Black Salt

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.

Catch yourself on

Slow, slow, quick, quick…

For a city cat from Cardiff, a visit to the west of Ireland can provide a soporific change of gear. Not least because you have to catch yourself on to a naturally slower local pace of life.

Looking for a quiet indulgence in the national libation? We may not be ready just yet…

And there is a stark reminder that corners here were made for waiting on; even if they are not exactly on the corner! It is what it is, and you just have to catch yourself on

And, just because we are about 25 miles from the west coast doesn’t mean we can’t have a harbour, does it?

If it appears to you that we are ‘a few boats short of a regatta’, well, just catch yourself on

There again, the so-called Marina Point does provide home to further aquatic references, in the form of the Shearwater Hotel

This just maybe the place where the traditional lotion can be found. But, catch yourself on, it will only be served to you after an appropriate settling wait… as the local pace of life is more about quality than speed.

Further indulgence in the life of a snail brings its own rewards, as this is most certainly a cosy home where bovine and porcine companions can be found deliciously co-habiting in a bun…

Those who like their steaks of the lean variety, catch yourself on, and find a healthier part of the world. The juicy offerings here come with a protective layer of fat. But if that is not enough, try a basket of triple cooked chunky chips and a base of caramelised onions. Button mushrooms intrude on the base to showcase what healthy eating could be… if you were somewhere else, that is!

Until we speak again, check out county Galway in the west of Ireland, and Ballinasloe particularly, if you want to catch yourself on to a lifestyle of the slow.

Celebration day

It turns out that the president and vice president of my fan club celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary the other day. They even called in for a few minutes to offer me pats, strokes and unsolicited compliments, when it probably should have been me doing that for them… but why change the natural order of things! So momentous was this event that even the right royal Lizzie, queen of as far as she can walk, dispatched a member of her own staff (well it said HM Royal Mail on the side of the van) to deliver a card with congratulations on achieving what ‘ones husband and I’ also managed to do a few years back. It seems the Queen has even changed her dress in the picture on the card, following some televised complaints by some ton-up Tessa’s who live long enough to build a collection of these things.

So how do you celebrate such an event, and what kind of place would match up to the occasion? For all that Cardiff may have to offer the final decision (imaginary drum roll at this point…) goes to the Gwaelod-y-Garth Inn a few miles north of the city in the foothills of the Taff Gorge… a portal into the terrifying spectre of the place known as ‘The Valleys’, comparable only to ‘Mordor’ in the Lord of the Rings.

         The view from the Garth (the rocky outcrop visible from the A470) down the Taff valley towards Cardiff. The Bristol Channel is in the background and on clear days Weston Super Mare is visible

I digress, into territory where no cats played any roles of consequence, so lets get back to the more important subject, me.. oh ok, them. Despite 60 years of saying ‘eh… what?’ and more recently enjoying the divergent tracts of ‘coffee with the girls’ for her and ‘golf’ for him, it seems that there are still a significant enough number of blood relatives and close friends scattered about the regions of South Wales, and even back in my old haunt of London. So it was that a great celebration was organised to bring the tribal elders, the deluded young, and the real young together for a magnificent feast. ‘The Gwaelod’, as it is known by its locals, was tasked to meet the challenge:

Now don’t get me wrong, but my personal imbiber can go off on one occasionally… is it a pub, is it a restaurant, why are the campaign for real ale folks honouring a place that focuses so much on grub? There is a simple answer that I offer in these situations… ‘if the quality of everything is fabulous enough just do less thinking and more enjoying’! However, a point was well made when the range of beers available included London Pride as a guest… even I, as a cool cat formerly of that parish, have to wonder at the waste of a good hand-pump by presenting this particular number. Fortunately, I am told that the regular Wye Valley bitter was adequately complemented by a stellar cast that included the Dark Star Hophead (which my surrogate drinker won’t shut up about since discovering it in a few local hostelries). Apparently the red wines could have done with being served at a slightly cooler temperature, but the gluggers of the Sauvignon Blanc were too busy emptying bottles to offer any professional comment… but the New Zealand economy has sent its appreciation.

Downstairs bar

The real triumph of the evening seems to be the food (and I will try not to go on again about what I find in my perpetual bowl of blandness). I am reliably told, by someone who often appreciates the curves in a walked straight line, that a herd of the highest quality gave of their loins so that the multitude could stuff themselves to the point of synchronised satisfied grinning. The fillet steak at this place was superb, as were reports of the various parts of lambs and pigs consumed in honour of the newlyweds of 60 years previously. As in previous posts of mine, I can confidently report that no vegetarians were harmed at this event, but the vegetables and chips were also deliciously presented, should any meat-avoiders want to attend any similar such occasion (blindfolded of course).

In the interests of financial considerations, I count myself lucky that my paws and fine coat are designed for better things than messing in the murky world of money… yet the satisfied throng seem to be suggesting that ‘The Gwaelod’ is not only a place for fine dining and watering, but very reasonable in its prices. One word of warning though, I noticed on their own website that this place had recently hosted some of the stick-waving bell-jangling bearded types… just when I thought I had escaped the English embarrassment of Morris and his local yocal dancing troupe!

That aside, if you are looking for quality for any occasion I think you will be purring after a visit to this place. I need to do some purring of my own right now to try and get some attention out of my typing staff, and to find out how I get my teeth into some of that herd. To my personal fan club I am still Juno, see you again soon.