On the face of it, Santiago’s marketing has done them few favours. You could almost hear people choking on their morcilla de Burgos at their initial claim to be the ‘only place in Cardiff to experience an authentic Spanish dining experience‘.
That’s a stout boast, especially in this resturant ecosystem. The cut and paste likes of La Tasca have long since been sent packing; and in their place we have Canton’s La Cuina, the Bar 44 group’s ‘Tapas y Copas’ bars and Asador, and lastly Curado, the last three within yards of each other.
With Bar 44 in particular offering inventive variations on traditional themes, and with La Cuina and Curado also proving popular, competition is strong. Not only are are the ’44s’ popular and successful, but they are among the most respected restaurants in the city, part of any sensible discussion of our best.
Any new arrival must be on its mettle, then.
In the meantime, Santiago’s have altered their site. It’s a small change, but a telling one.
Santiago’s Tapas is an authentic Spanish and Cuban restaurant in the heart of Cardiff. Specialising in Tapas, this independent, family run business offers a genuine Latin dining experience.
We use the finest Spanish and local ingredients and produce.
Come and enjoy the Spanish hospitality at Santiago’s.
Well, believing what you read on the internet has gone thumpingly well for the West over last couple of years, and ‘authentic’ is a tricky one to nail down. Is it ‘authentic’ if it uses imported Spanish ingredients? Or are you looking for dishes familiar from your holidays to be replicated perfectly on home soil? Should the food be cooked by Spaniards?
Does ‘authentic’ mean enslaved by tradition, in thrall to some ideal?
Croquetas are my private touchstone of any Spanish menu. Get these wrong, and you know you’re wasting your time and money.
Here they are piping hot and well constructed, the fragile shell ‘just’ strong enough to do its job. That’s an encouraging sign: there should be nothing overly sturdy about them. They may be humble in origin- a way to eke out leftovers and feed a large family- but made with skill they are deceptively luxurious things. The day’s ‘special’ is a chicken and beef mixture; and although they cancel each other out rather- sticking to chicken and spiking it with tarragon would make for something more memorable, perhaps- the more traditional bacalao (salt cod) examples are generously portioned and well seasoned.
Bread and olive oil are brought as standard, because there will be mopping up to perform; mainly with the meatballs. They have a good loose texture, and the almond sauce is a pleasant variation on the tomato-based sauce you might expect (and which they also offer). I’m reminded of a similar dish at La Cuina a while back, similarly satisfyingly nutty.
In the wrong hands, a tortilla is a greasy, stodgy thing which can sit like a cannonball in your guts, a broadside of carbs. In the hands of a gifted Chef it can become something ethereally light, molten yolks within a fragile crust, oozing seductively over your plate with the first touch of a knife.
Here, it’s very much in the traditional home-cooked style, a marriage of potatoes and onions and eggs familiar in millions of kitchens all over Spain, and sliced into countless cubes for hundreds of thousands of bar counters. You may turn up your nose at this version, and draw unflattering comparisons with more glamorous names or whatever, but this is a solid example of Spanish home cooking. This may not be the molten beauty of Paco Tapas or Bar Nestor: but it is very much the sort of thing I’ve eaten in Spanish homes. This one took me back to an afternoon’s dappled shade, overlooking a lake in the Guadarrama, greedily unwrapping crusty bocadillos loaded with thick slices of this stuff, earned by a trek one scorching afternoon.
Slices of octopus on scalloped potato come slightly overdone in parts and though they carry a liberal sprinkling of smoked paprika, they are unfortunately too vigorously salted, which goes down as a swing and a miss overall. It’s a shame as the best seafood cookery has a light touch.
Patatas bravas come as small cubes rather than the quasi-roasties found elsewhere. They lack the crispness of better examples, but are redeemed by the sauce, which is anything but bland. Bold with a smoky paprika and chilli heat, yet slightly sweet and glossy, it’s the kind of thing which has you coming back. And back.
And back. You get the picture. Deep-fried squid, so often a barometer for a kitchen’s touch, arrive crisp are lightly battered. These could do with something- perhaps a thick, whiffily garlicky alioli- to elevate them, but the cooking is spot on in this case.
Pinchos of chicken with grilled peppers and onion are nicely done with some good smoky grilling evident. We’ll file these under ‘good, not great.’
We left Santiago’s feeling there was absolutely nothing wrong with the place. It didn’t make me want to bludgeon blue-eyed kittens, neither did it convince me that it was a true gem. That’s not the same as saying Santiago’s is perfect, or even my first choice: if I had a craving for those sunny flavours, I’d probably head for La Cuina or Bar 44.
Whether or not it tallies with your idea of ‘authentic’ is largely irrelevant: my main criterion is always going to be, ‘Does it taste good? Have these ingredients been used sympathetically?’ If you judge Santiagos by San Sebastian criteria, you will find it unadventurous: you won’t find a kobe beef spin on ‘Big Mac’ like in A Fuego Negro, or seared foie gras with apple compote as at La Cuchara de San Telmo; they won’t offer you the lagarto of ibérico pork in Valladolid. You won’t find a chorizo Yorkshire pud like Barr 44 serve up.
As an aside; recently, Santiago’s hit the top spot in TripAdvisor’s Cardiff restaurant list.
This must come with the usual caveat, to view with some scepticism: a perfect storm of peculiar algorithms and cluelessness has thrown up some bizarre anomalies. At time of writing, it has slipped to 13th, despite its many ‘excellent’ ratings: such are the captives of the system. (Although Elmer’s Café on Whitchurch Road will do you a sterling fry up, it’s an odd set of criteria which puts eating there way ahead of Asador or Milkwood or Heaneys., all reviewed at length on this site.) Pole position may be very nice for a business, some valuable publicity. But those who know, know: and they know it is a Clupea harengus of a particularly scarlet hue. But if you like traditionally-presented tapas, something to remind you of Spanish holiday perhaps, you could do a lot worse, and the welcome is warm.
Are there fancier, more ‘polished’ options which make the pulse race a little faster? Yes. Does that mean there anything wrong with this place, per se?
029 2022 6666
3 Church St,
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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.