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 laverbread 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 (duck) 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 preferred 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 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 I suppose 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. Pictures by Hannah.


Alex C said...

Interesting looking place but does seem quite punchy.
Looking at the pictures before reading the review I was thinking that it really seemed incredibly fussy. Basically canapes on on a rock.

It made me think of this really:
(John Finnemore's song 'Put it on a plate' - well worth listening to if you've a couple of minutes to spare)

Tasing menus (especially when there are paired wines) are wonderful things, but generally you have one or two courses that can be considered more than a mouthful or two, so you can chatter a bit, rather than having constant theatricals, as this must haave been. I suspect if they'd made a couple of courses large and removed some of the more 'out there' elements you'd have had a much more pleasurable time.

Great review though - thanks.

Pete said...

What's the purpose of the electronic displays above the pass?

Chris Pople said...

Pete: It was apparently to show how long the wagyu had been ageing...

Anonymous said...

Surprised that you were only offered small press discount for the room and paid full price for the meal. When another blogger who seems to live off 'dining as a guest' got everything gratis and doesn't have half the following of you, their blogs been running a lot less time and their writing is far less informative and has considerably less effort put into their blog......

Isadora Guidoni said...

It looks like an interesting enough place, but I agree it's quite punchy. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Matt said...

Ah... when I went there was a beautiful piece of salt marsh lamb with fine Anglesey onions and mint kombucha gel. That would've ticked all your boxes. : )

Personally I loved the powerful flavours, most of them so removed from classic French bases and techniques. But it's all a matter of taste (and maybe even of what you were in the mood for on the day?).

Pleb said...

Nice addition at the end of your bill there - "triple Laphroig" ��