We tried Butetown’s top rated restaurant and it was a bit hit and miss – Reem Ahmed
Located in the Coal Exchange Hotel in Cardiff, Culley’s Kitchen & Bar has a lot to offer. Its surroundings have a rich history of 134 years. Considered one of the most important buildings in Welsh history, it was built between 1884 and 1886 and was once a hive of businessmen trading in the city. In 1904 the first check for £1 million was signed there, and in 1913 it hosted Captain Scott and his crew before they boarded the Terra Nova and departed on their ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. Benefiting from Grade II listed building status in 1975, it has more recently been used as a concert hall and in 2017 underwent a stunning transformation into a 200-room hotel.
The restaurant was launched in 2019, named RP Culley and Co at the time – a nod to Richard Palethorpe Culley, a local philanthropist and entrepreneur who played a huge role in the coal industry in Wales. The pandemic has proven crucial for the venue: it returned from lockdown in 2020 with a more modern shine, renaming itself Culley’s Kitchen & Bar. Since then it has earned itself the title of Butetown’s highest rated restaurant and ranks 27th in TripAdvisor’s Cardiff restaurant rankings.
When I go to visit Culley’s at lunchtime, I’m disappointed that I can’t enjoy the original venue due to maintenance. But the temporary dining room does not detract from my experience: I am spoiled for choice in the vast and majestic Grand Hall of the hotel. Its deep mahogany walls glint in the light of the multitude of chandeliers flickering overhead. Paintings and photos celebrating the building’s history hang proudly on a balcony that encircles the room. Pop music tinkles through the speakers, which seems slightly at odds with the grandeur, but it dilutes any pretension. You can read all of our food and drink news here.
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While it’s certainly an afternoon of fine dining, there’s nothing pompous or ostentatious about Culley. The service immediately feels genuine and friendly, and is probably some of the best I’ve received at a restaurant in town. A friendly waitress hands me a large bottle of cold still water while I peruse the extensive lunch menu. I’m spoiled for choice: there are sandwiches (like a tandoori chicken patty with tzatziki and pickles), classic dishes (like fish and chips), grilled meats (including swordfish), sides (like parmesan truffle fries) and even afternoon tea.
I’m tempted by many of these offerings, especially since Culley’s prides itself on its seasonal and local produce. In the end, I settled for what seemed like the best value option: three courses from the set menu for just £22 (the other option being two courses for £18). This includes dishes that seem a little more sophisticated, like chicken pot pie, smoked salmon risotto, and sorbet. The drinks menu also has plenty to offer, and I’m won over by a mocktail: a virgin strawberry martini – a concoction of non-alcoholic gin, strawberry and lemon, which costs £4.50.
I spot the martini long before it arrives at my table and my anticipation grows as the waitress walks slowly towards my table, the drink teetering on the tray. It’s a bright, fiery red, a welcome splash of color in the dark lobby. But the taste is not so striking and does not fully meet my expectations. For a drink that lists gin and lemon as two of its key ingredients, it’s very smooth and I was looking forward to more zing. The strawberry flavor tastes quite artificial, but its only saving grace is that it’s nostalgic. At first I can’t put my finger on it, but then I realize it tastes exactly the same as I imagine Haribo’s famous strawberry candy would taste if blended in a blender . It’s not unpleasant, but while I appreciate that the hotel is steeped in history, I didn’t expect to be transported back in time to my own childhood.
My starter of tomato and mozzarella with pesto does not impress either. Again, this is by no means offensive: the tomato slices are fresh and firm, offset nicely by the smooth, soft cheese, with a hint of greenery on top. The pesto is fresh and light, but not as tasty (or as much) as I would have liked – especially since the other elements of the meal are quite simple and there is no other seasoning.
My main course is an interesting concept, a mix of ingredients I’ve never had before: purple gnocchi with mashed butternut squash and a grilled vegetable salad. Throughout the short wait for the meal, thoughts of silky gnocchi swimming in a light sauce whet my appetite. But what I end up getting is quite the opposite and a bit of a shock to the system. Dark, almost burnt gnocchi sit on top of the mash, with the vegetables tucked in between. I shyly try the little dumplings, which look like they’ve been fried, something that wasn’t listed on the menu; they’re quite tasty, but I’m distracted by the fact that they’re a little chewy and overcooked.
The rest of the dish, on the other hand, is sublime. The butternut squash puree is creamy and adds a welcome softness to the gnocchi. It’s also deliciously spicy and feels rather autumnal. Vegetables include peppers and zucchini. The former are soft and sweet; the latter are, unexpectedly, the best part of the dish and, in fact, the entire three-course meal. As a former zucchini skeptic, I have converted and finally believe that, yes, they can be tasty. The kitchen’s decision to grill them with a lemony-pepper seasoning is brilliant, and the bland vegetable has been elevated to something divine.
The sticky caramel pudding is a perfect end to the meal. It’s a no-frills affair that doesn’t try to complicate or improve on the traditional recipe we all know and love. And it does it really well: a fluffy, sweet sponge and a sip of oozing caramel sauce. The scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side is rich and creamy. There is what appears to be a cookie crumble under the frosting, which adds a nice little crunch to the dish.
Lunch at Culley’s is full of surprises; some are welcome, but it is true that others just miss the mark. But it lives up to its esteemed surroundings and its title as Butetown’s best restaurant – especially when it comes to its superb table service, which never falters. Not to mention the affordability of the lunch menu, particularly the set menu – my total outlay works out to just over £7 per dish, making this an attractive option for anyone looking to experience a bit of fine dining on a budget, it just needs to make sure those marks are hit.