Settle in- this might take a while. but it’s worth trying to do it justice. I have even included a little game to help keep boredom at bay. Don’t say I’m not good to you.
‘Forever’. ‘Eternal. ‘Never ending’.
We are in love with the language of falling in love, aren’t we? We ladle on the exaggerations, drink deep of that heady draught: that hyperbole, that expression of willful impossibility. What defiance in the face of time and decay! The poet’s stock in trade; we indulge- prize, even- the paradoxical, the boldly surreal, like Nick Cave’s image:
The epic of Gilgamesh,
A pretty little black A-line dress-
I give to you…
Impressive, that, but he immediately tops it with:
The spinal cord of JFK
Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligée
I give to you…
Well, it works for me.
So in that vein, here’s a tip, for reasons which will soon become clear: that person you light up for, the one who sees all that weight of history you carry and all those faults and scars of every type, but still devotes themselves to you? The one you crave, are addicted to, the one who burns in your veins? Fix your eyes on theirs; hold their gaze. Touch their face tenderly and whisper these words to them:
‘Be my beef fudge. Now. Always…’
Trust me on this. From here on, this will be the highest form of endearment, a declaration of passion unrivalled by sonnets, symphonies and seducers. It is not to be squandered on the undeserving. As a proposal of marriage, it would take some beating.
With that in mind- what do I need to tell you about Ynyshir?
‘Fast food’. ‘Fun dine not fine dine’, go the mottoes. Curiouser and curiouser: this is not the stiff-backed prose of your average clenched-sphincter fine dining gaff, despite Ynyshir attracting the kind of praise others could hope for in their dampest dreams. If you put a lot of store by ratings and scores and awards, then fill your boots.
This was Decanter’s restaurant of the year in 2018. The Good Food Guide currently has Ynyshir as the fifth-best in Britain; it was awarded a Michelin Star in 2014 and holds 5 AA Rosettes.
It’s worth quoting the latter’s criteria for this, their highest accolade: ‘The pinnacle, where cooking compares with the best in the world. These restaurants have highly individual voices, exhibit breathtaking culinary skills, and set standards to which others aspire to, yet few achieve.’
By the time we had finished here I was baffled, once again, by a ‘star’ system which ranks this place no higher than any of the six others in Wales.
First among equals, perhaps? Among the 7 Michelin-stars the country has in total, (seven ‘one stars’) there is a sense that this is somewhere special. It’s there when Michael O’Hare (The Man Behind the Curtain) claims ‘I don’t think there is a better restaurant in the UK … Unbelievable level of cooking!’ or when Grace Dent calls it ‘unique’ and confesses she has ‘fallen madly in love with the place.’
The award for poetic brevity must go to (nauseating name-drop alert) Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, though; when I told him I was coming here, his response was almost poetic in its brevity: ‘Ah mate- it’ll blow your f*cking mind!’
Bloggers have left starry eyed after fallen in love with this kitchen: Meat and One Veg has been fervent in his proselytising zeal. Which is a polite way of saying he won’t shut the hell up about the place he visits regularly: an impressive commitment, from Birmingham. The Octopus Diaries, one of our party on this trip, has already written beautifully about this very meal. Expectations, then, are just a little on the high side.
It is soon clear they do things differently here, in this remote country house near Aberystwyth. Gareth Ward is cooking in a Nike t-shirt, no embroidered Chef’s whites- and is something of a gentle giant. (I’m six foot one, and he easily dwarfs me, like some genial Northumbrian Darth Vader). He leads his open kitchen with calm authority. You can feel it from the small dining room.
With only tasting menus on offer, and with an avowed focus on meat and fat, there is no point coming here halfheartedly. You have to go all in. You have to commit to the experience, to the time and the appetite demanded.
Unfashionably, there is no vegetarian or vegan option: and Gareth is unapologetic, because this place exists to prize the possibilities of animal flesh. If this excludes vegetarians and vegans from experiencing one of most fascinating kitchens in the country, then so be it. It is an uncompromising stance, in much the same way it’s difficult to imagine your local plant-based restaurant rustling up a quick ribeye for the token omnivore in the party.
The team is noticeably bright eyed, perky and proud- apologies if that makes them sound like a playful nipple- and namechecked on the menu, given equal billing with the chefs. That’s unique in my experience, for ‘Amelia, Rory and Dave Out Front’ to be given a mention above the kitchen. This is, in their words, ‘Alternative British snap’: there’s that lack of ego, but don’t mistake the informality with a lack of seriousness in the kitchen.
A lengthy tasting menu can seem daunting, a plod through every dish even more so. A four-hour lunch deserves more. I’ll try to paint in broad strokes, because a place like this tells a story. It deserves more than ‘I ate this. Then I ate that. It was nice. Then I ate another thing. It was nice too. Here is a picture. The end.’
‘Not French Onion Soup’ is rich with miso and flecked with sea vegetables, tiny cubes of tofu in the dashi broth proving delicately creamy, ending with an almost cheesy luxury in the mouth. The bowl seems unassuming, the portion dainty. It sets a precedent: delicately-proportioned portions delivering almighty thumps of flavour, a little like being beaten up with a ballet shoe.
Duck appears in several guises: a leg has been brined, flavoured with five-spice and cooked for half a day in cultured butter, then finished on the grill. Served with a palpable crust, it is eaten ‘in one’. We look around and realise the whole table is grinning, effervescently. This food is, above all things, fun. Another five, please.
It is a remarkably unhurried atmosphere, all hand-shaped natural materials and an open kitchen quietly producing flourish after flourish. Duck again- aged, roasted on the crown, finished on the barbecue- thrills; the sauce tangy, the compressed cucumber a concentrated punch of flavour and a glistening emerald seemingly improbable from such a watery source. It’s yet another play on your favourites, and it works impeccably. It’s outrageous fun: what we have just eaten is effectively your takeaway staple, Hoisin duck, re-imagined and re-engineered. It quarries huge flavours out of tiny bites.
There’s opulence in aged foie gras, dotted with tiny apple cubes, laced sparingly with a sticky syrup of wood sorrel and flecked with toasted spelt. It’s hugely rich, coating the tongue seductively. It’s reminiscent of bacon somehow-Frazzles, suggests Brad, but ‘worth-the-three-hour-drive Frazzles.’
Bread with miso butter and wagyu dripping, a week-long-proved sourdough, appears. The flavours are unashamedly beefy, the dripping working with the charred crust of the bread to emulate the flavours of a steak. It’s undeniably impressive, bread and butter as reimgained by someone cooking to another agenda completely. If you have childhood memories of that repurposed mug every mum seemed to have in her 1970s kitchen cupboard, its dank depths unappetising in the extreme, this will banish them forever. Complaints? Well, there’s too much butter for one slice. Another please: I wolf this down.
Mackerel arrives from the Himalayan salt chamber, topped with raw rhubarb and lardo. (If you’re filling up your Food Blog Cliche Bingo card, dab the box that says ‘Melt in the mouth!’ now.) It’s built. like some elfin gymnastics prodigy, but for a triple hit of fatty-salty-tart clotheslines you like a prop forward in the grip of the red mist, just before he trudges off at the inevitable red card.
The place is dripping with idiosyncrasies: your elegant Cutipol cutlery arrives in a canvas tool roll and you help yourself as and when you see fit. It’s all your anxieties about which fork to use laid to rest, because no-one will judge you here. Plates and dishes are made locally- one course is served on a rock from the nearby estuary, its rough surfaces reshaped and repurposed. Polished. It’s a direct connection to the landscape. It’s raw materials treated lovingly. It fits perfectly here.
The pork has, apparently, taken 18 months to perfect. Think about that for a moment. A year and a half of tweaking, of refining. It’s a beautiful thing, this, the belly marinated with char siu and brined and left in the water bath until the texture is ‘just cooked’, then finished on the Big Green Egg so the salty-sweet, fatty coating is foregrounded. It is baby pink. That there is a crust at all is surprising, and must require a quite remarkable lightness of touch. It is incredibly delicate- it’s as fragile as a moth’s wing- but still a palpable presence. I fall in love with it immediately.
It’s a dish which has you simultaneously in awe of the attention to detail and the flawlessness of the execution. The cooking liquor provides the broth, which you are encouraged to drain: and which other Michelin-starred restaurant is complicit with that kind of happy gluttony? (And remember, if you’re playing along at home, this is your ‘Cooked To Perfection!’ box). That it contrives to deliver so much flavour and texture in such small bites- well, that’s nothing short of exceptional.
The playlist (listed on the menu) is full of innovators and iconoclasts:- Johnny Cash, Hendrix, Wu-Tang. Everything I have eaten until now, I would eat again. And again. And again. And again. You get the picture. They probably wouldn’t work as full-sized servings- it would be overwhelming, somehow, unfeasibly rich in a full-sized portion. But each mouthful connects on a sensuous, emotional level.
When was the last time you ate a tasting menu of such impressive dishes you’ve felt prompted to get up mid-dinner, approach the kitchen and shake the chef’s hand?
Perhaps you have had one of those meals when one particular mouthful seems to haunt you for days after, the essence of the dish pulsing away softly, as if just out of your field of vision, but palpable and insistent, as if by turning your head quickly enough you would see it in all its detail?
That. All of that. Here.
Cornish crab claw with katsu ketchup? Well, that’s as brilliant as it is alliterative.
The puffed rice and coriander bring crunch, the punchy curry flavours have more ‘legs’ than the starring crustacean- at first it’s mellow enough but the flavours keep going and going, the best chip shop style curry you’ll ever have had, layered and insistent. It’s a colossal broadside of flavour which once again conspires to deliver massive impact in a tiny serving. In a word: dazzling. That Enter the 36 Chambers slips onto the turntable about now is an added bonus: an oddly fitting one, because this kitchen is to others as the Wu Tang are to Will Smith.
All these dishes pull off a simple but ingenious trick: they make things taste amazing. And while you may well roll your eyes and argue that’s the achingly obvious job of every good kitchen, there are levels of revelation here which are dazzling. Gareth Ward is mining deep seams of flavour.
There are wonderful things done with aged Wagyu, a recalibration of what you can expect from beef, with toasted sesame and a note of sharpness from the fermented lettuce. It’s a playful take on the humble burger but reveals depths of mineral complexity which will be surely be outlawed soon. It’s brilliant. But immediately bettered.
This is food on which care has been lavished; the rib of Welsh wagyu has taken a full week (brined for four days, cooked for three) to get to this point, before being finished on the barbecue. The ketchup is funky with shiitake mushroom umami, the fried rice sending the texture in a completely unexpected direction as you contemplate the salty tang of the sea lettuce- foraged within walking distance- and the sublime tenderness of that beef.
The best course so far? Most of us think so, even in such elevated company. The texture is unprecedented, the rich fat coating your tongue instantly when it meets your body heat. It’s seductive stuff. The mushroom sauce? Ah… that mushroom sauce… Find a special someone, slather them in this stuff and get to work. You can thank me later. They have rooms here, you know: it would be rude not to, at least once.
Beauvale- a Nottingham blue cheese- is laced with pear cider and delicately scalloped slices of the same fruit. It’s everything you want by now. Salty, sour and pungent but sweet, a heady combination. A little slushy is boldly tart with yuzu and bridges into the sweeter courses. It is soundtracked by silence around the table, apart from little murmurs of appreciation: we have not been beaten into submission, so much as comprehensively seduced.
Desserts are white chocolate with a fragile black bean biscuit, which punches way above its weight, the chocolate silky with that trademark spoon-coating fattiness and the black bean giving it almost a salted caramel feel. Apple steamed apple, raw, custard (absolutely NOT a creme anglaise, says our server) There’s that puncturing of formality again, the sidestepping of fine dining tropes.
Despite the sheer brilliance of what comes out of that kitchen, there’s an affably low-key atmosphere which puts you at ease. It’s the opposite of the hushed reverence of MC voiceovers, the reverential use of the language of classical cooking. You almost feel as if you called crumbing something ‘pané’. (Yes, that Michelin star is on display in the toilet). ‘Nah, put some breadcrumbs on the bugger. And wind yer neck in.’
Tiramisu is built at the table, in familiar layers. (dab ‘Tantalising’, you’re almost there..!) It’s pretty spectacular stuff, the most theatrical of the courses, a liquid nitrogen bath of mascarpone granita.
And then- that fudge.
This meal ends on a crescendo. It’s the thing which, even against all this competition, has me muttering ‘beef fudge…beef fudge…BEEF FUDGE’ like some semi-decrepit version of Danny ‘REDЯUM’ Torrance. The usual butter in the mixture has been replaced by Wagyu fat, a commitment to using all the possibilities which put me in mind of the biscuits at El Capricho last summer.
You can only applaud at the ingenuity yet the obviousness of it all. It is to die for. (And that’s BINGO!)
Any reservations? Well, the apple and custard dessert was ‘merely’ very, very good, rather than the by-now-customary exceptional. And when your criticisms of a menu consist of saying that one dish out of fifteen didn’t strike you as simply extraordinary, or when you quibble over an extra piece of bread, I’ll take that all day long. Oh, and the playlist should have had some Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though I see from the last write-up by Meat and one Veg that he had The National playing when he last went, which is rank favouritism in my book.
Ynyshir is as much about language, as about food. This hasn’t been an easy review to write. I have found it frustrating, because Ynyshir deserves more than merely a list of dishes as they arrive, more than a kind of paint-by-numbers writing. How to take you to the table with me? How to capture several hours’ worth of cooking of rare excellence? How to describe food which challenges perceptions, food which is authentically exceptional- when hyperbole is at every turn?
And yes, we are our own worst enemies. Instagram overheats with ‘likebait’ from tinpot ‘influencers’, spurting ‘killer’ this and ‘banging’ that, gushing over every ‘awesome’ and ‘incredible’ thing they have been comped, from microwaved pub grub to some fried chicken. (It’s not restricted to food, of course: find me an ad for a new album which isn’t breathlessly excited over how ‘stunning’ or ‘amazing’ it is, and I’ll show my arse in Woolies’ window.) These terms are dropped with less discernment than a Love Islander’s smalls. It’s an epidemic.
But this? This is glorious, ultra-high-definition food; an intense appreciation of, and dedication to, delivering intense flavours. Ynyshir is unforgettable: an absolute, gimlet eyed-commitment to making your food taste as good as possible. To maximise its possibilities. To make that single mouthful something you excitedly recall for weeks and months to come.
If I was a young, ambitious chef in Wales right now, I’d be begging Gareth Ward to take me on, to inspire me with what he has learned in his mastery of meat. Is it too fanciful to imagine him influencing an entire generation of Welsh cooking, rewriting the culinary DNA of the country as he does so? Perhaps; but why stop at the border? It’s that good. In less enlightened times he would have been burnt at the stake as a warlock: there is magic in this place and its staggeringly, trouser-tentingly exciting food which may well have you laughing out loud at the sheer magnificence and wit on show
When was the last time you had a meal where it took you days- weeks, even- to really process it, so little highlights keep surfacing as you go about your day? A meal where it takes a while for the reverberations to settle? This delicately-proportioned food, coaxed into realisation by a man who looms large figuratively, too; a kitchen knocking out phenomenally inventive dishes and making it look easy. Every giddy superlative ladled onto Ynyshir is, for once, deserved. This meal cost us £70, and comfortably claims its place among the best I have had for… what? A year? Three years? Five? Ten? Let’s settle on ‘ever’. Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought of this day. At Ynyshir, you are in the presence of greatness. Resistance is useless: just submit. Allow yourself to be seduced by the spell of this kitchen. You find yourself reaching for words like audacious and lavish, and even as you reach for them you rail at their inadequacy.
Since music is so entwined with what they do here, I’ll borrow the obvious musical allusion: this is food that goes all the way up to 11. It’s the dog’s bollocks, it’s the cat’s pyjamas, it’s the bee’s knees. The superlatives are, for once, justified: within my own frame of reference, this meal has stayed with me, plucked at whatever heartstrings remain, more insistently than any two and three star menus I’ve eaten.
Some menus feed your soul, Ynyshir feeds your inner voluptuary. This is cooking on an epic scale, cooking which seduces, and I was powerless to resist. You know in your marrow that this is already one of your touchstone meals, a riot of ideas and textures and flavours against which all others will have to be judged. That you will bond with people over how much their eyes light up at Ynyshir’s name. What Gareth Ward and his team are doing here is, by any criteria of which I am aware, simply phenomenal.
If I haven’t got your juices flowing and your credit card in hand by now, I give up. Peter Sanchez Iglesias was right. Just go.
Fall in love.
Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.