Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine
As readers of the blog will know, I have an enduring love affair with all things Spanish. The marvellous people, the amazing food and the stunning wines all draw me back time after time.
I go to Spain every year (Bilbao, Donostia San Sebastian, Cadiz and Sevilla this year) and one of the pleasures of eating out there is the asador restaurants that you find all over the Country.
In Spain, in particular the North, the art of grilling meat, seafood and vegetables over an open flame, with the kiss of smoke, has been honed to perfection.
Places like Asador Etxebarri (in Pais Vasco where – before I started this blog – Mrs SF and I had, as part of their tasting menu, a wonderful bit of beef)
and El Capricho (in Leon – yet to make it there but maybe next year) are rightly viewed by many as up there with the world’s very best restaurants (Asador Etxebarri is No 10 in the current list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), particularly when it comes to a chargrilled piece of beef.
In such places the fat old cow is king. Steaks come from stock far older than is the case in the UK. They are often ex-milkers (Asturian and Basque beef steaks) which are slaughtered at 9-10 years or older (can be as old as 17 years). These tubby silver grazers suffer the same age related spread as us people do and put on fat as they get older. As everyone knows, where there is fat there is flavour.
Galician Blond (Rubia Gallega) beef (from old bullocks – castrated males – rather than ex-milkers) to me is the absolute pinnacle of the steak world and has to be served rare to be properly appreciated.
The stuff is seriously pricey as the investment, by the farmer, is a 10 year plus one (nothing productive come from a castrated male during that period – it is effectively a pet which has to be feed, watered etc.) and then after it is slaughtered the meat is dry aged which means a much better flavour but weight loss in terms of the meat.
The waiting time and weight loss makes it very expensive to produce and thus it sells at a premium price, but the end product is so worth it. Very few things are better than a rare hunk of flame grilled Rubia Gallega beef and a cracking bottle of wine.
On the wine front, really good wine works best with simple food where there are no unusual combinations of flavours for it to contend with. A really good red wine goes brilliantly with a really good beef steak.
The food and style of cooking of the asador restaurants in Spain is ideally suited to being paired with top quality wines.
Asador Rekondo in Donostia San Sebastian excels on this front. With an incredible cellar of over 155,000 bottles, it allows for my wine fantasies to be fulfilled at surprisingly reasonable prices.
The voluminous wine list there gives the ability to perfectly pair wines with the open flame grilled meats, fish and shellfish on their menu.
The best asador restaurants in Spain offer a combination of fantastic grilled meats and seafood and great wine.
In short (I never am), I like to think from my travels around Spain that I know a good asador restaurant when I see one.
This bring me to Asador 44, the latest venture from the brothers behind the hugely successful Bar 44. Based very much on a “high end” Spanish asador, it brings to Cardiff the promise of classic Spanish flavours (including the rightly coveted Jamon Iberico Bellota, Rubia Gallega beef and Carabinero prawns – some of Spain’s most generous gifts to the Word of food) and top quality wines.
The opening has seemed a long time coming, with tantalising glimpses of the place, the food and the wine on social media (proper food porn stuff on their Instagram feed). In reality they fitted out the place in double quick time.
I was lucky enough to have a sneaky early peek of the place at a rather fine sherry tasting event tutored by Beltran Domecq (the President of the Consejo Regulator in Jerez – what he doesn’t know about sherry simply ain’t worth knowing) and then to bag a table for their soft opening. Mrs. SF was unfortunately working (doggies – not just ours – to look after) so J (with almost unseemly speed) agreed to step into the breach.
In the kitchen, the centre piece is a mighty charcoal fueled grill (asador translates to grill in English) that could have been a special commission for Tomas de Torquemada, with an extractor fan that looks like it is built to suck the air right out of your lungs (Tomas may well have been quite keen on that as a concept too).
I love the fact that the grill is visible to the diners via a glass partition – makes for a nice bit of theatre.
If that wasn’t good enough they have a proper walk in wine room with both racking and Eurocave cabinets (rather jealous as it puts my “wine room” at home somewhat to shame)
a cheese room
and a dry aging (as it should be – wet aged beef, which is a process where the meat just sits in a vacuum packed bag of its own blood, is a pale imitation of the proper dry ageing process) fridge for the beef.
Inside it is lovely – high end classy, in a pleasantly understated (rather than flashy) way.
I really like the inside. It makes for a rather fine, but relaxed, dining space.
The menu reads like a list of my all time favourite foods (the only thing perhaps missing is chuletillas – baby lamb chops that are, in La Rioja, grilled over fires made from vine twigs) and just looking at it in advance of my visit had me salivating uncontrollably.
They was also a fish special (that looks excellent value at £15)
with the promise of a wider choice going forward. If I hadn’t been totally fixated on the steaks, I would have gone for the (cooked rare) Presa Ibérico – gorgeous stuff or the pulpo on the menu – all of which would be fab coming off that grill – or a roasted leg of milk feed lamb So plenty of stuff on the menu for those not eating beef, but hulking great chunks of beef steak was what J and I were there for.
To kick off proceedings, it would have been rude not to have a plate of Jamon Ibérico (a staple of every asador restaurant in Spain). Here what is on offer is pretty much the crème de la crème of cured meats in the form of Cinco Jota 100% Bellota (£16 a portion). Made from black footed pigs that spend happy lives rooting around the dehesa in Jabugo (in the Northern of part of Huelva Province in Andalusia) this stuff is right up there with the world’s most exquisite food products (and priced accordingly).
This did not disappoint. The smell was intoxicating and the taste – just wow. I have tasted many a quality Jamon Ibérico in Spain and this was right up there with the very best. The flavour packed fat melted the second it hit the tongue and the meat provided a wonderfully nutty, umami hit.
Glorious stuff and worth every penny in my view. Whilst £16 (for what is not a massive a portion) will be seen by many as very pricey, a leg of Cinco Jotas 100% Bellota retails at around the €600 mark (which puts the price here in context I think).
Next up were the starters and I couldn’t resist the Carabinero prawn (market price – £16 each on day of visit).
This red beauty was probably the best prawn I have ever tasted and I would argue far superior to a lobster. The juices and brains sucked out of the head were simply sublime. In effect, it comes with its own in-built bisque. A true king in the world of crustaceans.
J and I had tacitly agreed to share the starters but she didn’t get a look in on my (yes mine, all mine) Carabinero. She looked on with increasing horror as I sucked the head dry, with at one point some of the precious prawn brain juice shooting everywhere (immediately sucked off my shirt sleeve by me as I wasn’t wasting any of it).
J went for the seared spiced tuna and avocado (£9).
She loved dish this. Top quality tuna seared to perfection with a lovely bit of spicing and a mellow avocado cream. Really nice, clean flavour to this dish.
For the main event we were only going to have a slab of the Rubia Gallega. In this case a 1.09kg piece (£93 – the smallest bit left at the time we ordered) from the hand cut choices on offer
A phenomenally tasty bit of beef, with that rich umami flavour that only dry ageing and slaughtered old cattle brings to the table.
Cooked à point for me (without any instruction from me to the kitchen), it had a gorgeous exterior crust and a ruby red interior. Fantastic depth of flavour to this meat – what you alway dream beef should taste like. We were told we could have a doggy bag for any left overs, but there was never any danger of that being needed!!
Best beef I have had in the UK, including places like Hawksmoor (where pricing is comparable for the premium cuts).
The menu does refer to sauces (£3) and butters (£2) you can add. Whilst they all sound very nice, my advice is don’t be tempted to add these to the Rubia Gallega or Lomo Baja steaks on the menu. The beef is all you want to taste with these steaks, with nothing to detract from that in my humble opinion.
Sides on offer (2 come in with the price of Rubia Gallega) provide lots of interest. We went for the blood orange, pine nut and fennel salad, which brought a welcome hit of acidity to proceeding, acting as a nice counterpoint to the super rich beef, and some of their olive oil house fries (nice, but perhaps lacking the wow factor of the blood orange side we had).
When a place has a cheese room it would be churlish not to add a cheese course and the deal was sealed by the really interesting list of Spanish cheeses on offer. Great to see unpasteurised (raw) cheeses on offer here
We went for 5 (£12) in the form of Luna Negra, Ermesenda, Villarego, La Peral and Cabrales.
A lovely selection of perfectly ripe hard, soft and blue cheeses, with great accompaniments. The star of the show for me was a really funky and pungent Cabrales (the blue on the far right of the plate). Not for the faint hearted that cheese.
We decided to share a pudding from a rather intriguing selection
All were very tempting but we quickly decided on the arroz con leche (£7 ), a rice pudding croqueta with poached figs and a lovely, slightly tart, green apple puree.
Sophisticated comfort food that finished off an epic meal rather beautifully.
As an absolute Spanish wine obsessive, I was beyond excited to get a first look at the wine list. Much had been promised as to its content (tantalising hints on twitter and Instagram) and it most certainly delivers.
On the night there was a “limited” list on offer,
but I managed to get hold of the full list and they were happy for me to ordered a red off that on the night.
Cracking selection from all corners of that wonderous wine country that is Spain (not exclusively Spanish though, with a smattering of stuff from outside Spain such as an intriguing US albarino and a rather good Welsh fizz).
Nice to see stuff rarely found in the UK, like a Vino de la Tierra de Cadiz in the form of Huerta de Albala Barbazul (a red wine I very much enjoyed in Jerez last year) and the very hard to get hold of Tintilla de Rota de Finca Moncloa (a highly prized sweet wine).
They also have some amazing bits of wine kit in the form of a Eurocave wine bar 8.0 and a coravin (I have one of the latter and it is a brilliant gadget) which allows the wine in bottles – once opened/accessed – to be preserved.
This means wines by the glass without the risk of the remainder of the wine in the bottle spoiling. Less wastage means (at least in theory) lower costs and the ability to offer a much wider choice by the glass. As a result, they have a great selection of wines by the glass at Asador 44.
With the Jamon Ibérico, we sipped a rather fine glass of Callejeula manzanilla (£5.5). Lovely briney seaside and almond flavours that worked beautifully with the umami rich, nutty, Jamon Ibérico.
With my Carabinero I had a glass of biu de Sort, a riesling (with a touch of viognier in the mix) from Costers de Segre (£8) up by the Pyrénées.
Slightly off dry with citrus (dried lime) flavours and a whiff (on the nose) of petrol (I know it sounds odd but, trust me, in a riesling it is a good thing), this worked beautifully as a foil for the prawn (particularly the superlative juice in the head).
J had a glass of a rather good albarino (£5.50) with her tuna dish. Nice peachy notes from this wine.
The steak we had deserved a really good red and there was plenty on both the “on the night” list and the main list to suit all budgets – which starts at a very reasonable £19 and goes all the way up to a gulp inducing £290. I choose (from the main list) that stalwart of the traditional Rioja scene, a Vina Tondonia. In this case a bottle from the excellent 2004 vintage (£65), as the 1976 (tempting as it was) was a bit beyond our collective budget (it is the £290 wine on the list) for the night (plus Mrs. SF – a big fan of Vina Tondonia wines – would have never forgiven me for drinking a wine like that without her).
This had lovely notes of leather and vanilla on the nose, with red fruits, spice and a gorgeous meatiness as it persisted on the palate. A great pairing with the Rubia Gallega.
Still a baby for a Vina Tondonia (these wines are built to age) this was drinking well now, but will age (I think) nicely over the next few decade at least.
Came in a gorgeous glass – so thin it was almost ethereal.
Perhaps a touch pricey at £65 (it generally retails in the UK at the late £20/early £30 mark, but I am picking it up currently at Costco for just shy of £20 inc. VAT – snap it up for that price is my advice as is a real bargain for a wine of this quality), but a really lovely drop.
To go with the rather challenging (wine wise) cheeses (pungent blue cheeses like the Cabrales are tricky to pair as they simply overpower most wines), sherry is generally your man in such cases and we had (on the sommelier’s recommendation) a lovely Vallapanes oloroso seco (£10 a glass) from Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo. Figs, vanilla and spicy on the nose, with a touch of peppery heat, walnuts, hazelnuts and burnt caramel, but still dry, on the palate
This worked brilliant with a cheeses, although even it struggled a bit with the Cabrales which probably needed the uber sweet yin of a Pedro Ximenez (PX) to the Cabrales’ sour and salty yan. PX soaked raisins on the plate assisted on that front.
Last up, with our pudding, we fancied a sweet wine and again we went with a recommendation from the sommelier.
He came up with a lovely fragrant and refreshingly grapey Moscatel (£4 a glass) from Navarra. Not too sweet, it was a fine pairing with the rice pudding croquetas.
Fergus Muirhead, the sommelier, is a real catch for Asador 44. Really knows his stuff and was spot on with his recommendations. Was a real pleasure to chat to him about wine in general and sounds like he has some really interesting plans and some fabulous new stuff by the glass on the cards (Alion – a fantastic wine from the people behind Vega Sicilia – being one if I heard correctly). People who are unsure, wine wise, in terms of what to order are in safe and very capable hands here.
This post relates to a visit which was on one of their soft opening nights, so we got 50% off the food (drinks were full price). The bill on this basis, all in with the many wines we had (ex. the tip), was just over £193.
I know that sounds a lot (especially with the discount), but we were total and utter pigs and really went to town on the booze front (booze made up £120 of the bill – shameful I know!) so pushed it well passed the norm by some margin.
Did the fact that I got 50% off the food colour my opinion? Probably, it is difficult to argue that fabulous food at half price doesn’t makes me happier than self same food at full price.
The thing is though the food was so good that I would have happily paid full price (probably would have toned it down a bit on the wines mind). Best steak I have had in the UK and up there with some of the best I have had in Spain. From me that is praise indeed.
Worth the full menu price – absolutely – and there is plenty on offer other than the admittedly pricey Rubia Gallega (premium products invariably come at a premium price and that stuff is well pricey even in Spain – as it is so expensive to produce).
It’s not cheap, but you don’t have to go mad like J and I did and for the quality I think it is fair value for money.
On the wine front, the list is a lovely thing. Lots of interest in all areas and at all prices. If you are unsure put your trust in Fergus, the sommelier, he will see you right.
Service was excellent throughout. Our server got it just right in terms of being knowledgable and friendly without being obtrusive. I really like that. Well deserving of the tip we gave.
I spied that they have a fixed prix (£10 – £9 for veggie option) lunch menu, which looks really good value. I shall certainly be taking full advantage of that.
Would I go back? Try and stop me – will (diaries permitting) be booking for lunch this week.
To me it is pretty much the perfect blend of fantastic food and fabulous wine. A marvellous place and just what Cardiff needs. It has well and truly raised the restaurant ‘steaks’ in Cardiff.
Bravo Asador 44.
I have been back for lunch and can confirm it is top notch and a real bargain for a tenner.
Great (super tender and great flavour) 40 day dry aged picanha steak (with a nice salad – very good dressing) and a lovely bit of beautiful cooked hake were what our party of 5 ordered 4 steaks and one fish) Other options were a mackerel dish and a veggie number.
Nice selection also of interesting soft drink for a work day lunch.
Square Root stuff is really interesting (in a good way).
Already booked in again for lunch next week.
Address : Quay St. Cardiff, CF10 1EA
Website: click here
Twitter : @asador44
Opening hours: Weds – Sat : 12.00 – 15.00 (last orders) & 18.00 – 22.00 (last orders); Sun: 12.00 – 15.00 (last orders); close Mon – Tues.
Reservations are through an online platform accessed via their website – very easy to use.