Parallel appeared as confidently as you’d expect, but my heart belongs to two local favourites who opened long-awaited new restaurants this year. Anand George’s quiet revolution continued as, despite formidable hurdles, Tukka Tuk Canteen launched impressively. Few have the vision to cover everything from tasting menu formality to food festival truck to market stall to casual restaurant. Even fewer ensure each is done consummately well.
Rupali and Anand’s vibrant celebration of southern India and its neighbour Sri Lanka has a momentum all its own, all delivered by an excellent front of house team. You’ll have the bone marrow varuval, the beef fry, the parotta and the tamarind-sour Mangalorean halibut, of course, and the beef rib too. peek through the kitchen windows and you can see the dosa ladled and fanned out on the griddle- the batter, not from a packet but their own ferment. With all-week opening new lunch and tasting menus just introduced, Anand is clearly not sitting on his laurels.
The Humble Onion remains one of the most consistently good places to eat locally, yet is curiously under-celebrated. In Pontcanna’s Poca, owner Antonio Simone had the good sense to install Lali Suto as head chef to implement his ideas, and build an experienced team around him.
It worked. It’s easy to roll your eyes and feel the creep of small plates fatigue as you yearn for a return to the simpler days of a la carte. But when the menu is as well-chosen as this, you just stand back and applaud. Poca heads into 2024 in safe hands.
Watch the conversation around this one grow and grow. Mutton-stuffed aubergine; hulking sharing chops of lamb, pork and beef; mussels with laverbread; oysters with monster munch; smoked bone marrow. All have graced a frequently-refreshed menu from that busy charcoal grill.
I tend to dislike the smugness of ‘If you know, you know’, but those who do know what’s going on at Mesen won’t be surprised to see me call it, hands down, one of Cardiff’s most interesting and intriguing menus, and one about to take its place among the city’s very best.
Having visited 591 by Anatoni’s several times during their soft launch, you can be assured of good things when the full menu arrives. It’s Tony Frawley: what did you expect?
Jianghu, the replacement for the late, unlamented Irie Shack, debuted to no fanfare and no social media. No They just opened and hoped people would come. The idea quickly caught on: you know a previously-unknown restaurant is landing when two tables, unknown to each other, message to say how much they are loving their food, within twenty minutes, on the same Friday night, the week after it opened.
Highlights? The barbecue section (have the baby octopus) and robustly-spiced Szechuan dishes. Order the mound of salt and chilli prawns and petite queenie scallops humming with garlic, while the charcoal grill delivers you dainty, smoky skewers of pork, lamb and beef buzzing with cumin and heat.
A sumptuous thing: one of those classic Spanish rices lent huge heft by the use of Welsh beef: a coming together of sunnier inspiration and Welsh produce which means good things. Meat and One Veg, whose blog continued to set the standard, was smitten-I can tell you that come the end of the year the beef shin rice will be on the list of the best things I ate this year, he wrote and it eventually ended up at number four in his annual rundown.
At the time I called this the best thing I had eaten in the city for months. It was an instant hit, hence a very polite Friday evening message along the lines of ‘could you please stop talking about it as we are currently swamped for orders and running out of skillets and cooking surfaces to cook it on.’
It’s a majestic thing. It starts with those distinctive scarlet and gold sacks of Molino Roca Dinamita rice. Similar to bomba, it is aged for two and a half years, prized for its low ‘adhesiveness’ and high absorption rate, and favoured by the likes of David Muñoz and Ángel León (three stars apiece at DiverXO and Aponiente)
The cut you get depends on what ex-dairy beef comes in from Olly Woolnough’s Meat Matters. I’ve had it as shin, tail, cheek- the current version, the preferred choice- but regardless of cut, you can be assured of a remarkable thing.
It’s a laborious process, building this thing. Long hours go into layering a stock of bone, marrow, fat and trim from the same carcass; the anchor of a slow-cooked sofrito (Ñora peppers from Extremadura, Navarran piquillos); the final bright burst of salsa verde, a riot of herbs and aromatics and Bay of Biscay anchovies. This is the slowest of slow food. But what you need to know is: this is wonderful cooking, and the most memorable meat dish I ate here in 2023.
In a word: preposterously good. That’s two words. Thankfully, Paul’s cooking is better than my maths. This would grace any table in any city. Majestic.
‘Look, don’t worry too much about quality. Our customers are mostly in their 20s and early 30s, and they’ll eat any old shit‘ is one of the more depressing food conversations relayed to me this year.
Thankfully, the Flora doesn’t share the cynicism of that venue operator, despite being a student pub within sight of the university. Here, former Heaneys head chef Steve Bennett quietly launched a menu of Eastern-influenced favourites, where Thai green curry mayo laces impeccably battered chicken tenders, or flatbreads ooze with a hot mess of lamb shoulder braised for hours with aromatics and finished with a Japanese twist.
Steve’s cooking has had such an enthusiastic reaction, the kitchen was often sold out by 8pm as demand took them by surprise. Here’s hoping others with similar premises can see the value in doing food better and have the nous to take the baton and run.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have realised that what’s happening in Cardiff Market is quietly extraordinary. It is nothing short of remarkable to see the growth of quality street food businesses as more and more operators with vision target a stall, and the response builds month on month. The Market is where you come to be fed quickly, fed well, and are a very reasonable price: at time of writing, you can’t spend more than £11 on a main dish. If you’re looking for the most comprehensive guide to what’s good there, step this way.
So many local chefs told me it was going to be great, that my bullshit detectors were set to maximum and I prepared myself for disappointment. I needn’t have bothered: it’s impossible to resist its charms. So don’t. Go. Wallow. Here’s why.
Aka: The ‘holy shit, lunch is so good I’m coming back tonight’ award.
I’m unlikely to bring you ‘finds’ in Bristol in the way I do in Cardiff, so I rely on excellent information from exactly the right people. It’s even harder to find reliable reports in Bristol than it is here, which is why I lean on Mark Taylor, Meg Houghton-Gilmour (track down her Substack) and Twitter’s @pxandtarts.
But even so: it has to be Cor, doesn’t it? The place which, within a few bites of my lunch, had me cancelling dinner plans and coming back for another memorable meal. The intervening four hours in the pub were no hardship, either. After time with Bravas, Gambas and more, Mark Chapman’s cooking takes its inspiration from the Mediterranean, and he delivers plate after plate of beautiful things.
When you go- and, dear reader, you really should- the menu will inevitably have changed. But you can’t order badly here, though Basque lamb, lemon beurre blanc beans, mushroom canele and of course their signature seafood with nduja and salsa verde (sobrasada and chimchurri) are moments of unshowy brilliance you should experience soon.
It could only be Wilson’s, couldn’t it? Is this Bristol’s best restaurant? Many better placed than I will say so: this is remarkably refined cooking at the ridiculous price of £35, much of it from their farm, on a five course set lunch menu which dazzles.
I’ll be blunt: if you’re reading this in South Wales but haven’t taken the short trip across to Redland for lunch at Wilson’s- you need your bumps felt. Cardiff has some very good lunch options: it doesn’t have a Wilson’s.
Make the effort: we both know you have invested much more time, and more money, in much poorer restaurants. Speaking of which, and at the same price…
Well, I wasn’t expecting to be telling you the most memorable thing I ate all year was in Cardiff. Even more surprisingly, it’s vegetarian, too.
The mushroom parfait at Fallow is a byword for brilliance. It’s a beautiful thing. And yet I preferred Tom Simmons’ version. It’s lavish, luscious stuff, with a bosky intensity of flavour and a silken texture to rival any meaty equivalent. Even the one on the same menu: the second time I had it, we ate the chicken version side by side – yes, we went Double Parfait- and fell in love with the mushroom even more. Glorious stuff, from the most polished restaurant in the city right now.
A classic parfait of eggs, butter and assorted mushrooms, presented with panache: Tom Simmons clearly has a thing for mushrooms- his croquettes and butter are obsessed over by people who notice this sort of thing- and this is his finest expression yet of his mycophilia.
The fact that Mob’s ‘Best Restaurants in Cardiff’ article omitted it, is why the ‘Someone spends an afternoon flicking through Instagram and now they’re an expert’ shtick will always lack the context and insight of locals who live and breathe this stuff.
In related news: if you want to see a more considered approach, feel free to give this, from National Geographic Traveller, a go.
It’s easy to sneer at the ‘Instagrammer’ mindset, the idea that it’s where integrity goes to die. That it’s wise to be suspicious of accounts which almost exclusively feature free meals, whether declared upfront, buried in the small print, or hidden altogether. People who will seemingly do anything and go anywhere as long as it’s free; and inevitably, ‘amazing.’
But let’s not.
I feel sadness: not so much the sadness at how easily a brand with resources can buy blanket coverage, but the comparative silence from the willing recipients around the places which genuinely raise levels of hospitality in this area.
In short: I wish there was the same degree of interest and effort in finding the best local places to eat, as making excited reels on behalf of some chain. Because it could be transformative.
Imagine that: wouldn’t the city’s hospitality would be the healthier for it?
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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.