A Visit to Cardiff by Amanda Foreman for ‘Food and Wine Magazine’ May 2001
It is the poet, Dylan Thomas, who most clearly captures the eerie beauty of Wales. The poem, ‘Under Milkwood‘, about a fictional Welsh town, begins with the line, “Moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.” These words have always made me think of Cardiff. In contrast to Britain’s other capital cities, Cardiff is tiny and remote. It lies along the southern coast of Wales; a lonely outpost, born out of the Industrial Revolution and yet possessing fewer than half a million inhabitants.
For a hundred and fifty years Cardiff grew rich on fish and coal exports. A showcase for Victorian architecture, its massive docks and stone buildings dominated the surrounding green valleys. But when the mines closed and the fishing stocks dwindled the city gradually decayed. Its beautiful bay became a maritime graveyard and a source of pollution. By the 1980s, Cardiff was a byword for inner-city blight, suffering from racial violence, mass unemployment, and crumbling amenities. The city was falling into perpetual night.
However, for the past two decades successive governments have poured billions of pounds of development money into the city. The Bay is being redeveloped for leisure use, while Cardiff itself has become the cultural and political center of Wales. It is the proud host of the Welsh National Opera, the Welsh Assembly, the National Museum and Gallery, and Europe’s largest covered venue, the Millennium Stadium.
I must confess that I had no idea there were changes afoot. In my imagination Cardiff remained the moonless town, small and isolated. But last year Cardiff City launched an advertising campaign which featured a photograph of the actor John Malkovich next to the words, ‘Cardiff, the thinking man’s choice.’ I was immediately intrigued. Why would an American movie star represent a British provincial capital? Remembering his film, ‘Being John Malkovich,’ I wondered how Cardiff might appear through his eyes. I decided to investigate for myself. In preparation for my adventure, I lost some weight (the better for exploring menus), and bought an umbrella (Wales can be very wet). In order to see what the thinking woman would make of Cardiff, I asked my friend Lady Caroline Dalmeny, the British political hostess and fashion maven, to accompany me. The first time I met Caroline, she had just returned from a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during some of the worst sectarian riots. Her striking blonde hair hidden under a woolly hat, she had slipped unnoticed through the barriers, taking notes and seeing the damage for herself. Not the sort of behavior one would expect from a twenty-six year old aristocrat, but then Caroline has always been fiercely independent.
We arrived in Cardiff during the worst storm in fifty years. The night was indeed bible-black and the street-lights gave off a ghastly yellow illumination. The wind roared and shook our car. It was impossible to imagine the city’s allure to anyone, let alone John Malkovich.However, in the morning I looked out from our hotel window and saw to the far left the glistening crescent of Cardiff Bay, and to the far right the rolling hills above the city. In between, Victorian buildings and modern structures jostled for space. Cardiff is one of the few cities that manages to embrace natural wilderness, the sea, and man’s industrial output, and make it look beautiful. Perhaps this is what first attracted John Malkovich.
His connection to Cardiff is clearly no passing fancy. He is one of the investors in its newest hotel, The Big Sleep, a low-budget, high-concept project that has been the subject of much media hype in Britain. The Big Sleep’s brand style is cheap chic: groovy color design, Formica furniture, and the most minimal of service. Our bedroom was sparsely furnished with boxy blue furniture, furry brown curtains and aqua-marine walls. Caroline diplomatically described it as an interesting mix of Howard Johnson and Ian Schrager. For cost-conscious travelers, however, it has the convenience of being a short walk from the train station.
For those who have the luxury of choice, the place to stay in Cardiff is the St David’s Hotel and Spa down by the Bay, some fifteen minutes south of the city center. A modern marina, the home of the Welsh National Assembly, shops, restaurants, and the new science museum have all risen, phoenix-like, out of the rotting detritus that once threatened to ruin the Bay. The area still feels new and untested, but wandering along the qayside we found an eclectic mix of small businesses and ethnic cafes.
Towering above every other structure around the Bay is the distinctive glass-clad St David’s which juts out over the water on huge stilts. The hotel epitomizes the new Cardiff: ultra modern, sophisticated and wholly original in design. Its restaurant boasts the finest views in Cardiff, particularly at sunset when rays of light reflect against distant ships. But even without a view, the St David’s restaurant would still be a sought-after destination. Pan-European in its approach, the kitchen’s specialty is in combining the simple with the sublime, like taking the local specialty of lava bread (which is not bread at all but a kind of gritty fried seaweed) and pairing it with braised oxtail and a sauce reduction, or grilling organic Welsh lamb and laying it on a bed of locally-grown leeks. No other restaurant in Cardiff dares to attempt the same breadth or boldness of vision. Even afternoon tea was an experience in and of itself: a lemon meringue tart that tingled on the tongue, and moist cucumber and salmon sandwiches with their crusts removed. Caroline gave the St David’s the ultimate accolade. “I could live here,” she said, as she reclined on the chaise longue in our suite, gazing out over the sea. I too wanted to stay and eat here forever.
It would take days to exhaust the delights on offer in the St David’s Spa. But we were here for a purpose. A consultation with the ever-helpful concierge on where fashionable Cardiff likes to dine, produced a couple of suggestions. The first, Woods Brasserie, a glass-fronted restaurant with sleek natural wood interiors, was only a short walk from the hotel. The Big Sleep had also recommended Woods as the best Modern British cuisine in Cardiff. Modern British cooking is a revival of traditional dishes such as sausages and mashed potatoes, and sticky toffee pudding, but cooked with continental accents. So the potatoes might be infused with garlic, the sausages made of sweetbread, and the pudding enhanced by a sauce of crème anglaise. With John Malkovich in mind, I ordered the most difficult dish on the menu: fish and chips. A really good fried cod must be soft and almost buttery on the inside, and delicately crispy on the outside. While the chips must only bend by seven degrees when lifted horizontally. Woods made it look all so easy, and we passed a pleasant afternoon sampling its broad wine list. We gazed out at the view while dipping the endless supply of chips into homemade tartare sauce.
The chief rival to Woods Brasserie is an Italian restaurant called daVendito, which resides in the basement of a modest house in the city center. Inside however, there is nothing modest about the marble walls, limestone floor, and trendy lighting fixtures. Clearly no expense has been spared. But then, without a doubt, daVendito is the finest Italian restaurant in Wales. Every person we met had urged us to go and I soon discovered why. Its young chef, Mark Freeman, has created a perfect synthesis of Italian cooking and home-grown ingredients I ate a pot-roasted pig that was so gooey and succulent it melted in my mouth. Caroline had seared scallops that had been married to chorizo sausage on a bed of crème fraiche and sweet chili sauce. It was the happiest of matches. Examining the menu I noticed that Chef Freeman had a certain kind of sly humor. He paired Sea Bass, for example, with imported pak choi greens, but then added the humble salsify root, a staple of vegetable patches, as a fried chip.
It was during this ecstatic meal that Caroline and I had our first disagreement. When not exploring war zones, Caroline likes to visit museums and castles, I prefer to wander around and feel the atmosphere. Right in the middle of the city is Cardiff Castle, a 13th century fortress whose owners lavishly re-designed the interiors during the Victorian era. Naturally, Caroline wanted to see it, but while the sun was shining it seemed criminal to me to stay in doors. After a heated discussion, she agreed to make the castle our end destination of a tour through the city’s covered streets.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Cardiff’s inhabitants realized that the perpetual rain in the winter months made shopping a dreary nightmare. But they found a way round the weather by covering the main market areas with glass roofing. Called arcades, there are six glass-canopied streets clustered together in the heart of Cardiff. To wander through them is to enter the world of Charles Dickens. Each arcade has its own character. Some are double height with wrought iron balconies, and feel light and airy; others seem more like forgotten passage ways into the past. Caroline darted in and out of the bay-fronted shops, spotting treasures among the bits of antique silver, wood carvings, and secondhand books on offer. We both dawdled in the Morgan Arcade which specializes in jewelry shops. There we found Simus, a jewelers with a difference. Mussi, its vivacious owner, designs and makes everything to order. She showed us a flawless 6 ct emerald that was so green it echoed the rich hues of the Welsh valleys. I have to confess that it was not the kind of store I expected to find in Cardiff. But then nothing about Cardiff had conformed to my expectations.
The realization came to me when we turned left out of Morgan Arcade, thinking we had seen the best, only to stumble upon the Indoor Market. It is a Victorian temple to local capitalism, a vast covered market made of glass and iron, the height and breadth of a modern stadium. It contains hundreds of stalls. Everything is sold here, from garden vegetables, game, fish, specialty pies, organic meats, to clothes pegs and puppies. In the middle, overlooking all, stands a wooden clock-tower, the kind so often seen on New England municipal buildings. Around it teemed busy shoppers who were arguing, fussing, and joking with the stall holders. I saw native cheeses that have all but disappeared under the weight of EU regulations: aromatic goats cheese, the salty caerphilly cheese, pungent cheddars, and deep blue sweet-tasting stiltons.
I wanted to sample every cheese, mouse and pate but Caroline insisted we experience some culture before nightfall. As soon as we left the market it started to rain, and we squelched up the High Street to Cardiff Castle, some ten minutes from my beautiful cheeses. For those who like their castles to be decorated in mock Arab-style and unparalleled opulence, Cardiff Castle is a must-see. On the other hand, we both fell in love with Llandaff Cathedral. The one thousand-year-old edifice houses the oldest Christian artifact in Britain. But for most who come here, it is the serenity of the ancient building which makes a lasting impression. The slow unfurling of time in this isolated place has left its traces in the different styles around the interior. There is a little bit of everything, from Norman to Pre-Raphaelite, and, in the middle of the Cathedral, a soaring Jacob Epstein sculpture which marks the spot where a German mine exploded.
Before we left the city, Caroline persuaded a cab driver to take us on a tour of the more notorious housing estates in Cardiff. Sandwiched between the Bay development area and the city center, the estates are a reminder that Cardiff is still in the midst of regeneration. Soviet-style apartment blocks stared bleakly at nothing, discarded rubbish provided the only color. However, the estates are much quieter now, the driver told us, the nightly chaos a receding memory. With more jobs coming into the area, the inhabitants are starting to have a share in Cardiff’s future.
More than anything, Cardiff feels like a city that is waking up after a long slumber. However, the excitement of the new has not yet overwhelmed the charm of the old. While other cities have rebuilt themselves into bland uniformity, Cardiff remains a Victorian jewelbox with modern embellishments. John Malkovich may symbolize the city’s glittering tomorrow, but for now it is still twilight, the most beautiful time of day.
The Big Sleep Hotel
Bute Terrace, Cardiff CF10 2FE
44 (0)29 2063 6363, Fax: 44 (0)29 2063 6364
Web Site: http://www.thebigsleephotel.com/
82 rooms, 20 renovated room rate: £55 per night, £85 for penthouse suite
A budget hotel which operates to the credo that cheap does not have to mean boring. But the hotel owner is not exactly a people person. And it is strictly eat out.
The St David’s Hotel and Spa
Havannah Street Cardiff, CF10 5SD
44 (0)29 2045 4045, Fax 44 (0)29 2048 7056
Web Site: http://www.thestdavidshotel.com
132 rooms, 20 suites room rate: from £110
The spa includes a 15m pool, 13 treatment rooms, 2 saltwater pools and a gym. A luxury hotel which prides itself on providing impeccable service. Modern, stylish rooms with splendid rooms. Even if not staying there, the restaurant is worth a visit.
daVendito: Monday to Saturday, 12.-2.30, 6-10.45 7/8
The Basement Park Place
44 (0)29 20230781, Fax 44 (0)29 2039 9949
Average cost per head without wine: £40
Chef Mark Freeman creates miracles in the kitchen. This the finest Italian restaurant outside of London. The wine list offers very good value Italian wines, including Barolo and Barbera. There is a less expensive version of the restaurant, with a wine bar attached, near by called Gios on 38 The Hayes.
Woods Brasserie: Monday to Saturday, 12-2, 7-10
Stuart Street (The Bay)
44 (0)29 492400
Modern British cooking in a chic setting overlooking the bay. The fish is excellent.
Monday to Saturday, 12-2, 7-11
62 St Mary Street 44 (0)29 387386
Originally a tapas bar in concept, this three-in-one restaurant specialises in fresh fish cooked to order.
There are six arcades in all, the prettiest is Castle Arcade, the oldest is the Royal Arcade, dating from 1856, while possibly the best for unusual shops is the Morgan Arcade, which houses Simus, the celebrated jewellery store.
The one hundred-year-old Indoor Market, off the High Street, is the largest and certainly the best preserved working market in Britain.
Llandaff Cathedral, Llandaff, Cardiff.
44 (0)29 2056 4554
The Cathedral can be reached by taxi or by the n. 25 and 25x busses from Castle Street, Cardiff. The surrounding village of Llandaff is a picturesque oasis of stone houses and charming pubs.
Cardiff Castle, Castle Street
44 (0)29 2087 8100, Fax: 44 (0) 29 2023 1417
Web Site: http://www.cardiff.gov.uk
Home of the Marquesses of Bute until 1947, it is a testimonial to what Victorian zeal and money can achieve
Copyright© 2001 Food & Wine Magazine