By Peter Wolinski
The best time to go out for food in Wales is whenever the Welsh rugby team are playing. This is especially true when you’ve been a complete dribble of a restaurant critic for three months.
Dark, no longer the newest establishment in the Dusty Knuckle diaspora, was brand new when I originally told the food editor I’d review it. By the time I visited, the restaurant was pushing four-months-old and the owners had already expanded to a further two establishments. Numerous friends and pounds somehow managing to escape, as well as a frustratingly busy MA, had turned me into a late, apologetic shambles of a reviewer.
Never mind, at least the menu had changed since every other food writer in Cardiff had paid them a visit.
If you’ve not heard of Dusty Knuckle, they’re a pizza pop-up turned pop-down-permanently-in-as-many-locations-as-we-can-find sort of venture. Not satisfied with their popular stall in Cardiff’s Boneyard market, they set up in both Pembrokeshire and Ogmore-by-Sea. Then, back in the capital, they partnered with the owners of Nook on Cowbridge Road before opening Dark in Castle Arcade. Since then, they’ve acquired the old Gatekeeper’s bungalow at the edge of Bute Park and, in early March, set up a residency in the Sticky Fingers street food bar, Cathays. These guys are unstoppable, and clearly have a very generous bank manager; two things I long to say for myself.
Despite my uselessness, eventually the time did become nigh. Cardiffians were all frothing at the mouth watching two of six angry nations charge each other into brain damage, meaning Dark’s tiny cover count was almost entirely free.
After receiving a vivacious greeting, we squished ourselves into a two-seater table in the corner. Despite most covers being free, the larger tables were held for groups. When you’re juggling barely more than 20 indoor seats, I suppose it is a necessity to play Tetris with the punters.
Menus before us, the initial debate was whether to get our own kebabs, commendably hosted where one would normally expect to find starters. Due to an already dodgy stomach, I instead petitioned successfully for a pizza to share and a small plate each, giving us ample opportunity to try both of Dark’s much-touted sustainable specialties: offal and seasonal veg.
Broccoli, chilli and roasted garlic pizza was delivered first, our failsafe. Velvety roasted garlic, a thwack of chilli and some sweet, al-dente broccoli turned it into a more refined and composite affair than the average pizza and, despite only 7 or 8 meagre pearls of Mozzarella on top, it reinforced the usual public consensus that these guys can stonebake with the best.
The partner’s order was vegetarian and seasonal. Jerusalem artichoke with fermented leeks and Spain’s ajo blanco (garlic and almonds, blended and loosened to a consistency anywhere between puree and soup). It was a much cleverer dish than it may perhaps sound; powerful, nosey, umami leeks are an effective way to dissect the double helping of artichoke and ajo blanco’s creamy nuttiness.
Before I get into my laughably misjudged order, I must stress that I was extremely well warned and lay no blame on Dark. They are trying to push the boat out by using a sauce well established in Asia although totally unfamiliar here. For my palette, it just didn’t work.
My quest to test their offal led me to casually disregard the waitress’ three incredibly overt warnings of “table divider”, “fermented shrimp” and, perhaps most tellingly of all, “don’t sniff it”. In hindsight, attempting to eat this after already turning down a kebab on behalf of a tentative stomach was pretty stupid, but what are reviewers supposed to do if not be adventurous?
The first two elements of the plate seemed reasonable.
Chicken hearts: chewy little nuggets, cooked exquisitely and, as if they were still beating, pumping out juices when prodded with a fork. Fine.
Sourdough bread: dough, baked for a period of time. Eaten by humans for millennia and an unquestionably safe bet. Also fine.
XO sauce, however: shrimp, fermented for long periods of time in some godforsaken liquid, resulting in a sweet, rich taste that simultaneously shoots the unaware eater bolt upright with the smell of concentrated dog’s breath the morning after a fish dinner. Categorically not fine.
I can only assume the sauce’s name comes from the face which many others in my position before me have pulled when trying to eat it. I managed only two bites. Thankfully there was enough chilli on our pizza to act as a palette cleanser.
To undo my self-inflicted trauma, there was nothing else to do but order dessert. The waitress, by now somewhat deflated and clearly thinking (rightly) that I was a complete drip, made a point of warning me of the “very intense” coffee flavour in the coffee and ricotta pot. Sadly, this was not actually true, although for £3 it was just a relief to be eating something inoffensive and familiar.
You should definitely go to Dark. Compared to the rest of Cardiff’s culinary scene, they’re doing some really interesting things with underused cuts and experimenting with unfamiliar and otherwise disparate elements. At about £17 per head, they’re affordable too. Apply lessons learned from my experience to your own, however. When a server has to caveat your order as you place it, pause for thought and ask yourself, “today, am I really the type of person who can stomach fermented shrimp?”