The Vaults: Bute Street's desolate grandeur conceals Cardiff's best parties
Before I leave the subject of Cardiff behind, I’d been intending to run down the things I rated about the city before I moved away. I failed to do so, but if I went back I’d still love the following – all are (loosely) food and drink-related; all offer the maximum bangs per buck ratio that justifies their inclusion here:
Backroom Cardiff: I really regret not finding this earlier, cos I only got to go to two of these parties at the Vaults on Bute Street (where the finest buildings in the city sit decaying, as if to form an exclusion zone between Butetown and Cardiff Bay). Other promoters in Cardiff are doing ace things, some of whom I wrote about at the end of last year, but no-one else is booking DJs like Levon Vincent to play raves in a disused bank. Needless to say I didn’t eat here, but you can drink until 5am.
- The Royal Oak: My former local, which I also didn’t spend as much time in as I should have done. A handsome, laid back old pub selling flat-as-fuck but tasty handpulled Brains – though it could do with a couple of other decent beers.
- Chai Street: The final meal out I had in Cardiff, reviewed last time around.
- Bar Cwtch: Nestling just shy of the sterile waste of space that is Mermaid Quay, entertainingly hit-and-miss cellar bar serving decent pizzas and very good cocktails (when they remember to have ice). Be warned: if more than 20 people are there you may have trouble getting to the bar.
- Canteen on Clifton Street: the only place I went to eat at three times, reviewed on the first occasion. Not everything they make tastes amazing, but trying to cook imaginative veggie food from a small kitchen while also throwing a bone (sorry) to the carnivores deserves a tip of the hat.
- Gwdihw: A venue masquerading as a cosy living room, and packing a decent range of beers considering the bar is only about six inches long. Hearty, well priced food and varied music are on offer too.
- New York Deli: featured back in March, and juxtaposing the city centre’s prettiest arcade with the meat-packing, chilli dripping delight that is the Cardiff Devils Hoagie. Next time I’m in town, I’ll be there.
- Inner City Pickle: One-woman cottage industry aka Eira Ellis-Evans, collecting, cooking and distributing Cardiff’s finest preserves via her Adamsdown kitchen.
A few weeks ago I decamped to Bristol for work, chalking up one final budget Cardiff chow-down at Chai Street
, Anand George
’s Indian street-food outlet on Whitchurch Road (the last bit of town you’d associate with street-food) before doing so.
This blog kicked off 10 months ago with an entry about traipsing through Grangetown
in search of the Vegetarian Food Studio
’s thalis, so it seems appropriate to end its Cardiff existence by reviewing a similar meal.
If I’d have been feeling more flush I might’ve headed next door to CS’s big brother Mint & Mustard
for a farewell blowout. But had I done so I’d have been deprived of a) one of the best returns I had on a tenner in South Wales and b) the chance to write it up here.
Hitting Chai Street rather than thali benchmark VFS gets you tightly-packed leathery seats, garish Bollywood meets pop art décor, and (obviously) a more aspirational postcode in which to eat your platter. These little luxuries mean you pay about a quid extra for your selection of small dishes, but getting change from £7 for a meal is still ridiculously reasonable.
And sad to say it, but it seems the best thalis in Cardiff are no longer being made west of the Taff.
Chai Street may be on the cramped side, but there’s no mystery as to why they’re cramming punters in. A creamy cow-pea dal, a dry, pungent potato dish and a rich, moist chicken one were all distinctively spiced, with curry leaves the most dominant – though not overpowering – flavour. Rice, bread, a shared side of lamb patties and cardamom-heavy masala chai rounded out a meal that’d suck me back regularly had I not so rudely skipped town.
The foodie link for this post is tenuous as hell. I mentioned in my recent review of Canteen on Clifton Street that the neighbourhood it lies in, Adamsdown, has an amazing set of street names. Oh, and I also sometimes do my food shop on Clifton Street, so I guess that’s a second weak connection.
I don’t want to try and romanticise the place. My house isn’t even within it, but over the main road. It’s an inner-city area of close-packed terraces like many others I’ve lived in or near.
Some streets are cleaner, some dirtier, a few are strewn with broken glass. People go about their business, guys with big dogs stroll around. There are shops and street-corner pubs, little grassy squares and some interesting old houses near the town end. If you Google it, you’ll see entries like this one which give it a pretty bad rep, but (not to tempt fate) I’ve never felt threatened walking there at godly or ungodly hours.
Anyway, as you pass through Adamsdown towards the city centre, you come across a network of streets which are all named on an astronomy theme. Orbit Street, Meteor Street, Planet Street, Eclipse Street, Constellation Street.
I’ve no idea why I find these names so appealing. Maybe it’s because they sound so futuristic and full of optimism, stuck on and around weathered Victorian houses. I especially love the lights like little twinkling stars around one of the signs on System Street.
If anyone has any further info or history to add on this topic please comment or drop me an email.
So I meet a friend, Tom, who’s unexpectedly been in town for the Six Nations, in Cardiff city centre. It’s Sunday afternoon, he’s been for a run and wants to go get a cheap bite before catching the train back to Sheffield.
Despite claiming to writing a blog about exploring the city for its best budget eats, I’m too hungry and scatty to think of anywhere good as there are just too many food outlets all around us, most of which will probably be overpriced and disappointing.
At that moment, my mate Sian approaches and helpfully points us in the direction of the New York Deli in High Street Arcade, which is a fairly standard take-out joint inside but has some nice old benches where you can sit out front. Both Tom and I are salt beef lovers, and are overjoyed to find this place sells the stuff by the yard.
I order a pretty damn gorgeous bagel also containing cream cheese, horseradish and gherkins. He opts for a massive hoagie that is too heavy to pick up with one hand. I spend £3.70; Tom drops about a pound more than that. We go our separate ways stuffed and super happy.
Cardiff Devils hoagie: far larger & tastier than an iPhone
Yes, more salt beef
Last week I hitchhiked from Cardiff to the North Wales coast for a feature I’m writing, a piece loosely inspired by recent reports from the Guardian, Telegraph and others about the pros and cons of installing high-speed rail links to Manchester and Leeds.
As Wales has neither motorway nor railway joining the north and south, I reckoned it’d be interesting to see how the supposedly dying art of thumbing a free lift stacked up against the train (four to six hours via England, £70 walk-on price).
Some things I learned:
- Hitching out of urban centres is a total nightmare. Getting to Merthyr Tydfil took three hours; another three and I was in Snowdonia.
- Making a decent sign, having a shave, making eye contact with and smiling at drivers will get you a long way.
- Standing by the side of the A470 in the Taff Valley with trucks pounding past is a bit scary.
- There’s no particular type of person who picks up hitchers. But all my drivers combined kind motives with boredom and the desire for a bit of lively company.
- Taking a hearty pack-up helps give you the stamina to provide your chauffeurs with the banter they crave. Keep up your end of the conversation and they’ll spill all kinds of interesting dirt.
It took me seven hours from breaking out my sign at Gabalfa, north Cardiff to hitting the Menai Straits at Caernarfon. The fish and chips I had there weren’t really seaside quality, but they still tasted pretty sweet.
Food miles: the most well-earned fish and chips ever
I like walking through Adamsdown on my way to town. The terraces are a different colour, but it reminds me of my walk into town in Preston as a teenager. The Royal Oak is a fantastic old boozer to pop into for an early evening pint. Oh, and the area has the coolest set of street names I’ve seen anywhere.
I had spotted Canteen on Clifton Street on one such stroll and had been keen to try it out for ages. As a meat eater who also cooks plenty of veggie food, I was intrigued by a place willing to stand or fall on the strengths of a vegetarian selection, while also offering the olive branch of a single carnivore-friendly dish per menu. Plus it was tailor-made for this blog for the following reasons:
- It’s in an area that probably isn’t first on most people’s lists if they are thinking of going out to eat.
- Despite some glowing online reviews, surprisingly few people I know have heard of it.
- On paper it offers strong value for money, clocking in at £12.50 for two courses or £14.50 for three.
The Canteen itself is basic, functional and homely, sitting on a stretch of Clifton Street where most of its neighbours are chicken joints and late-night shops. The menu changes approximately every three weeks – owner / chef Wayne Thomas reckons this gives the small kitchen enough time to be effortlessly turning out dishes like a well-oiled machine, but not so much that they get bored with them.
As the new menu had just come on, I wondered if I would be in for a slightly hit-and-miss experience. What I got instead was probably the best meal out of my short time in Cardiff. Starters of gnocchi with squash and mushrooms, and a vegetable purse with onion jam and cucumber “noodles” were richly flavoured and of exactly the right size to take the edge off an appetite, without blunting the desire to stuff main courses into one’s face.
The solitary meat dish, a beef rendang, was an ace bit of slow-cooked comfort food and got dispatched accordingly. Sticky toffee pudding could have been a couple of degrees stickier but was sauced-up enough to make this only a teensy gripe.
If you’re after dining in refined surroundings or having swanky bars to move onto afterwards then Canteen might not float your boat. If however you want to eat adventurously and without slaying your pocket, I’d recommend a trip down Clifton Street.
The Chief, features hidden from the prying eyes of South Wales' restaurateurs
While kicking about ideas for starting this blog, I naturally looked around to see who was writing about food in Cardiff. Two of the most well-respected players I came across were Cardiff Bites and Tea and Biscuits.
To date I have only had email and Twitter contact with CB’s Nicki, but this week I had the chance to meet with T&B’s head honcho the Chief, who “hated going to restaurants, eating a bad meal and feeling there was nothing I could do about it – so I wanted to set up a site with content you could trust.”
When I asked the Chief his opinion of Cardiff as a place to eat out, he argued that while the city may not be stacked high with prestige joints, the number of quality budget to medium-priced eateries more than made up for this – “and how often can most people afford to go to a really high-end restaurant anyway?”
These are sentiments I’m inclined to agree with – I’ve got nothing against swanky dining, but have had way more disappointment at places where pretension stacks the expectations unreasonably high, whereas more basic, often local restaurants that are friendly & reliable have tended to be the ones I’ll go back to time and again.
Obviously my next move was to demand a list of Cardiff’s finest cheap eats. I got the following responses:
- Cafe Minuet: tiny Italian in Castle Arcade recently said farewell to long-term proprietor Marcello Genesi, but new owner Nadine Lodwick has apparently kept the fires of its “fantastically loyal following” burning.
- Chai Street: Mint & Mustard’s Indian street-food baby brother is “a bit more more straight-laced than VFS, but really, really good food – you can get lunch for five quid in there – and the breakfast is absolutely brilliant too.”
- Milgi: City Road’s boho hangout went 100% veggie last spring following a customer poll – “excellent platters for £5-6 – hummous, falafels, slice of pizza.”
- Kemi’s: a new one on me, this, at Craft In The Bay opposite the Millenium Centre – “cheap food often means unhealthy, but over there you can get a really beautiful slice of quiche, cous cous salad – a big plateful, too – for the price of a visit to the chippy.”