This won’t be a Top 40 style rundown of favorite dishes in this oddest of years, or even my favourite restaurants. We all know what’s happened and the challenges that poses for restaurants and the people who work in them, so let’s skip to the good stuff.
Instead, let’s highlight some good local food you might not have tried yet, and which I know you’ll enjoy next year, coupled with a few notable projects which deserve a mention, and links to any original reviews for more details.
Hold on, you’re grumbling into your morning branflakes/ Buckfast/bouillabaisse. I know all these. I’m a regular there. They send me birthday cards. They know my children’s names. Which is lovely, but these places don’t get enough mentions, are tried and tested, and many might have missed them. So bear with me.
Old Sichuan (Canton) and So Good (Cathays) are where you go for ‘another’ Chinese food- the fiery spicing of regional Sichuanese cooking, teamed with an offal lover’s paradise. Whether you’re feeling adventurous with maw and feet and geoduck, or fancy the rugged citrus liptingle spicing of Sichuan pepper, this is a refreshing chance to the comforting blandness of your Saturday night takeaway. The chilli beef and the cumin lamb are standouts. Just be prepared to have your face melt off and slump into the soup if you choose the higher levels of spice.
Moo Moo Thai Tapas on City Road has a roll call of vibrantly spiced dishes. The killer dish, among strong competition, is the tamarind duck. Luckily, you can still order takeaway.
The much-delayed Dosaa from Anand George continues to be the 2021 opening I’m looking forward to most. It can’t fail, with a menu aimed squarely at bringing genuinely interesting cooking to city centre workers and shoppers in Cardiff Market.
It wouldn’t be right to neglect The Humble Onion. It’s a true gem, and if you haven’t sought it out tucked away in a corner of Dinas Powys you’d be well advised to. Antonio Simone loves to serve dishes uncomplicated by too much fuss, but full of flavour and deft but telling details, and the service is wonderful.
On to the awards bit. These are the places which have kept me entertained and fed. More importantly- inspired, even. Think of it as a virtual awards ceremony, except you don’t have to dust off your best frock or tuxedo or even endure the existential horrors of a Zoom meeting. My glamorous assistant is on hand to supply the golden envelopes, and the trophies will be presented to the winners as we go.
Most inspiring new business: Mercado 44. It takes some doing to make the switch (no, no-one needs to read the ‘p’ word again) from quietly elegant sit-down to filling bags and boxes for pickup. But when Bar 44 do something, they do it well- their online shop has been a huge success this year, first locally, when they fed me very very well time after time with finish at home dishes- from octopus to confit duck and morcilla burgers, to fat red prawns and that jamón butter to pressed Duroc belly pork… and of course their remarkable beef. With their ‘Asador experience’ boxes now being sent nationwide, they rest of the country can see what we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep: and they even found time to bottle their own sherry, which I’m drinking as I write this.
The respect, the love they have for the food of my heritage, inspires me. They took inspiration for their live-fire cooking at some of Spain’s greatest asadores, including El Capricho and Güeyu Mar – and it shows. They have always set a high standard, something Tom Parker Bowles picked up on in minutes when he visited for his review, one which turned into a love letter to the place (See also: surreal moment of the year, going from ‘banned from seeing friends’ to ‘sitting down with a couple of nationally-renowned food writers for a four-hour lunch and being asked to order for the table’.)
It’s the quality of their ingredients. It’s the lengths they go to to find them. It’s the wisdom to do enough but never too much to such lovely raw materials. And even if you didn’t know any of that, you’d have to admire the way they adapted time after time, trying to roll with every new body blow
To adapt David Coleman on the Cuban Alberto Juantorena: this was the year my favourite Cardiff restaurant opened its legs and showed its class.
Best new place to eat in Cardiff: a doddle, this- Bones Supperclubs from Lee Skeet. Any conversation about the best cooking around here at the moment is incomplete without mentioning Lee. That was the reaction of my prodigious gut on my first visit and I’m sticking with that: my return confirmed it and I’ve just booked a third.
Lee’s events showcase some exceptional stuff. It’s home cooking in name only, serving just one reservation per session: a unique situation for meeting some of the best food you can eat in the area at the moment. Nothing on my return visit did anything to put a dent in that opinion: the number of places I’d put at the same level is small. Very small. Two, to be precise.
It works beautifully as an intimate dinner for two. The way he delivers texture and flavour is uncompromising and unfussy. Chefs with Lee’s skills and experience don’t often end up in Cardiff. Make the most of it.If Lee had opened a restaurant cooking at this level your feeds would be positively engorged with superlatives. But as he cooks for just a handful a day, rather than scores, it falls to people like me to bang the loudest of drums for his cooking. So: go. Just go. You’ll understand.
Best ‘punching above their weight’ Clay’s of Reading: “the little restaurant that could.”
This way the year the country opened up to small businesses, when we got to try old favourites without travelling, and a punt for survival led to some standout success stories. I fell for Clay’s hard. Lately they’ve had praise from national critics- from Tom Parker Bowles, Jay Rayner and William Sitwell, all united in their admiration for what Nandana and her husband Sharat do. That vindicates their bravery, but also makes their approach to me, wanting reassurance that their food could be popular outside their small town bubble, seem almost quaint now. Back in August I was struck by the inventiveness of this little kitchen, its ability to deliver unfamiliar flavours and unusual ingredients.
Forced to come up with a solution to not being able to open their little Reading restaurant they have made their interesting Indian regional cooking available to you. I urge you: give them a try in the New Year. Have the chicken livers. And the ghee roast chicken. And the venison bhuna. And the goat. And the green wedding curry. And their biryanis. Don’t eat meat? Have their aubergine curry, which changed my mind about the vegetable with one dish. And their silken paneer. And… Well, you get the idea. And if you ever have one of those times when the food arrives and you fancy something else that night- all of Clays dishes can be frozen. This week Nandana wrote a moving blog post detailing the struggles they have endured, the sort of thing you’d have to have a heart of stone to remain unmoved by. Clay’s is somewhere I’ll be heading as soon as I can.
Best new burger (with room to spare…) Well, it had to be Ansh, didn’t it? A series of St Canna’s popups got their hooks into me early on, and their ahead of schedule opening in Victoria Park means they made a hugely impressive start to making Cardiff their home. The partnership with Oriel Jones ensures they use high quality meat- though I’m told their vegan burger is a lovely thing too.
Burgers which go hard on the beefiness, and still find room for a standout mutton burger, burgers which feel good in the hand and never stray into that ‘more more MORE!’ trap. Proudly and prominently Welsh, extravagantly beefy. I’ve had seven or eight now- who’s counting, eh?- and although I’d urge you to try them as soon as you can, my advice would be to experience them at their best pick by taking a walk across to Victoria Park. Find a bench. Fall upon your purchase. Show it no mercy. But if you can avoid it- don’t take it miles away before eating. You won’t be having them at their best. With some exciting plans in hand for the restaurant proper, this will be one of the key attractions in 2021.
Best ‘Shit! What do we do now?’ solution: Kapow. Or, how to respond to an industry hamstrung overnight. Marrying crisis creativity with a canny strategy to whip up demand, these became the local must-have finish at home delivery. A small but well-chosen range of sides (that rib meat macaroni is a gutsy indulgence) and of course highly impressive ribs with a range of finishes and rubs: their success is no mystery. I must have had these more often than any other delivery this year: and John and Ceri Cook still found time to renovate their new Cowbridge restaurant for imminent opening.
Best consolation prize for no London trips this year: Bleecker Burger. Aka the standard setter. Exemplary burgers in an exemplary DIY package. I love the simplicity of what they do- but that just begs the question- if it was that simple, wouldn’t everyone be this good? And they aren’t. It has been fairly surreal to be unable to order from a Cardiff indie 2.2 miles away, yet have these brought to my door: but what a beautiful thing this is. They always get it right. And now you can too.
The highlight of my regular eating fixtures is September’s Meatopia. That was keenly missed this year, though at least I managed to recapture past years by trying the sublime barbecue from Birmingham’s Andy Stubbs. He does magical things with meat.
It would be wrong to finish without a recommendation for local home cooking blogs I’ve found rewarding and inspiring: Lia Kelly’s Korean Kitchen Cardiff. Food writing is often at its most vital when someone is passionate about the food of their heritage, because you can’t fake that connection between your upbringing and what’s on your plate. Lia is on a mission to teach the food of her Korean family traditions: she writes clearly and with insight. You owe it to yourself to try her fried chicken, and her galbi jjim (spicy braised shortribs) are just the kind of thing to pep up your lockdown home cooking and have you raiding the shelves of CKJ on Woodville Road. And if you’re not dumbstruck by the sheer inventiveness and beauty of Simmie Vedi’s Instagram feed, there is no hope for you.
Lunch of the year? Bristol’s littlefrench. It dazzled. A menu which has almost too much choice- temptation on every line, a practically perfect union of fantasy dishes and beautiful execution. The sort of experience which cheers you with its memory and which I’ll be repeating soon. This is one day trip you owe yourself. Just surrender to the menu.
But this year, when good memories are more precious than ever, and when I’ve been appreciating the emotional resonance that a good meal leaves you with, my trip to the small but perfectly formed Scallop Shell in Bath remains a beacon. Not only of simple things done simply and startlingly well- British classics delivered with skill and a light touch- but the kind of experience which automatically rights itself in your memory as golden and sun-dappled, when in reality the rain was lashing the windows and the drive home positively sodden. In short, the kind of day restaurants make possible. The kind of day we need more of.
Here’s to the resilience of hospitality. Thank you to everyone who has read and shared these ramblings this year, and to all who have helped our developing work in supporting Welsh independents via Find My Dine. But more than that- thank you to those who have coped with pressure that would break many, but have carried on with a smile and with enthusiasm, ensuring we have memorable nights out and the stories that go with them.
Here’s to you, and your resilience, and to happier times ahead.
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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.