Mint and Mustard, restaurant review: 'I was transported from Cardiff to the Kerala trail from the first mouthful'

134 Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, tel: 02920 620 333

To Wales. But not to The Hardwick or The Walnut Tree, which are undoubtedly wonderful. Mr M has cut up rough about "hen's-egg-in-velouté" food and wants something different on this outing. So after extensive research (asking Twitter), the result of which was "go to The Hardwick", I took another tack.

My mate Will mentioned a place in Cardiff: "Go to Mince and Mustard". Well, that's what I thought he said. Curious name for a restaurant, but these days bald statements about what a place serves are all the rage (started by Burger & Lobster, I believe).

After having posh mince at The Palomar recently, I thought I might be on to a trend. But it turns out the restaurant is called Mint and Mustard and I'm a twit, because it has won plenty of accolades and is in the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Bib Gourmand books.

It's an Indian restaurant, and on the basis of my visit I would hazard that it's the best in Wales; in fact I'd say that – décor aside – it's as good as Gymkhana in London, which recently won Restaurant magazine's No1 slot.

Yes, the décor. It's got the plate glass and blaring logo beloved of Indian restaurants, and on its bit of road there's an iffy Chinese takeaway on one side and a Sainsbury's Local across the way. Inside, the chairs are upholstered most of the way down the back legs, like a lady of a certain age trying to disguise her bottom. It's sort of coherent: gold and purple is the theme, and there's a flock feature wall, of which I fully approve.

Once the food starts arriving, I wouldn't have noticed if the mural of a pointy-breasted lady came to life and started serving arrack. There's an ongoing Taste of Kerala Festival until October, and the tasting menu reads like a culinary tour of this region's most nuanced dishes. This is not lager'n'vindaloo territory.

I've brought my "not very keen on Indian food" sister Claire as well as Mr M, who still dreams of the Keralan and Sri Lankan food he had on a three-month jaunt in the 1990s.

Claire needs some coaxing to try the crab porichathu, two dainty soft-shell crabs presented in an embrace on the oblong white plate, with a crab-tomato purée. They are as sweet and juicy as we'd hoped, with a powerful kick lent by the rusty red sauce.

Four cubes of lamb, described as spice-crusted tikka and cooked in the tandoor, have a MasterChef presentation but a Michelin taste; while scallops thengapal – a pastel-yellow, oily, zesty moilee bathes them on their half-shell – are just gently cooked through, not seared or scorched or tweaked. And to finish our starters, a row of Bombay chaat. Each crisp parcel, adorned with a single pomegranate seed, explodes in creamy, tangy flavours that mingle and yet are utterly distinct.

There is no guidance as to the heat of each dish, so our charming, knowledgeable waiter warns us that the Syrian beef curry (there has always been a big Syrian Christian community in Kerala, we're told) is hot stuff.

But it's the sea-bass pollichathu (fish in a banana leaf) that makes the hairs on the back of my tastebuds stand up. It treads exactly the right line between force and refinement: the thick reddish paste over the generous piece of fish, all wrapped up with a tangle of tender prawns on top, speaks of a long, slow cooking and an experienced hand with the very best of southern spices and that tang of shallots. More of the moilee, and a roundel of delicate seafood pilau rice temper things.

Claire, warming to the theme both mentally and physically, is delighted by her Malabar biriyani. The muntjac version of this, at Gymkhana, is one of my desert-island dishes (I wish Radio4 would commission such a series), so I know how good it can be. Inside a slightly thicker, less adorned, pastry, the ghee-sheened rice is fragrant and the chicken lovely – big chunks of tender white meat, scented with pepper. It lacks only some of the jewel-like extras of a truly memorable biriyani.

A fig-and-fresh-coriander naan mops up the gravy, and an achinga payaru (green bean) thoran is exemplary – the crisp curry leaves, slivers of green chilli and hefty flakes of coconut take me right back to Cochin.

We could have ordered less – and not from the top end of the menu – and had more of a bargain, but I would have paid a lot more and still been thrilled. Lucky, lucky Cardiff.

9/10

Mint and Mustard, 134 Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, tel: 02920 620 333. £110 for three, with wine.

Four more foodie notes from the past week

The Newbridge on Usk

The fish starter for sharing at this Welsh inn is a winner. Whitebait, mussels, prawn cocktail, scallops en croute, and lots more.

Fentimans

The worryingly addictive softdrinks line has added elderflower, my favourite summer flavour. One to hide from the children.

Armit Wines

Won a case of their La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva in a raffle; shared an anniversary bottle with Mr M. Both the same vintage: 1998.

Blackberries

Taking advantage of the early ripening season with huge, juicy beauties now in both the shops and hedgerows. Can’t resist.

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