Standing in the aptly named Grand Hall of The Exchange Hotel in Cardiff Bay – once the trading floor of the Coal Exchange – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with awe to imagine all the history that’s taken place within its walls over the years. You can almost picture the scene back in the late 1800s to mid 1900s, when the Coal Exchange saw up to 10,000 coal and ship owners and their agents pass through its doors every day. Cardiff was the biggest coal port in the world and the Coal Exchange was responsible for setting the price of the world’s coal. In 1901, an iconic deal to transport 2,500 tonnes of coal to France saw the first ever £1 million cheque signed here.
Today, despite undergoing extensive refurbishment under new owner, Lawrence Kenwright of Signature Living, the Grade-II listed Exchange Hotel still bears many of the hallmarks of the Coal Exchange that once stood in its place all those years ago, like the lion clocks standing either side of the reception desk.
Dining at The Exchange Hotel Cardiff
The Exchange Hotel opened in 2016, after the former Coal Exchange – most recently used as a live music venue – was closed due to safety concerns and lay derelict for a number of years. Up until now, the Grand Hall has served as a make-shift restaurant. However, work has been underway on a newly revamped restaurant for some time and R.P. Culley & Co a.k.a Culleys finally opened earlier this month, paving the way for a more intimate dining experience at The Exchange Hotel. The restaurant is named after local philanthropist, Richard Palethorpe Culley, who once held the catering contract for The Exchange Restaurant, formerly located in the hotel basement.
Like the rest of the hotel, the restaurant still bears many of the Coal Exchange’s original features. The wine cellar is housed within the lift that was once used to transport cash to and from the underground bank vaults.
To complement the significance of The Exchange Hotel to Welsh culture and heritage, R.P. Culley & Co. comes with a revamped menu with a predominantly Welsh focus in dishes like Gavi steamed Welsh mussels, breaded Perl Wen cheese, Usk ribeye steak, Cefn Mawr burger with rarebit cheese, Cwm Farm ice cream and Wickedly Welsh chocolate sharing platters. According to Welsh Head Chef, Keith Clash, each dish seeks to embody the working class spirit of Welsh miners and their families, while also reflecting the value of the venue within the Welsh economic and cultural landscape.
Prices edge slightly above what you’d expect from a hotel restaurant, but remain on par with what you’d expect to pay at an independent restaurant of this calibre.
Besides brewing and bottling its own-label brand of wines and champagne in partnership with Tanners Wines of Shrewsbury, Culleys also produces its own range of beers, including smoked beer.
The selection of Caribbean rums, local gins, whiskies and freshly mixed cocktails is equally impressive.
As we wait for our starters to arrive, we nibble cautiously on a basket of just-baked, pillow-soft bread, savouring its wholesome, fresh flavour while desperately trying to refrain from making ourselves too full before we even get started on our first courses.
Just moments later, I’m presented with a ham hock ballotine served with a jug of hot, well-seasoned broth and yet more moreish, oven-fresh bread. As the ham soaks up the broth, it breaks up into little flakes that disperse throughout the silky golden liquid.
This is a contemporary take on the Welsh national dish, cawl (£7.50), traditionally served with Welsh lamb, bread and cheese. The slight saltiness of the ham hock gives the broth a delicious savoury flavour, accentuated by mopping up the sauce with the hunk of toasted onion bread, spread with lashings of salted Welsh butter.
Meanwhile, opposite me at the table, my dining companion Jamie of travel blog, Explore With Ed slurps up the chef’s soup of the day (£6). A murky green combination of butternut squash and green lentils, this had a pleasantly thick yet smooth consistency. Of course, the soup was paired with more lovely bread for good measure.
Recommended by Keith himself, my main course of Culleys beef (£29) consisted of an oxtail, beef and foie gras pie, truffle mash, seared beef fillet, spinach, rosti potato and meaty jus.
I first tried foie gras at the Michelin-starred Ox Belfast while on a Belfast food tour earlier this year, and it was overly rich and somewhat bitter. In this dish, however, the foie gras is used more sparingly and it certainly gave this fall-apart beef and oxtail pie an enhanced meaty flavour, beautifully offset by the creamy truffle mash topping.
To describe the beef fillet as lean would be a gross understatement; my knife glided through it with such ease, the first morsel was in my mouth within a single stroke. The succulent texture was a delightful contrast for the chunky potato rosti, while the spinach clung to the jus, releasing a burst of saliva-provoking juices with every bite.
Jamie tucked into a braised Welsh lamb shank, served steaming hot with mustard-infused mash and an aromatic thyme and Merlot jus (£20). As he cut through the meat, it fell effortlessly away from the bone and he said it was the tastiest lamb he’s had the pleasure of eating in a while.
Our mains were generously-sized and very filling, so we didn’t really need any additional sides. However, we couldn’t resist the sound of the triple-cooked chips (£2.50), so we thought we may as well push the boat out and give them a go – it is the season for indulgence, after all!
Chips will never be the same again. These chunky golden chips were so thickly cut, each one was bigger than three of my fingers put together. The triple-cooking process ensured a crispy, slightly thickened coating with a subtle sweetness, encasing a fluffy, pale yellow centre. Had it not been for the beckoning cry of the dessert menu, we would’ve polished off the lot.
The bara brith, brioche bread and butter pudding (£6.50) captured my attention as soon as I set eyes on the dessert menu. As you’d expect, it was much sweeter than classic bread and butter pudding, with a sugar-coated crust. The warm, spicy tones of the bara brith were perfectly complemented by a creamy vanilla custard, while rum-soaked sultanas gave the dish a piquant kick.
Jamie succumbed to the lemon and thyme meringue tart (£6.50), served ‘deconstructed’ in a sundae glass, with layers of raspberry jelly, lemon-infused custard, thyme jelly and cream topped with mini meringues and thin shards of golden, crumbly pastry.
Fit to burst, we waddled out of the restaurant and back into the toasty, amber glow of the hotel foyer, before begrudgingly stepping out onto the cold, wet and windy street outside; well, it wouldn’t be Wales without the weather!
We loved our meal at R.P. Culley & Co. and while the festive season is the ideal time to visit this glorious venue, I’d happily dine here at any time of the year.
R.P. Culley & Co. also offers Welsh afternoon teas and Sunday roast dinners, in addition to housing a 40-cover private dining room available for parties and special occasions. Discover more on the restaurant website or call 029 2010 7050 to place a booking.
R.P. Culley & Co. | The Exchange Hotel | The Exchange Building | Mount Stuart Square | Cardiff Bay | CF10 5FQ