I once stood in a car park waiting for friends from Bristol to join me at The Humble Onion. On a dark mizzly Thursday night, I watched them walk past the turn a couple of times.
It was an apt image for Antonio Simone’s cooking: simultaneously good enough to merit the best part of a hundred-mile round trip, and easy to miss even when it’s right under your nose.
They loved it, of course: cue much excited chatter from people who have put in the hard yards in eating well and are not easily impressed. People who eat in very good places, and often.
They left wondering why more people don’t talk about Antonio’s cooking. My kind of people, in short.
Well, it’s time Cardiff wised up.
Poca brings Antonio’s food not only into its first true Cardiff home, but a high profile one at that. I’m not going to litigate the boundaries of Canton and Pontcanna- that’s one for a bored Wednesday evening on Twitter- but this boasts the cachet of the ‘P’ postcode with Cowbridge Road footfall and plenty of parking nearby.
Poca has been my most anticipated opening of the year. There’s some healthy competition for that, too: Anand George’s Tukka Tuk Canteen, is imminent, and its ‘Southern India meets Sri Lanka’ street food menu will make a big impression.
The idea of Poca as a small plates menu flourished in The Humble Onion courtyard, a post-lockdown response to restrictions relaxing. I fell for it, hard, spending happy hours in the shade with plate after plate of lovely things and special people. I took my parents there, a treat after months of the most brutally restrictive shielding regime. The Humble at Home kits followed. The restaurant returned to its a la carte model, but clearly the idea of Poca has been a persistent pull, and here we are.
It’s a strong team: heading up the kitchen is Lali Suto, whose cooking was key in putting Nook on the map in its first, rapid ascent; and Ollie Banks, who many will recognise from Uisce, among others, and whose expertly made Corpse Reviver #2s have (over)lubricated my evenings more than a few times. Once that man mixes a cocktail, it stays mixed. Helping out on a busy opening night is manager Nick from The Humble Onion and Alium.
Some of the La Cuina front of house staff have returned, too. That gives the place a sense of continuity, even though the place has undergone a smart facelift. It is all undeniably stylish and tasteful, and done with a light touch: these are lovely rooms in which to enjoy yourself.
The menu reads beautifully. Antonio’s food centres on an unshowy dedication to getting the most out of ingredients, with a distinct lack of ‘Will this do..?’ meat free choices: it’s why he is so respected by well-informed vegetarians. Do have the rich roast cauliflower cheese croquettes with curry mayonnaise, if that’s you.
Whole focaccia- how lovely to have a fresh loaf, not slices- is salt-flecked, brittle-crusted, and rich with olive oil. A thick glug of sweet balsamic- you’d be well advised to have this on your table- and a thick ooze of Cornish crab with agretti (saltwort, or monk’s beard) is a rare rarebit you can get excited by. The Humble’s ox cheek cheese on toast was very good: this is better, elevating a simple dish into something I order twice. This will become their signature dish.
Torched mackerel is impeccably cooked, tart with ponzu, the delicate snap of cucumber and the punch of wasabi. It’s a must-order. Plump whole wild prawns, one of life’s essential pleasures, are a constant: where they often came with a sriracha-spiced butter, they now swim in a lavishly flavoured bisque. Reserve some of that bread: there will be mopping to do.
The keenly-anticipated pork belly hash brown improves between visits. The seasoning has been tweaked downwards, and it’s all the better for it. This is accomplished work, flaked potato shot through with slow-cooked pork, draped with lardo and oozing cured egg yolk blitzed into jammy thickness. It takes its place alongside the Milkwood and Parador 44 hash browns in the local highlight reel.
Old favourite beef shin fritter, an old favourite, could have done with a touch more seasoning, though the textures of slow-braised Welsh beef and coating are familiarly lovely. I don’t reorder this on my lunchtime revisit- I have promised my daughter another trip to Bristol’s Matina in a few hours, so I grit my teeth and show some unaccustomed self-restraint. Sadly, the highly-anticipated lamb sweetbreads in brown butter are a last-minute deduction: a shame, because if there’s anyone in this area you want cooking you sweetbreads, it’s Antonio. Done right, this is a true local highlight.
‘This makes me realise I have no idea how to do chicken’, sighs my friend- a keen home cook- over the teriyaki thighs. It’s buttery-soft, the teriyaki salt and sweet countered by the hot, sour heft of the kohlrabi kimchi. Another idea evolving in the space of a few days is the crushed potatoes: a drift of manchego, a breath-ravaging alioli to the side, and crisped skins from plenty of plancha contact.
Antonio’s way with a potato is justifiably celebrated- few can hold a candle to the Humble chip- and at lunch they’re even better, Parmesan strewn across smaller pieces and that alioli running riot on top of it all. It is a garlicky, cheesy, oozy, nutty, hot mess. And if that doesn’t get your motor started, you’re reading the wrong blog.
It’s interesting to see changes within dishes in a couple of days, and to see the kitchen feel its way with a new audience. I like the respectful reference to former tenants La Cuina, another perennially underrated local standout, on the opening menu’s sharing shoulder of lamb, served with courgettes and a bright salsa verde. It’s a nice nod to Montse and Samir’s signature dish and their legacy, and would make a superlative Sunday lunch, but is changed to a single serving on my return.
At Ollie’s suggestion, an Amaro Montenegro pairs well with the chocolate ganache, which is pretty much everything you want a chocolate ganache to be: as thick and as rich as inbred nobility.
A third visit confirms my suspicions. This is going to be a very good restaurant indeed, and in the face of slick big brand arrivals, the sort of place I’ll continue to urge you towards.
For some, eating in Pontcanna equals pretension. It would be easy to roll your eyes at yet another ‘small plates’ restaurant. At this point, if I didn’t know Antonio’s cooking like I do, I’d probably be tempted to join you. But when it’s done as consummately well as Poca does it, objections are flimsy things.
If you’re at all interested in how good eating out can be in Cardiff, you need to come to Poca. Blunt? Maybe. Up for debate? No. Even if this isn’t your usual kind of restaurant, this is a very relaxed way to feel your way into the good stuff.
Because make no mistake, that’s what this is. A quietly elegant little space: this is exactly the sort of restaurant I love, exactly the sort of restaurant Cardiff needs, and exactly the kind of restaurant we deserve.
Poca, 11 Kings Rd, Pontcanna, Cardiff CF11 9BZ
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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.