My phone buzzes.
‘The Flora in Cathays has got a chef to take over their kitchen and I think he’s going to do something special here. I just had his lamb flatbread and it blew my mind. The chef has a solid background and the menu looks good, I think he could really benefit from a visit.’
It’s from a local chef, someone doing very good things in his field, and it means the visit I’ve luckily already got planned for the following day is even more promising.
He’s talking about Steve Bennett. In the words of another local restaurateur, and someone whose opinion on these things holds an almost biblical weight with me, he is simply ‘One of the most able chefs in the city.’
You might not know his name, but you’ve probably already eaten his cooking: he has spent the last four and a half years as Head Chef at Heaney’s, his latest stint in a three decade career studded with some of Britain’s most acclaimed restaurants, many of them Michelin-starred. ‘Solid background’ indeed.
It’s a formidable CV. But priorities change. So here he is at The Flora, with a short menu of street food inspired by American travels. Frequent trips to the States- Chicago, New York and Washington in particular- centre on enthusiastic eating and over time he has fallen for the flavours and simplicity of Korean, Thai and Asian cooking.
The Flora is still very much a busy pub, and this is very much informal pub food. A burger is inevitable: this one (£12) is messy in all the best ways, punchy with kimchi and gochujang, and topped with strands and clumps of Meat Matters brisket. You’ll have noticed that even your Aunty Blodwyn has started serving smashed burgers in Cardiff this week, and there are a couple more on their way to the city soon, but this is your classic thick but well-textured patty.
That brisket is a simple process, dry brined for twenty-four hours and charred on the barbecue. Into the oven it goes, smothered in gochujang, soy, mirin, coriander stalks, spring onion bottoms and ginger, then topped with beef stock and water in equal quantities, wrapped in foil and cooked for eight hrs. Once it’s finished, the liquor is reduced by half, the meat is pulled and the liquor poured over to soak back into the meat.
See? Simple pub grub.
When I read Asian lamb flatbread (£10) I imagine some kind of of keema ‘frankie’ or kati roll. What arrives is a hot mess on a flaky flatbread, pieces of shoulder seared then braised for hours in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers and aromatics, all bolstered at the last minute with pickled sushi ginger, vinegar, mirin and soy and soothed with a daub of sour cream.
The flatbread dough is brushed with lamb fat rendered from the shoulder trimmings, and cooked directly on the chargrill. It’s not anything like an ‘authentic’ Asian recipe, he tells me: it’s an attempt to summon the memory of a sandwich in Manhattan’s Koreatown a few years ago. It’s instantly impressive: whether you have a prissy prod and a pick, or roll it up and chance getting it to your mouth in one, is very much your choice. You can eat this any way you want, but eat it you must.
The vegetarian version (£7), a cheese bread loaded with potato masala and laced with a perky coriander pesto, is a substantial thing. It’s another
Salt & Pepper Fries (£ 4.50) catch the eye. So does ‘Fried Egg Mayonnaise’- well, it would, wouldn’t it? It’s exactly what it says. Fried yolks are chilled and used as the protein, with a pinch of English mustard. You’ll order this. You’ll love it. You’ll ask for more. Resistance is useless. Have the Japanese fries (£6), too, because you’ll be missing out if you dint.
Chicken tenders (£7) have an exemplary texture and crunch, and are gluten-free too, thanks to a seasoned mix of GF flour, tapioca flour and cornflour. The subtle sweetness makes these the beer snack of your dreams. There’s more evidence of a light hand with meaty cauliflower, in an excellent lacy batter (again, gluten free) and salty-sweet teriyaki.
A mile away from what he’s been doing for years, but rarely does something like this arrive in Cardiff so confident in its menu, so fully formed. This is a quietly remarkable thing: I know of no pub in the city which is doing things at this level.
‘I wanted to do food that I would like to eat’, he tells me. It shows. A one-man band at present, with no big branding- this is just ‘The Flora’ on the menu- no ‘cool’ Instagram feed, no bragging about former places he has worked. This is food by grown ups, with none of that tiresome ‘edgy’ nonsense or logo. This is food for everyone. ‘He’s going to do something special here’ was spot on. I urge you- find out for yourself.
The Flora, 136 Cathays Terrace, Cardiff CF24 4HY
Food: Wednesdays from 5pm, Saturdays from 1, Sunday lunch 1230-330
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
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.