by M. NotLeafy. Edited & proofread by Mme.
Occasionally I have the opportunity to dine at someone else’s expense while on business, but not usually in my home town. Luckily I have a regular business contact, Mr. K, who is a food aficionado but clearly not a devotee of Jason Rayner because he is based in the Bristol area, yet prefers to meet me in Cardiff and eat here.
To say that he always wants to go to Cafe Citta is not quite true but it’s close. It’s hard for me to raise the issue of going somewhere else though; I find the combination of homely atmosphere and accomplished Italian cooking just as addictive as he does. In a parallel universe I would haunt that place like some Hemingway character; drinking copiously, spinning out specials across the opening hours and telling tall tales to anyone who’d listen.
Determined not to get into a restaurant rut and give some of the other good places in town a try, I sowed a seed by emailing him a link to this post from that most dutiful and prolific of food bloggers, Soliciting Flavours. Where to get your next lunchtime fix! Five of the best fixed price lunch offers near Cardiff Central Station.
[Note: it is a genuine coincidence that we are mentioned in his blog this week!]
I admit to being a bit Machiavellian here, I knew Mr. K shared SF’s love of Spanish food and the culinary delights of Donostia San Sebastián, so I had to feign surprise when he replied that Asador 44 looked good (muhaha!). In fact, it worked so well that he fair hustled me to the restaurant slightly before they were due to open; a wise move, given that it was full about 15 minutes after we arrived.
We got a warm welcome and a decent table with a view of the open kitchen, though I would warn sensitive vegetarians that a selection of meats is kept in an on-show dry ageing cabinet to the right hand side of the restaurant, so you might want to ask for a table that doesn’t have them in your line of vision. Service was a bit quick off the mark but then you don’t want it slow at lunchtime and, since there is only one starter and one main course suitable for vegetarians on the fixed price lunch menu, I didn’t have to spend much time deciding. In fairness, I was also offered a veggie tomato salad variant for the starter.
A decent sized list meant the wine decision took us a bit longer. I am woefully clueless about Spanish wines and relied on Mr. K’s knowledge, but we had to go for his second choice, a Garnacha /Syrah mix, as they’d run out of the Navarra he’d originally opted for. It was nicely fruity and mellowed well when the air got to it, though had enough punch to cope with the robust food flavours.
Food-wise, he chose the Manteca terrine and the steak, which he said were both great and very good value. I can vouch for his chips; (they no longer season them with jamón salt), they were crunchy, soft and sweet with olive oil. Best of all, he couldn’t finish them.
Starters knocked my socks off.
Beautifully dressed diced beetroot was zingy, fruity and absolutely loaded with umami. It was dotted with a hazelnut and soft cheese mix, a winning variation on the usual beet/cheese combination that we will definitely copy at home. It was crowned with a garnish similar in texture to prawn crackers, made with tapioca and also flavoured with beetroot. Coriander micro-herbs and a generous glug of first class olive oil topped off this truly fine-dining experience.
My veggie main was charred Navarra chick pea cake with spiced aubergine, and it was also a stunner.
The cake itself was a texture similar to polenta but made with chick pea flour to give a less grainy and slightly bouncy texture, a thoroughly novel experience. It was well seasoned and captured that taste quality that somehow makes them “garbanzos” rather than just chick peas. It was presented on a base of sauce made with pimentón which I love but can easily turn your whole dish into a face full of camp fire. This one was nicely smokey but well reined-in and you could taste the underlying paprika, I expect some of the smoke was coming from the cake’s cooking method as well.
The spiced aubergine was not easy to spot but I assume was part of the chick pea garnish which was a taste and texture delight; herby & spicy, parts of it were soft, other parts crispy-fried, a perfect counterpoint to the soft, nutty cake. A nice detail was that tomato, it wasn’t just any old tomato… The firmness of the core, the sweetness and richness made me think it was direct from Spain, but Bar 44, their sister restaurant, uses fruit from The Tomato Stall in the Isle of Wight. Whichever, it was a quality ingredient that made me want to try that tomato salad I turned down, or a pan con tomate (hint hint).
Neither of us fancied the fixed menu dessert of the day. I should qualify that statement, what was on the carte dessert menu was even more seductive. Santiago tart is something I can’t resist and this was a fine example, served with a delicate orange ice cream and a grilled peach slice that offset the richness of the egg and almonds, worth a pilgrimage in itself.
Mr K. had the chocolate gazpacho dessert and the grin on his face was very wide. I tasted the light, soupy sauce and was impressed by how much chocolate flavour was packed into it.
All in all this was a very pleasant surprise, my interest had been piqued by good reviews and pictures but I hadn’t expected the veggie cooking to be so refined and clever, plus the lunchtime menu is a steal for this standard of cooking. What’s on offer to those who don’t eat meat or fish is absolutely not an afterthought and very well executed. There is only a limited selection but we will be keeping an eye on how often they change and what they are. The restaurant states on their website:-
We are extremely proud of our vegetables and vegetarian dishes here at Asador 44. Taking an equal-billing with the fish and meat, seasonal vegetables are heightened by cooking over wood.
They have a right to be proud. I’d happily eat the same dishes again and Mme. definitely needs to try them.
Want to go there?
Cardiff CF10 1EA
Tel: 029 2002 0039
Online booking: https://asador44.co.uk/book
Monday: 12.00-15.00 & 17.00–21.30
Tuesday–Thursday: 12.00– 5.00 & 17.00-22.00
Friday & Saturday: 12.00-22.00