Have you felt the pain of favourite restaurant loss? You find that place, it’s reasonably priced, you love the food, it feels comfortable and the staff are friendly. They get to know you and do your favourites just how you want them. You start having birthdays and anniversaries there. Each visit is like easing into a favourite armchair, reaffirming that life-is-good feeling.
Then suddenly, one day it’s all over. Your favourite eatery has passed on, changed owners or moved beyond reach. First world problem you may say but the bubble has burst, your rituals are shattered, your quality of life has been affected and now you have to start kissing toads again to find your next prince.
It may seem strange to start our blog by reviewing a restaurant that could have become such a place, had it not been lost almost as soon as we’d found it. But the story doesn’t end there.
Arbennig sat on a hotspot site that has hosted many a respected restaurant, Quails bistro run by Irene Canning is the oldest one we can remember on the list. John Cook was in the kitchen there for four and a half years, launching in 2014 and it had been on our must-try list for way too long. When they tweeted to say they were closing down, we acted immediately, ripped up the diary and went.
The site had a Bohemian air and the novelty of being able to park your car right in front of the window; good clutch control required if you didn’t want to be horribly embarrassed. Inside was a wide, two level atrium and from the top level you got to peer over the windows’ frosting to spy on Pontcanna street life.
From the lunch menu and the a la carte combined, there were two vegetarian starters, great for a pair like us who always want to try what the other is eating; Vegetable tempura and “Gem lettuce, pear, beetroot, aged feta, honey buttermilk, buckwheaties”. The last item, we were told, were toasted grains of buckwheat.
As soon as M. NotLeafy bit into the tempura he bemoaned not trying John Cook’s food sooner. It was a nest of thin onions and samphire that shattered in crunchy umami in the mouth, like eating just the crispy bits of an onion bhaji with the brown bits of griddled samphire. Underneath was a small amount of the smokiest aubergine puree & curds, providing just enough moisture to offset the dry crunch without making it soggy.
The lettuce was a dish that just kept on giving. Mme.’s verdict was “Mmm oh the pear goes well with, mmm and the feta and, mmm oh that dressing, mmm and the crunchy buckwheat gives it a mmm” (or similar, there were probably more mmms). What stood out was a really intriguing bitter, ashy flavour, which we found out from Ollie, our extremely informed server, was ground up nigella seed. This was so much more than a lettuce and pear salad.
Supping the glasses of excellent house wine we debated whether mains would be as exciting or do they just pack the punch in the starters? There was only one veggie main; Potato gnocchi , spring greens, soft poached egg, crispy kale.
We might be vegetarians but we don’t call ourselves NotLeafy for nothing. Kale is not a favourite of ours. Mme., who grew up in a home where you didn’t have to eat your greens, is more averse than M. NL but even he finds the stuff can just get bigger in your mouth and cling desperately to your teeth to avoid being swallowed. We need not have feared though; here is a chef with whom Kale is safe. Properly crisp and with an edge of that chinese “seaweed” flavour that characterises bubble and squeak, this kale was delicious but didn’t steal the limelight from the gnocchi. These were not the fluffy, cloudy boiled variety but robust, browned in butter; crisp outside, plump within.
Mme. requested her poached egg yolk just set and the kitchen obliged with precision, M. was able to use his as a sauce but both worked equally well. The whole sat on a bed of braised cabbage and there was more of the salty feta scattered over.
Tucking in, you began the same journey as with the gem lettuce; lots of flavours, lots of textures, each mouthful changing depending on what combination you put on the fork, little surprises, everything balanced, egg adding a good protein foil to the carbs and leaves. And then there was the cabbage; the vegetable you can smell within several kilometres radius of an NHS kitchen, the vegetable that has been abused throughout the British Isles for centuries and the cause of almost as much suffering as sprouts. This couldn’t be cabbage could it? It was cooked but yet firm, tasted fresh, clean and not cabbagey (if that makes sense). We ate every last morsel.
For our final course, we chose carrot cake dessert and pineapple coconut frangipane. The former was the love child of carrot cake and sticky toffee pudding. Delicately spiced, its carroty sweetness was offset with a clever crème fraîche sorbet. The frangipane flavours are a great idea and married brilliantly with ice cream. We washed both down with a Chilean dessert wine, a new experience for us – and a happy one.
So, as the meal came to an end, we felt simultaneously the joy of discovery and the pain of loss. It would never be a familiar favourite and we’d no idea if there’d be any further chance to taste food from a chef who really knows how to make outstanding vegetarian food. Boo hoo!
Fortunately this story has a happy ending. Apart from Arbennig’s closure being delayed and our managing to squeeze in another meal (this time including the excellent triple cooked chips) we learned that Tommy Heaney of The Great House & Great British Menu fame was going to be the next owner. Further joy was to be had when we discovered that John & Ceri Cook were embarking on a new adventure in the form of DIRT, a popup with exclusively vegetarian food!
So, as one chapter closed, a new one began. DIRT was a tremendous success and we had the pleasure of sampling many more of John’s dishes at three of the venues. Tommy Heaney successfully raised enough money through Kickstarter backers (including us) to refurbish and reopen the restaurant. We visited his pop-up next door and, later, the main restaurant and were mightily impressed with his vegetarian offerings which we’ll write up here.
It doesn’t stop there though. As we write this, John & Ceri have launched a new venture, EMBER, based at Llaeth a Siwgr/Milk & Sugar, their first DIRT venue and a favourite space of ours. Open on Fridays and Saturdays from 30th March, it follows a similar fixed course pattern but will be omnivore with a dedicated vegetarian menu. Our tickets are already in the bag! Meanwhile, Tommy Heaney is re-opening the venue next door as a more casual coffee and wine bar and, after years of procrastination, we’ve finally started a blog. Is there no end to all these great beginnings?
Want to go there?
Llaeth a Siwgr/Milk & Sugar,Yr Hen Lyfrgell/The Old Library,
Trinity Street, The Hayes, Cardiff CF10 1BH
Web & booking: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/ember-by-john-cook-19723499765
Opening hours: Friday & Saturday nights from 30th March 2019: 18.00-21.00
6-10 Romilly Crescent,
Pontcanna, Cardiff CF11 9NR
Tel: 02920 341264
Tuesday-Thursday: 11.30am – 11.00pm
Friday-Saturday: 11.30am – 12.00am
Sunday: 11.30am – 6.00pm
Next door: TBC