Yesterday, Monday 29th August, Wales Online published excerpts from my response to Jay Rayner’s criticisms of Cardiff’s eating out scene.
Picture: Eat Me Daily
Here’s my original piece.
I’m a fan. The first thing I do on a Sunday morning is to read your latest Observer piece. I’ve bought -and recommended- your books. I found your Meatopia opening tribute to founder Josh Ozersky last year both funny and moving.
But- respectfully- you’ve got Cardiff wrong. Partly, anyway.
Two things got your goat. You cite Wales Online’s ‘Best 50 in Cardiff’ list as evidence-“it included burger joints, a couple of chains and a cheese shop with a café that actually boasted on its website of the appalling service. Oh, and quite a number of interesting kebab places.” You use that last phrase three times, and each time it hammers the point home.
Later, you are irked by the paucity- or absence, in your piece- of places to eat at 1030 pm on a weekday evening. And as you might predict- indeed, you do- hackles have been raised. Hell hath no fury than a Welshman scorned, and I’m sure some of the criticism has been unfair, from people who haven’t read your original piece or overlook your previous goodwill toward Purple Poppadom, The Potted Pig and now The Classroom.
Look, eating out here is not perfect: and yes, we do have a lot of those ‘interesting kebab places’ (I’ll come
back to these). None of these are in the city centre, which is dominated by chains and the usual brands, though Burger and Lobster failed here. At city centre prices, it’s the usual complaint from independents, the independents who constitute a city’s food culture, that it’s chains which can afford the rent. And there are plenty more on their way here.
I’d dare say you’d face the same late-night struggle in most cities, though Bar 44 was just around the corner. The city centre branch is scant minutes from Queen St, or wherever your BK was (by the way, agree about it siren call when nothing else is available). It’s sister to the one which won the Good Food Guide’s Readers’ Restaurant of the Year in 2015: and I know you’d have loved their menu. And they’re open until 11 every night.
There’s more. We have pizze which are as good as any you’ll find, courtesy of Dusty Knuckle. (You’ll already know Hang Fire Smokehouse, who made their bones in the city: they fed you at Meatopia last year.) We have many Lebanese grill houses, sure, but we have Turkish, Mesopotamian, Thai, Spanish. Italian, Greek, Syrian. Regional Chinese and Indian. They may not all have a huge online profile, but they know their stuff. Think La Cuina, Mint and Mustard, Troy.
Ultimately, it’s all about knowing where to look: and that’s not easy as a visitor.
Those kebab shops? They’re so much more than that, sometimes. Sure, we have those places where entry is basically a cry for help, but we have strength in depth. Most of our best food is surprisingly cheap: whether it’s roast duck shawarma with pomegranate molasses at the Lebanese Mezza Luna, or chicken as tender as a lover’s touch and flatbreads you can measure in cubits at Persian gem Mowlana, or Katiwok’s fragrant, punchy ‘frankies’ (lauded in the Observer’s own Food Awards Monthly awards a couple of years back), Cardiff’s foodscape reflects the thrum and throb of a city which has always looked outward to the world with beckoning arms. (Yes, we voted ‘In’ recently, too).
Locals like ‘unpretentious’ food. One man’s unpretentious is another man’s unambitious, of course, and that’s a danger: one is minded of the leaping fleas in that glass jar. We know we are not Bristol. We know London does most things better, in spades. That wider urban region you mention has pockets of sadly remarkable deprivation, so cheap and cheerful is currently what we do best. We have no Michelin stars in the capital, and Birmingham alone has as many our entire country, though you know better than I to take that as sole testament to quality.
You’ve reviewed The Potted Pig and Purple Poppadom, and spoke very well of them. I’m glad you’ve added The Classroom to that list. The restaurant manager there was formerly at The Park House, where fine dining is very much the brief. Laguna at the Park Plaza can’t fail to impress. The grown-up eating choices are there; not in the quantities you’d find elsewhere, but these things take time.
Many will point you in the direction of the city’s burgeoning street food and popup scene, where The Depot and Street Food Circus gather the best of the region to considerable crowds. Such a thing would have been unimaginable five years ago, and this year’s fairs bear comparison with the best of London, with Anand George rubbing shoulders with Slow Pig.
If you’re craving something sweet, Science Cream does things with liquid nitrogen and test tubes and billowing lab flasks which make you wish you’d paid attention during Chemistry. Your colleague Tony Naylor ranks it among the very best he’s found.
All of these are central, and it’s just minutes by car to Arbennig or Bully’s. A short drive into the wider region allows you to sample the excellence of the Hare and Hounds or of Tommy Heaney at Leicester’s, The Great House, if you’re after something more traditionally elegant.
Anyway. If all else fails? 1030 pm in Cardiff means one thing to locals- Caroline Street and chips. If you’re wise, you’ll go for Dorothy’s chicken off the bone; admittedly, Thursday would mean Chippy Lane’s more bacchanalian excesses were curbed, but it’s still an institution round here.
So we are not there. Yet. Do we have enough explicitly Welsh places prizing excellent local produce, for example? No. Do we have a disproportionate number of burger and pizza joints? Probably. Are we over-find of slapping the word ‘artisan’ on everything? Yep. But things take time, and we know we are heading in the right direction. Next time, we’ll make sure you return with a better impression of the city. Just ask.
And I’ll defend our ‘interesting kebab houses’ with my last breath. And mouthful.
From one trencherman to another, Jonathan.
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
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.