Give me word of mouth any day. Give me those recommendations from people who have spent their own money and left happy. Of course, the apparatus of PR can be vital for new launches: but send me your genuine love for your local place, the one you keep going back to. Combine that with some metaphor-mangling ear-to-the-ground legwork and following my nose, and I’ve ended up at places like The South Kitchen and Lahore Kebabish; at Hadramowt and Le Mandela, at Al-Madina and Kingdom of Sheba and Hench (yes, this is a none-too-subtle hint to catch up on previous reviews) and… well, you get the picture. That’s what excites me. And that’s what has led me to Gurkha Hill.
My friend Brad worked here in its pub roast days and he has brought me here (literally, the trains being an unholy arse tonight), to this village between Pontypridd and Bridgend, and the former Crown Hill. Now run by a Nepalese family serving food largely unknown in the capital, and with little social media presence, I want to see why it has such a loyal following. More than anything, though, I’m here for momo.
I’ve been a sucker for these doughy little dumplings since 1993, when I lived in Bristol and Gloucester Road’s Natraj hooked me. Sadly, they are locally elusive: since then, I’ve hunted them down in Brecon and Bristol and Bath, culminating in Wembley’s Momo House, but they remain frustratingly hard to find. It’s not easy being a momo lover in Cardiff in 2023.
Alright, put away your tiny violins. At their best they straddle that intersection of comforting and compelling in the way only the world’s great dumplings can, from gyoza and kreplach to pierogi and har gao. But I’ll do anything, and forgive much, for a plate of good momo. Deep-fried, pan-fried, simmered in soup? I’m not fussy. Even mediocre momo will do. I’m nothing if not a man of appetite over discernment.
Anything else good on a Nepalese menu will be a happy bonus. Yes, the memory of duck chhoyla at Bristol’s old Kathmandu, pluming eye-stinging green chilli smoke as it sizzles on cast iron, still lingers. But it will stand or fall on the momo.Owners Yogen and Laxmi have been here a little over a year now, risking it all in the uncertainties of 2020s hospitality. After time in London, Reading and Chippenham, they have put down roots here.
It’s working, too: by the time we leave there’s hardly a seat to be had on a Thursday evening. It still feels very much a local pub with its TV and pool table, regulars enjoying a pint at the bar which stretches across the huge dining room while others eat. Here’s an exemplary keema naan to start: a thing stuffed so heartily, the spiced lamb has overwhelmed the dough until it is more keema than naan. No Indian-Nepalese menu feels quite right without one, and this one’s as good as I can remember having anywhere. (It’s £3: sorry Lahore, you had your time. We can still see each other, though: you’re definitely still my Cardiff favourite, babes xx.)
The momo? I ask hopefully. Do you make them yourself? ‘Live momo’ says Yogen, with a smile. Everything, he says, is made here: ‘Always fresh. Nothing frozen’. It’s obvious when they arrive, with that happy irregularity of the handmade. They are steamed, too, for bonus points. Traditionally often filled with yak meat- probably rare in Llantwit Fardre, with herds presumably more common down the road in Pontypridd- these are chicken, finely minced with spring onion, each tautly stuffed into its wrapper. They’ve got exactly that familiar but longed-for feel to them: a tight, generous filling, simply seasoned. We dip them in the sauce, thick and smoky with tandoor-singed tomato, bite, and sigh happy sighs.
Sekuwa is lamb tikka, but not as you might know it. This is a beast, marinated in turmeric and cumin, a single piece the size of a child’s fist swaddled in banana leaf. Tandoor-charred and spice-crusted, it is an impressive thing. There’s fluffy mushroom rice for ballast. My friend knows his food, yet this is his first time with a Nepalese menu, a reminder of how little this food has permeated the mainstream. (Rick Stein, in his ‘…On India’ series, had never eaten momo).
We ask for main course recommendations: lamb rara has the subtle bitterness of fenugreek and the punch of clove, the generous chunks in a sauce thick with mince which reminds me of that rarely-seen murgh Batwar (tandoori chicken tikka pieces in a sauce hefty with broken-up lamb kofta).
The chicken breast meat might be teetering on the brink of dry in the Gurkha Special but the loose tomato-based sauce, busy with onion and whole dried red chillies, is a lighter main than many of the heavy, rich dishes of North India.
As we leave there’s hardly an empty seat in the large room; this may be a community of only six thousand or so, but a community which knows what it has and values it. (Not for the first time recently, it strikes me how patronising the ‘hidden gem!’ claims, so beloved of shouty Instagrammers, are, when this room- and others like it- are full. Being late to the party doesn’t make you some intrepid chroncicler.)
I’m reminded of Pencoed’s Steak and Stamp, a restaurant clearly adored by its many regulars, yet easy to overlook with city-centric myopia. After almost ten years of writing about food, it is still times like this which give me that elusive buzz when I get to tell you about it. Gurkha Hill won’t change your life, but it will feed you well and maybe introduce you to a few new dishes. Me? I now have a momo oasis within reach.
Gurkha Hill, Main Road, Llantwit Fardre, Pontypridd CF38 2HL
Tuesday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
Wednesday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
Thursday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
Friday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
Saturday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
Sunday 12:30–2:30 pm, 5–10:30 pm
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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.