Servinis, Cardiff

On Friday lunchtime, I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis in Cardiff City Centre. That this great nation, home of Dylan Thomas and Nye Bevan, with its proud socialist traditions, should have thrown its lot in with the right-wing project that is Brexit is bad enough. That the city has changed so vastly since I first played The Glee Club on its opening weekend fifteen years ago is not in itself a tragedy. Unfortunately, having sold its soul so completely to the corporate cock that the centre itself is now a vast, shiny, temple of Mammon called the St Davids Centre, containing all the usual suspects, probably is. Visiting one of them – The Apple Store – to be told the new computer I have spent nearly a thousand pounds on will not run the software my old one did for unspecified reasons, nearly led to my own personal Welsh Falling Down moment.

In need of a reviving lunch, I suddenly realised that simply everywhere I looked was yet another chain restaurant. I wheeled about like a drunk as interchangeable eateries whirled around me – Zizzi, Ed’s, Ask, Frankie & Benny’s, TGI Fridays, Yo Sushi, Cafe Rouge, Carluccio’s, Bar Burrito, Prezzo and on and on and on. I numbly began queueing at Shake Shack with the vague notion I fancied a burger, before making a break for Nando’s in a misguided bid for a healthier option. Once there I found an even longer line of identikit diners, so I headed outside for a little air to be confronted by Wagamama, Bill’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen.

Some of these places are very good – I love a Nando’s, I keep everything crossed for the survival of Pizza Express. Some – Wahaca – are truly excellent, and I almost succumbed before I had an epiphany of sorts and determined to find somewhere independent, cooking their own food, and do my tiny bit to support them in their losing battle against moneyed homogeneity. I even took to Twitter for help – comics are great to ask for foodie recommendations as we spend so much time wandering around strange cities at lunchtime. The brilliant (and vegan) Carl Donnelly suggested the plant-based cuisine of Migli’s, while old friend Glenn Wool helpfully mentioned a pasta place he couldn’t remember the name of, in an arcade, near the castle, ‘opposite a book store.’ 

Cardiff’s numerous arcades remain one of its great joys. They criss-cross the main streets of the city centre like little veins to the main arteries, and still manage to support a large number of independent businesses, as well as a growing number that are less so. Having bought a couple of paintings from a small gallery down one of these a few years ago, I set off for another look and found myself in Wyndham Arcade. Here I came across Servinis, a tidy looking little cafe that had just the right mix of bustle, comfort and genuine warmth that I had so conspicuously been unable to find elsewhere. I was sat on a table for four by the window with a tiny little individual sign on it saying ‘You are a cutie pie’ which would normally have me stampeding for the exit, but here somehow managed to appear both charming and idiosyncratic. There was an open kitchen and a fairly simple menu consisting of all sort of breakfasts, hashes, sandwiches, a soup and a few main courses and salads. They offer a few cocktails too, but not so many you started to doubt they knew what they were doing.

In keeping with my general mood and distrust of the modern world, I opted for faggots with gravy, chips and peas and a side salad (off menu, but not a problem.) You can’t get more honest, down to earth and relentlessly unponcey than faggots, and they were delivered to my table shortly after I had polished off an absolutely impeccable cappuccino, accompanied by a nicely bitey local ginger beer. It was a bit early for cocktails.

My faggots were great. The chips were actually the best thing on the plate, but that’s hardly a criticism – perfect crunch on the outside, fluffy spud within. If I’m 100% honest, the faggots might have done with just a touch more offal for my taste, but they were tasty, satisfying and absolutely hit the mark. Were they the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten? No, they were faggots, but if you want dizzying flavour profiles, go and find Marcus Wareing. This was a lovely plate of proper ingredients, served with utter charm in a welcoming room by a busy kitchen who clearly cared about what they were doing. It may not have bothered the Michelin inspectors, but it absolutely warmed my heart. All told, the bill came in under twenty quid, although a richly deserved tip took it just north of that, and I was able to walk out on to the streets of Cardiff, if not a changed man, then one in a much better mood than I had been an hour before.

On Saturday I found myself in a similar situation, although a little later having gone back to bed after an early start to watch England’s thrilling dismantling of the All-Blacks. I decided to hunt down Carl’s vegan option. I found it, closed. Permanently. So then I went looking for Glenn’s pasta joint. Opposite a bookshop in the Castle arcade, I found an empty unit, tables and chairs stacked around disconsolately like a weary metaphor. Luckily I managed to find a very serviceable carbonara at the nearby Santa Maria. A proper sauce and a familiar accent indicated some genuine Italian involvement, even if I’m always a little suspicious of a restaurant with garden furniture and no garden. While I was there, I googled my favourite gallery, to find it had shut down too.

I’m not here to preach the horrors of late-stage capitalism, or rail against the corporate world and its faceless dismantling of the fabric of our town and cities. I just want some lunch. But my two afternoons pootling around Cardiff were a sobering experience. This was probably not a bad thing after that early start for the rugby, but we would all do well to be wary of what is happening beneath our noses. Next time you’re out on a busy shopping trip, take a moment before you dive into the convenience of your nearest Zizzi’s or Café Rouge. Try and hunt down somewhere independent to support a little diversity in our lives. Ed’s Diner will get on fine without you. Somehow, Frankie & Benny’s will survive. Independent cafes, bookstores, galleries and specialist places won’t, and we shall all be poorer for that. And if you’re in Cardiff, hunt down Servinis and a plate of those faggots. They’re like the big hug we all need in the midst of our collective consumerist crisis.

October 2019

Navona, Thessaloniki

There is something about the atmosphere of simmering hostility one encounters upon boarding a RyanAir flight – a sort of assumed impending argument between passenger and airline – that truly is one of the great consumer experiences of the modern age. I pondered this as I boarded my flight home from Athens after a highly enjoyable and successful mini tour of Greece with my good friend Giorgos Xatzipavlou, during which the generosity and friendliness of my hosts was once again self-evident, in stark contrast to RyanAir’s legendary customer service.

I think it’s safe to say we didn’t eat as well as we have done on past visits – a tight schedule of four shows in four cities on four nights meant we never really stopped in one place long enough to truly stretch our culinary legs, but this was Greece so even a chicken burger in Heraklion at 1am was a very tasty affair.

In Thessaloniki, we stopped at The Makedonia Hotel for lunch – a relatively upmarket place I have stayed at before, but which this year’s tour budget would not stretch to. This was not a problem at all, as I rather enjoyed going on holiday to the 1970s. Nothing makes you feel younger than staying in a room with a radio that doesn’t work carved into the bedside table. The Makedonia on the other hand, is a rather more swish affair, having recently been bought and refurbished by a Russian of the suspiciously capacious pockets we have come to know and love from the post-communism honesty boom.

The hotel itself is on a lovely spot overlooking the bay and the Navona Restaurant occupies a prime spot adjacent to the wide boulevard that is the pride of Thessaloniki’s seafront. It is the perfect place to watch the beautiful (and some somewhat less beautiful) people walk by. It is mostly the beautiful people who walk into Navona, if they are able to secure a table from the immaculately dressed and smiling guardian stationed by the reservation book at the entrance, who despite her impeccable manners somehow still manages to radiate a little of that oligarch menace. Groups of deeply tanned mothers shepherd glossy children to their goblets of Aperol Spritz and men with expensive watches accessorised with bangles and beads a decade or three too young for them sit with girlfriends of a similar vintage. This might sound relatively awful, but the atmosphere was pleasant, the service faultless, and we were sat in the sunshine in excellent company to enjoy food I wasn’t paying for, so it would be churlish to complain. 

And so to the food. Was it as good as Russian money could buy? Well, yes and no. My starter of tuna tartare looked absolutely stunning – a beautiful oblong of fish, tiny bell peppers, caper berries and  the world’s tiniest onions, garnished with vanishingly thin slices of radish. I dived in expectantly, but unfortunately a dressing of mustard and dill oil came with such a drastic slap of citrus, it was more of a belly flop. It was not actively unpleasant, but when I order tuna, I want to taste the fish and not what it is swimming in. 

This was especially strange as my companions, Giorgos and his friend Tellis shared a superb Panzanela salad which was not only one of the boldest Greek salads I’ve ever eaten, it was truly brought alive by dint of a stunning red-wine vinegar dressing. I wish the kitchen had used (a bit of) it on my tuna.

As Navono claims to be ‘a taste of Italy’ I thought I’d try on their pizza for main course. Perhaps it was a reflection of the sad news that not only is my country attempting to leave the EU, it can also no longer support Pizza Express, while Pizza Hut baffling continues to trade, but I thought the chances of a decent version should be pretty good when I could actually see the Mediterranean as I ate it. I was mostly right – apart from the fact I was sitting next to The Aegean – delicious, slightly burnt edges with just the right chewiness and a generous topping of pancetta and artichoke. The middle was a little soggy, but it all ends up in the same place and sprinkled with black pepper and a little chilli oil, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Tellis and Giorgos opted for slightly more grown up dishes and here was further proof that the kitchen knows what it’s doing a lot of the time. A chicken supreme with chanterelles, parsnips and ‘authentic’ gravy left the chef nowhere to hide, which was not a problem as he or she executed it perfectly. Mind you, I would be interested to know what ‘inauthentic’ gravy involved. Or perhaps I wouldn’t. 

The best think we ate was Tellis’s pork dish – beautifully cooked medallions of pork wrapped in prosciutto and served with a delightfully balanced green-apple glaze. Just as you convinced yourself you’d tasted something rather nice, a proper hit of lemon thyme turned up on the tastebuds and lifted the whole dish beyond the good to the really quite special. 

If I have not exactly raved about Navona, that feels a little unfair, as we had a really rather fabulous lunch, although that was down to the company and the surroundings as much as the cooking. You could certainly do worse than an alfresco meal overlooking the sea at one of Thessaloniki’s premier hotels, although I’m sure there are many more options to sniff out. Hopefully I will be in a position to do that the next time I manage a Greek minor tour (COME ON!) I must admit, if we come back to Navono I would love to continue avoiding to pay for it as I’m pretty sure further lining an oligarch’s pockets doesn’t come cheaply. Especially when the pound has truly crumbled and I’ve had to get a visa to work there as well as spend an extra couple of hours at the airport just because 17.4 million of my countrymen didn’t realise they’d been sold a pup. 

I suppose the one advantage might be having to fly with RyanAir slightly less often. Someone should tell Vote Leave to start campaigning with that slogan. It would be a lot more honest than almost anything else they’ve come up with.

October 2019