Last year, a Cardiff restaurant on Fathers’ Day: the staff overhear us talking about my daughter’s birthday just the day before, and a complimentary plate of mini desserts suddenly appears, a congratulatory message piped across the plate.
That same night, as we make our way through an impressive tasting menu, we are told, ‘Just ask if you want more of a particular dish, and we’ll change anything you don’t enjoy.’
Last weekend. Our server sees my daughter enjoying the poppadoms so much, he pretends the remaining few are stale and he needs to bring a fresh batch. Just for her. Definitely not for the grown-ups. And not on the bill.
That kind of generosity of spirit stays with you, doesn’t it? Three lovely examples of genuine ‘extra mile’ hospitality, a year and 40-odd miles apart.
The connection? They were all at a Salkaara, which has just opened in Bristol. It’s an unusual west to east move. Precedents are scarce. Stephen Gomes foundered in the city, though Gin and Juice have recently opened and Bar 44 have flourished. We are far more used to the opposite direction of flow, with Pieminister, Society Standard, Pasture, Burger Theory, Kong’s leadings the way with varying levels of success.
The name, from the Malayalam Salkaram, is all about hospitality. Welcome. It’s clearly more than just branding here.
Chef Santhosh Nair is best known locally from his successful stint as Exec Chef at Mint and Mustard from 2008, before taking the plunge with his own place. It’s one of Cardiff’s most-loved restaurants: not just with ‘foodies’, but they’re also a rare case of TripAdvisor getting it right.
There’s no radical rethinking needed, then: Salkaara will be doing very well if it ‘just’ does here in Henleaze what it already does in North Llandaff.
Opposite Henleaze library, next to Waitrose and the Orpheus cinema- the sublime Littlefrench is around the corner- Salkaara opened at the worst time in recent history. It made sense to get the kitchen operating smoothly at less pressurised, takeaway demand capacity before the true opening. It’s paying off, with collections busy and tables gradually filling as we eat. Word is spreading.
Shelves hold jars of Kashmiri chillies, the vivid tones of powdered and the darker dried whole examples, or lentils and bay leaf, or turmeric, coriander and cloves.
Immediately we are on familiar ground with the little curled poppadoms and dips: the spiced beetroot, the tart lemon and tangy coriander.
Today’s thoran is beetroot, too, and Blogging Law says that any dish with it has to be described as having an ‘earthy sweetness’ but here it’s at least tweaked with bite from urid dal and revved up with tempered mustard seed and curry leaf.
Saag khumb- mushrooms with spinach- is heavy on the fenugreek, silky with cream and spinach, and quietly satisfying. Their distinctive filled breads are present and correct, the delicate layers of their lamb naan a highlight as usual.
Chicken tikka isn’t the bland everyman of your average Friday night tandoori. Their light crust makes them something my daughter (7) calls ‘BOOOOOMPH spicy!’, and perhaps you had to be there but that seems to make a hell of a lot more sense than the usual cookedtoperfectionmeltinthemouthtodiefor malarkey.
There’s little of the billed crispness in the beef chilli fry but that’s easily forgiven, because this is a one of those starters you wish you had several of, preferably at Komodo dragon (they can eat up to 80% of their body weight in a single session, giant reptile fact fans) levels.
The little nuggets of meat in a skillet bring a lingering warmth, a lovely thing especially when contrasted with the bite of barely-cooked onions and coconut chips.
Swordfish comes in a densely flavoured sauce, chilli and kokum making for a punchy hot-sour one-two. Another lovely thing, never dominating the delicate meatiness of the fish- a balancing act but one which keeps me dipping back in across the table.
There’s a creamy korma, perfumed with coconut and a nutty sweetness from the sauce thickened with cashews, which immediately casts other kormas in a very insipid light.
Just as layered is Hyderabadi lamb laziz, which ramps up the heat but doesn’t let the unmistakable spicing overpower the sweetness of that (Welsh) lamb in its tomato and onion-based sauce.
A seamless transition to Bristol, then, for one of Cardiff’s most acclaimed. It’s even more impressive when you consider this used to be a barber shop, so I’d imagine the kitchen is compact at best. I’m also told chef Santhosh is currently shuttling up and down the M4 daily to ensure the standards established in Cardiff are embedded. Consistency is clearly the priority.
The combination of their distinctive brand of hospitality and their always intriguing food augurs well: it would be lovely to think Salkaara can build the following and the respect here which they already command in Cardiff.
45-47 Northumbria Drive
Lunch 12.00pm-2.30pm; dinner 5pm-11pm daily
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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.