Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Ynyshir, Powys

I am aware that not many of my recent posts have featured restaurants in London. This is probably nothing more than coincidence - I happen to have been on a few short breaks up north and the west country and while there was lucky enough to enjoy some very, very good meals indeed.

However it is worth speculating that perhaps there has been a subtle shift in the foodie power dynamic in this country. Sure, London still gets the glitzy international chefs, the exciting new "concepts", the queues for sharing plates. But in borrowing so eagerly (and, it must be said, so successfully) from the great restaurant cultures of the world it loses a certain geographic authenticity. Other than a couple of pie & mash and salt beef bars grimly hanging on from the 19th century, there's no such thing as a "London" restaurant - for better or worse. Even our best gastropubs seem unsure whether to aim for Michelin stars or spit-and-sawdust rural grit.

And recently it seems it's not just gastropubs that seem "happier" (if that's the right word... it almost certainly isn't) out in the regions than in the capital. The astonishing Where The Light Gets In proved without a glimmer of a doubt that there are few better places to host a multi-course seasonal menu than in a post-industrial northern town. And it would be impossible to run Coombeshead Farm in Fulham or Shoreditch even if you carved the building from its landscape in one go and airlifted it in one piece; these places exist because of where they are, not despite it.

I mention all this because of the strange nagging feeling I had at Ynyshir Hall that this admittedly impressive operation out in the Welsh countryside doesn't have quite the same feeling of "belonging" of other equally ambitious sites I've been lucky enough to visit in the last few years. Partly this is entirely deliberate - head chef Gareth Ward is determinedly not creating Michelin-baiting dishes of stuffy French familiarity, and draws influences from the far east as well as his time at Sat Bains' restaurant in Nottinghamshire, with decidedly eccentric and otherwordly results. This is all perfectly fine and acceptable, and entirely up to them.

But part of me wishes there had been just a bit more Wales on the menu - some salt marsh lamb perhaps (the hotel is right next to a salt marsh), some clever cheffy take on lava bread or rarebit, even something more recognisably British instead of - or even alongside - the procession of undoubtedly clever but unnervingly "international" bits and pieces that formed the tasting menu. That said, you can't argue that it's all interesting stuff. This was "Not French Onion Soup", a bowl of dashi gel, tofu and who knows what else, which was covered in a smooth onion broth.

Duck was next, a sort of sausage-slice of leg meat topped with spring onions, ginger and soy. It wasn't a particularly brilliant idea - the powerful Asian dressing overpowered any subtlety in the duck flesh, if indeed there was any - but went down well enough. My pescatarian friend was subbed in a bit of salmon belly for this dish, which was enjoyable in a fatty way but totally impossible to eat with the supplied surgeon's tools. She ended up gingerly balancing flakes of salmon on the prongs then rushing them up to her mouth before they fell off.

Bread was good, though giving me the choice of miso-spiked butter and a quenelle of wagyu fat meant quite a difficult decision had to be made re: butter/bread ratio per bite. I coped though; I'm good like that.

"Sweet and sour" mackerel was conceivably the kind of dish that would have some people spinning for joy and others rushing for the exit. I'm afraid I was more in the latter camp - a very good bit of Cornish mackerel was drowned in what I've no doubt was an acceptably "fine dining" take on a Chinese classic but I'm afraid to this jaded palate tasted for all the world like the stuff from Man Ho on the high st.

Crab was nicer, more balanced and allowing the excellent buttery crustacean to shine.

Ynyshir were right to call the next dish "Black bean" rather than whatever bit of protein the black bean was painted on, as the animal itself was totally overwhelmed by an incredibly salty dressing. I didn't hate it, and there's pleasure to be had from most things doused in a nice black bean sauce, but I didn't get a great deal out of it other than high blood pressure.

Fortunately, "Garlic prawn" was much nicer - tender and moist and resting in a subtle bisque. If I'm going to be brutal, I've had better bisques elsewhere - this one was rather heavy on the cream and light on flavour - but the prawn more than made up for it, dressed in just enough wild black garlic to lift it. Very nice.

A decent duck liver (that's foie gras to you) parfait was studded with a bit of apple sauce, and topped with a cracker coated with flakes of what I think they said was eel. The eel didn't really do much, and the foie was verging on bland, but the textures were nice.

The next dish, "Caesar", was - inevitably - a deconstructed Caesar salad consisting of lettuce broth studded with croutons, smoked (I think) chicken, parmesan and theatrically-shaved dried egg yolk. It was pleasant enough, although with these deconstructed dishes, you're often treading a fine line between "enhancing and highlighting the original" and "wishing you were, in fact, eating the original instead".

Similarly, "Chicken curry" was a perfectly decent spoonful of slow-cooked chicken rogan josh (or something), with a bit of puffed rice for crunch and a side serving of a pot of beer with grated lime. This isn't the first time I've been served an ironic curry house course at a tasting menu, and it's certainly not the worst, but skipping from one cuisine to another like this made my head spin.

Oh dear, I know I've been moaning a lot. In truth, we were really enjoying ourselves at the time, thanks to some genuinely lovely (some natural) wines and engaging and enthusiastic service from every member of staff. But it seemed the dishes that I enjoyed worked despite the madcap "kitchen sink" ethic and not because of it. It all needed a bit more grounding - in geography, in technique, in just sitting still for five bloody minutes so I could understand what I was eating and appreciate it properly. It wasn't rushed at all, but the zipping from one wildly different cuisine from one minute to the next meant that not much of it registered above the noise. Which was a shame, considering the amount of work that had clearly gone into it all.

One final savoury course remained - a bit of wagyu rib dressed in dried mushrooms. It was, like much of what had come before, overseasoned and unsettling, wobbly with fat and tasting more of the powerful umami sauce it was doused in than anything that had once been an animal.

I was inwardly praying that the desserts would go for a more conventional approach, but it wasn't to be; "S.T.P", a knowing "take" on a Sticky Toffee Pudding, involved a large, rather mealy mejdool date topped with ice cream and doused in caramel sauce and was cloying and sweet. It goes without saying that I would have much, much preffered a normal sticky toffee pudding.

Cox Apple was much better, poached apples resting on a buttermilk cream and topped with frozen sorrel snow, it had a good balance of textures and the straightforward balance between fruit, dairy and foraged herbs was a blessed relief.

And the final course wasn't too difficult either - a deconstructed (there's that word again) tiramisu, with blobs of coffee and custard pressed under a transparent sheet of sugar, topped with crumbled biscuits. Unlike the S.T.P., this course was probably greater than the sum of its parts and largely survived the deconstruction process. Attractive thing, too.

There was one final flourish - a frozen meringue cooked in liquid nitrogen in the style of the Nitro Green Tea at the Fat Duck, which was fun. It seems a bit cruel comparing this last mouthful to one of the best restaurants in the world, but I remember in Bray the flavours being released by the rapidly warming tea mixture were extraordinary. Here, it was just a bit of frozen meringue.

So, what to make of it all. It's worth pointing out at this stage, after moaning about my fancy dinner in a five star hotel, that plenty of other people - close friends and professionals alike - rate Ynyshir up with some of the best food they've eaten anywhere. And I will concede that a lot of my gripes are simply matters of taste - by course five or six I was desperate for a lamb chop or something involving potato, and whether that makes me a complete pleb or a reverse snob I'll leave for you to decide.

The fact is, I was more unnerved by Ynyshir than I was delighted, and at these prices, I think I deserved a lot more of the latter. But you know what, we had fun, and the room was lovely, and we had a nice walk around the extensive and beautiful grounds in the morning, and it was all still pretty far from a wasted weekend. And if you've been reading my grumpy descriptions and looking at the photos and thinking "you know what, that looks pretty good", there's every chance you could go and have the time of your life. And there's only one way to find that out.


We had a small press discount on the room but paid for everything else full price

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Rat Inn, Northumberland

Being a restaurant fan is, for the most part, being a restaurant critic fan as well. It's how I got into this blogging business in the first place, and the broadsheet restaurant reviews are still a huge influence on where I decide to eat. I followed Marina to Where the Light Gets In, and fell in love. I followed Jay Rayner to the Parkers Arms, and it was wonderful. Grace Dent told me to go to Jamavar, and I did, and by golly I'm glad I did. These people are professionals (and, it has to be said, have other professionals telling them where to go). I am merely an amateur.

But the Rat Inn is mine. All mine. There's nobody significant outside of the occasional unhinged Tripadvisor report that's covered it, and because I'm not a Marina or Jay the chances of me completely ruining the place by recommending it wholeheartedly (because I do) are far reduced. With any luck, you'll have a good while before the rest of the country catches on and you can grab a table for 2 on a Friday night without too much bother.

I can't promise that will last, though. Once the word gets out, they may have to start charging in advance and reserving places in the public bar. But till then, bloody hell, just go.

I found them on Twitter - Twitter's had a hard time recently, what with you-know-who threatening nuclear war and the Nazis being given a bit of a free run, but for finding likeminded food lovers it's still second to none. I knew I'd like the Rat because conversations with the owners always ended the same way - with us agreeing, and me wishing I could eat there.

So, eventually, I did. Here's how the evening started - home made focaccia, unbelievably buttery and lovely, an instant assurance we were in good hands. Of all the places that make their own bread, I'd say about half would do better to buy in from elsewhere - and there's absolutely no shame in doing so. But the Rat know exactly what they're doing.

Rock oysters came dressed in what I think was a kind of cucumber jelly - very nice anyway, the oysters nice and lean and briney and complemented well by the dressing.

Shetland Mussel broth was hearty and comforting, containing plenty of seafood and perfectly seasoned. It was also a remarkably generous portion size for a starter - a theme that would continue throughout the evening.

The Kimchi Scotch Egg was the Rat's entry in the Young's Scotch Egg Challenge in the Canonbury back in February, and though they didn't win, this is still a beautiful thing, expertly timed runny yolk and surrounded in a punchy, chilli-spiked layer of sausage meat.

Last of the starters, chicken & morcilla terrine was another deeply generous amount of food, an inch-thick slab of nicely seasoned charcuterie and two softly-toasted slices of brioche. Apologies for the dim photo, lighting at the Rat on this autumn evening was rather "romantic" but if I ever turn into one of those people who brings their own offset lighting rig, feel free to slaughter me in my sleep.

One of the clever things about the Rat Inn is how they've managed to hold onto the spirit and atmosphere of a traditional, unpretentious country pub while still offering ingredients and preparations that you don't often see outside specialist restaurants. Grouse, for example, tricky to persuade the average pub-goer to shell out for in its fancier preparations, here was served as a rustic Wellington on a bed of creamed cabbage, and felt quite appropriate. It helped that it tasted great, too - soft, flaky pastry containing a neat medallion of pink game.

It's probably down to nothing more sinister than the inconsistency of British cattle that my peppered local steak was a teeny bit on the chewy side. It had plenty of beefy flavour but was rather lean, meaning despite being cooked quite accurately to medium-rare it required a bit of jaw-work to get through. However, I'd take the character of British beef, where one steak can be mediocre and another extraordinary, over the consistent-but-consistently-dull USDA standard any day of the week. Plus, chips were brilliant - great big golden brown crunchy things with bags of flavour.

This is a roast parsnip, stilton and red onion tart, and though I couldn't bring myself to try any of it - the portion sizes at the Rat Inn were defeating - I was told it was great. And huge. The wimpy Londoner in me wishes that the plates of food generally could be reduced by 30% but I was told in no uncertain terms that in this part of the world, that would be signing your own death warrant. So full marks, really, to these guys for keeping extremely reasonable prices and offering genuinely exciting cuisine whilst also loading up the plates with enough chow to keep all but the most rabid TripAdvisor user quiet.

The problem - I know it's not really a problem, but still - the problem with being quite so obsessive about restaurants as this food blogging thing makes you, is that you end up with a rather skewed opinion of the state of dining generally in the country. I know, at the back of my mind, that places like the Rat Inn and the Parkers Arms and the Sportsman represent a miniscule percentage of the food pubs in the country and that most people do not have the time or the resources to seek them out.

But then, if you lived in Canterbury and weren't aware of the Goods Shed, or lived in Bristol and had never come across Bell's Diner, how much more wonderful would your life become if someone pointed them out to you? Well here I am, now, pointing out the Rat Inn - and if it brings you half as much joy as dinner there brought me, it's still well worth the journey to this lovely part of the world. You're welcome.


The Rat Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As at the Parkers Arms, the lovely people at the Rat Inn knew I was coming and I think a round of drinks and a plate of oysters wouldn't turn up on everyone's table. However, you can't fake cooking as good as this and even at full price most dishes are a bargain.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Salt Room, Brighton

On paper, or rather PDF, Salt Room looked like an absolute sure thing. A proper, grown-up seafood restaurant in a town that knows a thing or two about eating well, it seemed to fit the bill exactly; we were aware of big Brighton names like 64 Degrees, Pascere and Chilli Pickle but had settled on the Salt Room because we wanted something informal yet sophisticated, somewhere we could get messy on fresh shellfish and drink good cocktails and then spill out onto the pier for faded Victorian seaside fun.

And things started well. Happy to escape the insane number of people that flock to Brighton of a weekend - good lord, this place is busy - the warm welcome of the Salt Room bar and the attentions of their head barman soon settled our nerves. Martinis were ice cold, made with an interesting gin from Islay, and a cute Bloody Mary style thing came with a mini pot of nacho chips and pineapple chilli salsa as a garnish. We were about halfway through these when a 20-strong crowd of hen-doers arrived so, thanking our lucky stars we'd got our drinks order in already, we headed for the restaurant.

Apparently all the nice, bright, quiet window seats had been taken by people who had been here before, and knew to request them, so we were sat near the toilets between two massive tables of noisy families with toddlers. Quite why anyone would bring a 3-year-old to a smart seafood restaurant is beyond me - even if they find anything to enjoy about the food they'll be bored witless after ten minutes and want to race around the place screaming.

Amidst all the darkness, chaos and the screaming, there were bits and pieces to enjoy. Clams in sherry with chorizo and beans were a tad on the salty side but contained plenty of plump bivalves if not much chorizo.

Fishcakes had a nice smooth consistency and delicate crust, even if it was a bit low on fish - still, I can enjoy a deep-fried potato croquette as much as I can a fish cake, so this wasn't too much of an issue.

Some of the slices of bread were a bit stale on one side, like they'd been sliced a good while ago. Again, not a terrible failure once they'd been dunked in the leftover clam sauce or spread with the nice homemade tartar sauce but it all added to the impression that their attention wasn't on the details. Even the menu contained a few spelling mistakes (we think they mean XO sauce that came with the crab, not ox...), and details, in a place like this, are eveything.

It all rested, then, on the main seafood platter. If it had been up to scratch, all the issues with oversalting and stale bread and the squealing toddlers would be forgiven. We'd have knocked it all back, polished off a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet and been back on the streets of Brighton with a spring in our step. Sadly, it wasn't to be. But first, the good bits - oysters were full of brine and flavour, and the house mignonette was good. Raw scallop was nice, too, gently dressed with lime.

But the rest of it? I was immediately suspicious that the Salt Room, a specialist seafood restaurant, only offers crab claws and not whole dressed or cooked crab. This makes me think that rather than buying in whole fresh crab, they're getting hold of frozen claws separately. I can't say they do this for certain, but that's the impression I got, and having tasted the end result I'm going to need a lot of persuading that they don't. Similarly the langoustine, desperately overcooked to mushy, had strange, bendy shells - again, if they were cooked from fresh I'd be very surprised. Prawns were similarly mealy and bland. And the less said about some terrible soily, chewy chips the better.

Of course, the tragedy of poor seafood platters is that they still generally cost quite a whack. After having drowned our sorrows in a second bottle of Picpoul the bill came to £62.30 a head, a decent amount to pay for a good seafood lunch perhaps, but for this half-hearted display, served with only the occasional glimmer of competence from an Italian member of staff that, to be fair, was acting as half-waiter half-babysitter for most of the afternoon, it really didn't feel like value.

I hesitate to denigrate an entire city based on one dodgy meal, but I wonder if at least some of the problems with the Salt Room are that they operate in an area so oversubscribed with day trippers that even the mediocre places do well. Maybe when they first opened they served fresh crab and bought in live langoustine and made their mark, but have gradually realised they make just as much money buying in frozen and using yesterday's bread. Who knows.

What Brighton does have going for it, though, is faded Victorian seaside attractions, and lovely cozy old pubs. So we had a go on a ricketty old roller coaster, and a couple of pints in the Pull & Pump, and soon disappointing crab was a distant memory. I will try Brighton again - and very soon in fact, I'm booked in at Pascere next month. But for now, I'll choose my fruit de mer more carefully. Life's too short for mediocre seafood.