Who said Cardiff was welcoming to visitors? Arriving at the Central railway station, these days, should you gaze in a particular direction, you might just get the city’s version of the middle finger salute! Though clearly it is coming from the brain, not the heart!
More likely, this is Brains Beers latter day middle finger salute to beer lovers.
It’s a shame really, because there was a time when the local Brains beers deserved the regular accolades and awards they received. Then came the end of the 20th century rush to corporate mediocrity. Whereby quality is sacrificed for quantity (of profits, that is).
The final site of the old brewery is about to become the centre of a new development… yet more of the planners fashion for identikit mixed use residential and commercial extravaganzas (if that’s the plural of an extravaganza?).
This will become the Central Quay, apparently… they’ve overplayed the number of quarters, with probably at least 5 in the central area of Cardiff. Whatever happened to simple mathematics in the corridors of municipal power these days? Anyway, it seems it’s time to move onto ‘quays’ instead… reuniting the city with its waterfront, so the blurb goes.
Until we speak again, feel free to raise a glass to waterfront reuniting, whatever that might entail. But, also to the demise of what was an award winning beer (albeit decades ago).
Once upon a time, Cardiff led the world… as the centre of coal trading in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To mark such an auspicious position the Exchange Building, otherwise known as the Coal Exchange, was built in 1888 in Mount Stuart Square… down the docks as us locals refer to it.
As in any ‘exchange’, frantic activity would take place with all kinds of guys (as it was always guys at the time) gesticulating and bargaining, as the global price of coal was set right here in the Grand Hall. Then, one day in 1904, the very first £1,000,000 transaction was made. Yes, financial history was made right there on the trading floor of the Coal Exchange in Cardiff!
So, it has been a shared ambition with my local drinking friend, to dine in the grand old building when the long awaited Culley’s restaurant had opened. Not being early adopters, we have let a year or more drift by before achieving said ambition. But, it’s a grand way in which to honour that cheque from back in 1904… assuming that the prices don’t honour the historic event!
Apart from a ubiquitous olives and red wine (Argentinian Malbec) introduction to the place, we were drawn to the Scotch Egg and the Black Pudding Bon Bon starters. Small plates they may be, but the delicate tastes complemented the majestic surroundings.
As for the main course, we both just had to respect the tradition of Welsh supremacy (even if it was just briefly experienced more than 100 years ago). After all, there is a culinary delight that Wales has long been one of the world’s leading providers… Welsh Lamb. With squash and dauphinaise potato adornments, this was a fine way with which to honour that moment back in 1904.
Until we speak again, in the absence of any randomly available £1m cheques drifting my way, I’m more than happy to indulge a Welsh tradition… eating not sh____ing sheep, that is! You may enjoy those visions of spring with lambs gamboling about sunny hillsides. Me… I prefer them decorating my plate any time of the year.
Once there was a bistro… mediocre at best, but upmarket for the traditional surroundings associated with the infamous Chippy Alley of Caroline Street in the centre of Cardiff. Few tears were shed at Juno HQ as Pierre met his demise during the Covid lockdowns of 2020… but, what would replace it? Summer of 2021 gave rise to a hint of refurbishment, and in recent weeks the curtain can be raised on a new Thai restaurant. Busaba emerges to taunt those who only have time for a bag of chips… the eternal staple of the street food warriors of Caroline Street (myself included on occasions of haste).
It passes the first test… the menus are not overly complicated, and certainly don’t need to be made of wipe-down plastic (a surefire sign of *********** well, fill in the blanks with your own commentary). However, step two created a problem… even though the menu had ‘starters’ and ‘mains’ as categories, the whole lot arrived in one go!
Makes for an exciting looking table, but something’s going to get cold… not least the stare from my discerning culinary companion!
Some things were definitely going to need replacing with freshly cooked dishes (and the restaurant staff duly obliged without any fuss).
Matchstick Chicken provided crispy bites of flavour without the expected fiery burn back. Yam Pak CrispyDuck salad provided a substantial leg, covering a fabulously tasty crunchy assortment of loveliness with a hint of peanut sauce. The Chicken Green Curry provided that wonderful Thai combination of coconut and lemongrass. The Tamarind Duck Breast was accompanied by that slight fiery tang originally expected from the Matchstick starter.
But, pride of place goes to that smallest of bowls (top right of the photograph). Calamari… described on the menu as their signature wok-tossed dish in ginger and green peppercorn sauce. Or, described by me as WTF… that’s the best Calamari I’ve tasted… ever!!
Until we speak again, they describe their restaurant as “Eating in balance… at Busaba you’ll find fresh authentic flavours with an innovative twist.” I say: “Bon Voyage mediocre French joint… I want more of that Calamari… NOW!”
At least it was the 25th! A family Christmas shape shifts as the numbers change with time. My last family Christmas meal was four years ago, when five people sat around the table, but now it’s just two, as the tragic heartfelt losses mount up.
So, for my sister and I, that at least meant we could decide to check out an old favourite Cardiff restaurant, dispense with the usual Christmas Day paraphernalia, and even dispense with celebrating in December! Neither of us can trust many restaurants not to downgrade their great menu’s by replacing them with Christmas mediocrity throughout the month of December. So, whether that applies to the Bayside Brasserie or not we don’t know. What we do know, is that the same high quality experience is there for the savouring.
Whilst the menu prompted a majority of tempting memories, the power of asking for what you want was also easily accommodated by the staff. Previously, Pork Belly was a starter but now it only appears as a main. The old adage is… if you don’t ask you don’t get; so, asking for Pork Belly as a starter was not only agreed, but met with results to exceed expectations.
Perhaps it’s the sense of getting something that wasn’t there that makes it taste even better! But, though the Crispy Squid looked tempting, this Pork Belly was all mouth-watering meat with a crispy crackling covering… and that melt-in-the-mouth feeling just simply can’t be resisted.
Two or three plates of this starter alone would easily have sent me off with that satisfied feeling of a meal well-deserved… you really don’t have to be anointed as a saint to be deserving of such riches in life! But, there were other memories to be tested and satisfied, not least the vegetarians nightmare… Fillet Steak! A food that should only be allowed by law to be served with chips and peppercorn sauce. A little foliage and extra fungi provides fancy dressing for any pernickety critic.
Who needs dessert after such a meat feast? Yes, I know… the very question puts me top of the list of many of your for a cactus emema! But, for me, those glasses of a lovely Argentinian Malbec are dessert enough… but then again a properly prepared macchiato serves to bring a great early Christmas to a gentle close.
Until we speak again, have a great Christmas… whenever, wherever, and with whoever you choose to celebrate it. After all, for me and a longstanding reader of these lyrical meanderings, a great Christmas meal has even been enjoyed on a balmy night in June (for the record… Fillet Steak was also eaten there.. in Blackheath, south-east London). So, the gift of the cow is really a gift of great memories as well.
Buy up their favourite wine and bring it back to the UK!!
So, what has a week in Malta got to offer, to get you doing that Covid bureaucracy added to the new travelling experience? History? Well yes, plenty of that…
Interesting old architecture, including those distinctive wooden balconies everywhere…
A surplus of blue? Definitely, in many shades and varieties…
But, for all the enjoyable walking and water-based sight-seeing, it’s the evening that easily provides the enchantment of Malta. When the weather maybe cooking up a storm (literally on one evening), try some of the local delicacies, either under cloth in the street, or indoors. Merchant Street in Valletta offers a wide range of choices, but La Pira was the outstanding pick of the bunch…
I do like a small menu, it hints at expertise, and there is nothing so off-putting as having to read a book before you get to your starters! On this occasion, I feel drawn to the Maltese traditional options, so Maltese Special is my immediate choice. As for the discerning company, there is the challenge of serving up Calamari Fritti to a calamari aficionado! Both dishes provide the kind of satisfaction that distract you from the rain hammering down on the open tent structure we are sitting in.
And then there is the first taste of that local wine that just cries out to be taken home…
Malta does come up with the occasional surprise tradition… not the least being their favoured dish. “What’s up, doc?” Move over Bugs Bunny, this place IS your worst nightmare! For some reason, rabbit is the delicacy set out as their dish of choice. One previous tasting of the dish is located so far down in my food memory that it doesn’t particularly register… other than the ubiquitous ‘it tastes like chicken’, which is something that applies to so many ‘its not chicken’ foods. Local Rabbit seems like the only choice to me… I don’t like my rabbit to have been travelling too far in pursuit of my plate! As for the seafood fan, Pan Fried Octopus was the favoured selection, after a quick quizzing of the waiter about how it was prepared and cooked. Suffice to say, the rabbit tasted of a superior chicken, but beware these critters come with many bones in all shapes and sizes. As for the octopus, it was delicately flavoured without the feared chewy rubbery consistency occasionally attributed to the dish.
Until we speak again, the experience was so enjoyable, a second visit to La Pira only confirmed our initial appreciation… with a return for the tastiest of Calamari rounded off with mains of Summer Squash and Swordfish Ravioli, rounded off with a local Chardonnay…
Having clearly failed the honest reporting test… as my last post had been somewhat unfairly likened to culinary hate mail, by a disappointed punter who was unable to join the inaugural Black Salt adventure. There was only one possible solution to what otherwise could have become a tense Mexican Dine-Off on an ordinary Friday night in a favoured local boozer (big shout out to the Flute & Tankard!).
A reunion with culinary confusion was duly arranged with said punter, and the previously failed search for the mythical Wine List and Greek Salad amongst a sea of battered vegetables was accepted. Not least, so that the gauntlet of challenge can be retrieved from the litter-strewn pavement of Whitchurch Road.
On my approach, I did wonder if there was a cunning tactic at play… paying unemployed hospitality sector employees to pose in an open window idly chatting with interested passers-by. Could this be the new way of making places look busy and in demand?
Anyway, the time arrived when the afore mentioned gauntlet needed grasping… and before I could even raise a patronising clicked finger demanding to see the previously extinct Wine List, there it was, already laid out on the table, taunting me back into a pose of relative British consumer timidity.
The road to redemption is clearly signposted, so my next decision is delicately poised… what starter to tempt the palate? ‘Safety first’ shouldn’t be the determining factor when it comes to culinary adventures; but, sod it, that Halloumi with Chilli and Honey was just too good to be missed!
Then came the prime purpose of this visit, to see if a Greek Salad really could accompany a steak on the same table at the same time. It may sound like a simple request, but on the previous occasion we mere mortal diners had committed the cardinal sin… asking for a Greek Salad to REPLACE the signature oceans of fried batter that unquestionably accompany everything that had walked or swam in a previous incarnation. Lessons have been learned… just ask for Greek Salad alongside everything else. And lo, before our ravenous eyes, two Greek Salads duly arrived ahead of Daisy’s delights.
Only one challenge was left, in order to redeem my reputation as a serious investigator of all things Fillet. Could the true centrepiece of the visit stand alone, unimpeded by the burden of shouldering an onion ring the size and consistency of a tractor tyre? Again, there is a simple solution presenting itself in gluttonous obviousness… why have 8oz when you can have a 12oz beast of medium rare succulence? Even accompanied by a mega slice of cooked tomato, this animal has no intention of lurking in any shadows! And yes, those chips were very tasty when dipped in a pond of peppercorn sauce. [For any overseas readers, chips and oz’s are what Brexit might have been fought over, whilst still being a completely ridiculous idea!].
Until we speak again, yes… it’s a French Red Wine, a St Emilion. But in my defence, I didn’t order it! Personal redemption, it seems, comes with a price tag. ‘Black Salt II ~ The Redemption‘ was worth extending the glove of friendship, at least to resolve any unnecessary continuation of the Mexican Dine-Off. Trilogies, however, well, that’s a whole different culinary affair!
For all, but probably my one reader who already knows, this is the successor to the Cardiff gastronomic institution formerly known as Charleston’s… a steak house that boasted the largest steaks in the city. How much of the original has transferred from the city centre out a couple of miles to Whitchurch Road is anyone’s guess, as I never did get to visit the supposed gothic darkness that was upstairs on the infamous corner of St Mary Street and Caroline Street (aka Chippy Alley!).
The irrepressible Greek owner, Carmilla, suggested that she moved because as a proud grandmother she no longer wants the 4.00am closing times of the former eatery. So, what is in store in this out-of-town successor? The menu proves to be instantly inviting without being an overly burdensome read… always a good sign for an independent establishment, unlike many a restaurant chain I’ve long since chosen to avoid.
The lack of any wine list being offered is ominous however, and the response to the request for one was even moreso… “We have house red, white and rose…” was the initial verbal reply. The population of Cardiff is clearly more ignorant of the world of wine than I had realised, at least if this is the level of expectation that waiters have of their punters! Perhaps Whitchurch Road is a haven for world travellers who only drink lager, eat chips, and think house wine is the height of sophistication!
Sensing my incredulity, there was an immediate response that provided a whole new slant on the notion of a wine list… “You can always lean over the bar sir, and look at the bottles we have. I think our wine list is coming next week.” Well, it’s down to the next joust between me and my elegant eating companion (no, not the one reader who knows about the Charleston history, he’s otherwise indisposed in ways that would be too delicate to detail in this context).. are we both eating something conducive to red wine, or both likely to favour the complimentary qualities of a white? In which case a lean over the bar might be worth the exhibitionist stance that would be required. Suffice to say, we didn’t agree, so a glass of house red for me and a glass of house white for her is the order of the day.
Which brings me to the food… I rake a bedraggled memory of a conversation from the back of my mind that Charleston’s was not only about large steaks, but also about ‘battered’ vegetables, and not necessarily in a good way. Anyway, the first encounter with the batter arrives in the context of a range of appetisers. The halloumi with chilli and honey is a delicately tasting delight; the scampi in garlic is not my bag, but it packs a juicy bit of flavour; then there is the calamari… the batter is fine and delicate, and just as well, because it seemed to be disguising something more cardboard in texture. Our expectation that this was probably bought from a nearby cost cutter supermarket was politely denied… “All of our seafood is freshly caught”, to which I pondered the definition of caught (still thinking this might cover purchasing an item in a supermarket).
Then it’s on to the main event… I have no option but to order the Fillet Steak, though a request to pay for a Greek Salad side instead of the threat of those battered vegetables was thwarted; seems like changes to the itemised menu are not possible. So as not to tax the skills of the kitchen staff, I decide that I will abide by the instruction that the steak comes with vegetables! Then my partner in crime decides that chips are not for her liking with the King Prawn Souvlaki, as she would also prefer a salad. No way, Hose. An offer of new potatoes instead of the chips was accepted, only to be told “Sorry we don’t have any new potatoes!”
So, after a few minutes of negotiating around the possibilities of an unfussy menu, we settle for precisely what the menu instructs us to eat. Bring on that batter. However, what I hadn’t bargained on was an onion ring that was going to give the big juicy steak a fight for its money! Don’t get me wrong, this was a very nice piece of steak (my second favourite in Cardiff currently… see the Lost & Found post for the reigning No. 1), but I didn’t expect to send out a search party to find it somewhere behind that infamous battered vegetable wall. Don’t ask me about the battered cauliflower, it was far too threatening for me to even consider disturbing, let alone consuming.
Until we speak again, Carmilla put up an irrepressible show of in-your-face niceties, with an attempt to get us married off seemingly before the meal was complete. Remember that wine list encounter at the start of this sojourn? Well, a theme seemed to be emerging when my co-conspirator in eating crimes dared to ask to see a dessert menu. “We have strawberry cheesecake or ice cream… which one do you want?” was the considered reply. Perhaps there has been a laminating supply shortage, as no reading was required before declining the offer.
Black Salt is an experience; and if you are into being battered into submission, this is a place for you. if you are into a delicate and refined eating experience, Whitchurch Road may not be the place for you. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as they say. At least you won’t leave here feeling ripped off. You will most likely leave with a warm feeling of Carmilla’s friendly personality having added to an interesting experience.