*This restaurant has now closed
For residents of Cardiff’s leafy suburb Pontcanna, the restaurant Arbennig (meaning special in Welsh) has developed a bit of a reputation; for all the right reasons. The family-owned bistro, run by head chef John Cook and his wife Ceri, has more than earned its culinary credentials since its launch back in January 2014. Now, just two years on, it’s staving off tough competition to retain the covetable top ranking of Cardiff restaurants in The Good Food Guide, and has been for two consecutive years. All the more reason for us to review Arbennig Emporium.
Regulars will know that Arbennig’s menu gets a facelift every week, with John – who earned his chef whites at Bridgend’s two Rosette Coed-Y-Mwstwr – scouting the freshest in seasonal produce, from an enviable little black book of contacts across Wales and the South West. So when rumours of an extension to the business circled last year, local ears (and hungry bellies) perked up.
Renovations began in the autumn for the new deli-cum-café next door, knocking through to create an adjoining kitchen for the chefs to flit between the two venues. A familiar shade of amethyst, chunky oak furniture and exposed-brick wall ties the décor with the original restaurant and although the Abernnig Emporium’s menu is far more relaxed than its revered big brother, expect the same attention to detail.
Shelves are filled with John’s picks of the finest tried-and-tested local food for guests to take home. There’s Great Taste Award winners Mrs O’s carrot cake, Conti’s ice cream, legendary bara brith from Baked By Mel and individual pies from the connoisseurs of comfort food over at pieminister.
Snowdonia Cheese scones are perfect dunking material for the soup of the day, while the counter groans under the weight of bowls of freshly-made coleslaw and rice salads with organic veggies delivered straight from Blaencamel Farm in the Aeron Valley, Ceredigion.
Both John’shome-cured duck bacon and fellow chef Jazz’s ham hock scotch eggs are big hits already but it’s the sandwiches that can’t be missed. John hand-stretches the focaccia every morning, using Blodyn Aur, Wales’ first rapeseed oil to be grown, pressed and bottled in the county of Denbighshire.
The end result is sublime; squares of chewy, moist, salt-speckled golden dough. When the basics are this good it seems a shame to mess with them, but a mound of hot, sticky, sweet Cajun beef brisket (amusingly named the Sloppy Josie after one of the team) proved us wrong.
Excellent produce on the shelves and only the best ingredients being simply used in the kitchen at Arbennig Emporium can only mean good things. It helps that Ceri and her front-of-house team are brimming with pride when they serve you. And rightly so. Special indeed.
6-10 Romilly Crescent, Cardiff, CF11 9NR
Words by Sophie Rae, written January 2016
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