‘Welcome, brother’ and ‘Anything else, brother?” are lovely ways to bookend a meal, aren’t they?
You’ll find kingdom of Sheba- known to regulars as ‘Taste’- on Bute Street. To get there from the city centre means to experience one of the city’s most fascinating transitions. Stand at the staute of John Crichton-Stuart, Second Marquess of Bute, and face the manicured sweep of Callaghan Square and its tesselated pavements. Turn and head down the street that bears his name, and into a very different Cardiff. Formerly a model estate, one of Cardiff’s five towns and one of Britain’s first multicultural communities. Not ‘The Bay’ with its competent but uninspiring chain restaurants and its buy to let avarice: but Butetown.
You pass the huge facade of St Mary the Virgin, its High Church grandeur here since 1843: the lifesize Christ, his eyes wide in shock and suffering, forever locked in his moment of doubt and pain, is unmissable. Soon Bute St becomes home to a grocer and halal butcher and the Yemen Gate minimarket; and here, near Loudon Square, you find a little corner unit. Kingdom of Sheba.
Their Instagram doesn’t give much away. ‘Very nice lamb and very soft’. ‘Salmon with no bones’. Very nice fish with rice’. And my favourite, ‘Delicious chicken’. This isn’t some agency intern contracted to tweet on their behalf; I doubt there have been strategy meetings with some diligent but harassed marketing manager waiting to be WhatsApped the new menu; no photoshoots and all the other bumf that goes with running a restaurant in the 2020s.
It’s just communication at its simplest, a place which is a focal point for its community. A place which wants to feed you, and does it heartily and well. It’s a parallel world where there are no core brand values and no key message massaged and manicured by some marketer, no press releases spoonfed to local media and reproduced almost verbatim. No one is running the analytics to Synergise Backwards Overflow. Scratch that. Actually, their Instagram gives everything away. Refreshing, no?
‘Sheba’ in Hebrew and Islamic traditions is variously suggested as Saba (Yemen) and Aksum (north east Africa), which explains why there’s an identically named place
(‘London’s most authentic Ethiopian restaurant’) in Kentish Town. It’s empty when I arrive, though all eight tables fill in minutes. That simplicity and directness is reflected in the decor and the menu. A mural depicts the arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
Recently I’ve told you about places like The South Kitchen with its single A4 sellotaped to the wall, half in Arabic, offering a terse choice between chicken or lamb. Here there’s not even that much. Everyone who comes in knows what they can have and what they want. I’m hungry, I say, so the owner offers me rice with lamb (£10), which is often the answer to many of life’s questions.
If the welcome is generous, so are the portions. This is rice enough for two, with a smattering of salad and a sauce thick with red peppers and spoon-sized chunks of potato just waiting to collapse into the broth. There’s a rough, herby green chilli paste which makes its point fairly bluntly as the lamb does its predictably and impeccably tender thing.
I should arrive earlier and try the breakfast, the owner tells me. ‘Foul. You know foul? Breakfast. Eggs. Liver. Cut small’, as he mimes the busy knife.
The room fills as I linger over my lamb. Everyone greets- and is greeted- with warmth and familiarity. It suddenly strikes me that this place and others like it- Harafs and Al-Madina and Khyber and more- fulfil a social role for the teetotal in the same way as the local pub does to drinkers.
Next time, have the fish, he says. I do it in the tandoor, Yemeni style. So I do: I’m lucky to nab the last seat, the room full at 2pm, The tandoor in front and the kitchen in the back are busy, the plates of lamb and chicken and fish filling the tables. That fish, scarlet from long marination and its edges singed by tandoor ferocity, is expertly done.
He sends me off with a cup of Yemeni tea- a cardamon and clove perfumed masala chai-alike, milky and sweet and subtly warming to send me on my way: after my second visit it’s a cloudy little piece of a tiramisu-like cake.
So this isn’t a review of food as such- plentiful, tasty and inexpensive though it is, as it has to be because places like this have to be consistent. This is no one’s idea of elegant eating out, no shuttling back and forth between the same few places in Pontcanna and the city centre. This might not give you bragging rights on your social channels. But, with all respect- big, hairy, swinging bollocks to that. It’s not fashionable or common to urge you to do that: it’s another part of the capital ignored by the mainstream Cardiff food chatter and media. And yet: turn your face to the unfancied areas: eat the ‘other’ Cardiff, where you can find food growing out of communities who settled and flourished here many, many decades ago.
188 Bute St, Cardiff CF10 5HQ
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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.