Ynyshir review: a restaurant refined to perfection
In beautiful mid-Wales, Ynyshir is well worth the journey
When the Michelin Guide first appeared in 1900, it recommended hotels, restaurants and petrol stations to early motorists. The idea was that they would drive further and therefore buy more Michelin tyres.
Ynyshir, on the mid-Wales coast, must be just what they had in mind: a remote restaurant with rooms offering food to justify a journey. Food prize juries alone must have burnt some rubber. Ynyshir is one of only three British restaurants with five AA rosettes, is ranked first in Wales and 12th in the UK by the Good Food Guide - and has, of course, a Michelin star.
More importantly, though, it has character - and plenty of it. Our suite, in a recently built timber-and-stone studio, is bright and modern, its sleek, minimalist bathroom contrasting with some maximalist art in the bedroom, and a glorious view of sunshine on hills through the full-height windows.
The bar and restaurant, in the Victorian main building, employs a subtler, quieter palette. Step across the threshold and you’ll be calmed by dark marine-blue walls, heavy wooden furniture and chairs draped with black sheepskins - a distinctively Welsh take on Scandinavia’s all-conquering hygge aesthetic.
Our table for two is a huge slab of wood that could comfortably seat four (or uncomfortably six, as it would in many London restaurants). Unvarnished and uncovered, it is the perfect foil for the coarse linen napkins, the white clay pots and all the rough-hewn plates and bowls - each one beautiful in its own uneven way - that will come our way. Crockery shouldn’t matter all that much, but here it signifies something important: attention has been paid to the little things.
In fact the whole evening is a celebration of detail. Chef-patron Gareth Ward has constructed a menu in which small triumphs follow one after the other, all pared back to an elemental purity. Yes, there are flashes of showmanship and surprise, but what makes this a truly memorable meal is the obsession and delight in minutiae.
Take the first bread course, for example (and yes, the breads deserve their pair of slots on the 20-course menu). Absurdly beautiful, it arrives on a flattened pebble of a plate: half a slice of brown bread with a cube of wagyu dripping and a scoop of whipped butter. A wooden butter knife completes the tableau.
The flavours, too, reveal the game Ward is playing. Having burnt rather than baked the bread, subjecting it to a 300C ordeal that blackens its shell, he provides the fudgy rendered beef fat with which to sweeten it. The butter, light and creamy, brings out a rich maltiness in the bread’s soft flesh.
And so these contrasts and harmonies echo down through the menu, the pendulum swinging, bite by bite, through sweet and sharp and savoury.
The highlight is salt wagyu rib (below), a mouthful of perfection that’s crisp on the outside and unguent within, like a chocolate truffle. The beef comes from Montgomeryshire, where the cows gorge themselves on clover-rich pastures and down a daily bottle of beer, in the Japanese way. Once at Ynyshir, the meat spends four days cooking in a water bath before a final flourish on the barbecue, which imparts a deep flavour enriched with smoke and salted caramel.
More highlights: a lamb rib gets the same fire-and-water treatment, with similarly spectacular results. A crisp morsel of duck leg, served with a hoisin reduction is equally potent - the essence of Peking duck, without the unnecessary flannel of pancake. Raw mackerel, soft and fresh, is fortified with a sesame and soy dressing and braced with crisp bean sprouts. And an obscenely soft duck-liver pate is enriched yet further by rehydrated sultanas, bursting with sweet-sherry intensity - and balanced by a hint of sour acidity from a splash of verjus.
The lowlights? None, really, although maybe the lamb saddle was overshadowed by the rib, its flavour good but its fat a little chewy rather than crisp or soft. And the deer sashimi, though pretty, did not leave a deep impression. Everything else did.
Even the puddings, which made up the most avant-garde stretch of the menu - usually a mistake when it comes to the sweet stuff. Several were at the sharper, more refreshing end of the spectrum, including a bittersweet nettle tea which arrived in a cloud of dry ice. Others, like a chocolate mousse with a touch of shitake mushroom and a square of sticky toffee pudding spiked with miso and treacle, added more variations to the sweet and savoury theme.
If the kitchen had not already won our trust, the final plate of the evening might have provoked some bemusement. A deconstructed tiramisu, it arrived as a pile of crumbs, onto which raw 100% cocoa chocolate was grated and alcohol was sprayed from a hand pump. Indefensibly silly had it not been so delicious, the resulting mix delivered a concentrated kick of flavour with none of the blowsy blandness of the Italian original.
It was, therefore, the perfect denouement - and a logical conclusion to the chef’s determination to strip back each dish to its core. In a restaurant guide - as in a newspaper - it’s what you leave out that lends weight to what remains. It turns out the same is true on a plate.
The evening tasting menu, available from Tuesday to Saturday, costs £110 per person. Lunch is £55 per person, and packages including dinner, bed and breakfast start at £195 per person. See the Ynyshir website for more information