Brains are betting the farm on a £1.25m new super-boozer in Cardiff Bay called The Dock. But will it sink or swim?
The Cardiff brewers have been around since 1882, they’re still a family owned company (albeit one that turned over about £140 million last year) and their logo always looked much more fitting stretched across the beer bellies of Welsh rugby fans than Admiral’s.
But the real reason I like Brains is the smell.
That malty, lightly-burnt-toast aroma that emanates from Crawshay Street and settles over Cardiff like a Horlicks-y cwtch on a crisp winter’s morning is one of the defining experiences of living in this city. If they offered it as a subscription service or in an aerosol can, I’d be all over it (the ideal partner product for Cardiff Rain, surely?!).
In short, I loves Brains, I do. But there’s a but – they’re just that little bit boring.
Basically, they make beer for your Dad. Sensible, sessionable bitters and pale ales that are decent enough (indeed, they’re ideal match day fodder), but pretty unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. They’re like the Ocean Colour Scene of brewing.
Their craft beer range is a little more daring, but other than the drinkable Barry Island IPA I’ve not come across anything that comes close to offerings available from relative minnows like Pipes and Crafty Devil.
Traditionally the same could be said of their pubs – they’ve tended to occupy a niche in the food chain just above Wetherspoons – somewhere reliably inoffensive where you can get pie and chips and a pint for under a tenner. Not the worst thing in the world, but not the sort of thing people get excited about on TripAdvisor.
Thankfully, Brains have gone and given themselves a £1.25m kick up the arse with the opening of The Dock – a colossal new quasi-gastropub occupying the shell of Terra Nova on Mermaid Quay.
Terra Nova was not the best pub. Naming it after a ship most famous for getting to Antarctica a bit late and indirectly killing the most famous explorer of its day never seemed like a great idea, and it wasn’t a great place to drink, either. Overpriced with an underwhelming drinks offering, and more often than not packed to the gills with obnoxious punters doused in fake tan wearing low cut tops. And the girls could be annoying sometimes too.
In short, if Scott’s mate Oates had been sat in Terra Nova on a Friday night rather than freezing his stiff upper lip off in Antarctica, he would have stood up to announce that he would be some time before buggering off to the Wetherspoons round the corner.
Part of the problem was the decor – it was more like a pirate ship themed Call of Duty map than a pub – all dark corners, seemingly random mezzanine floors and hidden cubby holes.
But not anymore. The Dock is all airy open spaces and impractically high shelving, all centred on a massive booze filled atrium. Presumably the bar staff have been issued with jet packs for any punters wanting a bottle from the top shelf.
The revamped interior is more tasteful than Patrick Bateman’s business card – all bang on-trend greys and royal blues, with vintage typography and plenty of touches referencing the history of the Bay.
But looks aren’t everything, otherwise Bradley Cooper would be Pope. What about the grub?
Head Chef Nathan Brown, a former employee of none other than Marco Pierre White, hosted a sneak preview of the menu earlier this week.
Breakfast is a big feature – everything from granola to a sweet potato hash/huevos rancheros mashup gets a look in, along with a banging take on poached egg and avocado on toast.
There are some treats among the starters and sharing platters too – the Asian inspired confit duck salad and the bacon-crumbed hen’s egg (complete with runny yolk) are both absolutely killer, but I’m a bit torn about the bento box sharer.
The combo of olives, calamari, deep fried goats cheese, beetroot falafels and baba ganoush with hummus and pitta bread looks great and tastes better (I’d happily trough a bucket of the baba ganoush), but the £14 price tag is a bit eye-watering given the portion size – you’d struggle to feed more than two with it.
The real star among the sharers is the nachos. It’s a dish that can sometimes feel like a bit of a rip-off – a certain amount of mental gymnastics needs to be done to convince yourself a bag of warmed up Doritos with a sprinkling of cheese is worth the best part of a tenner. But, with a few imaginative touches – hot and sweet roquito peppers, Perl Las blue cheese and a chilli pineapple salsa in place of boring old tomato – The Dock manages to make it feel like a proper treat. I’m not 100% on the mess tin, but it’s better than a donkey pulling a cart.
On to the mains. There’s a burger, naturally, and it’s respectable enough – nothing that’s going to trouble the likes of Got Beef, though the deep fried pickle on top is a nice touch.
And then there’s the fried chicken. There really should be a picture of it here, but I had to use my free hand to shove everyone else out of the way so I could eat it all. Nathan mentioned Dirty Bird as an influence, and while I think it’d probably lose on a split-points decision to Cardiff’s filthiest fowl, it’d be a very close run thing. The buttermilk coated boneless chicken thighs are fantastically juicy, and actually taste like chicken, which is more than can often be said for this sort of dish. Great stuff. Not the cheapest at £11 a pop, but worth it for the quality I reckon.
For those after something a bit less cholesterol-laden, there’s the beef fillet ramen – fresh raw veggies with glass noodles topped with a hunk of rare(ish) cow, served with a steaming hot kettle of spicy broth. Basically a DIY Wagamamas, or a super-upmarket Pot Noodle.
As for desserts, there’s some original stuff on the menu like the Earl Grey panna cotta with gingerbread and apricot, and a salted caramel and chocolate creme brulee, but the good old fashioned Eton Mess is what really knocks it out of the park.
There’s an old-school take with summer fruits and a more adventurous passion fruit and mango version, and they’re both great – richer and thicker than the cast of Made in Chelsea. Well, almost.
In terms of the drinks offering, there are some top-notch cocktails (the Hoppy Collins, served with a dash of SA Gold, is great, as is the spice-laden Far East Discovery), but beer drinkers will get much more choice and bang for their buck in the neighbouring Wetherspoons – there are a couple of non-Brains craft beer options but given the sheer size of the place, I’d have liked more variety.
Verdict: Nautical but nice
It’s not the cheapest, and the beer range is a little bit disappointing, but overall The Dock is light years ahead of its predecessor Terra Nova. It looks great, and Nathan and his team have put a ton of effort and thought into the menu. It’s most certainly not your Dad’s Brains pub.