The usual up-front disclosure, because transparency is essential. I was invited to eat at The Philharmonic; food was complementary, we paid for our drinks after the first round. All opinions tumble from my brain independently.
Any Cardiffian worth their salt will have memories of The Philharmonic. Whether it was where you ended up on your Friday nights out, or your hot ticket for the NYE crush, the St Mary Street pub-club was a landmark for many years.
My memories of the place seem to revolve around oppressively crammed New Year’s Eves, when you were treated to the beery-breathed bonhomie of a total stranger vowing he loves you like a brother, honest, no lie, I swear.
These days, of course, that’s a vision of Hell itself, something to rival a Hieronymous Bosch gallery of grotesques; something to have you casting envious eyes at the damned’s macabre punishments and thinking that they are, frankly, getting off far too lightly.
But dinner? Really? In short, ‘eating at ‘The Philly’’ would be filed under ‘Worst idea since Canesten’s new Wasabi variety.’
So telling you my curiosity got the better of me and I accepted an invitation to eat there would have once seemed…well, let’s settle for ‘unlikely’.
A little research before accepting seems in order, so neither of us are wasting our time. Initial signs are encouraging. Almost all the food- their figure was 90%- is made from scratch, with a heavy reliance on local markets. Consider my curiosity piqued.
The playlist is a godsend. Stone Roses, The Who, Springsteen, The Clash, Pulp, Beach Boys. I’m hoping the kitchen has similarly good taste.
It’s a menu of crowdpleasers, this: hearty stuff like gammon and chips, seafood linguine, pork ribs, burgers and salads. There’s nothing which will ping its way to your table in five minutes: if you have a train to catch, head for the ‘Spoons around the corner.
The by-now-obligatory ‘small plates’ (and points for not calling them ‘tapas’) menu casts far and wide for its influences. Lamb kofte are unusually tender, their texture closer to the Indian galouti kebab than you might expect.
Is it possible for something to be too buttery? Sweet, fat scallops on the shell, the flesh all perkily fresh and humming with garlic – not all the butter has melted when it is served, which is a shame, but it does mean you get a slick of pungent juices which could have done with some bread to mop up.
Softshell crab is one of those must-orders, and so rarely seen on menus locally (see also: sweetbreads). It’s almost exclusively the preserve of local heroes Mint and Mustard or Purple Poppadom. This was well seasoned but overall slightly underwhelming, needing a touch longer in slightly hotter oil. Much more precision is evident in the squid, served here in thick, meaty strips and a tangy citrus mayonnaise for a pleasant change from the ubiquitous rings.
A chicharron-style puffed pork rind is often a clue that a restaurant knows its onions and is willing to invest time in the stuff others discard. Here, it accompanies a square of pressed slow-cooked belly (a lovely thing, this) and a densely meaty rib for a porky trio, showcasing the versatility of the pig. It all works a treat.
You could quibble over whether serving duck in a roll constitutes a true ‘burger’. Me? I’d rather get stuck in to the shredded thigh meat in its rich hoisin sauce, deep and dark and rich and sticky. The bread (baked here) is a lightly floured bap and rather good it is, too.
The pork burger is more traditionally composed: it has a pleasantly ‘open’ texture and chorizo, which of course makes everything better. The seasoning and flavours of the patty are spot on, but it needs a mite more lubrication overall. It’s almost it’s just a slather of sauce away from being excellent.
There’s a Spanish look to lamb and white beans in a thick, rich tomato sauce. It’s a huge portion, easily enough on its own, though sauce could have done with a little more ‘ooomph’ from the seasoning. We didn’t pick an awful lot of chorizo heat from it and were expecting something smokier. The heft of pimentón picante would have brought this up a treat.
But any place like this has to do a damn good chip. The chips. Oh, the chips. Draw near, children, and I shall tell you about the chips…
Chips are scheduled with both burgers; in an (admittedly rare) moment of restraint and moderation, we tell the kitchen we could manage with just one. They send out two: they clearly know what they were doing.
These two batches are heroically good- hand peeled, hand cut in-house, blanched, cooled, coated and then cooked one last time to order. The scraps of light coating cling to them, adding a surface roughness akin to the best roast potatoes. Add a floury centre and you’ve got something very compelling. I try- and fail- to come up with a better chip in the city centre.
Desserts are a resounding success. A crème brûlée passes the ‘tap test’ with aplomb, and is subtle in flavour and silky in texture; and a tumescent cheesecake-type confection with more glitter and gold than Peter Stringfellow in gold lamé tangas. (Good luck unseeing that one). It’s an oddity, this: we spot pumpkin seeds in the base- which practically makes it a health food, no?- just as we love the textures and the peanut butter hit. It’s certainly distinctive and certain to be a favourite.
The reopened Philharmonic is a colossal improvement on what was there before and it’s heartening to see a menu with this affordability put so much thought into this menu. Might I suggest it as an able replacement if you’re till missing Locke and Remedy?
This may well prove to be a rare shaft of light in the city centre. When you’re looking for somewhere recognisable to eat but don’t fancy one of the chains, this is an ethos we can all get behind.
76-77 St Mary 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.