Usually, the definitive review of a new restaurant comes some time after it has bedded in. They’ve established an identity, you’ve got a frame of reference.
That’s not true of Pontcanna’s Thomas by Tom Simmons, because the first review, from The Octopus Diaries blog and written soon after it opened a little after two years ago, hasn’t been bettered since. And it’s here: https://www.octopusdiaries.co.uk/thomas-pontcanna/
Go on, have a read of what she wrote, and come back to this when you’ve done that.
All done..? Grand. Good, wasn’t it? A sense of place.
With its dark and mossy greens, cream and natural wood tones, Thomas is quietly elegant in an affluent suburb. It’s a menu of classics which reads very accessibly: chicken, duck breast, fish and chips, steak: the sort of place that would occasionally do you a standout beef Wellington. Prices are at the upper end of what you can pay for your dinner locally (aka ‘How much for fish and chips?), though it’ll soon become clear that buys you some impressive attention to detail.
Service is assured and attentive throughout. The cocktail menu leans heavily toward classics- Old Fashioned, a punchy Negroni (very good it is, too) or Kir Royale, though in the spirit of aiding my recuperation they rustle me up an unlisted but very capably made Corpse Reviver #2 (equal measures London dry gin, Lillet blanc, Triple Sec, freshly squeezed lemon juice, absinthe). It’s the perfect- if slightly louche- late morning pick-me-up and it deserves to be far more widely known, all while respecting Harry Craddock’s advice in the ‘Savoy Cocktail Book’, 1930: “Four of these taken in swift succession will un-revive the corpse again.”)
Simmons owns Ground Bakery just up the street, so you’d expect the bread to be good. There’s no skimping, either: two slices each of a springy focaccia and a sourdough blessed with a crust which parts with an audible snap.
Both are just begging to be given a tender but thorough seeing-to with the butters. It’s as delicately perfumed as it is vividly coloured, the wild garlic, and it’s very good, too. The mushroom is even better- and yes, I’m choosing my words with care – spectacular, with a mushroomy intensity all too often lacking. Theres plenty of it, so don’t be niggardly. Don’t spread. Slather. This stuff should be available to take away, I tell them. Apparently, it soon will.
Fried chicken is laced with a lingering lime heat, the batter barely there. There are people whose entire business is frying chicken who don’t get close to this stuff, this level of refinement applied to just something ‘for the table’. This is fried chicken to convert people who think they’re above that kind of thing.
If that butter shows some admirable fungal finesse, croquettes double down on the idea. You’ll need to nurse these as carefully as your child’s hopes, nurse these fragile things all the way to your mouth, even while you’re grinning at the sheer counterintuitive audacity of something this dainty delivering such flavour. That mushroom intensity in the butter was no fluke: these are intensely of themselves, dusted with truffle and Parmesan. Superb? Naturally.
That bosky depth was no fluke. These might be leagues away from the croquetas I was brought up with, like the chicken a humble commonplace elevated to restaurant standard; there’s clearly a stock of impressive depth behind this bechamel, and enviable precision in bringing these crisp, molten, hugely flavourful shells to your table. These things will have their wicked way with your mouth and they won’t even call you in the morning.
You could, easily, come here for a plate of the bread and butter, a portion or two of these, and you’d walk away happy. Of course, you’d have missed out on the chips.
Oh, those chips…
‘Tom’s Chips’ come in at six pounds. You’d be entitled for expect something special for that, and they don’t disappoint. They’re layered with garlic, thyme and parmesan, cooked for a couple of hours, then pressed and chilled before being finished to order. They’re ferociously good: golden, layered, buttery, crisp- the result of care and attention, of countless experiments, of hours of craft. Of love. I’d suggest they rechristen them ‘Tom’s Love Spuds’ if that wasn’t too… glandular… an image, and one best left to chef and Mrs Tom.
On my second visit I order more, because they’re the kind of things- and this is very much the kind of place- you order with a pot of béarnaise just because. A disappointing béarnaise is a sad, listless thing, a tepid puddle of squandered possibilities. This stuff is as good as any I’ve had. Anywhere. And if there’s a finer way to while away a few hours than dipping and dredging chips this good through a sauce made this skilfully, while you explore the cocktail menu, please do let me know.
Fish and chips here is, at time of writing, £27.95. Stated baldly that idea makes some people’s hair curl. My coalminer grandfather and school cleaner grandmother would have looked at me open mouthed if I told them what I paid, I’m sure. But scepticism is short-lived, because it’s not a huge price to pay for something which sets the standard you’ll use to judge all subsequent examples.
It’s exemplary fish cookery, the flesh easing apart in fat, glistening flakes and the topping of tiny batter scraps cleverly mimicking the classic flavours with their punchy salt and vinegar tang. That warm tartar which straddles the acidic and the comforting does very nicely indeed, thank you. It’s all in those little refined details: it’s the difference between a ‘made to measure’ suit, and full bespoke.
The lamb is a lovely thing, too. ‘Precise’ is such a passionless word but the cooking is spot on, the meat every bit as pink and tender as you’d want and expect, and with brief but intense bursts of mint dressing a crisp little croquette. It strikes you that any young chef would do well to learn their trade here.
I can sit here trying to pick holes- the passion fruit sorbet is a touch too tart for me with its chocolate cake- but the whole plate is much lighter than you’d expect from the description. These are quibbles. None of this reinvents the wheel. There’s probably little you haven’t read on menus before. But it’s rare to find them done as skilfully as this, and detail is all. This is craft, a menu of quiet good taste with an attention to execution and a deftness of touch which is rare locally, and comfortably places Thomas among the finest restaurants South Wales has to offer.
‘Immaculate!’, exclaims a Bristol friend, planning his visit as I tell him about my meal. And that’ll do nicely.
3 and 5 Pontcanna St, Pontcanna, Cardiff CF11 9HQ
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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.
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