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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.

The Potted Pig, High Street, Cardiff

April 18, 2012 1 comment

Words by James McLaren

Following Jay Rayner’s highly positive review of The Potted Pig a few months back in The Observer, half of Cardiff seemed to descend on this new city centre eaterie.

I eventually managed to make a reservation to coincide with my birthday, and, while it was nice… it wasn’t quite as special as review and reputution had made it out to be.

The signature of The Potted Pig is pig. Lots and lots of it. It crops up all over the starter and main course menus, so it would have been rude not to indulge. I went for the potted pig – a little glass kilner-style jar filled with slightly spiced pork melange/terrine with toast and pickles. It was delicious. My partner’s duck hash with fried egg also hit the mark, apparently.

For my main course I went for the 10 ounce New York strip steak with Maris Piper chips, kale and a bearnaise sauce while my partner went for the pork belly with baked carrot and greeen beans.

There’s something that struck me at the moment the dishes arrived: this is really nice pub grub, but it’s certainly no successor to Le Gallois. The plates were filled – a giant mound of pork and, naturally, a 10z steak like a slab of flesh. Both dishes were nice, and the triple-fried chips were pretty damned spectacular, but they lacked finesse.

The steak was cooked well, rare as I like, but there was no deft touch. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare but my partner had belly pork at Le Gallois so was able to compare and contrast. We concluded that the price differential was not so large as to make the now-defunct French restaurant anything other than really good value for money.

In summary, then, this atmospheric, somewhat dark, former bank vault is great for a nice romantic dinner or as somewhere to take the in-laws, but don’t expect anything more than quality pub food.

The Cinnamon Tree, Pontcanna

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Words by James McLaren

Time was when Indian restaurants were all chintzy decoration, gaudy baubles and tigers. No more; many have gone for a more sedate ambience, with minimalistic décor fitting menus that are less chicken tikka masala and more Tharav Sofyani.

The Cinnamon Tree in Cardiff’s Pontcanna area fits nicely into this latter bracket. Its demure presentation certainly goes well with its tasteful menu of modern subcontinental dishes. The staff are always friendly, and always as immaculately turned out as their Mercedes cars outside. They’re doing well, it seems, and on tonight’s experience, that’s no surprise.

My partner goes for the Chicken Chat – chicken pieces in a thick, spicy sauce – while I plump for the King Prawn Malabari. Both dishes are beautifully presented and the succulent king prawns in their crispy breadcrumb jackets are just the ticket with the warming chutney dip. Oh, and a glass of Cobra. Well; it’d be rude not to.

For mains it is quite a healthy affair. My partner’s Calcutta turkey steak comes with spicy mushroom bhuna, salad and absolutely lovely spicy Bengali potato wedges. Crispy, salty, creamy potatoes go wonderfully with the turkey. I have a Goan sea bass fillet, cooked in spiced coconut milk, served on a bed of crushed potatoes with caramelised onions, roasted mustard seeds and coriander. Wow, it’s a party in my mouth and no-one’s vomiting. It’s pretty hot, a medium apparently, but luckily I can still taste everything. Beautifully-cooked fish and a delicious coconut and spice combination.

I am very grateful for the mash when I take a small bite from the roasted chilli atop the ensemble; I can’t help myself, and my tongue suffers. Luckily it recovers quickly and I can continue to appreciate my fish. The very palatable house white wine is a decent accompaniment to our dishes.

The Cinnamon Tree is firmly on my list of potential venues when guests come to stay.

Categories: Restaurant reviews

Can Zaman, City Road

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Words by James McLaren

I’m confused. Advertised as a Lebanese restaurant, this interestingly-decorated place on Cardiff’s own curry mile has a menu (seemingly bound inside a couple of sheets of laminate flooring) that kicks off with some blurb about Damascus, which last time I looked, was in Syria. That confusion carries on.

Our friendly waiter speaks little English and delivers the wrong starters, but that swiftly gets sorted out and we get the right ones – small pastry parcels, some filled with lamb and some with cheese and herbs. Very nice – they’d make a good breakfast, reckons my dining partner.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Clonk! Rhythmic thumping emanates from the back room. Are they breaking down a whole sheep? Who can tell? But this soundtrack continues for the whole meal. as does the loud graunching whirr of the smoothie machine. No matter though – the drinks being produced are top. Iced smoothies in a multitude of flavours. The pineapple one was great, but the mint and lemon one was bloody lovely (“Tastes like shower gel” reckons my partner). There’s no booze here, and with a few tables populated by local Muslims, it’s not hard to see why. I get the impression it’s a restaurant that’s more regular eating-place for a particular demographic than a gastronomic destination.

Snappy delivery of our main courses brings a mound of rice, peas and lamb with a cucumber yoghurt accompaniment, and a massive plate of lamb ribs and chips. I would tell you the names, but the restaurant’s website is down at the moment. Suffice to say, both were very good, and very cheap. My chips are more French fries, which is slightly disappointing, but the ribs are up my street: well-cooked, tasty and with that barbecue style of crisp, burned bits.

The confusion returns: there’s salt in the pepper cruet, and vice versa.

Again served with amazing alactrity, the puddings are… well, odd. I have the Can Zaman special ice cream. Thick, gelatinous ice cream rolls covered with pistachios and other nuts. It’s good stuff, this. The texture is somewhere in the middle of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and sticky toffee. My partner plumps for a plate of small dough ball-type things, covered in honey. They have the texture of crumpets, deep fried. On top of the main course, it proves a struggle. Nice, but strange, I think.

So, three courses inside an hour, all tasty and with interesting elements. Can Zaman feels authentic, for all its try-hard decoration. It’s an absolute bargain for a speedy meal out, and that makes it a hearty recommendation for me. In spite of the cruet mix-up.

Categories: Restaurant reviews

Seren, Cowbridge Road, Cardiff

September 16, 2011 1 comment

Words by James McLaren

Want nice-sized portions of well-cooked eastern Mediterranean nosh for sensible prices? You couldn’t do much better than Seren on Cardiff’s Cowbridge Road.

I’ve been here before, when it operated as Bosphorus, but as Seren it’s retained its Turkish slant, and I was drawn by its meat-heavy but exotic menu, with lots of spices, yoghurt and tomatoes appearing in the dishes. Forgoing starters, we were nevertheless presented with a couple of dainty courgette and cheese fried patties with cucumber, tomato and yoghurt as an appetiser.

IskenderGiven the Turkish slant to Seren, we thought it was important to choose Turkish booze to go alongside the food. I don’t remember the names, but the house red and white wines both come from Turkey and are worth investigating. The white is a fresh, light number with a really appealing but unusual tang of olives alongside a citrus flavour, while the red was woody and spicy with a cherry and blackberry fruitiness. I also had a glass of Turkish lager which, while nothing special, was perfectly fine.

KarniyarikI deliberated over the delicious-looking seafood and grill dishes (marinated, whole, char-grilled sea bass, for example, or pieces of monkfish tail steamed with Seren special pear and honey sauce and flavoured with brandy) before plumping for one of the main dishes: Iskender: cubes of lamb on bread smothered with tomato sauce, drizzled with butter and served with yoghurt. My partner had the Karniyarik: aubergine filled with minced lamb, onion, pepper, tomato and herbs. It’s oven-baked and usually served with mozzarella but a dairy intolerance necessitated an absence of the cheese. Not a problem, as Seren cook everything fresh to order.

Both dishes went down very well, with my lamb tender and juicy in the rich tomato sauce. The sourness of the yoghurt complemented with sweetness of the meat and tomatoes, as is typical with cuisine from the Mediterranean. I did manage to burn my tongue on the bread, which I then exacerbated by chewing on the chilli which came atop the dish, but a mouthful of yoghurt sorted that out. The Karniyarak was equally appreciated: apparently ungreasy, the aubergine was soft and flavoursome, the herbed meat delicious. I should know, I tried a big mouthful.

Thankfully the portions weren’t huge, so puddings were chosen. I went for Kayisi: sun-dried apricot cooked in honey syrup with ice cream. It was top. Soft, plump and juicy fruit swimming in an unctuous sauce cut with icy oral refreshment. My partner went for baklava, a classic of the area. Four pieces of the filo and pistachio cakes exploding with honey syrup and served with cream and a drizzle of a dark fruit sauce. As good a portion of baklava as I think either of us have tasted.

Turkish coffeeCoffees finished up (one filter, and one a classic Turkish coffee, with a dusty, thick texture and served with amaretto liqueur). Replete, we had spent £46.50 including drinks which represents good value in an area in which restaurant choice is something of a lottery.

The (new) Conway, Pontcanna

August 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Words by James McLaren

The New Conway, in the heart of Pontcanna, used to be plain, simple The Conway. It used to have dodgily-coloured carpets and an ‘old man’s pub’ atmosphere. Its contribution to Cardiff’s gastronomic landscape was in keeping with that. Nothing special, in other words.

For the past couple of years, however, it has been The New Conway and alongside the furnishing facelift (light woods, tasteful lighting), its food has also seen a huge development and now it is one of the very few city eateries in the Michelin guide to good UK restaurants. Its menu – reasonably priced in the gastro-pub bearpit – makes encouraging reading. Their ‘specials board’ is pretty much the food on offer (a la carte isn’t an option): chunky hunks of protein with the promise of interesting sauces, jus and reductions to add piquant interest.

Myself and three companions booked easily two days before a Saturday 7pm seating, but any worries about the popularity of the pub were misplaced, as it appears a bustling, lively place, as much with local drinkers as with the well-heeled diners in the restaurant area.

Deciding not to have a starter, we plumped for mains and – hopefully – leaving room for a pudding. Watching plates of crispy, golden chips accompanying the dishes of other tables, we briefly entertained doubts about whether our non-pommes frites – accompanied dishes were the wrong choices. It turned out not to be: I had a large plate of beef, tomato and basil sausages on goats’ cheese mash with olive and tomato jus which was satisfyingly abundant without being OTT. The sausages were plump and fleshy with a strong beef taste, the mash creamy and with a subtle cheesiness. Possibly the olive part of the jus was superfluous, but their saltiness complemented the sweet tomato taste well.

My dining partners enjoyed – without exception – a pan-roast salmon on basil mash, ginger and cherry tomato compote (very well cooked with the mash exhibiting a very pleasant but indefinable taste); local courgette, runner bean and perl las cheese crumble (gorgeously creamy and with one of Wales’ best cheeses) and a pan-roasted cod on patatas bravas with aioli (again, fish cooked with understanding, well-seasoned and with a delicious aioli).

Puddings were three moist, soft and surprisingly airy chocolate brownies with delicious vanilla ice cream and one assiete of chocolate mousse, served on a board (very nouveau nouveau cuisine).

It’s pretty hard to cock up most pub food, but not too difficult to overstretch yourself if you decide to elevate your grub into the gastropub world. The New Conway do it well, they’re friendly and appear efficient. You don’t get silver service because you’re not paying for it, but for an occasional treat with guests, it’s worth checking out.