Some menus just pull you right in, the words swimming sharply into bold type even as they whisper sweet nothings to your appetite.
Hush, my sweet.
Have no fear.
You’re in safe hands.
On a damp autumnal evening, there’s a lovely seasonal feel to the menu at Milkwood. French influences are writ large; boudin blanc and terrine are familiar, though artichoke a la barigoule has me scurrying for my culinary dictionary- but filtered through a very local and Welsh sensibility. The menu drips with Welsh beef. Welsh lamb. Laver bread. Scallops. Sewin. The intriguingly hyper-local mention of ‘Bute Park salad’. The menu is verging on the tiny- five starters, four mains- but give me ‘well-considered and lovingly executed’ over pretentiously overambitious every time.
A cosy little place, this, in an affluent suburb. (The soundtrack- Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, Purple Rain- is instantly welcome. Even preening pop irritants The 1975 can’t ruin my mood.) If there is such a thing as a sure bet in a notoriously risky business, Milkwood must be it: the team behind local stars The Potted Pig and Porro knows how to succeed in Cardiff.
I’m here because m’colleague Rhidian from Bwyta Yn Y Brifddinas recommended it. He reckons the bread tells you most of what you need to know in places like this. He’s not wrong: this stuff has an almost liquoricy hint of anise. I feel at home here: proper cooking. Proper restaurant. Proper ingredients. There’s a Jerusalem artichoke veloute, silkier than Mrs Silky Silkworm’s favourite silk smalls.
The first dish is in effect a greatest hits of the sea. Perfectly seared, meaty hand-dived scallops, spankingly fresh squid, red mullet, in a sauce of impressive depth. ‘Accurate’ and ‘precise’ are hardly words to get the blood pumping- but that’s what they’ve done here. Each part is beautifully done, and all come together beautifully in an impressive plateful.
Squash tortellini teams silky pasta with the woody note of mushrooms, beets and walnut. It is a whole heap of textures which sings a quiet harmony.
Sweetbreads are seductively tender. They might not be to everyone’s taste- a shade too visceral for some- but I rarely pass up the opportunity. For one thing, you seldom find them at restaurants which don’t know what they are doing. Here they sit with a subtly mustardy sauce, sweet leeks and the lovely addition of laverbread- another must-have- and capers.
But even better is the guinea fowl. There’s pear and hazelnuts among the wonderful cooking of the breast; the confit leg meat is pressed into a silky terrine. Pearl barley still has plenty of that welcome bite and has lapped up the bird’s juices. It’s brilliant. It’s can-I-get-away-with-slurping-this-in-a-restaurant satisfying.
Rum baba- their first one served, apparently- is spiked with the lift of lime and liberally soused with booze- you wouldn’t want to risk a naked flame near this dish, though it doesn’t hang around long enough for this to be an issue.
Chocolate with clementine is rich and decadent, perched precisely at the point where bitter and sweet meet for best effect. They are tried and tested combinations, done beautifully.
This, surely, is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant everyone wants: quietly elegant yet never starchy. It’s fresh, it’s seasonal, it’s lovely.
Speaking of which: that Bute Park salad consists of leaves grown by Cardiff Salad Garden– a not-for-profit within the Park, where the produce is tended by asylum seekers and biked over to Milkwood daily. And if that doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart, you are- frankly- beyond help.
There’s nothing revolutionary here, just a bunch of lovely things put together on a plate with some consideration for feeding you well and sending you out happy. It’s an evocative name, of course, and puts me in mind of my old English teacher, the great OJ Wallis.
And as I write this I can still see, across the decades, the mischievous twinkle under those unruly eyebrows as he teaches us Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece: there is ‘Llaregub’ wrong, and everything right, with this Milkwood.
83 Pontcanna St
Tuesday 6pm to 10pm
Wed-Sat 12pm to 3pm and 6pm to 10pm
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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.