‘If you build it, they will come…’
Alternatively, if you wait long enough, someone will do what you can’t, and make moves to establish a real street food culture in this here city.
Photo: Jordan Harris
I’ve moaned before about the comparative dearth of options in Cardiff, especially when stacked up against what’s on offer across that there bridge.
But enough talking like a pirate already.
The High St cadre (and I’ve only just learned that what I thought was St Mary Street is, in fact, not) has included El Boqueron, the burnished street-level arm of the renowned Bar 44; the notorious Dirty Bird fried chicken (let’s put this one to bed now and admit that the logo is exactly what you think it is, and yes, it does it for a reason, and judging by the queues it’s hit its intended market, thank you very much) and a stand from veggie veterans Milgi.
But it’s two debutants who have caught my imagination most keenly.
First up-JOL’s Food Co.
Fresh from almost six years at The Hardwick, learning the restaurant trade very much ‘on the job’ yet rising to become Stephen Terry’s sous-chef, Jamie O’Leary is taking his food on the road. A change in circumstances means 17-hour days in a kitchen, however accomplished, don’t ‘fit’ any longer: a one-year-old will do that do you. An initial request to cater a sporting dinner has become…this. Motivated his passion for sourcing and cooking ingredients both seasonal and local, the project here is to change preconceptions of what street food can be, to cook what he loves to eat. Possibilities are constrained mainly by imagination: have van, will travel. This is no ordinary catering van- a six-burner range oven and a 20-litre pasta boiler will soon banish those thoughts- but the base for the entire operation. Prepping, cooking, serving: they all happen within the confines of this space.
It was impossible not to be mightily impressed by my first taste.
This was restaurant-quality food.
In a box.
From a van.
Cooked from scratch in that selfsame van.
Eaten with a wooden fork while standing up in a Cardiff street.
And it was glorious.
Plonk that on a shallow, wide-brimmed white dish, have it served by a waiter at a table, and you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at being asked to pay triple the £6 this cost. And the flavours… lean, slow-stewed rabbit, crisp batons of belly, a rich tomato soffritto flecked with basil; the fully-equipped van features a heavy-duty six-hob range, where the silky gnocchi are pan-finished in front of you.
Every element beautifully done and deftly balanced. A grating of fresh parmesan and you’re good to go. This was an absolute winner- it’s the kind of thing that, even as you’re eating it, makes you a little sad perhaps, that you’ve started your day with it, because you have a sneaking suspicion nothing else you eat that day will quite match its heights.
Real food, sourced and cooked with real skill. (By the way- It’s JOL as in ‘Jamie O’Leary’, rather than Martin, hapless former Spurs manager. Apparently tagging a food business with ‘Jamie’ makes you about as popular with your solicitor as if you were setting up as ‘Pol Pot’s Family Haberdashery And Good-Time Shoe-Shine Emporium’.)
Acronyms avoid acrimony, I suppose.
This weekend the menu was similarly eye-catching: linguine dressed with crab, garlic, shallots, parsley, lemon and radicchio was an early front-runner but we plumped for a ragu of confit duck leg, the succulent strands of meat accompanied by chunks of herby Italian sausage in a tomato-based sauce spiked with rosemary. Their recent stint at the NATO gathering just completed (the menu featured cockle popcorn with smoky bacon and laverbread oatcakes) I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to try this food again.
A silky risotto flecked with thyme and encased in a crisp coat, was a revelation; and though I resisted on the previous occasion, a side-order of triple-cooked chips was everything you’d hope for. The time-consuming preparation needed for food like this- all on the van itself, remember- is resoundingly worth it.
The kind of chips that give chips a good name. Top-drawer stuff.
A wholehearted, unequivocal, red-blooded and full-throated ‘yes!’ from me, then.
If you get a chance to try JOL’s Food Co, don’t pass it up. Do the right thing.
You won’t be sorry. This is special.
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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.