A wasted lunchtime trip to a new place- here’s an idea, chaps, update your opening hours online- on a warm late May day brings me to City Road, with no fixed plans of where to eat. Some window-shopping for my stomach, then, and Castello’s menu is instantly appealing. Besides, is there a better way to slake your thirst than those lemon and mint juices our grill houses make so well?
The menu has a distinctly Levantine slant, so you have plenty of choice if you don’t eat meat. Most of the starters are vegetarian, though you’ll struggle to find much among the mains, so just mix and match to your stomach’s content. There are nods to Turkey, Syria, Yemen and more, and a strong emphasis on the grill. It’s a menu busy with familiar standards- beyti, kufta, shish tawuk- as well as less common lamb flavoured with walnut or pine, and ‘boneless chick’. (And no, we aren’t doing the ‘Funny story: I knew a boneless chick once, and she…’ thing. Not today).
This being a City Road grill house, there are sharing platters. Three chicken shish, three lamb shish, four lamb kofta, four chicken kofta, ten wings, ten lamb ribs, five lamb chops and some chicken shawarma to top it all off: if that thought ever fails to give me a base thrill, it’ll be time to switch off the machine.
They say it’s for nine. But we know better, don’t we?
To start: hummus shawarma, which should tell me plenty I need to know. Another chef who works nearby once told me no two days’ hummus recipes are exactly alike- the ratios vary with the pungency of the garlic, or the acidity of the day’s lemons, and the art is in consistency. It seems so obvious, yet it’s a reminder that places like this are far more practised in the handmade and the ‘from scratch’ than many more expensive kitchens.
The hummus is impeccably smooth, though perhaps it could do with a touch more lemon juice- but the chicken is a hit. It has had some proper attention: it’s not some bland ballast, but herby, well seasoned, crisp in parts and plentiful. With the warm, soft ramazan pidesi-style bread provided, it’s a substantial thing for just £5.50.
Really, it was the promise of mandi lamb on the menu outside which hauled me in. If you’ve been reading these reviews over the last year or so – and honestly, if you haven’t, it’s not too late to reconsider your life choices, but know I forgive you- you’ll know it has become something of an obsession. It’s the essence of a comforting, wholesome meal, and there are few things better for the money.
When I order it, my server’s face breaks into a huge smile. It’s served differently than the others I’ve written about at The South Kitchen, Al-Madina, or nearby at Hadramowt: the lamb is not served in a few separate cuts on the rice, with the cooking liquid coming separately as a ‘soup’. At Castello, the lamb comes separately, steeped in its liquor, and the rice to the side: sauces include garlic, a pulpy and fiery chilli, and a punchy coriander.
It’s faultlessly tender, spooning off the shank, the broth rich with the essential hawaij spices: it’s compelling stuff, a twist on a familiar theme. That aromatic stock, the bay leaf and cumin, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom: this is food to put you in a good mood. Even a soundtrack of Ellie Goulding can’t ruin that.
But that rice: ah, that rice. Subtly sticky, perfumed with meat juices, and altogether lovely. A few years ago I found a place in Newport, now long gone, where the same staple, dyed a deep amber, carried a lingering smokiness which I couldn’t forget. And which I couldn’t stop mentioning to my unfortunate companion for days after (If you’re reading this, you know who you are. Sorry…) Juice, hummus with shawarma, mandi lamb. Leftovers to bring home. Just over £23.
The Meat Lover Mix- lamb shish, chicken shish, lamb kofte, a sumac-flecked salad, house rice- is very capably cooked, as good as any I’ve had on City Road.
That kofte is the highlight, well seasoned and flavoured with red pepper and parsley: the rice is plentiful and very well done. Even better: you can, if you ask nicely, have that mandi rice as an optional extra (and you should) and it’s just as good on my second visit.
It’s a current Cardiff quirk that you only find offal with any regularity at opposite ends of your eating out budget. You either head for Dinas Powys and Antonio Simone, or Grangetown and City Road. The chance of chicken livers here is too good to pass up, but my server has to check if they’re in: just like Amo’s Cafe and their kabab jigar a few minutes away, availability will depend on stock at local halal butchers and when the livers are at their best. They’re tangily seasoned, buttery-soft, and why aren’t we eating more of this stuff?
I know, 800-plus words on a City Road grill house. Overkill, no? Sure, there’s nothing radically new here: just the quiet joy of food done honestly and well, food that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
And sometimes, that’s all you need, isn’t it?
76 City Rd, Cardiff CF24 3DD
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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.