If you’re not already sick of reading about The Heathcock, you soon will be: every restaurant blogger worth their salt (and a few who aren’t, besides) will be queuing up to tell you just how good it is. This is the fourth side of a square which elevates eating out in Cardiff to something more rarefied, more downright appealing. Asador 44, Heaney’s and Milkwood in the space of 18 months.
A year and a half is small change compared to our glory days at this place. I’m here with Guido, and this place is full of shared memories. We went to school round here, and more relevantly often ended up here at lunch time.
My school uniform was a subtle mufti- a plain tie (still in the regulation black), striped shirt, navy Lyle and Scott jumper. (And if you’re here for fashion tips: I can only sympathise). Well, I was only 5’3 then so I’d take every bit of help I could get: I gained ten inches that year (without those magic pills or surgery I keep getting emails about, ladies): enough to keep the teachers off my back, but non-regulation enough for pubs to claim plausible deniability. It’s a long time since you could get a pint of Worthy’s and a packet of beef-flavoured crisps and still get change from one of those new-fangled pound coins; we return broader of shoulder, thicker of waist, and greyer of hair, although we have dodged the baldness bullet. Small mercies…
I have high hopes: I’m keen to see if they have managed to transplant the cooking which has made parent ‘Ale and Food House’ Hare and Hounds such a favourite among local diners (and a particular darling of the restaurant blogging elite: see Bwyta yn y Brifddinas and Gourmet Gorro for starters (and mains). I’m hoping they start where they left off. I’m hoping for big sharing dishes, married to great ingredients and loving treatment.#
The simple, unfussy aesthetic of Hare and Hounds is in evidence here, too. There’s a room set aside for diners in the main pub, but we eat in the former skittle alley out back- it doubles as their bakery- which keeps fuss to a minimum. Stripped and varnished floorboards, pale walls: it’s homely without unnecessary frills. Like the bread; a springy rosemary focaccia which hints at good things to come.
And come they do. A ‘local’ this certainly is, with a revolving beer list, where you’d be perfectly happy to stop for a pint or two on the way home. There’s a snacks menu which are perfect with a beer, words designed to seduce. Oysters. Crispy lamb. Cockle popcorn. I manage to resist oysters- no, I don’t know how, either- and we go for the croquettes stuffed with long-braised ‘belly’ (breast.)
It’s sexy stuff, the tangle of meat subtly minted and positively gagging to be dredged through the aioli. They are beautifully poised, seemingly held together by willpower: like all the best croquetas they should have you making rapid calculations about the likelihood of them holding together after the first bite.
Just as good is the cockle ‘popcorn’: as maddeningly addictive as it sounds, the mayonnaise subtly flecked with the iodine of laverbread. It’s mislabelled: this is less cockle popcorn, more cockle crack; a kind of Marine Morphine from which there is no escape. It’s already too late. Resistance is futile.
Rabbit- braised with smoked bacon, shallots and garlic- is faultlessly tender; broad, glossy ribbons of pasta, dressed in a creamy sauce amped up with a meaty stock and spun through with pieces of braised leg, make for a standout dish. The sauce, flecked with tarragon and parsley and topped with Hafod (that hard Welsh cheese from Ayshire cattle which seems to be everywhere the moment) and a crisp, garlicky crumb, is a superbly evocative dish on a cold Autumn evening.
I can think of no greater testament to Guido’s kindness (he’s treating me to a pre-birthday feast) and 30-odd years of friendship, than I leave some for him to try. And there are women I’ve been married to I wouldn’t have done that for. Not with a dish this good.
Garlic and thyme perfume a purée of mushroom. Delicately earthy and studded with their home smoked bacon and tiny batons of crisp apple, all anointed with fat Brixham hand-dived scallops (£11)- their glistening roes intact- it’s remarkably good.
There are finely-sliced potatoes cooked confit-style in duck fat, then pressed, cooled and portioned, and finally pan-fried to order (£3). You could call them ‘dauphinoise’ I suppose, though these leave most others you’ve had in the dust. They are exactly as wantonly seductive as you’re imagining- they are even better in Guido’s dish as they are served solo, rather than soaking up the meat juices on my plate.
Duck (£17.90) teams roast breast with a little savoury tart, the buttery short pastry presenting a hearty dollop of confit leg. The cooking throughout is quietly superb, whether it’s the sear on scallops or the deep pink of my Torgelly Farm lamb (£17), or the blush of the meat or the texture of the pasta.
I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’- throwing that around with puppyish enthusiasm does no one any favours, and it’s a slippery slope which pauses at ‘melt in the mouth’ en route to declaring anything and everything ‘banging’. This is highly accomplished countryside cooking, a kitchen which wants to feed you til you want no more.
Actually, if you can indulge me for a moment- and feel free to call me a bluff old romantic- but this is a meal which should begin with a walk through misty parkland, hand in hand with the one you love. You should have to expend some effort to earn food like this; it’s a menu to luxuriate in and over, to be followed by a snooze on the sofa; banish the world for a few hours. That’s what the food here does to you.
A pear sorbet- £2.00 per scoop, and one would have been fine- is a light finish, a happy counterpoint.
Naturally, their exemplary soufflé has, made it across county borders. It’s as brilliantly executed here as when I first met it. It strikes you that there is nothing frilly, flouncy or foppish about this food- not tweezered and teased and tarted up: it’s gutsy and determined to leave you sated and happy.
This is a proper pub which is also a serious restaurant which doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the kind of place you think of through a rosy glow: in short, a haven. It wears its prowess lightly: it’s hearty food, food to warm you on a cold night, food which hugs you back as the nights draw in. The hefty oval French casseroles delivering the night’s sharing dishes (shoulder of wild boar) to nearby tables are an abiding image; an image of hale and hearty eating, of shared pleasures, of good wine and beer and company.
This is food to share with someone who matters to you. Don’t waste a trip here on a mere ‘acquaintance’. Disconnect from the demands of life. Let time and the cares of the world suspend themselves.
Begone, dull care.
No service charge is added automatically, although this place will likely put you in such an expansive mood you’ll be generous.
For what it’s worth I would expect a new entry in the Good Food Guide 2019, but this is an immediate contender for inclusion on any list of the city’s very best places to eat. With this kind of statement of intent, it may just be that the tide is turning.
This is a stellar addition to eating out in the city. You can only envy the locals. As Pete Townshend might put it: Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
58-60 Bridge St,
(Thanks to H from The Octopus Diaries for her photo editing skills…)
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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.