charm quickly. The ideas are excellent: the overenthusiastic seasoning isn’t for me, though everyone else thought it was only slightly spoiled.
The thing I’d queue up to eat again and again though? Chicken thigh pepped up with sobrassada and cooled down with spiced yoghurt. spun through with cumin, mint, lemon, coriander: it’s a deft reminder of the Northern African influence in Spanish food. It’s an impressive thing, the sort that has me mopping up the last of the sauce with a finger or two.
It’s quietly beautiful, a plate of simple pleasures.
Hake- perhaps Spain’s favourite fresh fish- is a lovely thing too, that golden batter crisp and bubbled with a bright punch of herbs in the salsa verde. It’s simple stuff, but works so well: fresh, meaty, lighter than you’d expect.
To finish, chocolate truffles- bitter and sweet, almost impossibly rich as a good truffle should be.
A friend recently tried to explain why he sticks to ‘brands’ when eating out in Cardiff and beyond.
‘I know there are better places. I know that at ‘x’ I will get a 5/10 meal. At an independent I might get a 7 or an 8. But I might get a 1 or 2. And I’d rather play it safe with a 5.’
This is the challenge faced by indies: and it’s places like Bar 44 which are the best counter to that attitude. Places like this make me optimistic about food in The region. Not just the commitment to doing things right, but the consistency. The way they have built, developed, even moved into Bristol, knowing how strong the competition would be yet having the self belief to go anyway. Long may they continue.
Bar 44 Tapas y Copas,
14 Windsor Rd,
Reservations and menu: https://www.bar44.co.uk/penarth
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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.