In the light of uproar over food critic Jay Rayner’s comments on Cardiff’s food scene, I pick the highlights of my recent visit to the Welsh capital.
If there’s one thing to be learned from the recent saga of Jay Rayner vs. the City of Cardiff, it’s that some words are better left unsaid. Little could ol’ J-Ray imagine, when picking his brain for a few morsels of filler to accompany the main thrust of his write up of The Classroom back in August 2016, that a couple of shaky stats and a boo-hoo about a late-night Burger King later, and he would be hurling his kitchen implements out of the pram (should that be pan?) and swearing off ever reviewing in Cardiff again. Not visiting, just reviewing. How terrible.
“They were just so mean,”, he said.
Oh okay, he didn’t say that, it was something about not being worth the stress and the abuse. Look, I’ve got nothing against Jay Rayner. He can be amusing, and he wrote a lovely piece recently about the death of his kitchen, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the idiocy of one of Britain’s foremost voices on food and drink flinging insults at a city and then acting all surprised when its inhabitants gave as good as they got. Presumably it’s what happens when almost two hundred thousand followers on Twitter gets to your head: you start thinking you can fart in crowded lifts and get away with it. Well, I hate to break it to you, but a trump’s a trump. Doubtless some comments were aggressive and over the top, but you can’t judge things for a living and expect to get off scot-free yourself. Insults are a trade. Maybe one day when I hit the big two-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero I might have a different perspective, but come on, you could see this one coming a mile off. No? Ok, stop. You’re embarrassing yourself. Move on.
Which he did, apparently, and so did Cardiff. Months later Rayner even went on record to clarify his response, claiming it was an act of self-defence:
“Just sometimes we say ‘Nah – if I can avoid that, I will…I’m not self-important enough to think that Cardiff, the Welsh capital, gives a damn what I think. They seem to be doing just fine without me but I’ll watch with interest.”
It all sounded totally reasonable. Water under the Severn Bridge. But then a man wronged will always protest his innocence, even if his innocence is blasphemy in the eyes of others. Even if he’s not so innocent. Or wronged. I’m sure Mr. Rayner’s seen The Shawshank Redemption. He’ll know that Tim Robbins wastes years putting faith in a corrupt system that just wants to see him buried before taking matters into his own hands and starting to dig. You have to be patient, wait for the right moment, and then just when they least expect it…
Sunday 26 March 2017, 8am. Cardiff. Dewi Jones puts on his slippers and tears into his Observer, heading straight to the food section for the weekly review. He swore blind he wouldn’t read it anymore after Rayner-gate, but then the pictures of food in other cities were the only way a Cardiff man could experience real flavour these days, and in any case they wouldn’t dare say anything bad about Caerdydd after the stink it caused last time. Would they?
“What’s this”, Dewi thinks to himself as he bites into his Welsh Cake, “a restaurant in Bristol? Wilsons? Never heard of it.”
He breathes a sigh of relief and fills his mouth with tea. The last time he took a hot drink with his food column it ended up staining his trousers and burning his thighs. A painful incident, and one he had no wish to repeat, but after six months of precaution around The Observer he feels confident his nether regions are safe once more. Ignoring the small print about costs and whatnot he heads straight for the body of the text.
“A spare day in Cardiff…”
Dewi jolts upwards in shock and almost chokes on a raisin. This review was about Bristol. Why would he be talking about Cardiff only five words in? He runs back over the title to reassure himself and there it is, Bristol, appearing three times already before the first paragraph. It must be a misprint, a typo, one he would be sure to call out in the online comments section.
But a typo would be the least of his worries. For there, stretched out before him on the page like twisted scripture pledging sordid allegiance to Baal, are three passages of text so hateful, so blasphemous to the city he affectionately calls Food-Zion, that he can scarcely control himself as he leaps out of the armchair with a howl and casts the mug of scalding hot liquid into his eyes of his own volition.
“Best place to eat in Cardiff? Bristol?” he screams.
Blinded with rage and tea, he staggers around the room, novelty plates and pictures of Penarth and Rita Hayworth crashing to the ground in his wake, and fumbles for his trusty smartphone, his only line of defence in such an attack. He knows the way to Twitter, to Jay Rayner’s handle, by touch alone, and though unable to see well enough to type a cohesive sentence he feels confident a little video should do the trick.
“I’ll show you keyboard warrior,” he snarls, before pressing record and unleashing expletive after expletive at ever increasing volume until he collapses from the pain of his injuries and, with his final breath, uploads his one-man crusade into the ether.
Meanwhile, back in his orange kitchen, Jay Rayner bellows with triumphant laughter as he pictures scenes like this erupting all the way from Pontcanna to Adamsdown. He seizes the largest cleaver he can find and ceremoniously butchers the Welsh lamb he slaughtered for the occasion. Just when they thought they were safe…in he goes, twists the knife and pours a kilo of fleur de sel on their wounds.
Or something like that.
A little rummage around for facts on the saga will show you Rayner was in Cardiff with his one man show only a couple of weeks before the review was published, around the same time he told Wales Online he likes to try to avoid the old backlash if he can. Does that mean he came to Cardiff, took their money, lied about making peace and then left to review a restaurant in Bristol specifically so that he could brag about it in the broadsheets? Oh the cheek, the sheer nerve of it all. What a blinder! That’ll show you Wales!
All of this is pure speculation, obviously. I wouldn’t for a second imply that a man who writes for a paper as reasonable as The Guardian could have an ego. But if you’re so keen on avoiding the heat, why keep stirring the pot? Why use your not insignificant platform as probably the leading food critic in the UK to indulge in what comes across as little more than a cheap and churlish bout of regional posturing? Are you that petty? Or is your brand of wit so arid, your parched tongue so far back in your desert of a cheek, that actually it’s just a question of intelligence, understanding? Either way, it isn’t exactly what I would consider ‘avoiding it’. Nor does it seems a particularly ‘necessary provocation’, as he puts it. Necessary for what? Your vanity? Six months earlier you were showing your readers that even well paid TV gourmands like to scoff on a Burger King from time to time. Now you’re jokingly (but actually quite genuinely) suggesting that anyone fancying a bite to eat in Cardiff should just hop on the train to Bristol at £25 return. And presumably expense the travel on top of the meal as well.
If anything it reminds me of the precise moment I lost all respect for Ricky Gervais, around the time of Derek, where he hit back at the critics who found the show offensive (or just plain bad) by saying words to the effect of ‘it’s not offensive and it’s not bad because I say it isn’t’. Who are you to dictate opinion? It’s the point where celebrity eclipses the metier, in this case where the distinguished professional with countless awards to his name, and who has campaigned heroically for food sustainability and security for British farmers, is taken over by the TV judge who does blind tastings of ready meals for cash. Yes, I know, it’s television. No one’s forcing you. If you don’t like it, change the channel. But it’s all about the context; on Masterchef the puffed up put downs are mitigated by the knowledge that the whole thing is theatre, a necessary injection of menace into the second act of the story. In real life, dragged out over six months, it’s just unpleasant.
Marina Hyde, Rayner’s cohort at The Guardian, wrote a brilliant piece in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing in which she ingeniously undermined the odious preachings of Katie Hopkins, pinpointing the gaping vacuum of humour at the core of all extremist ideology by comparison to the pitch-black wit of Daniel Hett, whose brother Martyn lost his life in the attacks. I rush to stress that I am in no way linking a journalist I usually admire to such hateful figures, and am aware of the treacherous ground I’m standing on, but Hyde’s thought-provoking tribute to the dignity of humour struck a chord that resonates beyond the realms of unspeakable tragedy and into everything from politics to culture to food and, necessarily, to criticism. I confess that as a theatre practitioner who has been through the emotional whirlwind of submitting the result of months of hard work and sleepless nights to the fleeting assessment of critics I’m not exactly impartial, but I couldn’t help but look at this whole thing in the light of that article and wonder: where’s the humour? If you’re going to criticise any person, place or thing you should first be able to criticise every single aspect of yourself, and if you’re going to mock a city and its food in the spotlight of the national press, however lightheartedly, then you should be able to hold up your hands and say ‘You know what? Silly me’ when the egg ends up back on your face. No one’s too big for an apology. If Johnny Depp can manage it, so can you.
Maybe I’m missing the point. Perhaps the purpose of that Wilson’s review was this: if you really want to make a thing out of this then fine, let’s make a thing, let’s blow this out of proportion. I get more readers, you get more coverage, everybody wins. I’m sure he could see the opportunity here, even if half of Cardiff couldn’t. The fact is, the food scene in the Welsh capital has had more national interest these past nine months than most other UK cities bar London. Whether that’s angry local bloggers defending their turf, others wanting to test the theory or talented chefs with something to prove, the only lasting outcome I can see will be better food and more of it. In fact, three of the places listed below have opened in the last 12 months. I’m not going to go so far as to say that Rayner was doing Cardiff a favour when he published the offending article back in August, but I don’t think it’s done anyone any harm in the long run. Maybe it was worth the stress and abuse after all…
All of which brings me to the actual point of this article, which is to talk about Cardiff. By curious chance, just as the whole fiasco kicked off, my theatre company confirmed a production at The Other Room that would see me working in Cardiff for five weeks of 2017. The review and the ensuing conversation caught my attention, and what first started as trepidation at the prospect of five weeks in a gastro graveyard soon turned into disbelief. Whatever the motivation behind the Rayner tiswas is or was, what I truly fail to understand, having spent five weeks living in the city, is the logic. Cardiff is a city with a passionate, thriving food scene filled with warmth and festivity, freed from the play cool shackles of London hotspots. If you know where to look (and it isn’t hard to find out), it is a wonderful place to eat.
There are downsides, I’ll admit:
- There are indeed too many seagulls and they are forceful.
- It’s absurd, totally absurd that the one-way system means you can’t get off the 49 bus at the Castle and expect to get back on any closer than Church Street. You may as well walk home.
- In the early hours of Sunday morning a bouncer at a Wetherspoons wouldn’t let me into an empty pub because I didn’t have any ID, even though I flashed my wedding ring and told him I had children.
- It needs better ramen (see below).
There, I’ve said it. Please don’t shoot me.
I confess that on my first night in Cardiff I went to Wagamama; it was cold and windy, I forgot I had a smartphone and I paid for my mistake with a limp twist of noodles in a dishwater puddle. It was filling but empty, steaming but tepid, hearty but heartless and so on. But seriously, how do you get this wrong? How does an empire built on noodles manage to stew said noodles to death? How can you claim to simmer a bone broth, surely the only dish known to man that might actually benefit from being mass produced in industrial vats, for 24 hours or months or years or however long it is, and come up with the Becks Blue of soup? How can you aim for a gyoza and end up with a crisp? It defies all logic and reason.
Well, the next night logic and reason told me to look online. I tapped in ‘top restaurants Cardiff’ and the first hit on google is a top 50 list from Wales Online, presumably the very same one that Rayner lamented for its surfeit of kebab joints. I wasn’t particularly drawn to those, I’ll admit, but I did have difficulty choosing between the rest; the irreverent tapas, the family run Italians, the Indian street food. Beyond the few big name chains almost every one was a small business doing its own unusual thing. Go a little further, actually look at the websites, and most had two or three dishes that sounded like nothing you’d find anywhere else. These days, in London, almost every dish you eat is a copy of someone else’s dish. As Marina O’Loughlin pointed out recently, if it’s done well that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but heck it sure is nice to get a surprise every now and then.
So for the next few weeks I let my appetite do the choosing. I found the most intriguing looking dishes and I went to the restaurant. Remarkable, I know. If I couldn’t get in I just wandered along to the next one. The advantage of a small city, you see; everything is walking distance. Over the course of five weeks I only went to one restaurant that didn’t punch above its weight, discounting the time pressed pre-show Wahacas, Wagamamas and whatnot (yes, I did it again). Twice I ate at 10:30pm. Only once did I spend more than £30 a head when I got carried away with the sherry. The same establishment even touched me so deeply with its Pitt Cue–like dedication to brewing its own beer that I willingly hurled myself from the wagon after two months of sobriety and haven’t looked back. And I didn’t go to The Classroom at all. I had a table booked, but looking at the menus and photos in The Guardian of coq au vin and fishcakes and chicken liver terrine (or sick on toast, as my wife affectionately calls it), it was blatantly clear that there were more exciting places out there that didn’t require you to wear a blazer for the privilege. Nor did I feel the need to hop on a train to Bristol. Now, for the record, I can declare my allegiance to the keyboard warriors of Cardiff.
Without further ado, here are some of my highlights:
There’s no greater thrill than popping into a place for a quick bite and realising, within seconds of scanning the menu, that you’ve stumbled across an absolute belter. Bar 44 in Cardiff does tapas with clever contemporary twists that never lose sight of their classic Spanish origins. Impeccably sourced, massive flavours. Hard to pick a highlight but Iberico Tataki and Cecina and Lomo Croquetas with a piquillo ketchup and a wisp of coriander were truly inspired. A generously portioned racion of aged Galician onglet – Galician onglet! – was stupidly reasonable at around £7. Anyone who’s ever ordered the stuff from Turner and George will understand how much of a steal this is. Attention to detail is everywhere you look in everything from the butter to the aforementioned home brewed lager. It’s the closest Cardiff comes to a little franchise, with branches in Cowbridge, Penarth, and the newly opened Asador 44 just across the road from the city centre branch, but there’s no discernible dip in quality. Check out the Instagram feed if you don’t believe me. Remarkably, I ate here at on a Saturday at 10:30pm.
Sunday – Thursday:
11:30am – 11pm
Fridays and Saturdays:
11:30am – 12:00am
The best bars in the Basque country are like Venus fly traps; you wander in for just a little taste to kick off the evening before heading elsewhere, only to find yourself unable to leave, caught in a never-ending cycle of one more copa, one more pintxo, until all of a sudden it’s closing time and you wonder what was in those boquerones to make the time fly so fast. Curado brings the Basque sorcery to Cardiff’s Westgate Street with no small amount of flair. A dazzling spread of pintxos greets you as you enter the bar, while the menu yields yet more embutidos and raciones. Wine list is huge and interesting, service is the right kind of casual and atmosphere is buzzing. More traditional in approach than Bar 44 but just as good quality. When I left at 10:30pm on a Friday, people were still ordering food.
Tuesday – Thursday:
12pm – 11pm
Fridays and Saturdays:
12pm – 12am
12pm – 9pm
The new kid on the block. Sister to the Bar 44 lot, this more upmarket Spanish grill has a similarly playful approach to the classics with an emphasis on serious protein; think chuleton gallega, Segovian milk lamb, suckling pig and turbot for the fish eaters. I went very soon after opening in April, and if I’m honest the kitchen was experiencing some teething problems; overcooked steak, overpowering dressings on starters and lacklustre puddings. That said, service and atmosphere were spot on – smart but never stuffy – and based on their other venues I have no doubt that any issues with the cooking will be long gone by now. Last orders 10:30pm.
Tuesday – Thursday:
Fridays and Saturdays:
Part of an ever-growing South Western franchise that began in Dorset, this manages to escape the curse of expansion by keeping the focus on ingredients local to the branch, not the business. The combination of pizza, pies and cider is totally barmy but who cares, that’s the point. The pizzas in particular are exceptional; thin, crispy bases and full of flavour. Ideally suited for a quick bite before a film or a show; order and pay at the bar, take your seat and wait for the air-guitaring waiter to deliver your pizza to the table. You’ll be out in as long as it takes to order your first drink at Pizza Express for half the cost and ten times the quality. Closes at 11pm (so you can still eat at 10:30).
Full disclosure: I worked at the theatre in the same building, for three weeks and so am entirely biased. But…what a great place to go for a drink, catch some really quite exceptional pieces of theatre, relax to an open mic night and even join in the Bandaoke every other Friday. The bar staff are lovely, the beer selection great, and if you go on a Tuesday or Thursday you’ll be just in time for the freshly baked cakes.
Monday – Thursday:
Definitely for lovers, as the name suggests. I went by myself, and felt somewhat out of place, but the refined Italian home cooking put me at ease. A slow roast porchetta with greens was just the right armadillo balance of soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, but the real star here was the pudding: coconut panna cotta, roast pineapple, oat crumble. Do you like to put on an air of refinement? Do you struggle to reconcile that with your love of a big, loud Pina Colada? Well, now you can indulge your fruity fantasy without fear of a hollowed out pineapple in an umbrella exposing your secrets to the world. Sublime pudding, inspired solution for the modern foodie. One for the Dragons’ Den then. Grappa obligatory.
Monday – Saturday:
12pm – 2:30pm
5:30pm – 10pm
Another great value, quick bite option. Indian street food from the people behind much loved Mint and Mustard with an impressively varied and fresh menu covering everything from staples such as samosas and thali to the more unfamiliar liver pepper and idlis. The chicken wings will blow your head off. In a good way. Large list of cocktails, and the prices and portion sizes are well geared to allow you to try a little bit of everything. Still open at 10:30pm.
4pm – 11pm
Tuesday – Sunday:
12pm – 11pm
Do we need another burger review? You know what makes a good one. They do it here, very well indeed. Fresh meat, local suppliers with a build your own spin. Sides – parmesan truffle fries in particular – are excellent. Still going strong at 10:30pm on a Saturday.
Monday – Thursday:
10am – 4pm
6pm – 10pm
10am – 4pm
6pm – 12am
10am – 4pm
6pm – 12am
12pm – 9pm
The one everybody knows, and with good reason. Hidden in a cavernous basement on the main stretch, The Potted Pig does contemporary British cooking of St John nose-to-tail variety, but on a much richer scale and with a focus on Welsh ingredients, of course. Laverbread, cockles, pork terrines, the plumpest and pinkest duck breast this writer has eaten. The Sunday lunch – 2 courses for £15 – is an absolute steal, and comes with a veritable mountain of sides, among which is the finest cauliflower cheese known to man. Puddings are sensational, particularly the caramel parfait, and the wines by the glass are absurdly reasonable. Book well in advance, it’s worth it.
Please note – The Potted Pig closes at 9:30pm on a Saturday, but it is just a stone’s throw from Burger King.
Tuesday – Thursday:
12pm – 2pm
7pm – 9pm
Fridays and Saturdays:
12pm – 2pm
6:30pm – 9:30pm
12pm – 2pm
Brilliant little takeaway pizza shack in Cardiff Bay. Less-is-more pizzas deal in primary colours and big flavours at low prices, and with your spare change you can give a pound to feed a homeless person on top. Everybody wins.
10am – 8:30pm
11:30am – 12am
12pm – 8:30pm
Light, breezy corner café with ethically sourced beans and exceptional cakes. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the banana loaf with peanut butter frosting is on the counter then I strongly suggest you order the whole thing. The £5 hot desk and coffee deal makes it an ideal place for working, and the place is accordingly often filled with students and young professionals.
Monday – Friday:
7am – 9pm
8:30am – 9pm
8am – 6:30pm
New offering on Queen Street from the rapidly growing 200 Coffee team providing a welcome respite from the many chain cafes. Serious stuff – every kind of ice brewed nitro-fermented single bean concoction of the future is covered here, but the regular coffee is equally exceptional, and the freshly made sandwiches, incorporating coffee rubs and smokes and whatnot, make it a good lunch spot.
Monday – Friday:
7am – 8pm
8am – 6pm
9:30am – 6pm
If you have any more recommendations please feel free to add them to the comments section below.