‘Goldilocks’ restaurants are rare enough and should be celebrated, so I’m amazed I haven’t written about this place until now. The Old Custom House has long been one of those rare places where you know everything will be ‘just right’. The welcome, the atmosphere, the surroundings, the service, the cooking. Just right.
I’ve had many good meals here, meals which become evenings which take memorable turns. It’s also where I found the single most impressive example of local hospitality in its widest sense, when the front of house told me which table I had on my first visit, which wine I ordered and even what my companion was wearing that night (Table 33, the CVNE Imperial 2003 Rioja and ruby silk, in that order) a full five years on, and many thousands of customers in between. I don’t flatter myself that I’m particularly memorable: I believe many would have had a similar experience here. That’s the kind of thing which makes an impression, no?
The imposing former excise building has enviable views of Cardiff Bay. If I was given to punning titles, the proximity of Penarth Marina would make ‘Some Like It Yacht’ a given. The Martinez family run this and other similar places around South Wales: long time locals will remember Champers and The Brasserie in St Mary St, along with the nearby (and recently reacquired) Le Monde, Caerleon’s Priory, Laleston’s Prado and The Miskin Arms.
Tables here have always been well spaced, so on arrival there’s much less of a jarring reminder of how things used to be in less regulated times, depsite masked staff and traceable check ins. It manages to exude a sense of ease and plenty, nonetheless. The ground floor (El Puerto) is an orderly bustle, but upstairs in La Marina things are, as usual, a little more sedate.
The approach to ordering here is simple. The boards list specials (whole suckling pig, for one) and serving suggestions, but the focus here is on those display cabinets. Here your options await on serried banks of ice, just waiting for you to press your nose against the glass- metaphorically is preferred- and pick your meat, fish or game. You pick, they weigh, they cook, they serve. Much of it is sold by weight, much of it not widely available elsewhere in the area: tiger prawns, Cardigan lobsters, racks of Gower salt marsh lamb, Dover sole, turbot. This is a place where you can indulge. The wine list is formidable in its scope and the upper reaches are tooth- achingly expensive (there’s a Petrus ’95 at £2750), but you can also eat well here for a very reasonable £14.95 (a two course set lunch) or £21 (dinner).
Mains come with new potatoes or chips. Have the chips. They are hand cut and come rustling : chips as they are supposed to be, and (best of all) full of those crisp deep gold little scraps you’d be prepared to fall out over.
This type of menu of course leaves the kitchen nowhere to hide. And that’s what I’m after, tonight: simple things done well. This place turns me into a creature of habit: I struggle to recall a time I haven’t ordered the crevettes, either as starter or main. (And on one occasion, both.) Each is two fingers thick and sweetly meaty, simply grilled, and you’re wasting your life if you don’t suck those hot, fragrant juices out of the heads.
Plump scallops- roes thankfully intact- a hint of translucence at the core, a tomato-based sauce lively with garlic: high quality, low interference is the watchword, and again it’s deftly done.
A Spanish restaurant serving beef, locally, means one thing: the rich, marbled burgundy of a old animal, heavily salted and cooked over flames, and served with its rich seam of fat intact. To the majority of Spaniards though, beef is typically ternera: veal, far more commonly found on menus across Spain than the heft and extreme ageing of fat old cows championed by Asador 44.
It’s rarely seen locally, this pale milk-fed flesh, but billed as a chuleta this is a lovely thing, impeccably tender, heavily striped from the grill, given an unfussy finish with olive oil and garlic.
The house style for sea bass is to cook and serve it whole in a block of sea salt, and fillet it at the table; but this time it’s simply pan fried and dressed with chilli and garlic oil, the flesh flaking away from the crisp skin. It’s a beautiful example of how to treat fish.
You know when you want the really solid, simple cooking of the best stuff? Here’s where you come. They’ve cooked the same way for years and years and will doubtless be doing the same twenty hence. No pretension. No ‘fashion’. Nothing mimsy. Just good food with a touch of style, done with a light touch. And we all need more of that.
The Old Custom House, Penarth Marina, PENARTH, CF64 ITT.
In the meantime, The Old Custom House is running a collection service featuring Sunday luncjes, beef wellington, lobsters and more; also meat (including that veal chuleta) and wine, and a Valentine’s Day package. You can browse here- https://shop.theoldcustomhousepenarth.co.uk/
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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.