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. 

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