Happy New Year – long time no blog, but I have been busy eating, and I wanted to share with you some of my favourite dining experiences of the past few weeks. I hope that some of these will have you nodding your heads in agreement and others will inspire you to try somewhere new.
If you’re reading this in Swansea, you may be wondering whether you’d want to drive out to Nantgaredig for a meal. Trust me: for this one, you do. Set by a winding road with woods all around, Y Polyn has a touch of the fairytale cottage about it, and it truly is a magical place, beginning with its great trendy-rustic looks that have been enhanced with a new architect-designed upstairs extension to the dining area. The welcome – delivered by co-owner Mark Manson while his wife Susan runs the kitchen – is warm and genuine. There’s no standing to attention here; it’s the kind of place that makes you want to kick off your shoes under the table and order another glass of wine.
Susan’s cooking just gets better year by year (and it was bloody good to start with). My recent meal began with delectable pulled pork balls, the crisp coating giving way to melting meat, served with a crunchy fennel, red onion and celeriac slaw and a perfectly sweet/savoury barbeque dip. After that came oh-so-fresh fresh Brixham brill with meaty little brown shrimps, glossed with a classy caper and parsley beurre noisette.
Placed between us on the table was a wildly generous dish of vegetables, piled high with a fine julienne of carrots, courgettes and whatnot, and the best, most velvety and seductive potatoes dauphinoise you could wish to find. I’m not one for desserts, but the hazelnut parfait – all rugged roasted nuts and creamy melting sweetness – totally won me over. What more can I say other than: go there. You won’t be disappointed.
And you thought I’d used up all my superlatives on Y Polyn. Just you wait. Between them, Wrights and Y Polyn, make the Towy Valley an absolute must-go dining destination for anyone in Wales who is serious about food. You could even take in both in a day, especially as throughout most of the week Wright’s majors on lunches, only opening in the evenings on Fridays and Saturdays. Simon and Maryann Wright used to run Y Polyn with Mark and Susan Manson, but the offering at Wright’s is very different, being more focused on simple, hearty, deli-style dining. The menu is built around the goodies available in the in-house food emporium and adjoining wine room, and the staff know the produce inside out. It’s a good idea to place yourself in their hands: our waiter’s on point recommendations included Don Bocarte anchovies – all silvery skin and meaty white flesh – served simply in their oil with the finest sourdough; and beautiful, translucent, pesto-topped lardo laid on toasted home-made bread so that the warmth melted it slightly. My favourite starter, though, was the carne salata – rosy, paper-thin slices of cured beef served with umami-rich crumblings of aged Parmesan.
Wright’s is evidence that if you buy the very best ingredients and treat them with respect and a bit of intelligence, the results can be dazzling. Take my husband’s main course for instance – a simple dish of linguine muddled with crab meat, garlic and chilli. The pasta was perfectly timed and the flavours were clear and bright – I couldn’t resist stealing greedy mouthfuls. My dish of mussels – plentiful, plump and tender, with a rich, creamy, curry-infused liquor – was just as impressive. And if you think Maryann’s breads are good, you have to try her cakes; I know people who make special journeys just to buy them. We rounded off our meal with her vanilla baked cheesecake, the addition of sultanas and hint of nutmeg taking me right back to childhood memories of bread and butter pudding and egg custard. One word: glorious.
I recently visited Hikary’s on Briton Ferry Road in Neath to write an article about its win in the Seafish Fish and Chip Awards 2016 – the most prestigious awards a fish and chip shop can win. Seafish’s anonymous inspectors have declared it the best in Wales, so I was delighted when owner Ouday gave me some fish and chips to take home. I’m pleased to report it’s the best I’ve tasted: the batter (made to a secret recipe) was light and crisp, and the cod was fresh, firm and totally boneless. Sensibly, Ouday packs his fish in specially made cardboard boxes, which keep the batter crisp. It’s a bugbear of mine that so many fish and chip shops either use polystyrene or wrap it in paper and put it in a plastic bag, both of which make the batter soft and sweaty. His chips are perfect too – golden, fluffy and without the slightly stale, oily taste you so often encounter. This is because Ouday fries them in groundnut oil, which is more expensive, but also light and almost flavourless. He also gave me some curry sauce, which is much richer, and has more of a kick than the average chip shop offering. Besides being a stickler with his fish and chips, mixing fresh batter throughout the day and adjusting the mix depending on the level of oil in his fryers, Ouday makes his own curries and rissoles – all great reasons to go back for more. People in Swansea, take note that my parcel of food was still perfectly warm by the time I got back home with it.
If, like me, you long for something other than the anglicised Cantonese food you get in most UK Chinese restaurants, this atmospheric, friendly little gem is just the ticket. Owner Gigi Gao begins each day by making her own fresh dumplings and organic noodles, and this commitment to authenticity – with no corner-cutting – runs through the whole menu. Gigi deserves congratulations for keeping MSG out of her dishes and for trusting her customers to want real Chinese food rather than dishes that have been adapted to “British” tastes. The cooking is focused on Beijing and peppery Sichuan dishes, and it’s possible to eat like a king (or queen) here without breaking the bank. My personal favourite dishes include the ‘lazy cucumber salad’, which is surely as healthy as it is bright, fresh and zingy and the kung pao chicken – probably the best known Sichuan dish here in the UK. They do a beautiful, deeply savoury version at The Favourite. Also gorgeous were the juicy, jumbo-sized king prawns in their airy salt and pepper batter; and the whole baked sea bass with its rich, sticky-spicy sauce. As Chinese New Year draws near, it’s a great chance to try the boiled black sesame rice balls for dessert – a classic treat to mark the end of the New Year celebrations which, like a lot of Chinese food, is texturally fascinating, the black sesame filling satisfyingly sweet and gravelly on the tongue. There is a huge amount to discover at The Favourite, the surroundings are convivial (think wood floors, red vinyl table cloths, pretty, glinting lights and Chinese artwork) and the staff – led by Gigi – are delightful. It deserves multiple visits.
- Indian Breakfast at Sketty Bistro
It’s been a joy to discover a café serving Indian breakfasts just down the road from me in Sketty. Chef-proprietor Shaheen has years of experience working in Indian restaurants, but envisaged something different for Sketty Bistro, devising a menu that offers both traditional British fry-ups and his home style Indian breakfasts, which are lighter and healthier than your average British offering. Depending on which option you order you’ll get different elements, but key components of include crisp onion bhaji, keema bhuna (minced meat cooked long and slow with spices), vegetable bhaji made with Shaheen’s freshly made spice mix, poratha, sag bhaji, and egg bhaji (Shaheen’s version is essentially a thin, herby omelette). None of the food is over-spiced – it delivers just the right level of warmth for delicate early morning palates, and Shaheen throws in a tea or coffee as part of the deal, meaning you’ll be well set up to face the day.
And here’s the lardo and walnut pesto at Wright’s: