Your starter for ten.
No conferring, now.
Do you know your ntaba from your nkwobi? Or your bobolo from your attiéké?
If you do, you’re ahead of me. Not without a surreptitous under-table Google, anyway. And I’m still in two minds about the esi ewu. But in terms of an overdue education, a couple of visits to Le Mandela were just what I needed.
This is one of those overlooked Grangetown places I’ve been especially keen to tell you about recently. For too long this area has been neglected in the Cardiff conversation: and although Matsudai Ramen is quite rightly drawing praise from all corners, there’s plenty more to enjoy in the area: Pakistani, Somali, Nigerian, Yemeni, Cameroonian cooking and more. After a pint in The Grange, of course.
And just a few metres from that pub on Penarth Road, Le Mandela is on a mission: to bring the traditional dishes of their native Cameroon and beyond to a wider audience. To show Cardiff just how good the food of the area can be. Favourites from neighbour Nigeria feature heavily too, for their strong following among the city’s community. But now it’s time for the rest of us to catch up.
It’s a family business, with three brothers looking to develop a business established by their parents. Chef Benoit has spent years in local kitchens, including James Sommerin. Some of the dishes may well be unfamiliar- challenging to novice palates, perhaps. You’ll need to order that esi ewu (spiced whole goats head: tongue, brain and all) in advance, though. Perhaps you’ll prefer nkwobi (cow trotter in a spiced palm oil paste: their Nigerian customers love it.)
Spice-crusted chicken wings, plump with both drum and flat: smoky and with the flesh easing away from those bones. It comes with something you’ll get with a few dishes- a red chilli sauce which I’d call potent but that sells it short. Molten would be closer, thanks to Cameroonian pepper, a close relative of habanero and Scotch bonnet.
White rice and beef ‘stew’ is a hearty plate. A ubiquitous dish throughout West Africa, this is no thin broth but has a more curry-like consistency, with hefty chunks of beef in a garlicky tomato sauce noticeable for its slow-cooked onion sweetness. Apparently patience is the key here, with flavours developing and melding slowly until you have what’s known as ‘sauce tomate‘.
Half way through, a flash of recognition. I used to teach one of the owners in Primary school, when he had not long arrived in the country and was quicksilver on an athletics track. Cue a heavy-handed segue into…
Much of this menu features new names and some new flavours, so I have plenty to learn. In a sentence which might cause confusion among some bloggers, these might be new flavours for your palate. A new palette for your palate. Or pallet, if that’s more your thing. There are unfamiliar drinks, too, whether it’s Nigerian Gulder lager or Guinness at 7%, or Orijin ‘spirit mixed drink’ with its bitter wormwood recalling your favourite vermut.
Jollof is a given, typically a one-pot mixture of long-grain rice, tomatoes, onions and spices, although methods vary across different regions and- predictably- each claims theirs as the best. Le Mandela’s smells irresistible- gently smoky, aromatic, subtly spiced, wholly wholesome- and from the first spoonful I’m hooked, in that unique way a really good bowl of rice has of immediately drawing you in and putting you at your ease. Aqnd as I write this, I am fantasising about vast bowls of the stuff and a busy spoon.
That ntaba is little pieces of goat on the bone, slowly smoked then finished on the grill. Settle in and worry at them with your teeth. It’s a simple pleasure, simply presented: and if the time ever comes that a bowl of meaty bits needing stripping clean doesn’t do it for me, you you can consider that my retirement from this writing malarkey.
I find myself thinking how well Le Mandela’s food would translate to the street food circuit too- a tray of their jollof rice with that smoked goat, or their tilapia fry, would be a welcome change of gear from the usual. By the time you read this, they have run a busy stall this past weekend at Butetown Carnival to an enthusiastic reception, but it would be good to see them branching out on the local circuit in the usual places.
It will be interesting to see how Le Mandela develops. I got a sense of a business feeling its way here, the brothers wanting to broaden the appeal of both Le Mandela and West African food in Cardiff. That starts, of course, with you and me. People- just like us, who care about independent hospitality- would do well to support a place like this, even as Cardiff weekly sinks into a morass of brands with huge marketing budgets, easily bought reviews and even blander menus.
A broader choice for vegetarians and vegans is planned, while keeping one thing in focus: their distinctive heritage. Take a chance on unfamiliar dishes, because there’s a lot here to enjoy in another young business keen to make its way.
Le Mandela Restaurant and Grill Bar
156 Penarth Rd, Cardiff CF11 6NJ
1pm-930pm, Tuesday to Sunday
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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.