We all enjoy a game of Bullsh*t Bingo, don’t we? Those interminable in-work meetings during which your last hope of clinging to sanity resides in ticking off those clichés as they dribble like effluent from the highest-paid person in the room. You sit, buttock-clenched, checking off those old ‘favourites’. Moving forward from. Drilling down into. You’ll have your own cherished few examples of buzzword bellendery, I’m sure, but one which always provoke a roll of the eyes, a curl of the toes and a tightening of the jaw is brand building, particularly when used in a glib, self-aggrandisingly glib manner by some sub-Apprentice twerp.
(Disclaimer: the above is purely hypothetical, and has never happened to me. Honest.)
The restaurant business is famously fickle and a new enterprise notoriously difficult to steer through choppy waters so (here comes that word) branding counts. Or put slightly differently, a hard-earned reputation for great food won’t do you much harm. If your Cowbridge branch is currently the Good Food Guide’s Readers’ Restaurant of the Year for Wales, you have amassed a great deal of good will and there’ll be plenty of local awareness of your high standards. Brothers Tom and Owen Morgan have clearly invested a huge amount here, but few independent restaurants in South Wales can rival their track record; and in appointing head chef Manuel Monzon, with his wealth of experience of everything to Michelin-starred fine dining to country house luxury, they clearly mean business.
The restaurant- on the site of the former Pica Pica and the shortlived Feather & Bone- has seen an elegant refit. It’s very much a game of two halves, Brian: the bar is all ceramic tiles and hanging jamones, while the dining room makes a feature of the vaulted brick ceiling and many reminders of Bar 44’s reliance on traditional produce. There are two kitchens, too: ‘La Despensa’ next to the bar serves typical bar tapas, while ‘La Cocina’ produces plates more suited to the seated dining room. It’s a seamless nod to the new Spain and its more classical forebears, and the team should be congratulated on creating distinct ambiances within a compact space, while retaining that telltale patina of understated refinement. Attention to the smallest detail is clearly of some importance here, as is the foregrounding given to carefuly-sourced produce, from barrels of the Morgans’ beloved sherries to luxurious legs of ibérico bellotta ham and their own pale ale Toro Blanco, brewed in collaboration with Kite.
The menu is packed full of the dishes which have made their name. After dabbling with still-warm bread and oils and some fat olives, we ordered (very) liberally, with the kitchen sending out the plates as they were ready, as is (a)their custom and (b) best.
Croquetas are essential, of course: I’m hard to please, as I was raised on them (I have written elsewhere of our family recipe, and my memories of my grandmother which are so bound up in the smells of cooking). These were utterly superb.
My only quibble would be their shape: I’m in the cylindrical camp, though it didn’t stop them disappearing rapidly, their fragile salt-flecked shells oozing rich, salty béchamel and nuggets of ibérico.
Lomo, sliced so thin it was translucent, melted on the tongue; pulpo was served with arbequina-rich puréed potatoes and smoked paprika., the slices of octopus just firm enough to provide some contrast.
A highlight was lamp rump, sliced thinly and cooked pink with a ribbon of beautifully smoky fat fresh from the plancha; fennel and chistorra combined to make this the most memorable dish of the evening.
Actually, no, hang on, that was the prawns… some real beauties, skewered lengthwise in a light tempura batter. The accompanying mayonnaise was billed as ‘moorish’, and sometimes the most obvious puns need no embellishment.
Bunuelos de Cabrales- little bomba rice fritters, akin to arancini, enriched with tangy blue cheese and on a bed of celeriac- were the kind of thing I could have cheerfully snaffled by the troughload, with the crunch and colour of pomegranate seeds an effective touch.
A confit chicken thigh with padron peppers and romesco was a sterling example of why this cooking method pays such dividends, lending the flesh a buttery softness you could part with a spoon.
An arroz caldoso carried a hearty whiff of ozone, a bracing smack of the sea only possible with an impeccable stock as its base and the freshest shellfish.
Smoked black pudding and duck egg was every bit as oozing and earthy as you’d expect.
A warm chicory salad was our token stab at ‘something green’ as we rounded the final corner. The bitterness of the vegetable (the Belgians call it witloof, or ‘white leaf’, trivia fans) was leavened by the chargrilling and the sweetness of those pomegranate seeds. This is how to make salads taste like real food. The paprika poke of iberico sobrassada on toast met its match in a touch of honey; rather good, but I’d take the version with goats’ cheese served at Canton’s La Cuina. If you were twisting my arm.
We couldn’t leave without trying the ‘black burger’. The squid-ink roll made a huge impression last year at street food events; this time the squid came in batter with a politely punchy alioli and a fennel ribbon salad, though if pressed I’d opt for the high-definition contrast of sin-black bread and white burger from last year. Few who tried it would argue it was one of the sights of that summer, though I’m splitting hairs here.
A pretty thorough poke around the menu, and nary a false note. A noteworthy opening, then. Another strong independent set to flourish in the city centre, with a rich array of high-quality Spanish food and drink on offer. In short, a thumpingly good addition to the burgeoning Bar 44 familia, with no sign of any end to their success in sight any time soon. When you see something local and independent so well, it cheers the heart. That’s what develops a city’s food culture, not another identikit hypermegabrand plonking itself down in St David’s 2. The city centre has a new star.
Disclosure: this was an invitation-only launch event, with a full menu on offer. I was not obliged to provide a positive review. Although food and drink were complimentary, diners were asked to make a generous donation to Velindre CC; this was a typically classy touch and will hopefully catch on at similar events.
Bar 44 Tapas y Copas
15-23 Westgate Street
Cardiff CF10 1DD
Open: 11:30-24:00 Fri/Sat
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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.