The language of offal is peculiar. Gutsy, hearty, plucky, ballsy: we assign moral qualities to offal, positive ones.
Eating the stuff, though? That’s much more divisive. Even inveterate meat eaters might greet the phrase ‘edible viscera’ with the same glee you’d reserve for ‘New on Channel 5- Celebrity Air Traffic Controllers with Joey Essex!’
Many turn their nose up at it on restaurant menus, swerving the sweetbreads. As for cooking it at home? That’s an altogether more grisly matter. That’s to be brought up short against the reality of what you are choosing to involve yourself in.
If you quail at the prospect of handling raw mince or inserting your hand into a chicken cavity (in a purely culinary sense, I trust), then you might shudder at the sheer inescapability of what you’re handling: holding an animal’s identifiable organs, little replicas of our own, is somehow more in-the-moment carnivorous, more red in tooth and claw, than some shrinkwrapped lozenge of animal ‘protein’ tipped into the shopping basket without much thought.
Perhaps David St Hubbins put it at best at Elvis’ graveside: ‘Too much… there’s too much f*cking perspective…’
(Before we go any futher: this piece will be operating a ‘three strikes and out policy’ toward offal/related wordplay. I defer to Soliciting Flavour’s pun frenzy in his piece here, which rather corners the market. We’ll see how that goes.)
Unfortunately for them, the unmentionable bits are often where fascinating flavours and textures can be found with a little imagination and preparation.
Luckily, Dark by Dusty Knuckle has you covered.
There’s no need to rehearse the effect Phill Lewis and team have on our food in Cardiff and beyond – not again, I’ve done it in detail previously here– but it’s hard to imagine Dark not doing well. I remember being Dusty Knuckle’s second or third paying customer on their low-key debut in a little pub in Pentyrch: and although the pizzas that night had one or two issues, it was easy to see the potential, so I’ve followed their progress with interest.
Not that you could miss it. Even before it opened, Dark was odds-on to be as much of a sure thing as Cardiff has to offer. Like some benign culinary cordyceps rewiring how we think about our food in South Wales, Phill Lewis and the team have tendrils everywhere. Fingers in pies? Ironically, pies are about the only thing he doesn’t do, unless you call pizza ‘pie’ without good reason, in which case be off with you. Dusty Knuckle has become a local mark of quality.
It’s an unapologetically meat-heavy menu. That’s shouldn’t dissuade you: even if your attitude to meat is more ‘eschew rather than chew’, don’t assume this little shrine to offal will have nothing for you. Choose from a kebab topped with tempura vegetables, or pizza loaded with goats cheese, roasted beets and candied hazelnuts; perhaps cauliflower spiced with harissa would be more your thing. There’s shakshuka or crisp artichokes with ajo blanco, so you sense vegetarians and vegans can both find a home here. The meat-free options are clearly the product of the same inventiveness and honesty the rest of the menu is built on.
As visual juxtapositions go, the fact that you are scant metres from Greazy Vegan is a rich one: but isn’t there something fundamentally more wholesome about what Dark does, rather than somewhere which riffs on the hyperchain fast food classics, their Big Moc and their Vopper listing only vague ‘patties’ on their menu? There’s no ‘junk food’ at Dark: it’s done with serious intent and a commitment to quality and flavour with no attempt to fob you off.
I know which calls to me more: it’s full bore. If not full boar.
If you’re a city centre worker and you’re dashing out for a quick lunch, the hatch in the former Servini’s will serve you the kebabs rolled for ease of handling. Sit in though, for the best experience- or take an arcade seat and observe. It’s fascinating to watch the reactions of passers-by as they read the menu, half with lips pursed sceptically, half with eyes wide, shining.
The ‘chicken bits ‘kebab doesn’t pussyfoot about, with its aioli and tangy teriyaki: if that’s too restrained, there’s kimchi on board too. It’s a massive riot of texture and flavours. It’s ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’, a bold introduction to the Dark way of doing things. It’s not subtle. But it is uncompromising.
Ribboned carrots and purple cabbage bring snap, the chicken managing the not-inconsiderable task of shining through the various dressings. It’s a bit much for my daughter, who tries a few bites and then opts for the classic Dusty Knuckle Margarita (£7.50): here she is, pictured listening intently to her pizza because she swears Dusty Knuckle’s sound different to others.
If you’re put off by the thought of unmentionables, if ‘bits’ is worryingly nebulous, just ask what’s in that day’s mix. Or don’t. It’ll depend on what their butcher has available: ours was nothing more challenging than thigh, rather than the full farmyard autopsy.
Even better, and unsurprisingly their best seller, is their lamb offal kebab (£10).
A mix of all the bits you might not want to think about, ground down into a fine paste spread over the bread for an unmistakable but subtle funk, all pepped up with pink pickled onions and brightened with parsley and yoghurt. It’s an ever-present, and easy to pick as perhaps dark’s signature dish. There’s a smattering of fermented chilli: we’ll come back to that.
The steak (£11) plays it coy with a couple of fries eggs atop a generous bavette (flank). It seems straightforwardly brunchy: but lurking under the eggs is that fiery dressing of fermented chilli, a fruity-smoky sucker punch resulting in brunch with a bang. Potent stuff. In the nature of the ingredients each fresh batch will vary in strength, but this one certainly made its presence felt.
That kick is probably why I didn’t get as much from the beef fat potatoes as I’d have liked. There’s no downplaying the admirable execution of these roasties: their crisped edges and fragile crusts are the sort of thing you’d love on any Sunday dinner. It’s the sauce I don’t get as much from as I wanted, the chilli still dominating.
As I settle up, the staff tease (and he’s gathered a lovely team here, whose warmth and skill do him credit) Phill that prepping the sauce, made from the pungent unpasteurised Celtic Promise from Ceredigion, in such a small space is a great way to test a friendship. On the next visit it’s been substituted for a smoked goats’ cheese. It’s details like this which mean I am recommending Dark so enthusiastically: to eat here is to pick up on their sense of adventure, of experimentation, of fun. Of giving something a go because…well, why not?
Offal, you say? That means faggots.
Here they are served on Carlin (pigeon) peas. Talking about the menu before my second visit, a food obsessed friend of mine- let’s call her a mushy militant- takes issue with them as the accompaniment of choice. The only allowable pea with a faggot is a vivid green, she says, though in less polite terms. I’d have agreed with her before trying these and their nutty flavours. I end up asking for a spoon, so as the delicate faggots break up, I can shovel them into my maw. Which, I’m sure, is a borderline erotic sight. Form a queue, ladies. But keep it orderly, eh?
Those faggots, though… lightly seared, a hint of a crust, a big livery waft as you cut in…. a mixture of minced pluck (heart, liver and lungs), boldly seasoned- sage and black pepper stand out- and wrapped in a pig’s caul. They are made in limited quantities, so if they’re on when you visit- and you should- don’t delay. Impressively enough, they are hand made here. If you had told me they had been bought in from any of Cardiff’s usual master butcher suspects, I’d have believed you and congratulated them on a job well done.
They’re so good they vindicate my decision to have these and turn down the chance of a little tongue.
A first time for everything, I suppose. On our third visit I put that right. It’s beautifully done, the hugely fatty cut (£6) treated gently and just seared into a dainty crust, sliced and served with a firmed-up gribiche (capers, cornichons, hard boiled egg) in one of those instantly memorable moments. It’s delicate and has more than a smack of the buttery tenderness of foie gras about it, a humble ingredient taking on more than a hint of opulence.
An airy, lightly toasted sourdough bun (£6) is stacked with slices of beef heart and more of that chilli dressing and chimichurri, though here the balance is milder. It’s a substantial handful, though, for lunch, and at £6
A pigeon dish is brand new- as in, it appears on the menu as we eat, Phill turning up with the ingredients and keen to get cooking.
It might look different when you order it- it’s a work in progress, he says- but order it you should: it is billed as a sald but it’s so much more enticing than that. Rosy slices of breast tossed with fat, salty lardons and earthy, fudgy black pudding to bring you the kind of dish you need to make friends with. The acidic dressing lifts all that richness on show. It’s great. ‘This is, pretty much, my perfect lunch’, says my friend. It’s hard to argue. Me? I’d be tempted to chuck a poached egg on top and let it ooze through. But then I’ve never been good at knowing when to stop.
Sweet tooth? Their doughnuts sit there, just by the door, winking at you. I cadge a bite of a passing friend’s. It ticks those essential boxes for your ‘fatty’, ‘sugary’ and ‘oozing’ hit. Shamelessly.
What does the advent of DK Dark say about city centre food in Cardiff in 2020? Well, it’s places like this which make me believe things really are changing for the better. That the tide is turning. For Phill it’s probably another day at the office: for the rest of us, it’s another step toward the evolution of Cardiff as a genuinely interesting place to eat. The imminent Dosa from Anand George, with its buttery, flaky malabar parottas and bowls of curry for dredging through, will only strengthen that claim.
Dark is a man thinking ‘b*llocks to trends and playing it safe: I’ll cook what I believe in. If I’m serving meat, I’m going to serve it honestly, in a way I feel treats it respectfully’. It’s an exciting menu, the kind to keep you coming back- what might they do with lambs’ kidneys, with bone marrow?- and one I urge you to try for yourself.
Is this somewhere I’d recommend as a priority for your city centre visits? No one else is doing this kind of food in the city centre, the natural habitat of the blandly homogenised eatery. There’s nothing close. Like the meat-free options- and I almost made it this far, too- Dark is a no-brainer.
Dark by Dusty Knuckle
10am – 6pm, Mon, Tues, Wed, Saturday
10am – 930pm Thurs, Friday
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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.
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