We’d all like to pretend we know what we like, we like what we know, and we won’t be swerved by anyone else’s opinion. But that’s just not true, is it. We’re all influenced when it comes to other people – especially when it comes to food. If we weren’t, why would we ask for restaurant recommendations, why would the dreaded Trip Advisor even be a thing, and why would people eagerly read the reviews of people like Grace Dent, Marina O’Loughlin and Jay Rayner, taking what they think as the deciding factor in where to book next for that special meal.
It makes sense. We turn to people who know more than us for advice in any walk of life, so why not food? Yes, people might have their own specific tastes, but it’s generally accepted that good food is good food and shit food is, well, shit. Trip Advisor reviews of certain establishments may veer from excellent to awful like a glasses-less Dominic Cummings on his journey to Barnard Castle, but it’s rare that you’d see a restaurant raved about by one critic and panned by another. They tend to know what’s good, what’s bad and even what’s ugly.
But what happens when somewhere divides opinion decisively? When people whose opinion you think matters contrast in their view so wildly that you’re left with only your own opinion to go on?
I suppose if I were a better blogger, food writer, or whatever it is I am, I’d never admit to this, but I’ve never been very good at pulling the wool over people’s eyes, so I’ll ‘fess up to not always having the greatest courage of my convictions when it comes to food and drink. I don’t know enough, I’m not experienced enough, and at heart I’m quite a simple soul. So when it comes to food and drink, I’m often happy to learn from those who know more than me. Which is great when they all agree – but where does that leave me when two people who I think know more than me disagree wholeheartedly on somewhere.
The answer’s simple – and I won’t make you wait to the end to hear it. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust your own judgement. And be comfortable in the knowledge that ultimately, nobody has to eat somewhere just because you tell them to. Which is why, no matter what anyone else says, I will return to Asador 44 in Cardiff, and Bar 44 in Bristol, and any of the other creations that Tom and Owen Morgan come up with.
I can’t remember where I first heard about Asador 44 and Bar 44. It could have been from the wonderful Plate Licked Clean blog, or perhaps Instagram-Queen and Picpoul de Pinet-loving Natalie Brereton (go and check them both out, you won’t regret it), but their ravings made me want to try it. Spanish food, aged meat, a love of ingredients, sourced properly from Spain, and the promise of an experience that would feel like the real deal.
Unfortunately, I heard about them during lockdown, which meant my first attempt to enjoy such great food was via the hastily-created Mercado 44. Basically, their way of getting their food out to people to provide a similar experience but in their own homes.
If you’re thinking a kind of ‘tapas through the letterbox’ thing, then think again. This was somewhat more than that. A kilo of chuleton – dry-aged beef from 10-year-old Galician dairy cows, their own pre-cooked potatoes, romesco, chargrilled peppers and the very special Jamon butter that they make in-house. A feast. Excellently executed by Jamie, with me taking care of the bottle of wine that came with it. In an era of ‘eat at home’ meals, it was one of our favourites and enough to make us determined to get to Asador 44 for the real experience when we could.
Fast forward to July this year and a trip to Cardiff, built around that trip to Asador 44. You’ve already read a lot of my ramblings in this post, so I’ll keep it brief. I won’t wax lyrical about the frisson in the atmosphere as you walk in. The warm welcome, the sound of the meat cooking over charcoal, muffled slightly by the glass window that is also the vehicle for the specials of that day. I won’t go on and on about the original drinks list, including their Padron Pepper Negroni (see above).
This is a place where eating really is convivial. It’s a place where you order as much of the menu as you can and stretch over the table to try all of it as it arrives. That means digging into squid, followed by smoked cod roe mousse (both above), or crunching your way through shrimps fried into crispy loveliness.
There’s bread obviously, dipped into proper olive oil (the stuff that transports you to foreign climes, sunshine, and irresistible smiles) or smeared with that sexy jamon butter. I won’t go on too much about the anchovies, but be warned that my husband will very much fight you for them. And that’s all you need to know.
We could talk about the meat, but I think I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. It’s been sourced right, aged right, treated right, cooked right, and it’s served right. This is how it should be done. I didn’t have as much of the slow roast shoulder of Welsh lamb as I maybe should have for a decent verdict, but watching someone use a spoon to eat it pretty much said it all.
It’s not all meat and indulgence, but it’s all about the ingredients. Fresh tomatoes, dressed with a simple olive oil dressing, those same chargrilled peppers we’d had at home yet so much better when served fresh. And while we should have stopped, we didn’t, because the Pedro Ximénez chocolate and hazelnut tart with beef fat caramel and cherry was crying out my name from the menu. Jamie may have fought you for anchovies, but I would fight you for this. And win. Because it’s worth it.
I thought about doing a whole separate post on Bar 44 in Bristol, which we booked purely on the strength of our experience at Asador 44. It deserves it. It’s different to Asador in many ways, yet the same in so many others. For starters, it’s a tapas bar rather than an asador, so you won’t be having fat hunks of cow. Yet you’ll still feel that need to order the whole menu and find yourself grabbing at food that’s designed to be dug into from all directions in the same way Matt Hancock was seen grabbing at something that took his fancy in his Whitehall office.
There are gambas, cooked in the classic garlic, chilli and oil. Jamon, sourced impeccably no doubt (I didn’t check, I don’t need to) and patatas bravas that will make you never want to go to a tapas chain again.
Payoyo cheese – a hard, goat’s milk cheese is probably good on its own. But drenched in sherry it’s even better and I still dream about it.
There are anchovies too, obviously given my husband’s love affair with them, and Padron Peppers because in Jamie’s words you simply can’t not order them if you’re somewhere vaguely Spanish and see them on the menu. These are all great, but they prove to just be the start of a journey that made me quietly thank anyone who had recommended this lovely family of restaurants to me.
Flat iron steak is tender, pink, and laced with sherry. It’s good, but not as mind-blowing as the overnight roast lamb coated in anchovy breadcrumbs that is tender, sweet, salty, meaty and fatty all in one pleasure-providing mouthful (or several if, like me, you quietly keep it close to you and eat as much as you can before someone pries the plate from you).
There’s a tuna tartare that’s as fresh as you’d imagine (I’m assuming you’re imagining good things by this stage), but it’s the whole artichoke that’s been both confit and roast then adorned with smoked Idiazabel cheese, a cheese from the Basque country, as well as Miel de Cana, sweet sugarcane molasses, to bring sweetness.
And finally (though I may have missed some, but you may have run out of the will to live by now), there’s hake in a light, golden batter with alioli and a piquillo sauce, topped with a rough-cut, fresh, salsa.
Did we order the whole menu? No. Were we close? Yes. But we’ve saved dishes that we drooled over going to other tables, like the sherry chicken or the confit duck smoked morcilla burger, for next time. Instead we switched to sweet, quaffing several sherries in a quest to see if anything could steal Jamie’s heart as much as Pedro Ximenez while fighting over one slice of simple Valencian orange & almond cake with a citrusy cream.
It’s safe to say I love what these guys do. Both Asador 44 and Bar 44 provided meals that will stay with me and Jamie for years to come, and we’d happily recommend them to anyone we know. I know that some people feel the same, and I know that there are others who disagree wholeheartedly. But regardless of what either of them say, I have decided I don’t care. These places do what makes me happy, and I’m happy for them to do it again and again.
If this review makes you want to go to one of the 44 group then great. I hope you like it. In fact, I hope you love it. You might not, of course. And that’s absolutely fine. Because we all have to make our own decisions. And mine is to make sure that I get back to one of these places very very soon.