Not long ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to break with tradition: that I was, untypically, thinking of sharpening my knife for a deliberately harsh critique of a truly abysmal meal at a Cardiff bar. It was so utterly wretched, so lacking in any redeeming features, so cackhanded, that- for the first time- I felt prompted to actively warn people away from the place.
A local chef- one of my favourites, one of our very best- asked me if I would do the same if I had a bad meal from Tommy Heaney.
It was a fair question. I’ve written about Tommy’s food in various settings- here for example, or here. I am, for want of a better word, a huge fan of what he does. After all, he was kind enough to choose this blog to announce his move, probably 2018’s most important opening.
For what it’s worth, my answer was that I’d be honest. I’d say that I expected better. And I would contextualise it among previous visits when his cooking has been very, very good.
So let’s start by saying that I felt the risotto on this visit was a little overdone for me, a touch ‘soupy’.
And now that’s out of the way, let’s get on on about how good everything else was,
Except ‘good’ doesn’t even come close. This is bend-me-over, spank-me-with-a-rolled-up-magazine-and-call-me-Donald brilliant.
The fish-heavy menu when we visit- it changes daily- is designed to entice. All are, but this one makes it clear that resistance is futile.
It’s a good idea, this sharing plates thing- very casual and relaxed, yet it is soon clear these dishes could have walked in from any of the formal Great House menus over the last couple of years: it’s the presentation and skill of fine dining, the attention to detail and innovation of a destination restaurant, in a bar setting noticeably laid-back.
A proper sourdough, a soft crumb with a strikingly brittle crust, is slathered with marmite butter. It’s a nightmare of temptation for even the most resolute of carb-avoiders, the sort of thing you find yourself inhaling.
A dish of cured monkfish would be the showstopper on any other menu locally: here, it’s just one among many. It’s rare a gathers so much on one smallish plate. The hazelnuts, the grapes play well against horseradish: a sorbet with heat is an unexpected trick and puts me in mind of the Thai green curry at Le Champignon Sauvage.
It is effectively a ceviche- a contrast of heat and textures, with sweetness, nuttiness, tartness all in play, and almost Nordic in its technique and composition.
Hefty prawns, almost crevette-sized, are draped with Ibérico lardo. The fat lends it an opulent dimension: the way the sweet, nutty fat melts on your tongue makes it decadent, sultry stuff. These are prawns to linger over (I may as well have the mantra ‘Suck the head or you’re dead to me. Dead’ tattooed across my chest like some lardy Max Cady) and they repay close attention. You can call it gilding the lily; you could think of it as an embarrassment of riches. If you like throwing around words like ‘filthy’, be my guest; I’m calling it downright prawnographic.
Nurse, the screens: my sides have split.
Cornish hake impresses too. It’s a lovely piece of fish, this, the firm flesh flaking away, but he has cleverly used the by-product of their churning to make a buttermilk ‘tartare’ sauce, the lactic tang offsetting the sweetness of the fish and the grilled courgettes. It’s hypnotically good.
Chips are excellent- the triple cooked variety often underwhelms, but these are seasoned with the paprika Old Bay (a nod to his experience in the US, perhaps?) and impressively coloured, impressively crisp, impressively fluffy.
Anchovy and lamb is one of those winning combinations: the tiny silver fillets top our Cross Hands lamb, and there’s anchovy-rich puree, all laced with a deeply sticky sauce which says everything you need to know about the patience in its reduction.
It’s as rich and thick as a minor baronet and with a finish so glossy I could have used it as a shaving mirror, if that wasn’t frowned upon. The fat is expertly rendered and deeply charred, smoky from the barbecue, the flesh a blushing pink and impeccably tender. A scattering of sea vegetables, tangy with brine, completes a memorable dish.
It’s only open for a few more weeks, though, in this form. So why bother writing about something whose days are numbered? Well, this was only supposed to be a side project, a way to generate income while the ‘proper’ refurb next door was going on. It has turned out to be so much more than that, to the extent that when the restaurant proper opens it will sidestep the straitjacket of ‘fine dining’ and offer an amplified version of what we have here.
This pop up is itself a triumph. The restaurant is highly likely to refine and improve. Throw in Hare and Hounds moving to Llandaff, the lovely Milkwood and Asador 44, Matt Waldron’s imminent tenure at The Park House join the ever-reliable Purple Poppadom and Mint and Mustard and our choices grow richer and richer. You never know, we might even have Bristolians crossing The Bridge at this rate.
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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.