If I am honest Ely in Cardiff is not the first location I would consider in terms of places to eat out in Cardiff and thus the site/sight of a Japanese restaurant on Cowbridge Road West, as I drive out westward from my Llandaff base on the run up to Culverhouse Cross, rather intrigued me.
I have always had a soft spot for Japanese food, having (in my early years) been looked after by two Japanese au pairs (Chitomi and Yukiko, both of whom I dearly loved as a child – they use to bring me loads of nik naks from Japan and were both very kind to me).
One thing my mother was always keen on was introducing my sister and I to a variety of food when we were young and both Japanese au pairs use to like to cook Japanese food and feed me all sorts of weird (at the time, at least to me – this was back in the 1870s) things (mainly dried and seaweed) that they bought from trips back homes. I think they and the other au pairs (French, Italian and Spanish – still in contact with the latter and her family) really broadened my food horizons from an early ages and were probably the cataylst for my food obsession.
With that love of Japanese food, going to Don Don Yatai in Ely should have been a bit of a no brainer. It had taken me, as with most things, an eon to get there though.
Mrs. SF was pretty dubious and I didn’t fancy going on my lonesome (I dont mind dining solo, but this sort of food is often best shared). J, who rarely says no to food related trips, came to the rescue.
So to Don Don Yatai, which has a fairly low key exterior and interior, with muted blue tone the seeming theme. Not sure, if any, of the significance of this, but there was if anything a touch of the New England/Shaker feel (I can imagine Mr. SF guffawing at my design observations on reading this – she probably won’t) to the decor inside.
The menu is full of classic Japanese numbers such as raman, bento, donburi, sushi and sashimi.
I was intent on having eel in some guise or other, not just due to the Ely/Eel(y) pun title (one of my worst) but also because I am rather partial to eel and Japanese cuisine certainly tries to do justice to that rather fine fish.
J on the other hand was open mouthed in abject horror at the thought of eating eel. Despite my protestations as to “If you have never tried it how can you say you dont like it?” she was not for moving on sharing any eel.
We compromised (it was and will ever be thus) such that I could order an eel dish, but not one to share.
This satisfied my need for the fable eel, but provided plenty of option elsewhere
The menu here is very expansive, with maki and sushi platters plastered on the wall
a multitude of menus placed on your table,
and finally a double sided specials board.
It was all a bit sensory overload, with so many choices.
To aid deliberation, we decided to kick off proceeding with a bowl of endamame beans (£3.50).
These had a nice nutty sweetness to them and I find shelling them (indeed any legume) a rather satisfying experiance (good stress relief).
Always makes me chuckle when eating endamames, as it brings to mind a friend/work colleague (can’t remember who, as it was back in the dim and distant past when Japanese food was a real novelty here) bitterly complaining at how tough and unpleasant they were having tried to eat an unpodded one (oh how we laughed).
To get my eel fix, I had the grill eel temaki (£4.20).
Decent size portion of the grilled eel, with its rich, fatty, sweetness nicely offset by refreshing avocado (probably courtsey of El Chayo) and the salty nori. No idea why people turn their noses up at eel. Lovely fish if you ask me and seriously underrated in the UK (bar from perhaps in the East End of London – even I struggle a bit with jellied eel mind).
After J had finished turning her nose up at my eel temaki (a “Go on give it a go” from me was rebuffed, with extreme prejudice), a dish of scallop and tuna sushimi arrived.
The tuna (£6.20) was thick cut and none the worse for it, with a robust meatiness to it. Cracking with the soy and a dollop of the wasabi. The shredded daikon it sat on was nice, but would have benefited from a dressing. Whilst this tuna sashimi was not quite up there with Lee Skeet’s superlative otoro, it was pretty darn good all the same.
The scallop sashimi (£7.50) had a lovely sweet creaminess to it, with a delicate tidal flavour. Best with a squeeze of lime and a ribbon of ginger, as the wasabi (suitably nasal clearing) and soy overpowered it a tad.
Gyoza (£4.80, which compared very favourably price and flavour wise to those at Tokyo Night in Cardiff Market where they are £7.50 for 5) had that welcome crisp pot sticker bottom
and a good ginger heavy chicken filling.
There were rather moreish and I question why they come in fives when they are seemingly ideal for sharing. J and I briefly contemplated fighting over the last one, but she took pity on my gaunt/ half starved appearance 🙄.
Bit mean with the dipping sauce (for this, the sashimi and the temaki) I thought.
On to sort of mains (we wanted to try the full gamut of what they offered and I was bloody starving).
More out of curiosity than anything, I ordered the Gyudon (beef), with cheese (£9.50). Never really associated cheese with Japanese food and, if am honest, I remain unconvinced.
All the component parts were OK, with tender beef, sweet onions, stringy cheese and well cooked rice, but together it was all a bit bland (the sauce lacked pep and depth of flavour and I didn’t get the salty sweet hit I was expecting) and the cheese really did nothing for the dish. Perhaps this was an exemplary Gyudon with cheese, but if so it is not really for me. Not offensive, but rather all a little flat on the flavour front.
J’s Ebi Tonkotsu ramen (£14.50), on the other hand, really packed a flavour punch.
The broth was really layered in flavour, deep and rich from the long simmer of pork bones, but with a hit of shellfish bisque from the prawns.
Lovely stuff, with the only real downside being an oddly flavour neutral egg (much prefer Matsudai Ramen’s ajitama egg),
which had an undercooked white in the middle (one of J’s food phobias, along with eel) and no sweet soy seasoning. Had they ran out of the ajitama eggs and lobbed in a plan old boiled one I wonder.
Egg issues aside, I ate it regardless as J was gagging over the jelly element of the white, this was pretty good. I do, however, rate the (soon to open in Grangetown) Matsudai’s ramen slightly higher.
All in all an enjoyable meal, with mostly hits and just a couple of misses.
On the drinks front, the selection is short and sweet and on the face of the menu is booze free.
They do have a fair few sake, gin and whisky (and probably plum wine) bottles on display,
so not sure if that is an option if you ask (maybe they are just for show and they don’t have a licence, if so presumably BYO could be an option). We didn’t ask as J was driving and I am not that fussed on spirits at lunchtime in any event.
We both decided in the specials board Mango and apple iced green tea (£3.50).
Very refreshing with a rather pleasing tinned (a guilty pleasure of mine – probably from my grandma, who loved the man from Del Monte) peachiness to it.
If I was drinking wine with what we had I would have probably have gone for a gruner veltliner or a riesling (German). Japan itself has some decent wines, with the koshu grape making very pleasant white wines (quite aromatic, with floral and stone fruit notes) that pair well with Japanese food.
As with pretty much any food, there is a sherry to go with this type of food.
The current Tio Pepe en rama fino (still available at Mercado 44) would work a treat I reckon.
I rather enjoyed most elements of my meal at Don Don Yatai, which was rather embellished by J regaling me with some salacious gossip which had me sitting there open mouthed!! All very spicy stuff, I seemingly lead a very sedate life, which made up a bit for the lack of pep in my Gyudon.
Decent value too, with only the ramen breaching the tenner barrier,
The place is very pleasant and the food on the whole pretty good. We ate very well and sushi and maki platters that were delivered to other tables (I suffered serious food envy) all look very nice.
Certainly would return of a lunch time – they kindly gave me a voucher for a portion of gyoza.
A surprising, but rather welcome addition to the food scene out West in Cardiff.
Be aware payment is cash only, which is somewhat against the current trend towards cards only these days (a practice which has my father spitting feathers over in London). I found this out only when I foolishly tried to pay with Amex, having no cash on me at all, I mean who does these days? J once again came to my rescue, as she always seems to have bucket loads of cash on her.
On leaving J noticed there was a cashpoint a door or so down and there is always cashback at Aldi across the road (useful for parking).
Cash only businesses are increasingly seen as an anacronism by punters, so this may not be the wisest of moves in the long term (hope it is not symptomatic of a wider malaise).
Address: 128a Cowbridge Road West, Ely, Cardiff, CF5 5BT