Where to stay
Holm House Set atop the cliffs of Penarth in a peaceful residential area and offering rooms with sea views, this spa/restaurant was originally built in 1926 by the son of a fishing fleet magnate on Millionaire’s Row. Just a dozen rooms are available, making it even more appealing, especially given the excellent restaurant and bar and good gym and spa facilities. Doubles from £135. 11 Marine Parade, Penarth, CF64 3BG, 029 2070 6029, holmhousehotel.com
Llanerch Vineyard Hotel A modern hotel with stylish but simple rooms, set in a great location on Wales’ second oldest vineyard just outside of Cardiff. It’s home to a brilliant cookery school (see Don’t Miss), a restaurant that provides an introduction to some of the best flavours Wales has to offer, and you can also take a tour of the vines with their friendly guides. Doubles from £110. Llanerch Vineyard, Hensol Road, Hensol, CF72 8GG, 01443 222716, llanerch.co.uk
Voco St David’s Right on Cardiff Bay with excellent views of this well-developed part of the city and right on the doorstep of all the big happenings. Rooms have all the modern trimmings and comforts, plus there’s good spa. Breakfast is as excellent as you’d expect from a five-star. Doubles from £124. Havannah Street, CF10 5SD, 029 2045 4045, stdavids.vocohotels.com
Where to eat
Prices are for a three-course meal for two people with a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Arboreal A fun lunch spot for great salads and wood-fired pizzas. Plenty of Mediterranean, Asian and even African flavours speckle a tasty menu, with friendly staff and lovely cocktails. Pizzas from £9.95. 68 Eastgate Street, CF71 7AB, 01446 775093, arboreal.uk.com
Brød A bakery run by a Dane who moved to Wales more than 20 years ago and is now repaying its hospitality by offering some of the best pastries in town, from traditional spandauer (circular pastries with custard centres) to swirling snegl (cinnamon rolls). Sandwiches also served up for in-store elevenses or takeaway. Coffee and pastry from £3. 126 Wyndham Cres, CF11 9EG, 029 2025 1822, thedanishbakery.co.uk
Bully’s With the family living on the premises, this modern French bistro is very much part of the landscape, serving British produce with a Gallic feel, and they’re rightly proud of a wine menu sourced from small producers across the Channel. Dishes include duck terrine with chicory and orange salad and rack of lamb with fondant potato. From £93.90. 5 Romilly Crescent, CF11 9NP, 029 2022 1905, bullysrestaurant.co.uk
Canna Deli Hidden in a small mews in the Pontcanna neighbourhood and owned by a farming family from Anglesey, this café is strong in Welsh heritage, with staff all speaking the language and the menu including favourites such as lobsgows and traditional Welsh stew. In the evening it switches to tapas – the cheese tapas platter is not to be missed. Sandwiches from £7; tapas from £3. 200 Kings Road, CF11 9DF, 029 2937 3775, cannadeli.co.uk
Cobbles Kitchen Proper Welsh home cooking in a converted 16th-century barn. Crispy maple bacon and local pork and apple sausages battle with slow-cooked pork belly rashers to be heroes of heaving breakfast plates. Lunches might be Welsh Beef lasagne, white wine mussels or a trio of pork roast on a Sunday. Breakfast from £10pp. Ty Maen Farm Buildings, Ogmore-by-Sea, CF32 0QP, 01656 646361, cobbleskitchen.co.uk
Crafty Devil’s Cellar & Shop The local brewers have two spots, the Cellar bar in Canton, near to the city centre, and this one in nearby Penarth. Both offer the full selection of Crafty Devil drops – from the famed Mikey Rayer All-Dayer IPA to their coffee milk stout, Safe As Milk, but the Penarth brand also offers up a menu of gourmet burgers like crafty fried chicken, and buffalo chicken wings. Burgers from £8. 17 Windsor Road, Penarth, CF64 1JB, 029 2071 0045, craftydevilbrewing.co.uk
Heaneys A huge glass-fronted, split-level restaurant is the perfect shop window to show off the excellent food of Great British Menu chef Tommy Heaney, who crowd-funded £40,000 to open here. So keen were locals to have him that local restaurant owners chipped in. Delicate, seasonal, well-executed, balanced – every culinary plaudit applies. Famed for its splendid tasting menu and an aged lamb rump, crispy belly and mint sauce Sunday roast, the locals’ favourite. Ten-course tasting menu from £55pp, excluding wine. 6-10 Romilly Crescent, CF11 9NR, 029 2034 1264, heaneyscardiff.co.uk
The Heathcock What’s not to love about The Heathcock? Once a proper old-boy boozer, part of it is still reserved for a proper drink-up of local ales, spirits plus a good wine list, but the rest has been converted into everything you want from modern pub-restaurant dining, complete with kitchen garden. Plates are pretty but pack a punch. Big wins include lamb sweetbreads, smoked bacon, asparagus and mint, and the cockles. From £39, excluding wine. 58-60 Bridge St, CF5 2EN, 029 2115 2290, heathcockcardiff.com
Milkwood The kind of neighbourhood bistro we all want on our doorstep, using the best of local produce, spliced with flavours from around the world. Evenings are about small plates such as pork collar char siu or aged beef dripping toast and anchovy, but head earlier for one of the best brunches in town. Small plates from £5. 83 Pontcanna Street, CF11 9HS, 029 2023 2226, milkwoodcardiff.com
Thomas by Tom Simmons Once of Tower Bridge, Welsh-born chef Tom Simmons returned home – although not quite as far as his Pembrokeshire roots – to bring his British-French modern cooking to Pontcanna. Think beef tartare, celeriac velouté, and a grill for the best of Welsh pork, lamb and beef. From £60, excluding wine. 3 & 5 Pontcanna Street, CF11 9HQ, 029 2116 7800, thomas-pontcanna.co.uk
Uisce Right next door to Heaney’s (see above) and also owned by Tommy, but such a different offering that it merits its own listing. Small plates aplenty – from oysters, cured halibut and pork shoulder crumpet to crispy fish scampi – followed by Welsh cheese or a chocolate choux bun. A decent wine list, including some very well-chosen fortifieds. Small plates from £7. 4 Romilly Crescent, CF11 9NR, 029 2037 3009, heaneyscardiff.co.uk
Food and Travel Review
Just far enough south of Cardiff’s Riverside to avoid the Principality Stadium’s considerable shadow, a welly-booted, beanie-hatted brewer steps down from his giant steel tank.
In a small industrial park of four units, with a crisscross of railway lines for a back garden and rows of nondescript Victorian terraces out front, he’s just added two American hops – cascade and citra – to his best-selling brew. One gives it the lightest of citrus kisses, the other packs a hefty tropical uppercut. The result is one of the most drinkable session IPAs: clean, crisp, flavourful, a hint of bitterness and with fruits that ease to the fore, without crudely smacking you around the chops. ‘We brew about 2,500 litres a week, and two-thirds of that is Mikey Rayer,’ explains Adam Edinborough, brewmaster and co-founder of Crafty Devil Brewing. Mikey Rayer is a session IPA, named after a local rugby hero whose name also became rhyming slang for an ‘all-dayer’, at least in the Welsh capital. ‘It’s really what we’re about – beers that are drunk in pints and you’re happy to sit there and have more than one.’
Adam, a pipe fitter by trade, started brewing six years ago with a £500 brew kit in the garden shed of business partner and school-friend Rhys Watkins, who was working, back then, for the local council. Their first drinkable brew was served at their local pub just three months later. It proved a success and, buoyed by the response, they started selling their wares at the local farmers’ market on the Riverside, facing the stadium.
Finding themselves among a lot of like-minded twenty- and thirtysomethings, the timing couldn’t have been better. ‘The market had been going for years, in a traditional meat, fruit and veg way,’ says Adam, ‘but when we got there, there were lots of people doing new stuff like artisan pizzas, speciality coffees, gourmet burgers, luxury sandwiches and charcuterie. Although there was still space for the stalwarts like Rog the Egg Man – he used to kill it every week making hundreds more than everyone selling his eggs.
‘Now, if there’s an independent place opening up in Cardiff, there’s a good chance it came through that market.’
The resurgence has been driven by young brewers, bakers, chefs, butchers and even farmers wanting to break the gastronomic monotony of British high streets and try something new in a scene that was in desperate need of diversity. ‘Historically, Cardiff’s always been about big chains,’ explains Adam. ‘If you had a special occasion, you’d go to a traditional Italian, Chinese or Indian as they were the only independents we had.’
Like their former market-goers, Crafty Devil have gone from pop-up to permanent, from stall to bar stool, with their own cellar bar – run by Rhys’s dad, Gareth – a few roads away. They’ve tempted the locals in, not just with Mikey Rayer, but with the likes of Safe as Milk, a coffee milk stout. A winter warmer with a soft sweetness and a coffee nose, it’s full-bodied without being cloying and, again, at 4.5% ABV, it’s a drink that’s meant to be drunk. ‘It’s easy to go overboard,’ says Adam. ‘You can make a killer double version of that beer, double coffee, and really beef it up. On flavour it’d be a knockout – but you’d only want a half pint.’
They’ve also created a mint chocolate stout. ‘We wanted a Christmas beer and first we tried a smoked beer that was supposed to be like pigs in blanket, then we did a cranberry pale ale, and then we made Fairy Tale of Cardiff, a chocolate mint stout, made using cocoa nibs, peppermint and vanilla. We were basically trying to make an After Eight beer,’ he says candidly. They succeeded; it’s everything it says on the can.
And their cans say a lot. Amid the goth-punk illustrated aluminium canvas of their latest Crafty Devil beers, you’ll find classic Cardiff landscapes: the stadium, the castle, the Norwegian church, the Millennium Centre. It’s an impressive cityscape known for many things, but not – traditionally at least – good food. Yet the neighbouring grassy landscape of valleys, hills and the richest of pastures is famed for raising some of the finest produce. Perhaps all it needed was the right people to cook it.
Thirty minutes to the west of Cardiff is Cobbles Kitchen. On the 16th-century face of it, this former threshing barn doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of any food scene that isn’t heavily discounted with the flash of a bus pass. Step through the stone arches, however, and, in a setting with enough original character to make it easy to imagine a solid threshing taking place, it’s clear that 32-year-old Chloe Francis-Oakley has had the Cardiff food-loving droves beating a path to her doorway.
She took over a section of the building – the kind where there seem to be nooks in nooks, and crannies at every turn – five years ago, when its main purpose was to sell bric-a-brac. The barn had no electricity or running water, but Chloe borrowed an oven from a relative and somehow managed to serve an all-day brunch to 22 covers. Within three months, both bric and brac were nowhere to be seen, and she had taken over the remaining space. Four days of opening from 9am to 3pm soon became seven and, on a road used mostly by those wishing to descend upon Ogmore-by-Sea, she found herself doing 250 to 270 covers daily.
Some come for the cakes. Resembling a mini Eden Project designed by Willy Wonka, what lies beneath every glass dome is enough to make your teeth ache in anticipation. Chunky shards of white chocolate and caramel fudge; double-chocolate brownies topped with plump local raspberries; soft vanilla slices with a thick cream topping pebble-dashed with hundreds and thousands; and then, the anomaly, the Welsh scone. ‘We want to be different, but we can’t be too different,’ Chloe says. ‘The Welsh scone has the spice and fruit of a Welsh cake, but with all the texture of a scone – it’s basically a pumped-up Welsh cake. It was one of my gran’s recipes – a mixture of spices, but heavy on the nutmeg.’
Even served, as God intended, spread first with a thick duvet of clotted cream, and layered with a sweet pool of their homemade champagne and strawberry jam, the Welsh scone is still not the main reason people visit. Neither is it the shakshuka, made with the most tender lamb cutlets, marinated for 12 hours, skin seared and crispy, before joining a plate of tomatoes, poached eggs and gently warming spices that are cooled by the creamy ricotta that completes the dish. And nor is it the Reuben sandwich made with Welsh cheddar, Welsh sourdough and their own sauerkraut recipe.
While the area’s food scene is burgeoning, it couldn’t begin to burgeon even a little bit without the mainstay of any chalk-written menu: local produce.
Nothing showcases Wales on a plate like breakfast.
This is Cobbles Kitchen’s big draw, and they can get through 200 of them in a single day. ‘The meat comes from a farm in Llantwit Major [24km away],’ says Chloe. ‘People always ask for the names of the farmers,’ she continues. ‘They’re looking for the local ones they know. Then, when you tell them it’s Dai, they’re like, “Ah right, Dai – I know him.” They want their breakfasts organic, they don’t want crap.’
Organic is one thing, but it has to taste good, too, and from the plump sausages through to the perfectly salty bacon, with its almost Iberian, nutty flavour, to the richly yolked eggs, this breakfast medley should be the standard by which others are judged. The menu isn’t just thrown together, either. Chef Ashley Andrews earned his kitchen spurs with Tommy Heaney, who made his name at Bridgend’s The Great House and now runs Heaneys bar-restaurant in Cardiff. Tommy is a chef whose name crops up at almost any good place worth its small-batch, sea salt flakes. ‘Tommy helped train a lot of chefs around here,’ Chloe explains, ‘and he’s always happy to help out; you can ask him anything. That’s the thing with the food scene here, we’re independent – there’s no competition and we’re all just happy to help each other.’ As we leave Cobbles, we notice the sign above the doorway that says ‘Cwtch’, the Welsh word for ‘hug’. Fitting for a place that offers the culinary equivalent of a cuddle.
Back in the city, a couple of beer can kicks from the Crafty Devil’s Cellar, is Oriel Jones Butcher. Shaun Jones, the fourth generation of the family farmer-cum-butcher business, is showing us his favourite cuts. ‘This is the crème de la crème,’ he says, ‘Welsh black, minimum dry-aged for 24 to 26 days. They’ve been roaming the hills and they’ve matured faster and have a real depth of flavour.’ He points out the perfect fat roadmap, stating the obvious, but no less important, fact: ‘It’s very well marbled.’
Shaun’s family farm spreads across 364ha of West Wales, but he brings over two bodies of beef, five pigs and 14 lambs each week to meet the local needs. They opened the shop in Cardiff when they realised it was where most of their meat box orders were coming from. ‘There’s huge stuff happening here,’ he says. ‘It’s changing a lot, but it’s still quite edgy. We’re the right side of that edge now, but starting to gentrify.’ He changes topic, turning instead to a big seller, the mutton. ‘People are going for the forgotten meats now. Look at this mutton – ewes that are three to four years old and have been on the best pastures, fat as puddings, bags of flavour.’
Although Cardiff is a compact city, where nowhere seems any more than a ten-minute cab ride away, the food revolution is definitely happening on a greater scale in the neighbourhoods on the fringes of the city centre. In Llandaff, five minutes from Crafty Devil and Oriel Jones Butcher and overlooking the River Taff that dissects the city, is The Heathcock. Not so long ago it was a proper local boozer, and it’s still a place for regulars, but now they chow down on grilled ox tongue on duck-fat toast and Kentucky fried rabbit – a snack that started out as squirrel before supply became an issue. Now, they also bring in their fruits to have them turned into gins and a range of seriously good wines is served by the glass.
Glancing at the menu, there are hints of London’s St John restaurant, with a nose-to-tail ethos but, as manager Guy Ennever points out, they’re fans of Whitstable’s The Sportsman, too. ‘It was just a pub, a grimy pub,’ says Guy of The Sportsman, ‘and Stephen Harris has turned it into something absolutely phenomenal.’
Also phenomenal is the first dish we try: roasted red mullet, samphire and Welsh cockles. The cockles are as meaty as scallops, a fresh sea flavour balanced with the punch of crisp-skinned mullet, bathing in a buttery pool of samphire, anchovies, lemon, garlic and capers. ‘We’re lucky with the cockles today,’ chef Dave Killick admits, as we admire the sweet molluscs.
King scallops, teamed with a dash of lemon, sourdough breadcrumbs, pickled samphire and Granny Smith is the perfect mouthful: chunky-fleshed scallop, the crunch of the sourdough, the rich butter, fresh acidity of the pickled samphire and then comes the tart-sweet apple batons cutting through it all. A razor clam, meat diced and soaked in a mussel stock, comes peppered with sweet brown shrimps and tender, juicy mussels, topped with dill. It’s fruits de mer in miniature – no silver platter, but gold standard.
And the turf dishes? The rabbit pappardelle, braised venison shoulder, lamb neck, sweetbreads… They all follow the same culinary path as their menu siblings.
Establishments such as The Heathcock never used to exist in Cardiff, but now there are like-minded contenders everywhere. ‘Every week people are opening – it’s exciting,’ says Guy. ‘I take Mondays off to go to other restaurants, places like Heaneys and Milkwood.'
'It’s not so much competition, though; we help each other out. The other day, our fridge went down, and we rang Heaneys and they told us to bring all our meat down.’'
Heaneys is in Pontcanna, the suburb that lies at the epicentre of the indie anti-chain rebellion. Here you find Norwegian bakeries on street corners, delis hidden in artsy mews, barbecue joints and basically most of the city’s best-loved restaurants, from award-winning Indians to proper old-school Italians to the likes of season-first modern outfits Bully’s and Milkwood.
On one wall of the uniquely split-level, high glass-fronted Heaneys is a list of those who helped Tommy Heaney open his first solo restaurant, having earned great acclaim at the award-winning The Great House and on the Great British Menu. Milkwood is among the names. ‘The local businesses, like Milkwood, were really supportive,’ he says, plating up a ceviche dish for photography. ‘We did a Kickstarter and sold vouchers for guest chef nights.
All these great chefs came down to Cardiff. We ran them on a Monday, when restaurants are often closed. All these indies came along – it was a good opportunity to see big names in action.’
Northern Irishman Heaney has lived in Cardiff for 13 years but, although his work at The Great House earned him accolades far beyond Wales, he only opened his own restaurant in the city in 2019. His name is mentioned often during our stay, with a good number of the restaurant scene’s kitchen dwellers having spent time under his wing. Had we asked, they’d no doubt have talked about his lamb. Aged for three weeks, the saddle is barbecued and served with anchovy emulsion and homemade mint sauce. ‘We’ve had it on the menu since day one,’ says Tommy. ‘Same with the cured fish and horseradish sorbet. We’ve tried to take it off, but they won’t let us.’
While the roast lamb is a Sunday favourite, in the week it’s the ten-course sharing taster, with a dish coming out every ten minutes. ‘The customers want to try lots of things, so with this they get to taste 60 per cent of the menu, things you wouldn’t normally order or even see anywhere else, but it doesn’t take five hours. Although, after ten courses, it’s sometimes the homemade sourdough and Marmite butter they had at the start they talk about!’
Next door to Heaneys, in what he first used as a pop-up before the restaurant was ready, Tommy has opened Uisce, a snug of a wine bar, selling 40 bins by the glass, alongside a bite-sized menu. ‘It changes all the time, but it’s more tasty snacks, different types of cuisine that go with the wines,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a homemade crumpet on there with Welsh Lamb shoulder and salsa verde.’
His menus reflect the Cardiff scene – forever changing, evolving, deliciously diverse dishes. ‘When I get a night off, I’ll go to five or six places and have a starter or small dish,’ he says. ‘Cardiff used to be massively behind other cities. The redevelopment of the centre killed it for independents, but now [in the neighbourhoods] it’s starting to bounce back. The standard of food has taken an extra leap. Cardiff is being more experimental, restaurants are being more ballsy, people want to try new things – we’re in a good place.’
And they’re in it together. ‘I’ll always shout out about the other restaurants,’ he says, ‘I was saying to another chef the other day, “Why would I want a restaurant to fail? The more exciting places we have to eat, the better.”’
Words by Alex Mead Photography by Richard Jung. They travelled courtesy of Visit Wales.
This feature was taken from the August/September 2021 issue of Food and Travel.
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