Asador 44, 14-15 Quay St., Cardiff CF10 1EA
Asador 44: Role play, make-believe and spreadsheets
Asador 44, like the whole ‘44’ franchise (EDIT: actually a chain that opts for the nicer term of 'group', as one reader of this article reached out to correct me on) is a cynical joke. It’s as if Cosy Club decided to ease up on the poached egg racket and have a crack at fine dining. And it’s absolutely toe-curling.
My first brush with this chain that role-plays independent restaurants, was in Clifton at Barr 44 which for some reason, is somehow held in astronomically high esteem by the sorts of people that think The Lido is a culinary revelation. Although when it’s Cardiff, all is forgiven. They have nothing. I thought Rayner was joking, but he wasn’t- it’s absolutely devoid of character, depth and substance when it comes to food and I suppose ‘44 saw their opportunity to make a killing.
Everywhere you attempt to look, you’re blinded by about fifty different light fittings glaring off polished copper, steel and marble. The kitchen looks like a Bristol Zoo exhibit, with massive window panes giving people an insight into what an open kitchen in an actual restaurant might look like. Scribbled in white across the glass are the specials which aren’t easy to decipher because of the sustained assault of showroom lights burrowing into your retinas as if you’re at the opticians.
Still, £60 for a whole turbot is half-price when compared to Brat but then that’s like comparing Fisher-Price to McLaren.
The Galican 250-day-aged carpaccio is £15 for four slices and I already can’t be arsed with this, but given that nipping home isn’t really an option, I say a couple of Hail Mary’s and accept that this is how things are going to be. Of course it’s a nice example of the power of ageing, the fat running deep with that tell-tale funk but much like the ‘44’ brand, it’s nowhere near as good as it thinks it is.
In many restaurants worth their salt, a portion of bread and butter might be a few quid, but you’ll get a few slices and a slab of the gold stuff. But here it screams ‘calculated money spinner’. Not only is it £4 for two slices and two thimbles of oil and ‘jamon’ butter, which is actually butter that’s been near jamon at some point in its life, but you’re reminded that each subsequent half slice is a pound each. There’s no love or feeling, just the undeniable sense that this place has investors ranked top and the punter, second. Or maybe third, below an actual bin.
The Quisquillas come deep-fried in their shell and they’re robustly seasoned, shatteringly crisp, well-cooked and served on a piece of black paper like the carpaccio- similar to Paco or Decimo, which of course makes it no less silly. Our friend remarks ‘it’s got that grasshopper taste at that back that doesn’t seem to go’. I’ve not yet had the pleasure but I can absolutely see what she might mean.
The confit artichoke is abysmal. Woefully under-seasoned, it’s only the tang of the peppers that bring it back into the world of the living. We pick each petal mournfully, until we conclude that they love us not. The bitter irony is that we’d love some more bread to mop up the admittedly sumptuous juices but no, we won’t be fooled again. We know their game and we aren’t playing. Besides, when you insist on toasting the bread, there’s no mopping to be had. You’re just pushing liquids around with a brick.
Ignoring that the plates aren't even clean, this next course is mind-bending in how it tastes of next to nothing. Acid is conspicuously absent which doesn’t really compute when considering the fish is billed as ‘orange-cured’. Everything is so relentlessly underwhelming not even a ‘fun’ little edition of crispy seaweed is bringing this back. Plated to look like something you’d want to eat and pay the money for, it all feeds into the notion that we’re being duped. And how.
Here it is. The main event. The reason you’d go to a place with ‘asador’ in the name. The ‘Asador roast shoulder of Welsh lamb’ with a glossed-mahogany sauce, pan juices and a chimichurri as flat as the Netherlands. The majority of the meat flakes into its muscle groups under the weight of a spoon and is for the most part, a nice piece but I could easily imagine these being banged out in Ikea cafeteria.
The confit jamón fat potato comes in three pieces, swirling with golden fat and speckled with jamón. Somewhere between fondant potatoes and not-being-arsed, you have this. The potato is fudgy and crisp on the top but lacks anything that elevates it past an unctuous piece of starch.
The tenderstem broccoli with morcilla and romesco sauce stirs up mixed emotions, mainly self-loathing and impatience. Although the romesco sauce is truly brilliant- balanced, slick like a compound butter and just all-round competently made, it’s all a bit sad with this fatty rubble of crumbled morcilla- all the life having been cooked out of it. The broccoli itself is al dente and supple but again, there’s no sense of occasion to it, contrary to what the ‘44’ aesthetic is trying to impress.
‘Pedro Ximénez chocolate and hazelnut tart, beef fat caramel, cherry’ is the dessert I’ve heard so much about. On paper it weaves a Great British Menu, Master Chef or generic fine dining appeal but doesn’t succeed in reality. The Edge Lord caramel is grainy and, being the ‘haute’ part of the dish, it all sort of falls flat. The pastry is cooked to Mary Berry-approved levels, the chocolate absorbing the surrounding bottomless supply of light, silky and bitter-sweet. But it also feels like it could be straight off a conveyor belt.
It’s a short review compared to the usual but, like the few of its kind, it’s emblematic of the way I feel- robbed, short-changed, hoodwinked, even.
As the conversation turns to leaving and finding the new Jollibees, the bill comes and I feel well and truly cucked. Just like Bar 44, this was a costly regret. It’s why Coppa in Clifton village has been belched into existence, because it’s now completely obvious that you can get away with this sort of tepid bollocks and people don’t bat an eye, especially if the decor is on-brand.
At least Cardiff has Jollibee’s?