Saturday, 26 June 2021

Bar 44 Cardiff, Spanish restaurant review

It’s been almost eighteen months to the day that we last stepped through the doors of Bar 44 Cardiff.

And whilst we’ve had numerous orders from the excellent Mercado 44 in the interim, it’s not quite the same as going out to snaffle a cornucopia of tapas and booze and then returning home, safe in the knowledge that there’s no washing up to do.

I’ll save you my usual wittering about how the 44 Group has raised the bar for hospitality in Cardiff; it's a given how important their high end Spanish restaurants are to the city's dining scene. 

We visited Bar 44 on a Saturday lunchtime and worked our way through a selection of booze by the glass including sweet, savoury and herbal La Copa vermouth rojo (£5), citrusy Ama-Vida albariño (£6), highly gluggable Beronja Ecologico rioja (£5.40) and hoppy and refreshing Toro Blanco pale ale (£2.50).

Slices of jamon iberico de bellota (£14) were the paragon of pork. Ruby red with mouth melting fat, it’s a luxury which is worth every penny.

Pan con tomate (£3) was laden with fruity tomato, a huge honk of garlic and first rate olive oil. Some of the simplest combinations really are the best.

Salty and creamy payoyo hard cheese (£7) was soaked in a canny layer of contrasting nutty oloroso sherry. It was accompanied by the crispest of rosemary fragranced crackers.

Golden croquetas (£5.80) never disappoint. I mean, what’s not to like about jamon-studded, nutmeg-fragranced bechamel coated in a crisp crumb?

Hulking pieces of battered hake (£7.50) were paired with the silkiest of aliolis and a sweet and lightly spiced piquillo relish.

A runny centred tortilla (£6.50) was a killer combination of first rate egg, tender spud and sweet caramelised onion. It’s amazing how such humble ingredients can transform into something so decadent.

Pieces of dark chicken meat (£6.50) were bathed in a sweet and savoury sherry glaze and topped with the crunch of hazelnut. The sticky glaze reminded me a lot of the devil paneer I’d eaten from Family Choice the night before; it’s certainly no worse off for the comparison.

A stupidly tender, fat-rich mini rack of lamb ribs (£8.50) was topped with a dusting of savoury, salty, crunchy and slightly sweet anchovy breadcrumbs. Accompanied by a punchy parsley and red onion salad, which is very similar to the one which accompanies St John’s bone marrow, it was essential to balance the dish’s richer elements.

Providing further evidence for my theory that slow-cooked bits of meat in a bun are an upgrade on most fast-grilled burgers, Bar 44’s confit duck and smoked morcilla burger (£4.50) is unquestionably one of the best in the city. A sturdy mini challah roll was loaded with crisp-crusted yielding shreds of fat-rich duck flecked with addictively smoky black pudding. A sweet and delicately spicy piquillo pepper ketchup and creamy yet cleansing apple and fennel slaw completed the belting bun.

Dessert maintained the highest of standards.

A Café Solo Martini (£9) was essentially a next level espresso martini with roasty notes of coffee, the sweet stickiness of PX sherry, a good whack of booze, and a dusting of chocolate.

Valencian orange and almond cake (£6.50) took the prize for best pud I’ve ever eaten in a 44 Group establishment. A beautifully soft, juicy and citrusy sponge was topped with sticky and tangy marmalade, almond-adorned cream, floral moscatel soaked charred orange slices, and a warming hit of cinnamon. It was opulent but at the same time light and refreshing.

We had a truly epic lunch at Bar 44. They’re dishing out tapas of the highest level with brilliant booze and first class service to go with it. What a restaurant.

The Details:

Address - Bar 44, 15-23 Westgate St, Cardiff CF10 1DD
Telephone - 0333 344 4049

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Rocket & Rye, Cowbridge restaurant review

I’ve been waiting for Rocket & Rye, the latest venture from John and Ceri Cook, to open for absolutely yonks.

First announced back in September 2020, this Cowbridge restaurant’s opening was inevitably delayed due to multiple lockdowns and outdoor dining restrictions. In the meantime, the Cooks have teased its arrival with Rocket & Rye meal kits which have supplemented their brilliant Kapow Ribs.

Rocket & Rye was finally ready for lift off with the start of inside dining in May 2021.

With a menu comprising of ingredient-led snacks, starters, mains and desserts, you can either construct a meal of sharing small plates or opt for the traditional three courses. As fully paid up members of team starter-main-pud, there was only one route we were going to go down.

A super tender and lightly char-licked meaty roast octopus tentacle (£9.50) was sat in a rich red pepper and tomato sauce flecked with balancing capers. Topped with a good dollop of punchy herb-packed green sauce, it was a dish which delivered bags of flavour.

Across the table, a tasty yet low key plate combined thick hummus (£6), crisp green beans, soft white beans, mixed leaves, crunchy hazelnuts and vinaigrette dressing.

Warm and airy crumbed focaccia (£4) with a light chew was an ideal mop for the remnants of both starters.

Onto mains, and a beef blade bun (£16) was a rip-roaring decadent delight. A slow-cooked piece of deeply beefy and seriously tender slow-cooked meat was dressed with glossy chicken butter sauce, tonsil warming roast garlic aioli and lightly acidic pink pickled onions and gherkins. It was all cosseted by a light yet robust bun and accompanied by chonky golden crusted beef fat chips.

The entire construction made me question why I don’t encounter hot slow-cooked bits of meat in a bun more often? It’s unquestionably an upgrade on most burgers.

A whopper of a portion of duck bolognese (£19) was buried under a flurry of parmesan. It was a nice rustic dish which would have been elevated by a more pronounced quack of duck and a bit more bite to the pasta.

For dessert, a vegan option saw fresh summer berries (£6) bathed in a zesty syrup zinging with lime. It was topped with a dollop of whipped coconut cream with a curious grainy texture that neither of us were particularly sold on.

A genius piece of pastry-work made in collaboration with Cocorico’s Laurian Veaudour rounded off the meal. A light and not too rich chocolate mousse (£8.50) cocooned a thick and toasty tonka bean caramel sat on top of a super crisp hazelnut biscuit base. A big pour of cream was just the ticket to complete this first class dessert.

It’s great to see Rocket & Rye finally finally open its doors and I’ll undoubtedly be calling in for a beef bun and a chocolate mousse whenever I’m in Cowbridge again. Despite the current issues around staffing in the hospitality industry, we had excellent service from a young and enthusiastic team too. 

The Details:

Address - Rocket & Rye, 30 High Street, Cowbridge CF71 7AG
Telephone - 01446 775884

Saturday, 12 June 2021

The Black Bear Inn, Usk, Monmouthshire restaurant review 2021

Our last visit to the Black Bear in Usk in March 2019 feels like it was a different lifetime ago.

Back then, this Monmouthshire country pub had only recently opened. Owned by a young couple with plenty of experience in top Bristol restaurants like Bar Buvette and Poco, we were very impressed by a concise menu of refined seasonal cooking and a wine list focusing on the natural and biodynamic. I was keen for a revisit ever since.

In June 2021, the Black Bear is buzzing on a sunny Friday evening and it’s almost as if everything is back to normal except for the extra safety measures.

Mrs G spent the night working her way through a trio of lovely wines by the glass (Cava, Verdejo and rosé) whilst I returned to my traditional role of designated driver and enjoyed a glass of zesty homemade lime cordial and soda.

 House sourdough had a good chew and was lovely slathered with whipped butter.

 We eschewed starters in favour of a quartet of snacks. It was a very wise move.

Top notch Welsh rarebit (£3.75) was topped with a thick ooze of cheese tinged with mustard and beer.

A quartet of golden croquettes (£3.75) exploded with intense cheddar and leeky goodness.

The star of the meal were uber crisp and nutty deep-fried potato skins (£5) which were the perfect shovel for smoked cods roe that was the ideal balance of fish, smoke, cream and salt. 

We both had Anton Ego moments during our first mouthfuls; Mrs G reminisced about childhood visits to TGI Fridays and the loaded potato skin starter whilst I recalled packets of Smith’s Jacket crisps from the leisure centre vending machine.

Juicy chicken wings (£4) would have benefited from crisper skin but they were coated in a compelling sticky drizzle of honey.

Things veered a bit off course with our mains.

I ordered the confit pork belly (£18.50), a replacement for a braised beef dish which was being rubbed off the chalkboard when we arrived. I’m not sure whether its last minute substitute role was the cause of its disappointment but a soft skinned piece of pork belly was dominated by flabby fat with just a few mouthfuls of tender flesh.

It’s a shame because its accompaniments were first rate - a golden stack of confit potato made from thinly sliced buttery layers of spud, sweet and soft charred onion segments, a properly meaty sauce and a good dollop of potent mustard. When I explained the issue to our waiter, he was extremely apologetic and graciously deducted my dessert from the bill.

Mrs G’s main was better. Precisely cooked steamed hake (£18.50) was accompanied by more of those excellent confit potatoes and sat in a vegetal watercress puree. But, the billed tarragon was very subtle and the dish would have benefited from a lift of acidity, perhaps a squeeze of citrus.

A side of buttered greens brought lightness to both dishes (£3.75).

Desserts restored order; they were both excellent.

A steamed rhubarb sponge (£6.50) was everything I want in a pud. A soft and light yet pleasingly sturdy sponge with a golden crusted base was topped with fragrant rhubarb compote and bathed in cold vanilla-fragranced custard.

A cracking cheese selection (£9.50) comprised of grassy Hafod, creamy and socky Brefu Bach and savoury-salty Brunswick Blue, accompanied by super-crisp sourdough crackers and spiced sultana chutney.

Despite the main course hiccups, we had a lovely evening at the Black Bear. It’s the kind of place which I’d love to have as my local pub.

The Details:

Address - The Black Bear Inn, Bettws Newydd, Usk NP15 1JN
Telephone - 01873 880701

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Scaramantica Pizzeria, Roath, Cardiff restaurant review

It's not just me who regards Tony Frawley as the Pizza Maestro of Cardiff.

The pizza boys from Ffwrnes (who also make a mean Neapolitan-style pizza themselves) declared Tony’s pizzas to be the best in Cardiff in their BBC TV show.

So, I was more than a little bit gutted when I heard that Tony had recently left Anatoni’s, the Wellfield Road restaurant where he's been slinging dough for the last few years. Tony and partner Anna founded the original Lakeside branch all the way back in 2012.

Thankfully, my disappointment didn’t last for too long as Tony has swiftly opened up Scaramantica on Albany Road in collaboration with the team behind the excellent Saray group of Turkish restaurants.

The Steffano Ferrara pizza oven is still in place from the building’s days as Da Mara and Agora. And the menu focuses on Neapolitan-style pizzas with a handful of good value starters and sides. On a sunny evening it’s a lovely spot to sit and soak up some rays.

A trio of tender polpette (£4) were a double threat of beef and pork. Bathed in a rich and crucially not too sweet tomato sauce, they were topped with shavings of salty and savoury pecorino.

Calamari (£5.50) looked a little pallid but they hit the mark with a crunchy exterior and a chew-free interior. A tangy thousand island-esque garlic dip was a nice change to the usual breath destroying aioli.

Onto the main event, and the pizzas delivered everything you'd expect from Tony’s handiwork; an airy leopard-spotted crust with a delicate crispness, a thin floppy base, light and fruity San Marzano tomato sauce, and creamy fior di latte mozzarella cheese were all present and correct.

A Diavola (£10.95) was topped with meaty and fiery 'nduja, charred sweet peppers, and baby peppers filled with creamy ricotta.

La Scaramantica (£11.95) was well deserving of being the restaurant's namesake pizza. Fennel seed-twanged salami, ferrous spinach, a dollop of creamy and tangy spreadable goat curd, crunchy chopped walnuts, mushrooms, and a drizzle of sweet and funky truffle honey were an absolute killer of a combination. If you're a fan of the Caruso from Tony’s days at Anatoni's then it’s an essential eat.

Scaramantica has hit the ground running and it's great to see Tony back at the pizza oven in my neck of the woods so quickly. I reckon I'm going to be eating a LOT of their pizzas.

The Details:

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