I first ate at Mesen in mid-June this year, a few weeks before it opened, in one of those sessions you’re (well, I’m) invited in to try the menu and give some pre-launch feedback.
It’s not always as much fun as it sounds: try telling the owner and chef- usually, sitting opposite as you eat- their cherished debut menu’s not great.
I know, I know. You’re reaching for that tiny violin, just for me. Fair enough. Commendably, owner Rhys has little truck with indulging the kind of low-wattage ‘#invite’ blather others use to saturate social media (I suppose those unintentionally hilarious accounts which never seem to post about anything as vulgar as actually paying for their food, were otherwise occupied: Ms NommyNommyNomNoms and Mr Will_Embarrass_Himself_Publicly_For_Cheap_Prosecco must have been busy that afternoon.) Mesen has done things the old fashioned way. That’s refreshing.
Besides, Mesen that day was all smiles: some very good things came off that grill. Particularly memorable were a Gloucester Old Spot pork chop, a hulking two fingers thick and juicy, and a temptress of a flatbread spiked with the crispy, salty punch of chicken skin and red chilli. And what a grill it is, by the way: a workhorse of a trough piled with embers. A coal-fuelled oven alongside, and that’s it.
This is very much a restaurant with a determination to do things its own way. At the heart of that is a focus on what’s local and what’s good. They don’t bludgeon you into submission with a litany of supplier names but it’s laudable, so I will: vegetables come from Pontyclun’s W R Bishop, or are grown in the allotment behind the restaurant; drinks might be from Fairwater’s Flowerhorn, Hallets of Blackwood or Welsh Mountain Cider. The gin in my rather well made Negroni is via Hensol Castle Distillery, the cheese from Ty Caws and meat from Llantwit Major’s Rosedew Farm, the handwash is from Goodwash in Barry. Even the art comes from Riverside and the village.
I knew I wanted to come back and eat here properly. I kept hearing good things. But life got in the way. Or my stomach did: Steve Bennett’s startlingly successful takeover of The Flora distracted me, as did the Pinoy Carinderia Filipino flavours at Bar 105 just opposite. The excitement of being the first to tell you about Jianghu and the highly-anticipated opening of Poca, the precocious talents of Tom’s Smashed Burgers, the perennial appeal of Bar 44: they all delayed me. Bristol got in the way too, and a dazzling weekend in London gave me my meal of the year, but I haven’t told you about those yet.
‘Small plates for sharing, cooked over fire.’ So far, so modish. But those reports kept coming. Not paid-for white noise, where everything is inevitably a credibility-straining ‘full of flavour and cooked to perfection!’ and where every bite prompts paroxysms of ‘I can’t wait to come back!’ [Reader: they rarely do]. No, this was something potent, something authentic, and the lifeblood of independent businesses: people sharing genuine enthusiasm for this great new place they had found.
Word has certainly spread- recently a family from Somerset drove here just for Sunday lunch- and one particularly persuasive fan, who lives nearby, seems to have taken up residence. She kept telling me to go back (let’s not call it nagging but ‘repeated insistent persuasion’.) Resistance was useless. If Helen of Troy’s was the face which launched a thousand ships, then hers has prompted 1,307 words. History will have to judge which is the greater achievement.
The menu changes often, is handwritten on the wall and unlike me is short and sweet. Lightly smoked butter, whipped with activated charcoal until it’s an inky black, is perfumed with garlic and quite lovely stuff. (A minor but ongoing gripe here, across the trade: could tables of four be served four, not three slices of bread, especially when it’s this good?)
Three meats headline. We have them all, the plates all slicked with rich, sticky juices.
That pork chop sauce, tart-sweet and fruity, is particularly good. But good as it is, it could stand to be just a little warmer, though a few of us being terrible humans whose first thought is to reach for camera before fork might not have helped, and the same minor issue is true of the lamb and steak. A tumble of salad with the cut-through snap of apple, kohlrabi and fennel is a crafty addition. The sirloin is a touch underdone, some slices almost blue, so we miss out on the chance to fight over crisp ribbons of fat: though of course ‘under’ is always preferable to over, and between the four of us we scavenge enough to make us happy, and please could I have the tang of that Café de Paris butter on all my steaks from now on? Please?
The lamb, with the light acidity of yoghurt, is a beautiful rose pink throughout, and the star. These are three sizeable cuts for sharing, and you should have them all, because Mesen provides that elusive sense of feasting many strive for but miss: food to go nostril-deep in, to abandon prissiness and indulge your appetite with abandon.
And after all: isn’t that when good things happen?
Sweet apple accompanies chorizo: no slices, but a whole sausage, curled boerewors fashion and the pork finely ground, but more significantly made here. It’s milder than many you’ll have had, heavier than usual on sweet pimentón in the mix, but it is heartily proportioned, precisely cooked, and exactly the sort of thing you’ll want to eat as the evenings creep ever closer.
Potatoes in their skins- singed, crushed, garlicky- hit exactly the same note, and are as good as any I’ve had: the sort of thing I could eat every day. Even more of a standout are leeks, amply repaying their time over coals, and dressed with an excellent Romesco which I can’t leave alone. (Go with someone who doesn’t mind the odd dabbing finger, would be my advice. Always.) This is food for feasting, for self-indulgence. This is food with plenty of heart.
There’s a pork pâté, slightly underpowered in flavour but lusciously textured. Whole sardines- from Wright Bros, Brixham, because local is good, but best is better- zip with a bright bagnet verd (essentially, an Italian salsa verde) and ease their way onto our plates and off the bone. This is simple excellence.
We manage desserts. Just. We enjoy a Basque-style cheesecake, an opulently textured thing layered with a striking compote of dark fruits sugared and roasted, and a mousse which might have been even better with dark chocolate bitterness, and we are done. Full. Content.
I like what Mesen does. I like it very much. Any little issues I’ve mentioned are easy fixes, because here’s the thing: sometimes you get a sense of a restaurant as a living organism, pawing the ground, impatient to move forward; eager to be better and better under its own terms and its own principles. There’s an appealing ambition to it, coupled with a lack of pretension and puff, which is obvious and compelling: even local Spanish specialists aren’t making their own chorizo.
Throughout, Rhys oversees things with a warm welcome, and the service from the team is lovely, unobtrusive but smiley and a credit to the place. It’s impossible not to feel at ease here.
It’s little wonder locals have taken Rhys, head chef Jake and the rest of the team to their hearts. The name? It’s Welsh for ‘acorn’. (Oh, he’s not going to go for it, is he… Ah he is…) And yes, from these beginnings, you should expect very good things to grow from this kitchen.
Heol-Y-Deri, Cardiff CF14 6HF
Wednesday 5:30–11 pm
Thursday 5:30–11 pm
Friday 5:30–11 pm
Saturday 12:30–11 pm
Sunday 12:30–5 pm
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
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.