It’s a familiar title, filched from the pioneering grande dame of Cardiff restaurant blogging and current Instagram curly hair advice/cat appreciation maven): this is a bunch of essentially Cardiffian dishes and experiences which, unlike myself, were born and refined here. Dishes which have kept popping into my mind, taunting me with their charms, while we lurk in our bunkers.
Rather than complete one of the many drafts in my to do folder I’m going all misty eyed: this is more sepia-tinged nostalgia for those far-off times we took for granted, fond memories shot through with optimism that soon we will eat like this again.
And we will, it’ll just take time.
I’m going to start by cheating, as a few of my favourites are found under one roof, and within metres of each other- my list, my rules- specifically, the little hub of brilliant street food concentrated in Roath. Leyli Joon and her BabHaus- I dread to think what I’d do right now for a go on her Korean Fried Chicken- the burgers at Hoof, Tukka Tuk’s Keralan Fried chicken.
Because it’s ours, and permanent, and not a collection of people bussed in for a summer season who will disappear as the wagons roll out, but a group rewriting the street food book as they go and feeding us the best way they know how all year round.
Each one is local in inspiration and execution and has been refined in local street food events for local diners. They are what they are because local acclaim has helped refine them, to build their following. I’ve blathered on about this at length here. It’s not the largest collective around, but every one’s a winner.
Size, as I have had to explain all too apologetically and frequently, isn’t everything.
Let’s talk about car park arancini. There they sit, unassuming enough, on the counter at Calabrisella: carby, crisp and oozy in a manner which is pretty shameless. Recently the menu has grown- yes, of course I’ve had them all- but my pick? Well, the risotto nero with its squid ink and prawns, and the all-ooze ragu bolognese are both regular orders. Want meat-free? There’s aubergine, and the mushroom ramps up the fromage factor.
But if I had room for just one (and I never do) it’s the ‘nduja which pips it for me, a killer combination of fennel sausage and that potent chilli-spiked Sicilian pork paste lurking in the rice. There’s an unmistakable heat which lingers.
How you eat these matters. You can eat in. You can take them home and make neat cuts and titivate it all with some salad, if you’re feeling fancy.
But better than that? Return to the car you left close by and fall on them while they’re still hot. Hence the name. I know which I prefer. I’m not proud.
I’ve had memorable moments with them in the car park around the corner. Hence the name. A note of caution: only eat them with someone you know well, or at least roll the windows up: you may well catch yourselves emitting the sort of noises Lynn Benfield made (‘Lynn! These are sex people!’) when she popped round to rescue Alan Partridge from Dan’s.
Most are £2; none are more than £2.50, which penny for penny makes them one of my picks for value.. Street food? If you like. If you’re not a driver, eat them waiting for the bus. I have. I’m not fussy.
Don’t be surprised or embarrassed, it’s entirely natural. Car park arancini? It’s a beautiful thing. If you missed me telling you about them five years ago, do the right thing now, and especially when the all clear sirens sound.
Tommy Heaney continues to set the standard for informal but elegant small-plate dining in the city. Meaty crumpets sounds like something Julia Davis would write (‘smashed prawns in a milky basket’, anyone?) have been everywhere for a while, and for a particularly fine example, hunt down Tommy’s. Duck or lamb? Take your pick- it doesn’t matter because both hinge on just the right amount of fatty lusciousness against the tangy-crusted airiness of the sourdough. It’s a dish flaunts its charms. which has absolutely no intention of pretending otherwise.
The Heathcock and its rabbit pappardelle. Thick, sexy curlicues of egg-rich pasta and that rabbit. It’s become one of those dishes which are always on, even at a place which prides itself on its rapidly changing seasonal menus. In a word: unmissable.
The lamb kebab and faggots at Dark by Dusty Knuckle both make the list. Both stand as handy symbols of what makes Dark special: take unfancied cuts and turn them into something distinctly Dark. Given their penchant for celebrating the unfashionable and unphotogenic, it’s a surprise they don’t have a life-sized cutout of me in the window.
When you peruse the menu (NB: the rules of Proper Restaurant Writing dictate that all menus must be perused. Not scanned, examined, checked, scrutinised- or, perish the thought, read. No, ‘Perused’. Them’s The Rules.) it’s inevitable you’ll find yourself thinking that this menu is unique.
The Shelf at Ashton‘s in the Market is nothing less than the anti-Ivy. It’s not glamorous or chic or fashionable. It doesn’t take reservations; you won’t see a glut of Instagram posts, garlanded with some life wisdom about chasing your dreams or celebrating your inner strength or beauty, where someone gazes wistfully into the distance in one of those unguarded moments it only takes 27 attempts to get spontaneous enough. All human life is here- if you want the best fresh fish, you’ll end up here at some point. It’s as Cardiffian as the smell of Brains’ hops washing over Grangetown, or muttering ‘cheers, drive’ when getting off the bus. Or visiting the tobacconist in Wyndham Arcade, where generations of children have been taken to wonder at the looming threat of a petrified brown bear, back when it was where the Prince of Wales is now.
Whether you’re there to load up on mussels and crevettes or just passing, few city centre places carry such associations, such history. Eating in is the defining experience: picking at pots of cockles doused with Sarson’s and white pepper. You can take it up a notch with mussels or langoustines if you like- hell, grab a clutch of oysters- but somehow it’s the cockles which remain the essential snack here. And you can play Fantasy Seafood Frenzy with the display while you eat.
(In passing, I’d be surprised if the Malabar Parotta at Dosaa wasn’t on this list next year. It’ll be food of unusual refinement for the Market, and its postponement due to the current circumstances will make its eventual opening all the sweeter, something to savour.)
Duck shawarma at Mezza Luna. Full disclosure: we bumped in Anna and Zac at some awards ceremony a few years ago and they told me about this dish, and asked me to be their guinea pig. I agreed. Yes, I’m a hero, though you are excused Thursday clapping.
It was resoundingly worth it: an opulent thing, this mound of roasted duck breast scattered with crisp shards of skin. If that sounds too rich, too much of a good thing, it’s laced with tart-sweet pomegranate molasses. As a side, their broad beans with garlic won’t disappoint either.
Resistance is useless.
You probably already know how good they are, the croquetas at Bar 44, but if not take it from someone who grew up on the things, for whom they symbolise every good thing about home and celebration: these are superb, all salty-crisp and lasciviously oozing. You’re in the home of Spanish food in Cardiff, where sherry is a speciality, so enjoy a manzanilla or a fino or a palo cortado and fritter the day away in amiable style. Co-owner Owen Morgan has been simultaneously staving off boredom and educating South Wales, and the video is on their YouTube channel.
Katiwok’s Afghan chicken almost made the list, though the extruded noodles carb-on-carb lily-gilding of their Malaysian Special won through. The premises are leaner now, with very limited seating, so it’s all about their takeaway business, which is dominated by the ‘frankies’ of the title. These wrapped freshly stir-fried mixtures of meat or vegetables- their spinach paneer is especially recommended- is cleverly served in three or four spice levels, and then served with cooling yoghurt and potent chilli so you can customise every bite, should you wish.
Their own app sidesteps the ‘enthusiastic’ cut taken by the big delivery services and offers great deals, so order direct if you can. I’m told one regular has ordered the same kati and side 240-plus times. Yes, it’s that kind of food.
Speaking of bold flavours, I could murder the ruggedly aromatic cumin lamb at Old Sichuan. Whether I’m served by a 10 year old or not. The bold flavours they heap on a plate are memorable, the kind of thing which plays on your mind, hence its inclusion.
Mowlana’s chicken joojeh- because who doesn’t love saffron-yellow chicken, lamb just fatty enough, flatbreads so large they now cut them into quarters? Besides, it was where my six-year-old daughter wanted to take me- just her and me, she said, and she wanted to order for me and pay- for my last birthday. If it wasn’t already one of my favourite places, that would be enough to cement it in place. In my view, the best chicken skewers in the city.
KBS on City Road has been my go-to for years now. Clearly if it were within my gift to gain early access, I’d have those shutters up all day. But despite the fact I’ve put their children through college, their doors remain barred until the advertised opening hours.
Freshly-made bread, soft and doughy in places, puffed and scorched into fragility in others; skilfully-grilled meat, fresh from the coals; plenty of snappy salad, punchy sauces. You could look down your nose or roll your eyes- although not, perhaps, both simultaneously- at me including a mere ‘another City Road kebab shop’, but you’d have missed the point by some impressive distance. You have the right to disagree. You have the right to be wrong.
Or you could appreciate the quiet skill on show, dig in and enjoy it. The last scraps of bread in the centre, soaked with the chilli and the garlic and the mint yoghurt… love it.
My first meal out, though, that’s another question. One with an easy answer: Asador 44, and I’ll be prepared to queue.
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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.