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.”
Ready for takedown: the delights of Mowgli's
Someone with a little more flair for design than me could almost certainly knock up a nice visual illustrating locations of Cardiff curry houses while referencing the class system.
Sitting pretty on the city’s southside as the undisputed leader of the proletariat is the Vegetarian Food Studio, featured on this blog back in October. Head a few miles north to Heath, and Anand George’s aristocratic South Indian experience Mint & Mustard dominates the spice landscape.
Drop back townwards into the ever-so-slightly more urban surroundings of Roath and Cathays, and a wave of new-money upstarts can be found. The likes of Punitha’s and Mowgli’s have adopted some of M&M’s fine dining trappings, while knocking out meals that don’t dictate you eat there within seconds of being paid.
Of course, value for money isn’t just about price, so all this is only relevant if the eating is any good. I went to Mowgli’s, nestling on Crwys Road in the student heartlands, when my brother came to visit recently, and was impressed. The restaurant itself is functional rather than swank, but there’s very little wrong on the food front.
Mowgli’s Shahi Keema Momo delivered a fine version of one of my favourite dishes, minced lamb cooked with peas and flavoured with curry leaves – not too heavy or fatty and with complex spicing and just the right level of heat (though don’t expect to finish it without getting a sweat on). A platter of starters was also on the money, honey glazed paneer and excellent mixed kebabs offsetting one another well.
On this occasion I confess to breaking the Bare Grills tenner-a-head limit just slightly, but I’d have to say it was worth it.