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 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.”