Tuesday, 12 March 2019

JOLs, High St, Merthyr Tydfil: fixed-price menu review

'The best restaurant in Merthyr' might seem like damning with faint praise: the town is dominated by brands, and as you drop down from the A470 at night there's a familiar gallery of neon-branded big names, the kinds which speckle retail parks everywhere.

You can only beat what’s in front of you, though.

I was fortunate enough to try Jamie O'Leary's first foray into street food here (I think I may have been his first customer, in some sad trainspottery fashion) and I couldn't help but be impressed with the standard of food he was rustling up- literally, with his superb chips- within the confines imposed by a street food setting. It must have seemed a far cry indeed from his years at The Hardwick with Stephen Terry. The braised rabbit with gnocchi that day set out his stall nicely: confident technique plus great locally-sourced produce, and cooking far above what you'd expect from a trailer in a city centre: restaurant-standard dishes, in a cardboard box. Confit duck with a risotto 'cake' just confirmed my hunch.

With wooden floorboards and muted colours, the restaurant is tasteful without being stiff-backed, a welcoming, smart space where it is easy to relax. It has been here almost three years, and yes, I should have visited long ago.

We ordered from a two courses for £15/3 for £20 menu. It's less 'cheffy' and less cosmopolitan than I was expecting, with an a la carte later in the week, but in the meantime this looks like a menu which knows its market: it it offers precisely the kind of crowd-pleasers I want on a damp, dank Merthyr evening. Hearty pub grub, in effect; think sausage and mash. Lamb with garlic mash and mint gravy. Think fish and chips. Ham, egg and chips. Steak with green peppercorn sauce. (And chips. There's good reason for this: we shall come back to these chips later.)

Pork belly, crusted with sesame, wears its Asian influences lightly. Teamed with a lightly-dressed coleslaw, it gets us off to a promising start. It does exactly what you want your pork belly to do; it's a satisfying piece of cooking, wobbling in all the right places. 

The scampi are light, crisp and juicy. The key detail here is a ketchup heavily cut through with laverbread, balancing the sweetness and brininess as you dredge the langoustines through it. It's not a looker for your Instagram feed, but decidedly effective nonetheless. It has the kind of flavour which has you simultaneously scraping the bowl and mourning the fact you'll struggle to find this stuff anywhere else. 

I know what you're thinking. This, or The Heathcock's cockle popcorn with laverbread mayo?

To which, the only right-thinking response goes something like this: can I have both, please? Twice?

The Wagyu burger is a winner. It does get messy- the brioche doesn't quite make it to the end without getting a little 'collapsy', with its classic lettuce-tomato-cheese-bacon-bacon jam-thickly-sliced-pickle elements all proving a little too much for the bread. Oregano comes through strongly, which lends its an almost bolognese richness inside its decent crust. There's a welcome touch of pink left in the beef and because it has been formed with a good loose texture its height doesn't become a jaw-aching chore. This is certainly one of the very best I've eaten in Wales, and certainly the best from a non-'niche' specialist.

The chips. These are serious chips. They are triple cooked- ruffled, brittle edges, a deep gold, chunky but lighter than expected- and remind you how good his have always been, and how often 'triple cooked' is a let down: a damp squid (sic), as my old English teacher used to say. They feel like a roastie/chip hybrid and are strong contenders for the best I've had for a good while. The bubbled, frilly batter on the pollock is just the thing too: a spankingly fresh piece of fish treated with respect so it's crisp and light.

This menu promises comfort food to a high standard. Happily, it delivers, with room to spare. Service is twinkly in that warm Valleys way which guarantees you'll feel welcome. I'll be sure to return to try the a la carte, which leans toward classical French cooking, for the simple reason that if crab croquetas or sautéed wild mushrooms or roast rump of lamb or grass-fed steak with chimichurri or confit duck or pork belly or roasted hake or osso bucco don't get those juices flowing, then your life is clearly one long cry for help. It's yet more evidence of good cooking outside the capital and at 45 min from the city is reachable on a school night. This is a feelgood menu, cooking to leave you satisfied and happy. 

It may even leave you feeling JOLly. 

No, really; I'm here all week, try the veal...

30-31 High St, 
Merthyr Tydfil 
CF47 8DP

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