You’re spoilt for choice at Victoria Park these days. The area has always had its attractions- Cardamom on the corner used to knock up a hefty chicken tikka in lamb kofte masala murgh batwar-alike, and the Clark’s Pie That Can’t Be Called A Clark’s Pie For Legal Reasons is always worth a go. Now though- and I’m about to use The F Word, sorry- it’s a little hub for (ugh) ‘foodies’.
But don’t let that put you off. That little run of shops opposite the Cowbridge Road park entrance is now dominated by good things to eat, from Nook’s corner spot to Fintan’s via Bwydiful, Dough Thrower and Pettigrew Bakery. Directly opposite, Grady Atkins is doing downright lovely things at Bloc with Paysan.
Cantonistas have never had it so good.
The only non-food business on that stretch is where we come in, though.
Victoria Park Clinic tells us ‘your health and well-being are our priority’. Specifically, they offer a range of services, from treatments for plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinopathy, to reflexology, via foot health’s sexy triumvirate – ‘Hard Skin, Corns, Toenails.’
The promise of ‘Counselling’ intrigues me: perhaps, in this context, the chief thrust of this advice should be ‘If you do have the above- then please, please, please keep the f*cking things under wraps. Especially in summer. Thanks.’
The easiest gig in the place, though, must be Nutritional Therapist.
Even I could do that: ‘Out the doors, turn right, nip in to Nook.’
There are no bookings here, the latest collaboration between the Gang of Four which is redefining the way the city eats.
(And if you think that’s a little grandiose, then consider the way that between them, they have made meat-free cooking appealing to all at DIRT, started one of the city’s most highly regarded pop-up supper clubs (EMBER), launched South Wales’ most sought-after street food pizza, pioneered Bite as an antidote to the bloated behemoth our street food events have become. Let’s add in The Warden’s House, the brand-new Dusty Knuckle in Ely and the inventive city centre ‘Dusty Knuckle Dark’- this is the menu which really excites me at the moment, and something cleverly innovative- arriving soon.
And let’s not forget to mention Hoof, Cardiff’s best burger right now?)
These are merely their current projects. I’ve probably forgotten a few- it’s hard to keep up. If there is an eventual cure for diabetes, baldness or Clean Bandit, it’ll probably come from here.
This has all led to the rumour that they have an army of stand-ins using Ethan Hunt-style masks to keep things running smoothly across multiple sites and ventures.
You can see the potential problem, can’t you? It’s our old friend, The C Word.
The hidden weakness (there’s our Achilles again) of many an enterprise is consistency. Spreading yourself too thin too early can- and often does- lead to the quality of food and service dropping, to oversight tailing off and to standards dipping. It’s been the fatal flaw in many a restaurant group before now. Compare Jay Rayner’s love of Cheltenham’s original Coconut Tree, to the let’s-be-polite-and-call-it-mixed reception many have given their latest branch, in Cardiff.
People who are busy to this ridiculous extent could be setting themselves up to make an absolute Wambsgans (morning, Succession fans) of the whole thing.
It’s a small menu, though portions are a decent size. We go through 5 dishes at lunch, which turns out to be just the right amount. It’s another ‘small plates sharing’ model, of which more later.
It’s the kind of place which puts a premium on cooking the best they can find, and the prices reflect that. You’re as likely to see Brakes Bros lorry outside every morning, as you are to buy tickets to a Milli Vanilli reunion. (Ask your parents.)
Prices run from £3-£4 (carrots) up to early teens (the hake) We set ourselves a £20 per head limit, in a rare instance of self-moderation. And from that menu we could have ordered another five different plates and still not exhausted the things which looked tempting. The service is pitch-perfect, too, unobtrusive but warm.
No dish disappointed. Sprouts are chargrilled to foreground their nuttiness, well seasoned and interleaved with salty prosciutto and a dollop of straciatella.
I’d love to try this with something even creamier- a whipped burrata perhaps?- but even so it’s a lovely juxtaposition of textures and a dish which gets us talking. It’s a business lunch: m’colleague, an ardent sproutophobe, moves through sproutasceptic to sproutophile within minutes.
That’s some achievement.
Lightly coated cauliflower- another sizeable portion, is dressed with a miso mayonnaise which proves to be the unexpected star. The batter is barely there, the florets themselves perhaps a touch overdone, but that mayo delivers a hell of a lot of savoury impact.
My standout? Their tagliatelle, the yellow of grass-fed butter, the tender strands of pasta silkier than the better bits of the AP catalogue, all coated with a creamy sauce which is all about the bosky notes of wild mushroom.
On a cold, bright day it’s the kind of dish which makes you think of the word cosseted. Some cooking feels like a hug on days when there is a bite in the air. This dish? It makes you a cuppa, fetches you a hot water bottle and rubs your feet as you lie prone in front of a favourite film.
So, yes, it’s another modish small plates for sharing menu, but don’t roll your eyes just yet. Here it somehow makes more sense, less finicky. The plates arrive warmed- a small detail, but it means that Nook avoids the besetting sin of this style of service- that dishes which arrive together at the right temperature aren’t cold by the time you get round to the last.
Beef on toast piles rich, aged ragu on beef dripping toast for some intense umami.
You’ll remember 2017’s ‘Mincegate’, when Eater provoked another online controversy when they cited Quality Chop House’s version as a ‘quintessential British comfort classic’.
It wasn’t. It isn’t. It should be, especially in this (apologies) incarnation. It’s perfect for the colder weather, another example of elevated comfort food which they do so well here.
Arancini bring a warming taste of mustard in a rarebit-style filling. It’s like a croqueta re-engineered for a colder climate, a perfect fillip of light stodge with a tickle. There’s a problem, though, with something this good.
They come in threes, so your choice is simple: either agree a sharing protocol with your dining partner, or be polite and curse them under your breath.
There are some strong beer options from the West Country Wiper & True, Wild and others. Their library of natural wines is an attention-grabber- Tempranillo Joven is a light, perky glass on a bright day- and if you’re keen on discovering more about natural wines this would be an amiable starting point.
Nook manages to be all things to all people. If I wanted hot meat action, I’d come here.
Want to have your wicked way with seasonal veg? Head here.
Hoping to impress someone with your impeccable taste? Bring them here.
There’s not even a hint of complacency or standards dropping here. This is a little oasis, a haven, a welcoming little corner- surely there’s a better word for that idea…?- and it would be a lovely way to while away an hour or two with someone special.
If you’re hankering after a seasonal menu of high quality ingredients, cooked with some skill and sympathy, Nook is your friend. And who knows, your ‘health and well being’ might get a bit of a lift too.
587 Cowbridge Rd East
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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.