Matsudai’s is a very modern success story: it has been well rehearsed elsewhere, but ultimately it’s a tale of resilience, from owner James Chant’s refreshing willingness to talk about his mental health as his original impetus, to reimagining the business in the face of global trials.
Clare Road in Grangetown sees this former bank repurposed into something that makes people happy, a radical first for the finance industry. Inside it’s welcoming, with seats overlooking the kitchen and communal trestle tables. Our table wiggles like Olivia Newton John (ask your parents) on the Grease Shake Shack. This (immediately-rectified) detail is what they call ‘balance’, a flimsy attempt to stop this just reading like a full-on love letter to Matsudai.
Balance. Get it? BALANCE. TABLE. Anyway.
Yes, mushroom karaage, you are the one that I want. Honey. (Even if this tablet autocorrects to ‘mushroom karaoke’, which would be something very different.) It is one of those rare things: a vegetarian dish to put its chicken equivalent in the shade.
And that chicken is very good. Oyster mushrooms have been torn into long shreds, lightly coated and triple-fried into something special: something downright gorgeous which plays up its inherent meatiness in a batter which is craggy and light and ruffled and just begging for a tender but comprehensive seeing-to from the curry mayo. It’s a simple principle- maximise the surface area, maximise the possibilities for texture and flavour- done admirably.
What elevates this to downright essential status is that ‘secret ingredients’ (I did try, honestly) mayonnaise, which they should sell for home dosage immediately. It’s as if that stuff from Wagamama has been sat down and told it has let itself down and to think of this as an opportunity to think very carefully about how it can do better in future. Or as my friend puts it so well- so well, I steal it- ‘You could dip a dirty sock in that and it would still be amazing’.
Chicken scratchings, dusted with nori salt, are distracting little things but your friends will forgive you. They’re a great beer snack, particularly with the Hitachino Nest witbier. On a sultry Grangetown evening, a light salad of beansprouts is refreshingly full of sesame and snap.
Tantanmen, a take on the Sichuan dandan, is a blaze of colour with a bold meat ragú, the the lamb and chicken left a little chunky for texture and bobbing happily along in that vividly shaded broth. It’s a punchy bowl with a hearty chew to the short noodles. The soy milk and the lamb fat combine to make it rich yet light, the lamb fat pearling the lustrous surface.
A little of that tantamen broth lurks at the bottom of the shiru-nashi mazesoba. Billed as a soup-less mixing ramen (the vegan version substitutes a shiitake ragú), your first job is to ruin its prettiness. Thirty times is the charm, I’m told, so stir and stir until you have a hot mess in every good way, until that sauce those thick, wavy noodles are gleaming. There’s plenty to play against the richness of the chicken and lamb ragú: a cured egg yolk, the silky acidity of pickled cucumber and the snap of greens and bamboo shoots. It’s another hugely satisfying bowl. Oh and make sure to order an extra ajitama egg: give it a poke and a prod and stir that jammy ooze into the whole gloriously glossy mess.
Best of all, though? That’ll be the nikko shiō, a clear hen soup with its thin wheat noodles (I add a couple of slices of cha shu pork just because). What a thing this is: absolutely, resolutely, uncompromisingly compelling, designed to hit harder the deeper you get, to have you obsessing over every last spoonful and half spoonful and feeling a little wistful when it’s gone: that’s no accident. There’s dark magic at work here.
It keeps popping into my head to say hello for days. That smack of the sea comes from dried sardine (niboshi) and a mix of three kinds of dried flaked fish – two different bonito and a mackerel variety. The flavours in the bowl change naturally as it cools: and you know- if you didn’t already- you’re in safe hands when James refers to his ‘dried fish guy’ in Japan. All that remains is for me to sort some way for me to have this more often. Daily would be fine. And if you’re reading this at Matsudai HQ, I’m happy to discuss intravenous options. Ta.
All rather polished and lovely, then. And the service from the charming Morgaine? Lovely.
But then after our meal James tells me something which redoubles my enthusiasm for this place.
You might have noticed posters advertising this opening around the city, and particularly in Riverside and Grangetown. You wouldn’t see that for any other restaurant, opening under such weight of expectation, a restaurant already attracting national interest. There’s a desire to appeal to the hyperlocal area. It might strike you as a small detail: but there’s much more, I think. It would doubtless make things easier for such a time-intensive style of cooking if Matsudai was to churn out tonkotsu (‘pork bone’ ramen) all the time: but there’s a problem there, at least to James’ mind. The clue’s in the name.
Because this is Grangetown, with a huge Muslim contingent. Where James has longstanding family ties, so it clearly matters to him that Matsudai is halal-friendly by ramen shop standards. That his neighbours aren’t immediately excluded from what he does. The food deserves the acclaim. But among the deserved plaudits and Sunday paper praise and star turns elsewhere, James is building something special here: Not just in Grangetown, but of and for Grangetown.
And that matters.
Matsudai Ramen: 183-185 Clare Rd, Cardiff CF11 6QS
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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.