Bully’s, in the Cardiff suburb of Pontcanna, is generating something of a buzz amongst the local foodie community. With regular ‘gourmet evenings’ and a reputation for interesting and unusual menu selections, its reputation seems to have grown since our first visit there shortly after it opened around a year ago, so with Mr W’s birthday on the horizon, we decided that a meal at Bully’s, which offers French food with a strong Welsh influence in terms of sourcing its ingredients, would be a lovely early celebration.
We were welcomed on arrival by Dewi, one of the waiting staff, who gave us our menus and the wine list and said he would be on hand to explain anything to us that we wanted more information about. From reading other reviews of Bully’s, and from speaking to friends who have been, I know that the owner, Paul, is often on hand and enjoys talking guests through the menu options and ingredients. Unfortunately, he’s not been there on either of our visits, but the other staff seemed to be extremely knowledgeable about all of the dishes on offer and were extremely eager to give us as much information as we wanted, which was really nice. You can tell that the menu and wine list has been compiled by someone who has put a lot of thought into it and matched up dishes and wines that complement each other. In addition to the full wine list, the a la carte menu came complete with recommended July wines, which were suggested as a particularly good accompaniment to the dishes on offer. We chose a bottle of Beaujolais from this selection, and were very pleased with our choice.
Whilst we made our selections, we were each brought a side plate with two different breads (freshly baked baguette and sesame bread), closely followed by an amuse bouche. This was a chicory, pear and walnut salad, served with a raspberry dressing. This didn’t really work for either of us, being a bit too crunchy but lacking in any contrasting texture. It would have really benefited from some crumbled blue cheese. An amuse bouche is always a nice touch, though, and it was beautifully presented. It also gives the waiting staff an opportunity to engage with diners at an early stage of the meal, and this was certainly what the evening was all about.
I started with a snail and button mushroom fricassee. I love snails, but rarely have the opportunity to have them in the UK, so when they appear on a menu they are almost always my first choice – although sadly it seems almost impossible to find them simply cooked in garlic butter as is the French way. These were very good though – juicy and earthy, and nicely complemented by the button mushrooms. It’s quite unusual to find button mushrooms on a menu, as often restaurants opt for something more flavoursome, but the delicate flavour was just right with the stronger tasting snails, and the sauce, which was garlicky and flavoursome and very similar to a mariniere that you’d expect with moules. It came served with garlic croutons, although I opted to eat the fresh baguette with it instead.
We were both intrigued by the salad of lomo that was on offer, and we were pleased to take Dewi up on his offer of explaining the menu to us in order to ask what this was. We now know that lomo is a type of Spanish cured ham, with a smoky flavour, similar to Parma ham or prosciutto. This came served with rocket, parmesan and sun blushed tomatoes. I tried a mouthful and could best describe it as tasting like a pizza topping without the base! The flavour combination really worked and the presentation was good, but it wasn’t a stand out dish for us and could perhaps have done with a more unusual dressing or something in the ingredients that was a bit ‘different’.
Mr W’s main, however, was probably the stand out of the night. He went for the fillet of Welsh black beef, which he had medium rare, and came with dauphinoise potatoes, panko carrots and green beans. Again, the presentation was lovely, and the beef was excellent – although if anything it was closer to rare than medium rare, but this wasn’t an issue as it was delicious. The accompaniments were all very good too, especially the deep fried panko carrots which were really unusual.
My main was also very good – breast of Barbary duck, served with sautéed spring greens, a poached pear and a honey sauce. With the duck, I had the option of how I would like it cooked, and chose pink, which it certainly was, and was tender, tasty and juicy. My only slight complaint was that it didn’t have a very crispy skin. A redeeming feature, however, was the poached pear. This is something that as a dessert I have always found fairly pointless, but having tried it with the duck, I think the humble poached pear has now found its vocation in life, as an accompaniment to something savoury. It was delicious and worked very, very well with the duck and the sauce.Unusually, we both felt we had room for a dessert. Mr W chose an apple tart tatin, which was served with raspberry ripple ice cream. Both the tart and the ice cream were excellent, but unfortunately didn’t really go together very well – he would have preferred vanilla ice cream, or at least something with less of a strong flavour. As it was, the rich caramel of the tarte tatin was drowned by the tangy raspberry. I, on the other hand, would have been quite happy with a bowl of the raspberry ripple ice cream on its own as it was such a lovely flavour! The ice cream was served on top of the tart as well, so unfortunately there was no escaping it, and no way to separate the two.
Even more unusually than our both having a desire for a pudding, I wasn’t inspired by anything sweet on the menu. Instead, the cheese board caught my eye. This had top billing, with a whole page in the menu dedicated to a write up of each of the cheeses, so I knew it would be something special! I could see Dewi lovingly preparing the cheeseboard at the back of the restaurant, and he then talked me through each of them, plus the condiments that were served with them (onion chutney, mustard and – much to my surprise – a spoonful of set honey!) The cheeses included a goat’s cheese, a Brie de Meaux, a Bleu de Basque (instead of the Bleu d’Avergne on the menu, but equally good if not better!) plus a Welsh hard cheese similar to cheddar, and another Welsh cheese that was more along the lines of a parmigiano. They had a simple accompaniment of thinly sliced toasted baguette, and no unnecessary fruit or other distractions, which meant I was able to enjoy the flavours of the cheese to the full. The biggest surprise was the set honey, which Dewi suggested trying with the goat’s cheese. I am not a huge goat’s cheese fan, often finding it too sharp, but pairing it up with the honey was a revelation, and something I will definitely try again. With our final courses, we had a glass of dessert wine and a glass of port respectively, both of which were recommended to us and made a lovely end to our meal.
Bully’s is quite a small place, with an eclectic collection of furnishings and decor, but it feels cosy and welcoming whilst still in keeping with the standard of the food on offer. It wasn’t full when we visited, but I can imagine when it is it has a really nice buzz. Our only slight complaint about the ambience was some music playing very quietly in the background, far too quiet to make out what it was, but still discernible, which is at best pointless and at worst irritating! We were also a bit chilly, but we asked for the air conditioning to be turned down and this was done instantly and made an immediate difference. The restaurant’s website is illustrated with a line drawing style, and this was echoed on the placemats on our table – which I thought was a really nice touch, especially as they were printed using an unusual embossing style. As well as Dewi, we were also looked after by Louise, who runs Bully’s Twitterfeed (@bullyscardiff) as well as working in the restaurant. She was equally knowledgeable about the food and the restaurant’s background and was able to answer my query around its unusual name – I had thought perhaps it was a nod to the legendary three Michelin starred ‘El Bulli’ in Spain, sometimes referred to as the best restaurant in the world, but in fact it is simply in honour of the owner, Paul Bullimore – so there we go!
Three courses with wine plus dessert wine and a glass of port came to £128. I was absolutely astonished, however, to discover that this included an optional service charge. I have no issue with this practice per se, and it was very clearly highlighted so wouldn’t be a problem for anyone who didn’t want to give a tip. However, I was actually disappointed, because the service had been so outstanding that I was looking forward to giving a generous tip anyway, so to be asked to do so felt unnecessary – and also took away the pleasure of being able to reward good service with an appropriate tip, as it felt as if we were only doing it because we’d been asked to! I’d urge Bully’s to stop doing this – they really don’t need to. If the service continues to be as excellent as we experienced, I am certain they will not lose out on tips if they don’t put the service charge onto the bill. We had a lovely evening all in all. Bully’s and its staff clearly have an incredible pride in the food they serve – something that should be a given in running a restaurant, but is all too often lacking. The menu is interesting and tempting, and although on this occasion the food was not outstanding across the board, there were a few definite highlights which were bordering on excellent and I would certainly visit again as I can imagine the menu changes frequently, with lots more unusual options on offer, and somewhere that has such a clear passion for innovative and good quality cuisine is bound to have future moments of brilliance! I would also love to go to one of the seven course gourmet evenings as I am sure this is foodie heaven, and as educational as it is delicious! For us, the stand out of the evening was the service. Both Louise and Dewi seemed genuinely passionate about the food on offer, and extremely knowledgeable, taking a pride in both the service and the food they had on offer. They were attentive and helpful, without being over the top, and it was a pleasure to be served by both of them.
Food: **** Service: ***** Atmosphere: ***
Bully’s, 5 Romilly Crescent, Cardiff CF11 9NP