Saturday, 26 December 2020

Ten of the best things I've eaten in Cardiff in 2020

It’s been an absolutely grim year for the hospitality industry.

With constantly changing rules and regulations, it seems an almost impossible time to be running a restaurant. 

I have nothing but respect for those businesses that have manage to keep going through a combination of grit and innovation.

So, this annual run down of my favourite dishes I’ve eaten in and around Cardiff in 2020 is a little bit different to other years; except for two they were all home deliveries or takeaways as many businesses have changed their focus to keep the lights on.  

So without further a do, here are my highlights:

Tacos de Birria - Leyli Joon Babhaus Mex

With its multistorey seasoning, texture and spicing, Leyli Joon’s cooking never disappoints. Her Babhaus Mex tacos, which we’ve had at Sticky Fingers and in home delivery kits, are no exception. 

Leyli’s 18 hour smoked beef short rib and ox cheek tacos de birria take the prize for the best tacos I’ve eaten in the UK. Reminiscent of a quesadilla, they’re absolutely stuffed with shreds of intensely smoky meat, golden crusted cheese, tangy sour cream and punchy salsa roja. 

Tŷ Melin have taken Cardiff’s bakery scene by storm with their Saturday morning drops regularly selling out in minutes. Owners Angharad and Lance’s CVs read like a who’s who of the UK’s best bakeries and their sourdough, custard tarts, almond croissants, brioche buns and cookies are some of the best I’ve eaten. 

But, it’s their trademarked croissant bombs which steal the headlines. A crisp sugary exterior with a good bit of chew surrounds light laminated pastry layers stuffed to the brim with filling. Flavour highlights include Elvis quiff-like lemon meringue, cherry and chocolate custard stuffed Black Forest, and a mince pie Christmas special. 

Beef Wellington - Thomas by Tom Simmons

Tom Simmons' cooking is big on French technique and Welsh ingredients but on Wednesday nights his focus is solely on beef Wellington, and what a Wellington it is. Ludicrously tender, well-flavoured ruby red beef fillet is surrounded by meaty mushroom-studded chicken mousse and golden pastry. It’s joined by brilliantly buttery mash, smoky charred hispi cabbage and meaty gravy. 

Fraisier Cake - Chez Vous Grady

With Grady Atkins’ Paysan residency at Bloc Coffee no longer viable in light of social distancing, he channelled his considerable skill and technique towards Chez Vous Grady, a dinner delivery service firmly rooted in the hearty classics of French cooking. 

The highlight of our five course meal was a fraisier cake which was as much a feat of engineering as it was a dessert. Some of the many components of this cake-trifle hybrid included elderflower syrup soaked sponge, set vanilla custard, strawberry mousse, strawberry jelly, elderflower jelly, strawberry pieces and chocolate coated honeycomb. Woof.

Cubano sandwich - Milkwood

When two of Cardiff’s best chefs create a menu of gourmet sandwiches you know it’s going to be a winner. And that’s what Tom Furlong and Gwyn Myring have done by pivoting Milkwood’s menu from high end modern Welsh to a takeaway friendly selection of sandwiches, pizzas, ribs and doughnuts. Their buttermilk fried chicken sandwich and Big Mac-esque burger are both absolute belters but it you had to twist my arm I’d pick their Cubano as the standout. 

A crisp pressed soft-crumbed loaf is stuffed with fall apart tender hunks of pork belly and sliced ham and a good ooze of melted Swiss cheese. Cleansing pickles and warming American mustard provide vital balance.

Hake and curried salsify - Shed by James Sommerin

James Sommerin’s new restaurant at Barry’s Goodsheds sees him channel his Michelin-starred technique into high end comfort food. A hake main was the standout of a meal which included a lux chicken kiev, banoffee pie and top notch souffle. 

The fillet of meaty butter poached fish was joined by curry twanged salsify puree whose familiar spicing reminded me more than a bit of Coronation chicken. Wilted spinach, a crisp tangle of salsify fronds, aromatic coriander oil and soft salsify pieces completed the lush dish. 

John and Ceri Cook are never short of ingenious food business ideas and their Kapow Ribs delivery service is one of their best yet. I mean who doesn’t want a massive tray of fall-apart tender ribs and rich rib meat mac and cheese delivered to their front door?

Their classic BBQ ribs are belting but I particularly enjoyed their sweet, savoury, tingly spiced and citrusy miso honey and Japanese seven spice ribs.

Miso ramen - Matsudai Ramen

James Chant’s excellent Matsudai Ramen is another business which has brought me much comfort this year. Their home delivery frozen ramen kits are just the ticket after another day sat in front of Zoom. 

Each pack of frozen ramen contains broth, noodles and chashu pork or vegan shiitake soboro. With clear cooking instructions, all you need to do is defrost your kit, juggle a few pans and add your own gooey egg and chopped spring onion. I’ve really enjoyed their uber-porky tonkotsu and and uber-chickeny tori paitan but it’s their savoury, spicy and aromatic miso which is my pick. 

Potato, provola and pancetta pizza - RomEat

In a parallel universe, Albany Road’s RomEats is busy with office workers by day and rammed with people spilling out of pubs and gigs at The Globe Centre by night. Instead, this excellent Roman pizza by the slice place finds itself opening in the most difficult of times. 

If you haven’t had a delicious and bargainous pizza slice from these guys yet then I recommend you check them out. I’ve enjoyed slices of spicy salami with sweet roast peppers, a fine margherita, and soft baked aubergine with tangy ricotta but it’s their most dubious sounding pizza which is my favourite. Soft buttery potatoes, which provide a double carb hit, are accompanied by smoky provola and crisp salty pancetta. 

Oriel Jones burger - Ansh

Victoria Park’s recently opened Ansh belong in Cardiff’s burger premier league. A collaboration between burger fanatic Aled Hill and Shaun Jones, owner of Oriel Jones butchers, everything is on point from their squishy potato buns to the first rate meat sourced from Oriel Jones’s family farm. 

The Oriel Jones is the headline burger on the menu and it’s an absolute luxury mess; stuffed with a pair of big-flavoured juicy smashed beef patties, seriously tender Welsh black beef brisket shreds in thick ale gravy, and a good ooze of tangy Welsh cheddar. 

Special mentions 

As usual, there are so many other dishes I could include in my list including local legends Bar 44, who have set up a Mercado 44 online shop which sells their brilliant jamon croquetas, Hang Fire’s peerless St Louis ribs, Anatoni's Caruso pizza, Ponnuswamy's mutton kothu parotta and the Heathcock’s rabbit pappardelle (my death row starter). 

Family Choice in Cathays do a fine range of spice-laden Sri Lankan food including devilled paneer and Des Pardes’s fall apart tender overnight cooked lamb on the bone in spicy gravy (nihari) is properly good comfort food. 

On the kebab front, Saray’s groaning platter for four was a pre-lockdown feast whilst Dark by Dusty Knuckle’s chicken bits kebab was a flavour-layered delight; I hope Dark makes a return in 2021. 

As far as pure comfort food goes, I can’t wait to have one of Mr Croquewich’s fried chicken sandwiches at Barry Goodsheds whilst the triple cheese, chive and bacon crusted mac and cheese from Pasture is another dish I hanker for on wet and gloomy nights. 

A final word goes to the deliciously bold spiced Sambal king prawns from Da Ling Kitchen in Roath which was open for barely more than six months. Alongside Da Mara and their delicious Neapolitan pizzas, it’s the Cardiff restaurant I’ll miss the most which closed in 2020. 

I hope 2021 is a better year for the hospitality industry and we won't forgot the comfort that their food and drink has brought us in one of the most challenging years. 

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Ansh, Victoria Park, Cardiff burger review

There’s no room to stand still in the world of burgers.

With marginal gains to be had in cooking method, patty composition, topping technology, and bun science, Cardiff burgers which seemed game changing five or so years ago are now merely average in comparison to the top tier in the city.

Milkwood’s foray into sandwiches has yielded a burger reminiscent of a luxury Big Mac; Keralan Karavan’s chutney and bhaji laced Bolly Sholly burger is always a compelling proposition; and it’s hard to look past the quality of the patty used by Honest Burger (even if it is a chain).

The newest burger slinger on the block is Victoria Park’s Ansh. A collaboration between burger fanatic Aled Hill and Shaun Jones, owner of Oriel Jones butchers, it’s a team which promises great things. After all, the meat is the cornerstone of a good burger and Oriel Jones’s is sourced from their family farm in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains.

Currently only open for takeaway, Ansh’s burgers are each named after notable Welsh people - Ray Gravell, Jemima Niclas and Barti Ddu all feature in the visual menu designed by artist Pete Fowler. In terms of sides, it’s currently only sglods (chips) which are on offer. 

We preordered our Saturday night burgers a few days in advance having been stung on a previous occasion when we tried to order on the day and the earliest slot available was heading towards 9pm. 

An Oriel Jones (£12) was the headline burger on the menu and therefore always going to be an essential order. It was one hell of a burger; a luxury mess. A gloriously squishy and light cloched potato bun was stuffed with a pair of big-flavoured juicy smashed beef patties with a lovely caramelised crust and topped with a good ooze of tangy Welsh cheddar. 

But, the star of the show was intensely beefy and seriously tender Welsh black beef brisket shreds in thick ale gravy which sat beneath the two patties. 

A Jemima Niclas (£10) was an excellent showcase of Welsh mutton. A pair of hugely lamby and juicy mutton patties were accompanied by soft and sweet confit onions, melted herb-flecked cheese and burger sauce. 

Crisp-skinned sglods (£3) were enjoyably golden in colour and retained their heat surprisingly well on the journey back to Penylan. 

We were seriously impressed by our burgers from Ansh and there’s no doubt they belong in the city’s top tier. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to a sit-in burger once they’ve completed their refurbishment.

The Details:

Address - Ansh,  589 Cowbridge Road East, Victoria Park, Cardiff CF5 1BE
Telephone - 07498 499787

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Agora, Penylan, Cardiff Mediterranean restaurant review

Update - June 2021 - Agora has now closed and has been replaced by Scaramantica

To succeed in Cardiff’s competitive kebab market you need to have a strong point of difference. 

Shawarma Laziz has the best salads (and bargain prices). Mowlana has the juiciest chicken and dustbin lid-sized naans. And Saray generously throws complimentary snacks, mint tea and baklava your way. 

But, with its Neapolitan-style breads accompanying their kebabs, Penylan’s Agora perhaps has one of the best points of difference of them all. 

Opened recently on the site of the sadly departed Da Mara, Agora is owned by the same team as Saray and Bentley’s cafe on Wellfield Road. 

The decor is almost unchanged from its previous incarnation and so is the pizza oven which its previous owners were so adept with. 

It’s pretty much the worst time to be opening a new restaurant but Agora are making a good go of it. When I visited to pick up my takeaway just before 6pm on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was bustling with activity. In normal times they serve booze, making it one of the few kebab restaurants in Cardiff to do so. 

Their menu includes the expected meze to start and grills for main as well as steaks and stews. The most unexpected inclusion is a selection of pizzas but it makes sense to put that serious piece of kit in the kitchen to good use and I gather they’ve retained the services of a pizza chef from Da Mara. 

It’s worth noting the menu is a couple of quid pricier in places than its City Road sibling - I guess you’re paying for the postcode. 

A massive hunk of meat moussaka (£13.50) saw layers of minced lamb, tender aubergine and creamy bechamel topped with golden melted cheese and a layer of tomato sauce. It was a tasty winter warmer but would have benefited from a bigger pop of seasoning. 

An accompanying mixed salad was pleasingly fresh and dotted with fronds of dill and leaves of flat leaf parsley. The moussaka was accompanied by a box of rice as well which we saved for a later date. 

A mixed grill (£18.50) hit the mark. Chicken wings, well-rendered lamb ribs, chicken and lamb shish, and a lamb chop were all nicely cooked and seasoned, and licked with char. The star of the show was the juicy chicken wings. 

A generous portion of buttery, meat-juice soaked, orzo-flecked rice was a bang on accompaniment and so too were blistered sweet tomatoes and spicy green chillies. 

Creamy mixed herb yoghurt and fiery chilli sauce were bob on. 

But, it was the accompanying bread which was the clincher. Baked in the pizza oven, the soft and airy Neapolitan style bread was slathered in herbs and butter. Apparently this bread is served with most main courses - if so, it’s the kind of thing I’ll be going back for regularly. 

On a separate night I ordered a lovely Diavola pizza (£10.75) topped with fruity tomato sauce, a golden ooze of American style mozzarella, fiery 'nduja, fatty pepperoni and briny black olives. 

The crisp and airy crust and thin floppy base were right up my street. 

We really enjoyed our food from Agora and I hope they receive the support they need to pull of a successful opening in this most challenging of times. 

The Details:

Address - Agora, 2 Penylan Road, Penylan, Cardiff CF24 3PF
Web -
Telephone - 029 2047 1183

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Smokestak, Barbecue meat home delivery review

Fourteen days without a new post is the longest hiatus there’s been in the almost ten years I’ve been writing this blog.

However, having COVID-19 and losing my sense of smell and taste seems like as good as excuse as any for a brief pause. As much as I was tempted to transition the blog into providing reviews of the appearance of food, I’m not sure how helpful it would have been for people interested in how it tastes.

As my laughing gear is pretty much working as normal again, I’m ready to get back in the saddle.

Alongside Hang Fire, London’s Smokestak makes the best American-stye barbecue I’ve eaten in the UK. Like many restaurants they’ve recently set up a web shop to help make (burnt) ends meet. It features delights such as whole smoked Aylesbury peking duck (£48), 15-hour brisket buns (£30) and treacle cured smoked gammon (£60). 

National chilled courier deliveries take place on Fridays with free delivery on orders over £75.

We ordered the four-pounder smoked meat box (£65) as it seemed to give us the biggest bang for our buck. We supplemented it with a couple of Welsh rarebit jacket potatoes (£5) to snag free delivery.

Our box was generously loaded with two 1lb packets of brisket, two 1lb packets of pulled pork as well as pickles and sauces. With the addition of some carbs it would comfortably feed eight people; we froze half the meat to enjoy at a later date. 

With simple re-heating instructions, our meat warmed through in the oven in around half an hour.

15-hour smoked beef brisket was absolutely top drawer - crusty of bark, smoke-ringed and seriously soft and juicy of texture, it was beefy and smokey in equal measure.

A tender tangle of native breed pulled pork shoulder tasted of quality pig and aromatic woodsmoke. 

It was belting stuffed into toasted Friends in Knead brioche buns alongside some pickles and BBQ sauce. 

Crisp skinned jacket potatoes had been hollowed out and filled with a creamy and chivey potato mix. They were topped with grilled rarebit which delivered a good hit of cheese and delicate warmth of mustard.

Fresh cleansing pickles…

and fiery pickled birds eye chillies provided vital cut through.

Hot mustard sauce and sweet barbecue sauce were both nice examples of their type.

The smoked meat from Smokestak is first class. If you’re looking for an American barbecue hit at home then I very much recommend placing an order.

The Details:

Saturday, 21 November 2020

The Shed by James Sommerin, Barry restaurant review

To say that Barry is on the up is perhaps stating the obvious.

When Hang Fire Southern Kitchen opened four years ago it was a clear sign that Barry was becoming the place to be.

Now, with the recent opening of the Goodsheds container park, Barry has a better selection of places to eat than most parts of Cardiff. Leyli Joon’s Babhaus Mex tacos, Mr Croquewich’s fried chicken sandwiches, Friends in Knead’s baked goods and Anand George’s southern Indian cooking are just a few of the A-list vendors. 

Arguably though, the jewel in the crown is James Sommerin’s new restaurant, The Shed.

I was gutted to read that James Sommerin’s eponymous restaurant in Penarth permanently closed during lockdown, even more so considering all of the good work that James and his family did cooking for the NHS.

But, Penarth’s loss is Barry’s gain.

Whereas Restaurant James Sommerin was a tasting menu special occasion kind of place, the Shed is a more accessible affair. The food is high end bistro; the compact menu’s prices average around £8 for a starter, £19 for a main, and £8 for a dessert; and the bright, minimal dining space is trendy rather than formal. 

But, crucially there’s as much technique on display in the cooking as there was at James’s former restaurant. 

Warm, soft and olive oil rich focaccia (£3.50) was served with a quenelle of salty and savoury seaweed flecked butter. 

Earthy artichoke crisps (£3.50) were dusted with a flurry of funky parmesan; I think I might put parmesan on top of all of my packets of crisps in future. 

Pea and ham soup (£7) is an absolute classic and James’s riff was lovely. A bowl of thick, sweet and creamy pea veloute was intensified further by a dollop of crushed peas. Crisp aromatic sage leaves, a golden croquette of shredded ham hock, and savoury parmesan foam all added extra dimensions. 

A generous heap of sweet white crab meat (£9.50) was twanged with the earthy intensity of brown flesh and vibrant tarragon. It was sat atop a golden tender cauliflower steak and slices of apple provided vital clarity and acidity.

Mrs G’s main course was an absolute belter - a massive fillet of meaty, flaky, precisely cooked butter poached hake (£18.50) was joined by a comforting curry twanged salsify puree whose spicing reminded me more than a bit of Coronation chicken (one of my all time favourite dishes). Wilted spinach, a crisp tangle of salsify fronds, aromatic coriander oil and soft salsify pieces completed the lush dish. 

I’ve got a hell of a lot of time for chicken kiev (£17.50) and James Sommerin’s interpretation ticked all of my boxes. A tender corn fed chicken breast was stuffed with intensely garlicky and herby butter and coated in a next level golden crumb. If it wasn’t indulgent enough, shards of porky serrano ham, a rich chicken butter sauce, and silky buttery cauliflower puree added extra luxury. 

Sides were equally lavish.

Golden, crisp and fluffy triple cooked chips (£3.50) were lovely dredged through the various buttery sauces. 

Crisp-edged and soft-centred hispi cabbage pieces (£3.50) were drenched in warming spiced butter. 

Desserts all grabbed my attention from the sticky toffee pudding to a tart tatin and impressive looking cheese trolley.

“Banoffee Pie” (£7) was a bowlful of treats. Banana puree, salty peanut butter ice cream, crunchy dehydrated banana and pastry pieces, a super light cloud of whipped cream and chocolate chunks all combined with effect. 

A blackberry souffle (£12) occupied the more grown-up end of the dessert spectrum. The light and sweet souffle was heady with berry intensity and balanced beautifully by a crisp, smooth, sweet and slightly acidic apple sorbet.

A very good Americano (£4) was joined by a cracking pair of petit fours; a buttery coconut tuille with a zing of lime and a Solero-esque white chocolate shell filled with an ice cold passionfruit liquid centre. 

We had a cracker of a meal at The Shed by James Sommerin.

James’s take on comfort food classics with Michelin-starred technique delivers in spades. It’s the kind of place I could happily visit every week.

The Details:

Address - The Shed By James Sommerin, Hood Rd, Barry CF62 5BE