Friday, August 5, 2011

First Impressions Are Everything (The Prince of Wales)

Welsh Rarebit

Whether it's a job interview or a first date, the first impression that you leave on a person tends to stick and, for better or worse, is very difficult to change later on. If I meet someone for the first time and they're picking their nose or smelling like they've been living in a dumpster, then my initial impression -- that that person has no regards for personal hygiene -- is likely to remain in the back of my mind, regardless of whether or not that individual really does exhibit such poor hygiene all of the time. For all I know, maybe they were just scratching the side of their nose, a la "the pick," and maybe they smelled because they had just come back from the gym. Too late, my mind will always think back to that one time where they smelled like ass and had their finger all wedged up their left nostril.

In a similar vein, as a weekend traveler, I only have one or two days to taste any city's food before I have to depart, so it is imperative that I track down quality restaurants within each city so that the one or two meals that I have give me a first impression of the city's food that is as well-informed as possible. The last thing I want is for my lasting impression of any city's food to be based on meals from poor-quality or touristy restaurants. Therefore, I put in a bit of research ahead of time on which restaurants in each city offer good food representative of the particular region and culture. While it was relatively easy to look up which restaurants offered good regional cuisine in each of the other cities that I had previously visited, Cardiff had very little information available about its dining scene. So while I simply may not have found Cardiff's gems, it wasn't for lack of trying, and even scouring the city by foot turned up very little. Again, I'm not saying that Cardiff is completely devoid of any good restaurants, but rather that it was excruciatingly difficult to find them. Therefore, it's unfortunate that my two-day snapshot of Cardiff's cuisine left a pretty crappy impression on me that will likely stick around for quite a while.

What exactly is Welsh cuisine? Well, to be honest, it's very similar to British cuisine, and British food tends to get a bad rap. When your country's national dish is a bastardized version of another country's cuisine, you know you don't have much going for you. That's akin to having Egg Foo Young or Mission-style burritos as the national dish for the US, for crying out loud. So when I came to the UK for the summer, I wasn't expecting very much in terms of great food. However, after being pleasantly surprised by the quality of food that I sampled in London and Edinburgh -- while not all of the food that I ate in London and Edinburgh were necessarily traditional British or Scottish (L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is most definitely not British cuisine), I sampled enough of the fare to discover some restaurants that create some really great food using traditional ingredients and flavors -- I was disappointed by the lack of options in Cardiff.

The city is largely comprised of pubs and bars, and consequently, most of the food isn't particularly exciting to me. Nearly every restaurant and pub had a menu focusing on steak, sausage, and beer, with a token curry dish thrown in for good measure. While there is nothing wrong with steak, sausage, or beer, if that's the best that your city has to offer, then that's actually kind of disappointing. If that makes me a snob, so be it.

Lamb Cawl

After a tour of some of the castles in Cardiff and the surrounding area, I checked out a local pub called The Prince of Wales. Sticking with the "Welsh Classics" section of the menu, I ordered the Welsh Rarebit and Lamb Cawl. Never having had either of these dishes before, I wanted to see what Welsh food. The Welsh Rarebit, described as "two slices of toasted bloomer bread, topped with hot Welsh rarebit, made with Oldshire vintage cheddar and brown ale," was essentially cheese sauce on toast. Nothing revelatory, though moderately satisfying. The Lamb Cawl was essentially a lamb stew studded with carrots, potatoes, and onion. Nothing to write home about, either, as the few lamb chunks that I got were tough and chewy with very little distinct lamb flavor. All in all, a very mediocre meal that left me with a middling impression of Welsh cuisine.

Again, I know that one meal alone is not representative of an entire region's cuisine. Maybe if I had eaten at a better restaurant, my perception of Welsh food would be vastly different. However, like I said, first impressions are everything, and my snap judgment of the state of Welsh cuisine is pretty poor. I would love to be proven wrong in the future, but my two-day snapshot of Cardiff's regional fare was thoroughly uninspiring and will unfortunately be the impression I carry of Welsh cuisine from here on out.

The Prince of Wales
81-83 Saint Mary Street
Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF10 1FA
United Kingdom

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