My best Soliciting (Flavours) of 2021.

So to my round up of my year of eating.  It has been another stop – start year with the plague shutting down or seriously curtailing hospitality for much of the first half of the year and then the constant threat of restrictions hanging over hospitality’s heads for the remainder.

So as we enter a new year we are back  a(bloody)gain to playing snakes and ladders with no ladders and snakes on seemingly pretty much every square!!!  I pity the poor sods in the hospitality sector in Wales with the new rules in play.

If Omicron is as transmissable as they are saying it is, I don’t quite understand how any of the new rules are anything other than pure window dressing?

I mean rules that limit the number of people who can watch a rugby game outside to 50 max, but then allow the same game to be watched by far more inside in the club house makes perfect sense!

A case of “Let’s do something, anything – as long as we are seen to be doing something“.

The phrases “Lex malla, lex nulla and “lex iniusta non est lex’ (“a bad law is no law” and “an unjust law is no law at all” – St. Thomas Aquinas) seem to me to be so very pertinent to the situation we find ourselves in.

Notwithstanding our Lords and Masters continuing display of a mixture of the Corporal Fraser and Corporal Jones mentality, hospitality is still here (hanging on for grim bloody death mind) and I actually enjoyed a surprising amount of good food in 2021 (all in the UK – not been abroad for seemingly donkey’s years due to the donkeys in charge here).

Anyhow, pushing the constant doom and gloom/Chicken Little “the sky is falling” to one side, here are a few of the favourite thing I ate in 2021.

Best meat dish

Lots of contenders, including a cracking chicken dish with morels and vin jaune sauce (the sauce was otherworldly good) at Noble Rot in Soho (review to follow in due course)

and a childhood adversion reversing tripe dish

at Bao Noodle shop in Shoreditch (review again to follow in due course, probably).

The one, however, that lingered longest on the taste buds was a fabulous slow roasted shoulder of Aragon mountain lamb at (the very underrated) La Cuina.

The beauty of this bountiful shared dish was its simplicity, with the quality of the meat on show in all its slow cooked majesty. Jammed packed full of flavour, it was just a joy to eat.

La Cuina is a gem of a restaurant. No idea why it seems to be off a lot of people’s radar when it comes to eating out in Cardiff, but those in the know know and those that don’t should really acquaint themselves with the place.

Best fish dish

A trip to Cornwall brought a positive drift net of fishy delights, with a highlight being a lovely hake au vin dish (an interesting riff on the French classic) at Kota in Porthleven, Cornwall.

Closer to home a fabulous gurnard (hugely underrated fish) dish (in a decadently rich crab bisque) wowed at the ever reliable Uisce/Heaneys

and 40 days and 40 nights by Lee Skeet introduced me to the buttery delights of blue fin tuna otoro.

The clear piscine winner, however, was a stunning cod dish at the same 40 days and 40 night.

Spankingly fresh cooked on point fish, with a lusciously meaty jus spiked with two tone roe, this dish just sang quality.

I prayed to the Gods that this culinary genius would find a permanent base in Cardiff and my prays have been answered.

Absolutely fantastic news.

Best Burger

Lockdowns brought the offerings of a number of nationwide burgers operators into play, without the need (or, at times, the ability) to leave my house.

I very much enjoyed making up burger kits (and like to think I did a pretty good job, freed from “rare burger = zombie apocalypse” H&S contraints) from Bleecker,

and Hills of Brecon,

both of which were top notch.

The clear winner and closer to home (and one I didn’t have to eat at home, although I did in one instance) was an absolute belter of a cheese burger from Ansh in Victoria Park, Cardiff.

Beautifully simple, with top quality meat from Oriel Jones, exuding that all to rare taste of proper dry aged beef (luscious fat and all). This made for my best burger not just this year, but for many a year.

It looks like you can eat in doors in the place now (a boon with winter having arrived) so my advice is do so pronto.

The place being dog friendly very much puts the icing on the cake for me.

It has become a rather bitter sweet place for me, regrettably, as it was the last place (to eat out) I took my beloved little border Pip before a few weeks later she unexpectedly passed away. RIP my gorgeous little girl😪.

She did have a lovely time at Ansh, with all the fuss she got, so that is the thing to remember about it (and the fab food) and Oscar would certainly be happy to go back.

Best h(eat) at home

When we were in the mist of yet more lockdowns, h(eat) at home offerings took on great importance to me. The aforementioned burgers pleased me no end and the Franks’ home kit was a doggy delight.

I also really enjoyed putting the finishing touches to top notch baos from Bao in London

and roti canai (dhal and chicken curry), satay and mee gorang from, another London favourite, roti king (not got round to a post on that, but the next lockdown maybe 😬).

The winner for me, however, was a bit of Americana filth in the form of a wings and cheesesteak bundle from Passyunk Avenue in London

It is hard to say what made it so satisfying, but the mix of quality thinly sliced ribeye steak, gooey cheese and bread that is the Philly Cheesesteak is one of fast foods’ greatest and filthest creations. Add to that fried wing with a blue cheese sauce and you have yourself pure food filth.

The ability to get stuff like this, which is not really an option in Cardiff (at least at the moment), delivered to my door from further afield is perhaps one of the small upsides of the Covid shxtshow.

Best Sarnie

Whilst the humble sarnie is the lunch of choice for many (just look at the queue for Fresh in Cardiff City centre if you want validation of this), I don’t tend to buy a lot of sandwiches.

When I do buy a sarnie, I like to go large and the grilled cheese sarnies at Ffloc in Canton fit that bill rather nicely.

Lovely favours and a super gooey cheese blend made for a top notch sarnie

Good as the Ffloc sarnies are, my top sarnie was an outstanding reuben in the most unlikeliest of settings in the form of Scruffy Pups dog cafe in Llanrummny.

Big chunks of beautifully cured salt beef, swiss cheese, saurkraut, pickles and Russian dressing, all encased in toasted bread with more pickles on top. Heavenly stuff!

Best bargain

The cicchetti in Bacareto provided me with bar food par exellence, with the £1 price tag for the panelle in particular an absolute steal.

The best bargain, however, was real deal Thai food at (the hole in the wall) Malai on Caroline Street.

£6.99 (at an extended, 7 days a week, lunch time) for a fantastic plate of flavour packed Thai food and a bottle of water to boot is not to be sniffed at.

Cracking food, at a very t(ha)idy price.

Best newcomer

In these difficult times for hospitality, it is a brave person who opens up a new place and oddly I have not made it to some of the high profile ones such as Brother Thai and Kindle.

The champagne and oyster bar at the Heathcock was one of those that I did get to and it is way more than just champagne and oysters,

Milkwood reborn as a vibrant cafe was also a delight,

with some cracking brunch dishes.

Another new place I got to was Bacareto and what a bar it is with its replication of the classic bacaris of Venice, as well as more substantial meals.

You can sit at the bar solo or in a booth with friends gorging on cicchetti and good wine or eat something more substantial in the restaurant.

Exactly my sort of place, with it instantly became one of my firm favourites in Cardiff and thus my top newcomer.

Ben fatto, ben fatto davvero, Mr. Atkins!

Best overall meal

A fabulous summer tasting menu at the Heathcock,

and a great meal at La Cuina

were both contenders in this category.

The winner, however,  is the absolutely brillant meal put together by Lee Skeet for his 40 Day and 40 Nights pop up.

Every dish a pearler and together just wonderful. How this was done by one guy with limited equipment in a pokey kitchen rather than a fully equiped state of the art kitchen and a full brigade is beyond me. Man is a miracle worker, no two ways about it.

The verdict

Despite the many trials and tribulations hospitality has had to and continues to contend with, I still managed to eat very well in 2021.

The resiliance of the sector has been something to behold, with the latest brick(infected)bat being Omicron (team and firm Christmas dos were cancelled in December, as I suspect were many, many others – although I can’t say I felt any great loss at either of mine being cancelled if I am honest – due to this).

I take my hat off to all the lovely, hard working, people who have again fed me so well this year and I really feel for people in the sector having to contend with stuff like this again.

I mean how on earth can you plan in such an environment !! Death by a 1000 cuts!

Here’s hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel, with Omicron hopefully breaking the link between cases and hospitalisation. If that is the case you would hope that the authorities will finally allow life to return to a semblance of normality.

So what to look forward to in the new year? F’ff all it seems generally, but on the food front there is (the aforementioned) Cora by Lee Skeet – sure to be the opening of the year,

the interesting Glass of Bandol (don’t mind if I do – Tempier if you please)  wine bar in Whitchurch ( with its fancy self pour wine offering) and Sopra 73 to look forward too. A roti canai at Kafe Makasih for breakfast also appeals greatly, with them setting down roots in Cathays. 

Hopefully I will get to Kindle (£50 crowd funding reward still to pick up – handy if yet more restrictions are imposed), Neighbourhood Kitchen, Nordic Kitchen and Brother Thai (I may be the only person in Cardiff who still hasn’t been to any of these – what a “finger on the pulse” blogger I am).

On the wine front, the Mystere Wine Club is back to online tasting (boo) due to social distancing and the rule of six. Hopefully not for long though, as the schedule is as strong as ever,

but we have honed the process to a well oiled distribution machine so we will prevail for as long as it takes!

God knows what 2022 will bring, with the “megaminds” in charge of our fates, but I hope it is as good on the food front as 2021 (the rest of 2021 can bloody well get in the bin).

Hospitality is no doubt in for a torrid time, so support your local bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants as much as you can. We need them to still be there when the Covid shxtshow finally ends.

In the short term, my first meal out in 2022 will be today at Bar 44 for their fabulous Sunday lunch – can’t wait!

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