Overlooking Colin’s books


I will have lived in Cardiff city centre for two years next month and it’s safe for me to say that I have enjoyed almost every minute of it.

I realised it was time to get a place of my very own after house-sharing for a while, I knew it had to be somewhere central for several reasons (but mainly because I do not want to have to own a car or learn to drive).

So, while you’re parking your cars on your driveways and entering your houses through white UPVC doors, I enter mine through a relatively artless grey door opposite Dorothy’s fish shop on the eponymous “Chippy Lane”, furtively tapping in the code in case anyone is watching.

Living so centrally comes with its upsides. It’s close to most of the best restaurants in Cardiff, with establishments such as La Brasserie on the same block and Yo! Sushi just around the corner and if ever I feel like catching a movie I am never more than 2 minutes walking distance from two of the largest cinemas in the city.

From the privacy of my balcony I have seen the St David’s 2 shopping centre, John Lewis and the new Cardiff Central Library rise from the ground. I have seen Welsh rugby players viciously assaulted after a night on the booze and witnessed enough alcohol fuelled altercations to quell any desire I might have had to watch a round of boxing again. I have been awoken on a Saturday morning by choruses of hooters and singing fans during the dozens of match days that have passed by during my tenure; an atmosphere that can easily be likened to the tangible buzz experienced by ordinary people in ordinary streets on VE Day, 1945.

I have witnessed (and documented) businesses coming and going, such as the ill-fated Fab Mash and the excellent Wok to Walk. I was invited by Apple to be inside at the opening of St David’s 2 and have eaten and drank at nearly every single restaurant, pub and bar in the CF10 postcode area. I’ve had it good and I’ve made the most of it.

The problems which naturally go hand in hand with residing in such a high profile area are fairly self-evident. Drunken party people shouting and screaming until at least 5am every morning (if not later) and piles of polystyrene trays adorning what is my “front garden” every match day being just two examples.

I have consciously attempted to make living in this area as safe and serene as possible for everyone who has chosen to try it out by setting up a residents committee. I try to encourage this committee to meet as often as possible; the only problem is that most tenants rarely stay as long as me. They seem easily scared away by the noise and characters of the night-time.

Stepping off of the street, in through the door and up into a lift does sometimes seem like entering Narnia – especially if you do it at 1am on a Saturday morning. Up here I have a new (built in 2003) apartment with a modern kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms – all the mod-cons, a far cry from the battered sausages and rissoles down there.

Once you close the double-glazed doors, draw the curtains and sit down in front of the telly you could be in any suburb, anywhere. Soundproofing is clearly a matter that the original builders didn’t skimp on and for that I am grateful.

There have been annoyances and frustrations (as you would expect) since the area has been a massive building site for at least the last five years;  like road closures and dug up streets as the works went on to spruce up St Mary Street, meaning that I never knew if my Sainsbury’s delivery driver could get to me or not.

But, with this I have witnessed the capital grow and many changes for the better have come of it. St Mary Street now looks much better. The partial pedestrianisation has worked out well and from what I hear is to be completed later this year.

Trade is now flourishing in the nearby arcades and St David’s 2 is welcoming millions of visitors, shoppers and eaters. A world away from the throng of temporary fences, hard hats and cranes that comprised it just 6 months ago.

Cardiff is coming of age. Amenities are being added all the time that make it viable to make a home here, like the opening of Tesco and Sainsbury’s on St Mary Street, both of which close at 11pm.

A year ago I was cooking a chilli and realised that I did not have an onion. It was 9pm and I walked the streets trying to find one, with no luck. There was nowhere to buy regular groceries; M&S on Queen Street closes at 6pm and Sainsbury’s 8pm. I would have had to walk to Grangetown or Cathays had I not had the bright idea to ask a kindly chip-shop owner at The Red Onion (yes, really) if I could buy one from him. I explained my dilemma and he gave it to me, refusing to accept any money. Now that’s community spirit!

Living in Cardiff city centre could, I suppose, be likened to Manhattan living, but on a smaller scale and without the glitz and glamour of Broadway (although we do have St David’s Hall and the New Theatre).

Now that there is a little one on the way it is time to leave this all behind.

I will be sad to leave.

Tex-Hex

I’ll be honest from the outset, I have not always been a fan of Mexican food, or Texan flavours or Tex-Mex or whatever they’re calling it these days, but I think that I’m getting sympathy cravings as Misia goes through her pregnancy. In the past few weeks I have made no less than 3 tortilla based meals and I’m starting to get a tongue for it, where I previously didn’t even fancy peppers so much I am now using a whole bell pepper in a wok full of minced beef and Mexican spices.

On the basis of this I decided that it was time for a visit to one of the newest additions to Cardiff’s culinary scene, the chain Tex-Mex restaurant Chimichanga which opened late last year on the East-Side of the new St David’s 2 shopping centre. Sitting alongside its chainy-buddies Pizza Express, Nando’s, Yo! Sushi and Café Rouge it seems well in its place. Would it do well elsewhere in Cardiff, say for example on St Mary Street? Something tells me that it wouldn’t, but this isn’t a blog about effective urban location demographics so let’s move on.

It was 3pm on a Wednesday and the entire centre was pretty much deserted, not like at 3pm last Wednesday afternoon, at the height of the Easter half-term holidays when the entire place was filled with screaming children, when I was secretly wishing they would all throw themselves face-first down the escalators. No, the place was empty.

After hanging around for 5 minutes to be shown to a seat, despite being the only people there, bar a party of 4 who were already tucking in, we were asked if we wanted to sit inside or outside, which was quite a puzzling question to be asked when you’re in a shopping centre. It turns out that there is an “outside” which is outside of what would be considered the main dining area, but of course is still inside, on the second floor of a shopping centre. A little puzzled we humoured him and said we’d sit inside, I guess it’s not quite summer yet so it might be chilly sitting outside. Inside a shopping centre.

The menu is extensive, with all the dishes you would expect from any good Tex-Mex restaurant, Tacos, Fajitas, Cajun Chicken, Chilli, Burritos and the rest. The choice looked good, now what would I choose?
The closest I suppose I have been to a Tex-Mex restaurant before would probably be Taco Bell which I sometimes stop by on my visits to the States. They do a mean 99¢ Burrito, let me tell you, they must either be making a fantastic loss on it or its all made out of ground-up horse bones because it’s packed with minced beef.

I had to try the Beef Burrito because it promises “A baked flour tortilla with jack cheese, sautéed onions and peppers garnished with sour cream, chives, guacamole and tortilla croutons”. Hell, if Taco Bell can do it right for GBP 0.75 (est) then for £10.25 this must be the mac-daddy of all Burritos. In fact it must be 13.66666666 times as good!

The chef was bored. I got a great view of his open-plan kitchen from my seat, and he was clearly not feeling the afternoon quiet spell. All alone with the shiny utensils, ovens and such he had nothing to do. I didn’t see his face light-up when he got our order, but I’m sure that it did. Finally, he could do what I can only imagine is his life’s work, to bring good Mexican food to the malnourished British public.

No less than 5 minutes after placing our order the plates were at the table, piping hot and waiting to be consumed. This chef is a wizard! Making a perfectly wrapped Burrito, garnished with hot beef chilli, nachos and salad and my dining partners “Grande Chicken Quesadilla” all by himself in 4.5 minutes flat? Wow.

Sarcasm aside for one second, we’re talking pre-made, pre-plated microwave job here aren’t we?
Seriously, if I wanted that I would have gone to Wetherspoons, where I could probably have had it for £3.99 or less.

What can I say? I noticed the quick turnaround time, attributed it to a microwave job and this immediately knocked 5 points off their possible 10 point review. It could only go down-hill from here.
The side garnish nachos were slightly soggy, something that is not good for any corn based snack and the Burrito itself was almost completely devoid of any flavour. It wasn’t wet, it wasn’t dry, it wasn’t spicy, it wasn’t mild, in fact, were there any spices in there at all? Nothing on the plate did anything to excite the taste buds at all, something that Tex-Mex is supposed to do with its fusion of spices from both North and South of the border. It’s supposed to reach up and bite you, but in a good way.
We were offered desserts but declined, dessert is never good in restaurants anyway.

But wait! There was one good thing. I ordered a beer with my meal, a San Miguel (from the choice of that, Brahama (which is Brazillian?!) or Corona) and the mug that was presented to me to pour it into had been kept in the freezer, a trick which always gets points in my book. There is nothing worse than pouring your cold bottle of beer into a warm pint glass.

Bill: £24.50 + tip.
Verdict: Go for the cold beer glasses and the amazing Tasmanian devil chef. The food? Old El Paso could have done better.