Saint or sinner? Santiago’s Tapas bar & Restaurant, Cardiff

Santiago is Spanish for Saint James. So a place, on the site of Truffles (an establishment that had been operating in Cardiff ever since I can remember and I have lived here for over 30 years now), named as such should (hopefully) be rather saintly in terms of its offering.

Sad as it is to see the end of institutions such as Truffles, times change as do people’s habits and we can’t complain a place has gone when we rarely, if ever, frequented it. I shall miss it as it was one of the few places in town where me being there actually lowered the average age of the punters!!!

It is perhaps no surprise that the replacement is a tapas orientated place, with people seemingly more inclined to graze while drinking rather than simply getting sh#tfaced (although I haven’t been out in the city centre on a Friday night for eons to test this theory). An advance in our drinking habits I can very much relate to and wholeheartedly applaud.

A tapas bar/Spanish restaurant in Cardiff city centre is a brave move as we already have a very strong Spanish game in town. The likes of Asador 44, Bar 44 and Curado Bar are my favourite places to eat in the city centre and La Cuina, in Canton, has a loyal following (shamefully not got around to blogging about that place yet). Strong, well established, outfits as against a newbie means that it has to be good to survive in my opinion.

I note that they seem to centre on the word “authentic” on their website, which often sets alarm bells ringing in my head. Why do you need to say it? You either are or you aren’t. This sin (to my mind) is compounded by the reference on the website to them being the “Only place in Cardiff to experience an authenic Spanish dining experience ….” .

and by adding this on it website to reinforce it.

I respectfully beg to differ in terms of this statement, when we have Asador 44, Curado Bar, Bar 44 and La Cuina in Cardiff.

If I am honest this statement puts my back up a bit, as I think it is unfair and somewhat disingenuous. Hardly saintly and I see no justification for what appears to be a sly dig at other places (who I know are very good). Just let the food and drink do the talking I say.

Anyhow, a mate and I decided to give it a go to see what it was like.

Update: These statements have, subsequent to this post being initially published, been toned down on the website (wisely in my view) to the following:

These seem much more in keeping with what is on offer, Spanish food and drink wise, in Cardiff.

The Place

Inside it has more of a feel of a restaurant than a tapas bar. Much more a sit down affair and it doesn’t have (to my mind) anything like the appeal of Curado Bar or Bar 44 for tapas or Asador 44 for something more substantial

At least the threadbare banquettes of the old Truffles’ day have been consigned to the bin and in their place it is a more modern set up,

but they could have done with ditching the hideous ceiling tiles.

Our visit was on a Friday lunch time and it was far from buzzing.

The Food

On a first look at the menu the first thing that drew my “lawyer/pedant” eye was the reference to Pimentos de Padron being translated into Gernika peppers. To the best of my knowledge Gernika (in Pais Vasco) peppers are different from Padron (in Galicia) peppers – not least by dint of being separated by about 600 kms. They are also not simply the same pepper grown in different places, but rather distinct strains of pepper. So it is odd that they seem to have confused the two. We asked which they were – Padron or Gernika – and were told they were Padron (so menu edit required).

Second thing was where were the plates of meat (jamon, chorizo, lomo, salchichón, morcilla etc.) and cheese on the tapas menu. Jamon serrano only seems to feature in the bocadillo and starter parts of the menu and I don’t think I have ever come across a tapa bar in Spain (or indeed here) that doesn’t do plates of jamon serrano/iberico and the local cheese/manchego as a tapa. It seems if you want charcutería or cheese, options are limited to ordering a starter of jamon serrano at £6.50 (not cheap if it is bog standard stuff) or cheese as a dessert (unpriced).

We stuck to the tapas part of the menu, which to me seems to be lacking in invention. Classic tapas can be a joy if done well, but can be very beige if not (cold in the middle croquetas anyone).

but pretty much covers the basics (bar oldly charcutería or cheese).

This includes paella, which is a deceptively tricky dish to get right. I have had some awful ones, even in Spain. The key is using the correct rice (bomba) and cooking to achieve the required socarrat. Without the socarrat it is just a rice dish to me rather than a paella. As a result I found it odd that they not only do a full blown paella, but also a paella tapa.

We kept it relatively simple order wise, as I find the best way to test a places mettle is with the staples. In terms of tapas, these are the likes of tortilla, patatas bravas and, an old favourite, ensaladilla Rusa (a lost dear friend in Spain use to make a killer one), as well as croquetas and albondigas. If a tapas bar can nail these you can move on to the more complex stuff with a degree of confidence. If it can’t you may as well just move on.

First up was a tortilla (£4.90). When done well (but not well done) these are a joy, but if not they are bland and boring. It is one of those dishes where the whole can, but all too often isn’t, be so much greater than the sum of its parts.

The tortilla here lacked the oozing gooiness of a top quality one (such as the version at Bar Nestor in Donesta San Sebastion) and committed two “tortilla” sins. Firstly it was underseasoned (tortilla needs lots of salt in my opinion to stop it being bland) and secondly the larger chunks of potato used were a tad undercooked. I generally like al dente veg. but not an al dente potato.

Not a patch on the Bar 44 iteration of this classic

it came with a sad, little, undressed, salad garnish (pardon pepper stem added by me in case you were wondering).

Never understand the point of an undressed bit of leafage as a garnish – why bother.

No oil was provided on the table or bread to dip in it – standard in any tapas bar in Spain (I note that bread with oil is down as a starter on the menu at a whopping £3.90) – so I couldn’t even self administer a dressing.

Next were the patatas bravas (a pricey £4.95 for the portion size)

The patatas looked palid and undercooked, but were actually surprisingly crisp (and a decent amount of salt had been added). The brava sauce, however, was insipid looking and tasted as bland as it looked. Compared to Curado Bar’s offering (below)

it was rather wanting. Oddly on the bill they were down as papas arrugadas, which they most certainly were not.

As I mentioned earlier, I am a big fan of ensaladilla Rusa, which is a staple in the culinary repertoire of every Spaniard I know. It is a deceptively simple dish of chopped veg, potato, egg and mayo (usually with the addition of quality tinned tuna), which is easy to bugger up. Never the prettiest of dishes, here it was downright odd looking with it being covered in what seemed to be a mayonnaise that had failed to set properly when made (it looked alarmingly like custard).

It tasted OK (if again underseasoned), but lacked any distinct flavours and seem to have very little (if any) tuna in it. It was also all a bit mushy (I prefer the veg. – bar from any potato – to have a bit of bite to it). For what it was, I thought it was pricey at £5 50 especially as it was missing the picos that usually accompany this dish when ordered in Spain

The Padron peppers (£4.90) were nicely blistered and cooked well. They also had the essential quality (for a good Padron) of a bucket load of sea salt added to the mix.

We enjoyed these, but a hot one remains elusive (been eating them for 40 plus years and not had a fabled hot one yet).

The last dish we ordered was the albondigas (£4.95), which come with either a tomato or almond base sauce. We opted for almond.

Decent enough effort (one had already been snagged before picture taken), with a nice nuttiness to the sauce and plentiful seasoning. The meat in the albondigas was, however, was a bit fine grained for my liking

and in the absence of the sauce would have been a tad bland. The bread was very regulation and there wasn’t enough of it to mop up the quite nice sauce.

The Drink

On the booze front the wine list is all a bit sad, with little of interest for someone as into Spanish wine as me

Only a choice of 6 reds and 6 whites on offer by the bottle (only 3 of each by the glass) , with one being a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, another an Italian Pinot Grigio and two being Argentinian Malbecs.

On the reds, the Spanish wines are limited to a few riojas and one other from Castilla. Both riojas are quite nice wines, but Spain has such a diverse offering it is a shame they have ignore pretty much everywhere bar rioja (not unusual in Spain mind – where it is often rioja and whatever the local wine is and that is it). The mark up on the Lopez de Haro (£26) is high – it retails at around £5 – as is that on the Vina Alberdi (a good wine from the La Rioja Alta stable) – which you can get retail at just over a tenner if you are canny. Also if you are going to charge £38 (amazingly a quid more expensive than the 2009 of that wine is on the Park House Restaurant & Wine Bar’s fulsome list) for a wine I want to know (up front) what vintage it is. 2010 vintage was a much better than 2013 for instance – willing to bet the Alberdi here ain’t a 2010.

Not a sherry (one of Spain’s greatest treasures on the wine front) in sight on the list, which is just poor for an “authentic” Spanish place. Not as if they are tricky to get hold of, even if it is just a La Gitana Manzanilla and/or a Tio Pepe Fino (both very good value wines in my opinion).

Beers are similarly limited with the sole Spanish offering Estrella.

We have soft drinks which were expensive (£2.80 for fanta)

and there was no fanta limon or La Casera gaseosa.

Disappointingly limited offering on the booze front, especially when there is so much diversity on the wine front in Spain. What about Jerez, Toro, Ribera del Duero, Jumilla, Mencia, Priorat and Montsant to name but a few.

The Verdict

If I am honest the stuff we ate here was pretty bog standard. It reminded me a bit of La Tasca and what tapas in the UK use to be like 20 years ago (an inadvertent homage to Truffles perhaps?)

It is also not cheap with us paying over £30 for 5 not massive dishes and two soft drinks.

So at Santiago’s this lot costs £30 plus with two soft drinks

and this at Bar 44 (2 for £8 Express lunch menu) costs £24 with two glasses of sherry

I know which one I would go for.

I am afraid this place (despite its seeming boasts) doesn’t hold a candle to either Bar 44 or Curado Bar on the tapas front and I suspect the same is true in terms of a more substantial meal as against Asador 44 or La Cuina.

Would I go back? No, I don’t think so. Nothing we had on the tapas front excited and I see no reason to try any of the more complex/substantial stuff on the menu.

I saw a review that said they thought this place was the best tapas bar they had visited in the UK. Personally I think they need to visit a few more (Barrafina, José Pizarro, Brindisa and Copita in London, Paco Tapas, Pata Negra, Bar 44 and Bravas in Bristol, Levanter/Baratxuri in Ramsbottom and Ultracomida in Narbeth and Aberystwyth for starters and then add a good 50 plus others probably), as it ain’t even close. In Cardiff, Bar 44 and Curado Bar are far superior.

I wanted it to be really good – who doesn’t want another good Spanish restaurant in walking distance of their work – but if I had to sum it up in one word it would be “meh” or as the Spaniards would say “decepcionante”.

The Details

Address: 3 Church Street, Cardiff , CF10 1 BG.

Website: click here


Tel: 02920 226 666

Twitter: Don’t seem to be on it?

Instagram: @santiagostapas

Opening hours: Mon – Sun: 11.00 – 23.00


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s