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Falafel Wales, Cowbridge Road East, Canton

June 28, 2012 Leave a comment

This tiny cafe-style eaterie in Canton proudly boasts its menu emblazoned on its front window. It’s cheap – and has been on the list of places for me to try for some while.

A fearsome appetite was the only excuse to wander in with my partner; no booking necessary.

Imagine a British-style greasy spoon cafe. Don’t get me wrong, I love a greasy spoon. But cuisine from other countries has a special quality. It’s the lure of the exotic, even in a cheap place. Falafel Wales is halal and concentrates on Middle Eastern food, with a Lebanese bent.

There were a lot of really nice-sounding salads and things as starters, but my dining partner and I plumped for mains straight away; for me, a chicken Shawarma with chips, mixed pickles, salad and a flatbread (£5.95). It was mountainous. And tasty. The chips were fries, as is the way with most middle-eastern places I’ve been to. The mound of chicken pieces atop the flatbread was full of flavour, with lots of brown meat. For the price of a Burger King Whopper meal I got an eminently satisfying plate.

My partner went for the chicken sheesh tawooq – cubes of chicken, marinated with herbal olive oil and lemon juice, cooked on skewers and served on a flatbread, with salad and rice (£4.95). The chicken was great, again with lots of flavour from the marinade. And another big portion.

Puddings were five baklava pieces, all gooey and sweet. Hard to go wrong with a £2.50 pudding. For me, I had an oum ali (£3) – described as a traditional Egyptian dessert of pastry, milk, fresh cream, sugar and nuts, served hot. I had to ask for it to be reheated, but it was pretty fine. <imIt had something of a school pudding about it, which was no bad thing. By this point I was so full I had to leave a quarter of it. The lovely manageress/chef offered to pack it up for me to take home, but I declined. She also was happy to explain to me the Turkish coffees (£1.50, just 25p more than the advertised ‘Nescafe’!). They arrived in small, delicate mugs, all thick, stewed and sweet. They had an odd, minty, burned taste that wasn’t unpleasant, just… odd. Turns out, as explained to me, that the very finely ground coffee is infused with cardomom. I’m not sure I’d go for another one, but certainly it was interesting to try.

In total, a sub-£20 bill for all that, plus a couple of cans of coke. Falafel Wales is an absolute bargain if you place tasty, voluminous, interesting food above decor. A big thumbs-up from the gourmand in me, if not the gourmet.

James McLaren

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Bacchus, Park Place, Cardiff

June 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Words by James McLaren

Taking the place of the Cardiff Arts Institute (fairly decent hipster venue), comes this Brains-owned city centre pub/restaurant. Sited on Park Place, within easy reach of academics, theatre types and governmental staff, it seems to cater for a fairly affluent lunch and evening meal market, but with prices designed to work on a budget.

The current fashion for food to be served on pieces of tree gave us a great spread of soft baton bread, salad, oils and olives (mixed, plump, juicy and garlic-y) atop an aesthetically-pleasing plank.

More traditionally-served were our mains: I went for a sirloin, topped with crumbled stilton and apricot chutney (£12.95). I often choose steak to test the basic skills of the chef; the request is always that it comes rare. A minor complaint is that mine came medium-rare at best, slightly more toward medium in places. It still retained a light pinkness at the very middle, but I like mine to have the pliant, red-pink softness and depth of flavour that a truly rare steak can give. That said, the taste was still good, and the (slightly 1970s?) combination with the apricot and cheese worked well. I asked about the cheese: it resembled a slice of cheddar in its colour and melting behaviour, but our extremely helpful and friendly waiter was able to confirm with the chef that this was a harder style of stilton without the prevalent blue of the more traditional forms. Indeed I think had it been runny with the acidic tanginess of a traditional blue stilton, it may not have worked so well. The flavours balanced extremely well – and the mound of French fries and salad were perfectly decent (the salad was fresh as a daisy, crisp and tangy).

My partner went for three dishes from the tapas selection: lamb koftas with mint yoghurt, hot coated chicken wings and a flame-roasted artichoke hearts. All three dishes were greeted with pleasure, especially the artichoke hearts. I tried the koftas – they seemed well-seasoned with a lovely cumin flavour to the sweet meat. I can’t vouch for how much of the tapas is prepared in-house, but at £7.50 for three hearty dishes, who’s complaining.

We went for a single sample of all three red wines Bacchus have by the 175ml glass. The Fraser’s Bay Pinotage (£3.75) was perfectly drinkable, without the sometimes offputting banana odours of some pinotages. The Concho Y Tora Chilean merlot (£3.75) was as you’d expect – a mass-produced merlot that offends no-one in its quaffable roundedness – and the McGuigan Private Bin Shiraz (£4.00) was a bit disappointing.

Having had some spectacular shirazes by the glass recently, it’s annoying to find one on a wine list that’s so insipid. Advertised on the list as having “Dark cherry and plum characters, finishing with attractive tannins” it was peculiarly flavourless, with an aroma of rubber on the nose.

On a more general point, given that Bacchus – named after the Roman god of wine and good living – is run by Brains, I assume their drinks are centrally-bought. But these days parcels of really good wines are available to wine buyers, even purchasing down to a price. I would encourage firms like Brains to raise their game when buying in their wine; consumers deserve to be treated well, even at the sub-£5.00 price bracket. Concha Y Toro is a wine for corner shops; let’s have some imagination. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the very best Welsh wines on the Brains lists too?

Minor quibbles with the drinks aside, we moved on to puddings. A dairy-free summer fruit crumble was dispensed with in short order by my partner. Nice moist fruit filling and a tasty crumble mix – a good job. My pecan and caramel cheesecake with vanilla ice cream was delicious, a seriously rich and flavoursome confection. If I was being picky, the ice cream hadn’t been kept at a constant temperature, so there were a few flakes of ice in there.

This was a very enjoyable evening in a decent new venue. The decor has moved away from the colour-clash artiness of the CAI towards a sober, classy kind of thing. It’s finding its feet as a working, living venue, so a Christian band was getting its God on upstairs, and as we came to the end of our meal a zumba class was setting up below our seating area, on the polished floor.

I can’t praise the staff enough; enthusiastic and helpful, the fact that they had tasted every single dish on the menu, and understood them, shows a level of care that is to be applauded in a chain. Just under £50 was the bill, without service, and I think that was perfectly fair.