To describe dinner at Nadu as mixed would give the wrong impression, perhaps. There were many good things to eat, some very good indeed, some just a tweak away from truly outstanding. Which in its own way was frustrating.
Nadu is the second opening from the team behind Clifton’s Nutmeg. This isn’t more of their regional Indian cooking though, but what they call ‘traditional Tamil street food with a modern twist’. The midnight walls and the quirky camber of the street outside are oddly appropriate here: it’s familiar as the former Meatliquor, but ‘expect the unexpected’ is probably the unofficial Stokes Croft motto. This is an area where instead of pearl-clutching, the People’s Republic actively campaigns for more street art, where innovation is in the water.
It’s a trip born from necessity. There’s nowhere in Cardiff for good sit-down Sri Lankan cooking, and if you’re thinking ‘Ah, but what about The Coconut Tree?’ I’ll direct you here and save you the bother. No, really, I’d be doing you a favour. Two visits there gave me moments I still remember for all the wrong reasons, dishes which provoked the comment ‘so cack-handedly executed that it was inedible… comfortably the worst dish I’ve eaten in years…’Smoky’ is good; but there’s ‘smoky’, and then there’s ‘tonguing the pub ashtray after a busy lock-in’.
And you thought Regan MacNeil had it tough.
So no, however much I’m craving those flavours, I’m not risking that again. Not even if I had Fathers Karras and Merrin on hand to exorcise the memories.
We order lavishly, though I shan’t do the leaden ‘and then…and then…and then…’ rigmarole- I’m sure you’re as bored reading those trudges as I’d be writing them, so I’ll pick highlights from a succession of boldly coloured and memorably spiced dishes.
Kukul devil chicken wings come slathered in a potent sauce. They’re amply meaty but- a personal gripe this- I wish they’d trim the tips for the stockpot, because they have dried to the point of gnarliness. That hot, clinging glaze is an enticing start, though.
This is one of those ‘something for everyone’ menus, so there are numerous vegan and vegetarian options. Chickpea-battered plantain fritters helicopter out on the plate, and although they quickly start to lose a little of their crispness they’re an attractively substantial start, that kara chutney bringing substance and heat. Our vegetarian’s eyes light up when she sees moringa (drumstick, which seems to be popping up and more on menus) greeting it with ‘This is like bone marrow for us!’ as she seizes on the pods with glee.
Also impressive is the thick, dramatically coloured vambatu moju stew of aubergine with shallots, kokum, garlic and coriander.
The meatiness of whole tiger prawns (sutta era) makes them a finger sucking pleasure, the shells slicked with star anise, fennel and peppercorns, the flesh plump and sweet. (All together now, ‘Suck the head or you’re dead to me…’)
No self respecting Sri Lankan menu can omit hoppers of course, the coconut milk pancake with its chutneys and sambols being particularly good. The ‘Share and Tear Dosa’ is huge. Several feet long. It’s a couple of days’ worth of fermented rice in a pancake served with chutneys and sambar. It’s a skilful thing to deliver that ideal balance of laced and delicate, and thicker and spongier in places, and this is a very good example. It’s probably big on Instagram, but don’t let that out you off.
There’s a theme here, because sauces throughout are exciting and compelling. Nowhere more so than nandu melagu, a frilly-battered soft shell crab on string hoppers and a sauce insistent and pungent with shallot, dry chilli and peppercorn, a sauce so good I keep dabbing fingers into it when no one is looking. At least if they spot me, they’re too polite to comment. If you rate the success of a dish- among a table laden with good things- by how often you return to snaffle the remnants before your companions, this is a winner.
The flesh of the king fish steak is every so slightly- slightly- overcooked but its thick mango-based sauce bristles with garlicky-gingery intent and recalls the alleppey sauce of Southern India.
Similarly layered with a lovely lingering depth is the sour and tangy-sweet slow cooked lamb. Cinnamon, lemongrass and the sweetness of caramelised onion sauce give it perfume and heft.
Unusum pagoda, another vegan dish, is quietly lovely. These feather-light little kale fritters in chickpea flour may not leap off the menu but when a dish manages to be in turn tart and sweet with tamarind and pomegranate, then delicately crisp and chewy, consider me seduced.
There’s a layered dhal, and plenty of flaky, buttery parotta for mopping up. They are very good indeed, the sort of thing which makes you long for somewhere that did these well much closer to home. (Luckily for Cardiff, one is on its way very soon.) They are as delicately crisp and soft as you’d hope, just the thing for loading with scoops of those smoky lentils.
There are niggles. They don’t spoil the dishes as much as make you think how very close they are to hitting that sweet spot.
A case in point. Bone marrow promises much. It would, wouldn’t it? If you can read a menu and not end up fantasising about the prospect of scooping spicy, slippery little nuggets of oily marrow in a heady masala, the buttery layers of bread soaking up the ooze… well, you’re missing out. That should be a highlight of any meal. It falls a little short here because the turmeric and coriander spice mix has been a touch over-roasted, so it dominates and casts too long a shadow over the delicate headliner.
Lamb rolls are something of a South Wales street food classic via Tukka Tuk, even more so since they moved to mutton, and here the flavours are very good too. But the initial enthusiastic bite leaves the remaining piece deflated.
The chef I’m eating with explains why. The mashed potato is the culprit (which admittedly isn’t a sentence you write very often): the reheating has released too much steam into the filling. That’s remedied, he says, by cutting the potato into tiny dice and deep frying first, locking in the moisture. Small margins, again. That dipping sauce though is nothing short of gorgeous and should be bottled immediately once it has been shot into my veins. Slather Ann Widdecombe in this stuff and she’d be Noemie Lenoir or Gal Gadot.
This meal, with its kaleidoscope of colours and tastes and textures, was a technical couple of touches away from being outstanding. It was still leagues ahead of anything comparable in the Cardiff area. I’d revisit without hesitation: it’s so very easy to have a memorable evening here, and any reservations are worth mentioning precisely because they were details that didn’t derail, and because they could all be easily tweaked into something truly excellent.
77-79 Stokes Croft, Bristol BS1 3RD
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