Sometimes the best things are right under your nose.
This was a perfect storm of circumstances, really: my admission I had never been to The Bunch of Grapes was greeted with incredulity by a regular. A few days later, their stall at Cardiff Brewfest was serving classic pub dishes which went down very well; and just before we visited, the Good Pub Guide awarded it ‘Dining Pub of the Year.’ All of which meant I was in a hurry to remedy this potential oversight.
The Bunch of Grapes is an unassuming-looking place, with nothing in the way of frippery or bombast. It is, after all, a pub, and one tucked down a small cul- de-sac at that. It just happens to be a pub which puts food at its heart. And it shows. Handwritten chalk boards menus advertise a range of specials, with many dishes being changed every few days. Their avowed commitment to only using free-range meat from within a 30 mile radius, growing many of their vegetables on site, and to using only line-caught Welsh and Cornish fish, means there’s a rapid turnover according to seasonal availability and what’s at its best.
The small bar area offers a separate menu- fish and chips, burgers, gammon and egg- with another roster of specials. ‘Local’ is very much a theme here, with Breconshire lamb used in the sauce bolognaise, and local beef in the Goan curry.
The beers on offer are a clue you’re not in your typical local, with the lineup being an Untappd user’s dream. The lineup varies. Since he owns the place, you’d expect to see a good selection of Nick Otley’s brews, and Thai Bo to Croseo and Boss Blonde are present and correct; but beers from Siren and ciders from Halletts also feature. It’s the kind of bar where Budweiser and its pallid ilk is stocked with a tangible sense of tokenism. A pint of Dark Star’s ‘Blockhead’ was a sheer joy.
Garlic bread isn’t your common or garden sliced baguette: theirs comes as long pieces of focaccia, delicately pungent with garlic and herbs.
If Wales struggles to present an uniquely identifying dish to the world then my starter must surely be a contender. I’m finding it hard not to think of it constantly since: Welsh cockles and laver bread, evocative of endless beaches and with that unmistakeable hint of the sea. Flecked with pancetta and leeks and served on thick fried bread heavy with butter, this was a thumpingly promising start.
Roasted squash was served whole- and a beautiful sight it was, too, the remaining flesh roasted into soft sweetness and the cavity piled high with lentils, herbs and seeds. It was the kind of thing that made you feel healthier just by sitting next to it.
Pork belly had been cooked confit, a luscious transformation that only needed the pressure of a fork. This was downright voluptuous and decadent. If you have ever played the old game ‘If this meal was a cartoon character..?’- and let’s face it, who hasn’t?- then this would be a shoo-in for the voluptuous curves of Jessica Rabbit. Even better; think Christina Hendricks in a black velvet dress- the precise degree of décolletage is up to you- and you’re on the right track.
The crackling came as a long baton: and as any fule kno, black pudding makes anything better. Tart cubes of apple and a purée of tomato, roasted to a lovely slow-roasted sweetness, cut through the rich fattiness of the meat.
Breast of free-range chicken with pomme paille- potato straws to you and me- was perfectly cooked, spiked with chorizo and highly rated, with the subtle heat of the sauce a highlight.
Here they make much play of the fact their steak comes from W.J. George of Talgarth. Even though the sirloin was ordered ‘well done’ (look, I don’t make the rules, OK?) it still retained plenty of depth of flavour. The accompanying chips redefined the word ‘chunky’.
We had no room for dessert- even the intriguing come hither of red wine and dark chocolate ice cream couldn’t tempt me.
The most obvious reckoner for any new restaurant is how soon you plan to return, how often the dishes play on your mind in the meantime.
So it’s worth mentioning I found myself up that way unexpectedly today, so I went back for lunch, this time eating from the bar menu. And yes, it was excellent. But you’ll find that for yourself soon, I hope.
If this was my local you’d never get me to leave: I’d have my post delivered there. They have preserved the essence of a local pub for local people, while creating food you want to travel for. I am already planning an all-dayer, via the nearby train station. That all this is a quick journey outside Cardiff is something to celebrate; I’m sorry I didn’t visit sooner, but I’ll be making up for lost time.
The Bunch of Grapes
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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.