My girlfriend is a fellow food blogger, a statement which, if you know my general disdain for the term, is something that will require therapy on my behalf to overcome. It’s not her fault; she’s one of the good guys whose interest extends further than the pique-assiette culture of never paying for a dinner. Plus, it has it’s upsides. She acts as a sub editor for my piss-poor grammar and provides the funnier observations over dinner that I steal for my writing. And, loving food in the same way that I do, she takes me to Ynyshir for my birthday. Whadda woman. I still can’t believe that my greatest love sprang from my greatest enemy. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only far shitter to watch.
And so, let’s move onto Ynyshir, a beautiful white walled residence in the middle of bloody nowhere, or, as the locals would prefer me to say, in Elgwys Fach, at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, near Machynlleth. I have this theory in remote restaurants in that the journey makes a part of the experience. Anyone can hop on a train to London, but to commit to here, or The Three Chimney’s, or L’Enclume takes a certain amount of commitment. And boy, are we committed to food, as the next nine thousand (I’m guessing) words will show. Those with a short attention span may want to look away now. Those with a culinary porn problem may want to cover their modesty: This is going to get Filthy.
The dining room pans out towards the rolling green hills of the Dyfi valley at one end and straight into the open kitchen at the other. It is as much as a blank canvas as interior designers will allow it to be, with warm purples occasionally interspersing wooden floors and thick white linen table clothes. It is all about the food here with the first course making us sit bolt upright – a position that we would remain in for the two hour lunch and then some afterwards. ‘Not French Onion Soup’ would transpire to be a bowl in which kombu stock was poured onto onion puree, tofu, onion oil, and pickled shallots. It’s a whack to the face of umami, followed by a kick to the balls of acidity. It’s big and brave, with the first sign of Japanese influences such as the dried kelp stock and miso in the onion puree. It is perfect. And this was just the first course.
What follows is a further ten courses that would set the marker for what I consider to be the UK’s most exciting restaurant. A sourdough bread features a crust blacker than my soul, served with a Wagyu fat spread that overshadows an excellent miso butter. Mackerel follows, barely cooked and draped in a pineapple jelly. Charcoal oil adds a depth, beansprouts and puffed rice texture. As with so much of the food that follows, every flavour is amplified to eleven.
A cube of Wagyu short rib, cooked until it is only just holding it’s shape, is served with shitake mushroom, puffed rice and seaweed. The umami rich accompaniments are present to bolster the flavour of the beef, the seasoning as bold as it possibly can be. Following on from this was Mayan gold potato lightly dressed in pheasants egg, with shallots and truffle butter sauce. We are back on the now familiar territory of umami and acidity, with the potato dice coated in a little yeast paste and the slight tang of vinegar in the sauce. It’s a brilliant blend of two of the five basic tastes which give the dishes light and shade. Claire says it is one of the best dishes she has ever eaten. She’s right, but better is to come.
Lunches main protein came in the way of two courses of lamb. The first is a rib glazed with soy and shizo that disappears as quickly as it arrives, the meat undressing from the bone at the slightest of suggestion. The barbeque neck which follows is the first time that we would notice a familiar theme which would run through *spoiler alert* dinner the same night, in that dishes have a familiarity on the palate far removed from the world of fine dining. The neck fillet is topped with a kombucha (a fermented Japanese herb tea) gel which echoes the best lamb with mint sauce you will ever eat. It’s astonishing in delivery and concept, moreish to the point that it will eventually end up with it’s own addicts group. In a day where the high points kept on rising, this was for the me the real eureka moment.
Not foreseeing the later bout of gluttony, we take the optional cheese course. It’s cauliflower cheese, just like grandma used to make it. Of course it’s not, I’m shitting you. Cauliflower is compressed with -8 vinegar and topped with Beauvale that oozes and fills with a richness. It is cauliflower cheese, right down to the breadcrumb topping, just not as you know it. ‘Lager and lime’ really is just that, a cleansing course of yogurt panacota prepared tableside with continental lager and lime. It takes me back to my teenage years when I used to drink my pints with a splash of cordial.
Our first dessert arrives, a blueberry dish that for me drops down to one Michelin standard – an achievement given that the restaurant presently has one star. It’s good – the fermented berries bright in flavour, the buttermilk adding a subtle layer of fat. We finish with a take on tiramisu. It is glorious. Various dots of coffee and vanilla, a shard of something crisp and see-through, with mascarpone granita and grated bitter chocolate. It’s balanced and refined, a real statement that the sweeter courses can be to the same impossibly high standard of everything else. We walk through the open kitchen for liquid nitrogen poached meringue filled with fennel purée, seemingly inspired by the aniseed sweets you get at the end of a curry. I like that idea. Anything inspired by curry houses is fine with me.
Now that should be it. I should surmise about a perfect meal worthy of a special journey and we should all move on with our lives. Except I can’t, because as I alluded to earlier, that girlfriend of mine couldn’t turn down the chance to extend my birthday lunch into twenty or so more courses at dinner. I argue that I’m not worthy of that expenditure for all of about twenty seconds before concluding that I probably am. I’m sorry but you’ve come this far to no avail, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it.
Dinner starts with the dish that is most definitely not a French onion soup, moving on to what is most definitely a glazed slice of duck leg topped with sesame. Another mackerel dish follows, this time with a sweet and sour ketchup made from bramble, with wood sorrel and grated lardo. The cured pork backfat is the inspired part, coating the mouth and improving the flavour. And we’re back on that word again. This place is all about flavour. Everything else is secondary to the question “does it taste the best that it absolutely can?'”. And I like that idea. I like it a lot.
The following two courses are two of my favourites. Crab and sweet corn is remiscent of chowder, light and clean in profile until you hit the dark funk of a crab soy. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, glazed with birch sap syrup, and topped with spelt and a grating of smoked eel. It’s smoked bacon. Honestly. The fat content, the back note of sweetness, the meatiness and the smoke. I want this with a thick slice of bread and a cup of coffee. But I can’t, so bottle number three of wine will make do.
Duck with pickled black beans and black garlic is, of course, duck with black bean sauce. Likewise tomato, lardo and basil is a BLT. You get the picture; inspiration from the everyday took to a level up there with the very best. You have to taste it to believe it.
I can’t pinpoint the inspiration behind the barbecued langoustine but I can tell you it was damm right delicious. It’s grilled to a meaty texture with wild garlic and a glorious dressing of roasted shells and soy sauce. The pollock that came afterwards is, in my opinion, the weakest of the evening. I see what they are aiming at with the miso glaze on the fish and the dashi stock to slurp afterwards, it’s just disjointed and lacking the brutal hit of flavour of everything else we ate. A deconstructed Caesar salad pulls it back. The lettuce emulsion is vibrant, the Parmesan whey and anchovy crumb full of umami. It needs the grated cured egg yolk to pull it all together, which it does brilliantly.
Wagyu returns for three courses. The first makes me shout “it’s a burger!” a little too loud with the addition of pickled gerkins and a genius addition of bread mayo. This happens before a piece of sirloin that has been aged for 192 days – I’ve had engagements that have lasted less time. The meat is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, a bastardisation of beef and blue cheese. Served only with a grating of fresh wasabi, this is as close as I am likely to get to the prime steak houses of Tokyo. Wagyu fudge concludes the trio. You read that right, it’s fudge made with wagyu fat. A genuine game changer. Thorntons should nick the idea.
And this, Dear Reader, is where the post concludes, despite there being many courses left. It was at this point that the days beers, the champagne, the cocktails, and the four bottles of red wine took hold. It all became a little fuzzy and if I can’t remember it properly, I simply can’t write about it. I remember the lager and lime again, a brilliant strawberry dish that tasted like Summer Cup, and raspberries on toast. Indeed, looking through my notes now, the dishes maintain the same form; most at the two star standard, with more at three star than one. It seems a given to me that this restauarant is gaining a star this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it joins the top four in the coming years. It is exhilarating; a riot of taste and precision, all hand delivered by a team of chefs who clearly love working here. It is the best meal I’ve eaten, trumping all of the two and three star places I’ve been fortunate to dine at. And for once I wasn’t the one picking up the bill. Gareth Ward and his team at Ynyshir have created a restaurant which rivals the very best in the country.