I’ve been to a few obscure bars in my time but The Dead Canary in Cardiff has to be up there with the most bizarre – at least in terms of finding and entering it. Google Maps pointed to an insalubrious outhouse behind the St. David’s shopping centre with “Here be Dragons” daubed on one side. This must’ve been it but where in Hades was the door? Another couple of guests arrived for a booking at the same time (booking is highly advisable) and we were all a bit bewildered. We found a bell, a fire door opened and we entered with some trepidation (quite clearly the reconnaissance canary before us didn’t make it).
But there was no need to worry. The service couldn’t be friendlier and we were each guided to our respective seats with water and menus delivered immediately.
Normally my heart sinks when I see a themed menu (here it’s centred around dragons and mythical creatures) but the charming maitre d’/floor manager/chief dragon reassured me “we can do any of the classics too, and if anything is not to your taste we will happily change it for you.” Music to my ears.
Speaking of the music, The Dead Canary’s soundtrack is unobtrusive with a generally chilled-out vibe. It makes for a louche atmosphere which is only marred slightly by the occasional whiff from the loos. Better ventilation might solve that but that’s about my only complaint.
I started gently with a “Jörmungandr” (£9.50), a deceptively easy-going drink named after a Norse sea serpent: Plymouth gin, manzanilla sherry, elderflower, cider, lime… and absinthe. That latter ingredient might have you in a stupor after knocking a few of these back. But this was a delightfully refreshing number to open proceedings.
You could try the Belvedere vodka and Aqauvit based “Lawru”, or maybe the Indian whiskey based “Druk”, but why when you can have a cocktail served in a ceramic shark head and decorated with samphire? The “Leviathan” (£13) comprises Clarin communal Rhum Agricole, Sauternes, blueberry, black pepper, grapefruit, maraschino and foam. I wasn’t really a fan – perhaps one too many ingredients – but this may be one for sea dogs.
Dinner in central Cardiff awaited but there was just time to test them on an off-menu classic: a gin Martini with a twist (£10). Pleasingly, and without hesitation, the bartender asked me exactly how I’d like it, including the method of preparation, dryness and choice of gin and vermouth from a six-deep back bar. It was a faultless serve in an appropriately chilled and sensibly-sized glass. Vanishingly few bars pass my Martini test and were it not for dinner plans I would’ve stayed much longer.
I’m always sceptical about quirky cocktail bars but looking beyond the surface this is a bar that puts the customer first and knows its drinks. This is a hidden gem in the Welsh capital.
St. David's Centre
by J A Smith