It’s just past 10pm on the softest of Welsh summer nights and the entire room shakes to a throbbing bass beat. There’s a disco light, cutting through the Stygian gloom, and a half dozen black-clad men, their biceps heavily inked, armed with the sharpest knives.
On the centre, their leader, towering above all of them, head shaved, his mighty frame hewn, it seems, from granite. A blade glints menacingly in his hand as his eyes bore into my skull.
In normal circumstances, I’d be on the brink of run like hell. This will not be the type of fella you’ll want to bother.
But this isn’t an edgy nightclub. It’s a restaurant that has just been crowned the UK’s Best, at The Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards.
And that fearsome figure, Gareth Ward, is one among the world’s most enjoyable chefs.
Ahead of my visit and confirming my booking, the restaurant emailed me to say: ‘Bear in mind, we’re possibly not the most effective place for a business meeting or an intimate first date.’ This seems to be a gargantuan understatement.
Tom Parker Bowles bagged a table at Ynyshir, near the Snowdonia National Park, which has two Michelin stars
And bagging a table at Ynyshir, near the Snowdonia National Park, wasn’t easy. With two Michelin stars, it was booked up months prematurely before this recent accolade. There’s more likelihood of that camel passing through the attention of a needle than getting a few seats here.
But I begged, pleaded and cajoled, before eventually (due to that advantageous Brummie blogger Simon Carlo, the person behind Meat and Two Veg) managing to secure a table.
Due to national train strike, there was a emptiness. The following day. Hallelujah!
I ring Giles, my friend and fellow restaurant critic. ‘You in?’ I ask. His answer involves bears and woods, and hell yes.
Dinner was to start out at 5.30pm on the dot. Expect to complete, they said, around 11pm.
To be honest, I used to be in two minds. Yes, I’d heard the rave reviews, from friends and industry types alike, but I’m pretty fed up with over-priced and underwhelming 30-course tasting menus and avoid them like a foul oyster.
Did I actually need to sit down in respectful silence as one over-worked morsel after one other was placed reverentially before me on a strange-shaped plate, accompanied by a protracted explanation of what I used to be about to place in my mouth?
Gareth Ward (pictured) is head chef and co-owner of Ynyshir, probably the most highly-awarded restaurant in Wales
Such constant interruptions make any decent conversation unattainable. I find myself dreaming of simplicity – an important fat steak, or bowl of pasta, or anything moderately than sitting, trapped, by the relentless tyranny of the tasting menu.
Sure, there are places that linger within the memory long after the last edible rock, or ‘spherified’ olive. Noma, for one: the Copenhagen restaurant once voted Best within the World. The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starrer in Bray, in Berkshire, and El Bulli (now closed, but which also held three stars in Spain) are two more: places where high culinary art melds with theatre, nostalgia and a real sense of joy.
There’s a skinny line between genius and downright pretentious. Still, once past Birmingham and into Wales, on a brilliantly sunny day, our spirits are high.
Menu for Ynyshir restaurant
This appears like a mission, a journey, an old-fashioned adventure, as we drive through probably the most verdant countryside, all soaring hills and swooping valleys, the entire thing as lush as fresh-churned butter. Once we eventually arrive, it’s unattainable to not fall for Ynyshir, a small hotel sitting amongst wildflower meadows and cedar trees, as lovely a location as you’ll find anywhere.
A drink first, in a black-painted room, the heavy, wood chairs draped in sheepskin rugs. Fires crackle outside, heavy fur coats hang on the wall. The entire place feels a bit Game Of Thrones. Without, we pray, the blood-spurting excess.
A glass of sparkling Gusbourne (from vineyards in Kent and West Sussex), after which back to the front desk where a panel slides back to disclose a number of the night’s ingredients. Local eggs, cream, crab and strawberries; A5 grade Japanese wagyu beef, with great alabaster swirls of fat; blue fin tuna, sustainably caught, with a slab of hamachi (or yellowtail); a knobbly wasabi root and Thai kaffir limes.
Ynyshir restaurant served up a mix of native and far-flung – a whisper of Japan, a nudge of Thailand and an important Welsh grin, said Tom Parker Bowles
It’s a mix of native and far-flung, a whisper of Japan, a nudge of Thailand, an important Welsh grin.
Music plays within the background, smoke scents the air, and around us, our fellow diners – a combination of middle-aged Michelin devotees, and shorts, trainer and tattoo-sporting young thrusters – talk excitedly. You possibly can almost taste the anticipation.
Our first course is eaten standing up, at that front desk. ‘Not onion soup’. Quite, an immaculate chawanmushi, or Japanese savoury custard, with a tiny slice of miso-cured duck liver, herb oil, croutons and dashi stock poured on top. It’s subtle, gentle and discreet, barely sweet with a pure umami depth. Nothing showy or wacky, just classical Japanese cooking of the very best order. I take a look at Giles. And grin. That is going to be fun. And so it begins.
We sit, like two pampered Renaissance princes, in high-backed wood chairs, not more than 3ft from the open kitchen, our backs to the remaining of the room. For a moment, we glance longingly on the table within the corner, next to the window, where we could gaze out over the gorgeous July evening.
THE 30 COURSE MENU
Not French Onion
Raw Tail – Nahm Jim
Thaidorri Claw – Satay
Shrimp – Green Curry
Scampi – Sweet Chilli
Prawn – Wild Garlic Chilli
Crab – Deep Fried Bun
Scallop – Duck Liver
Hamachi – Wasabi – Furikake
BLUE FIN TUNA BELLY
The Un-rolled Hand Roll
Aged Blue Fin Tuna Belly
Miso Cured Black Cod – Aged Kaluga – Shiitake
Salt Cod Soup – Smoked Butter – Parsley
Madal Nashi Pear – Yuzu
Liver – Bramley Apple – River Bacon – Spelt Larb
Hoisin – Cucumber
Iberico Pork – Char Siu
Welsh Lamb – Spare Rib
Chicken Wing – Katsu
Burger – That First Bite
Rump Cap – Black Bean
Sirloin Splishy Splashy – Ponzu – Oscietra
Buttermilk – Whey – Thai Flavours
White Chocolate – Black Bean
Yorkshire Rhubarb – Bakewell
Birch – Rye – Spelt
Bramley Apple – Duck Custard
STP – Tahitian Vanilla
Tiramisu Manjari – Shiitake – Kaffir Lime
Not Chamomile Tea
I are likely to avoid chef’s tables, preferring the calm of the dining room to the clatter and bustle of the kitchen. This, though, is a chief spot. And as Air trills through the speakers, we gird our bellies and prepare for the battle ahead.
There’s a studied calm to this kitchen, an intensity and precision, because the brigade cut, slice, sniff, mix and taste.
On the centre is Ward, like some legendary warrior, surrounded by his adoring army.
Every part revolves around the nice man, who learnt his trade at Hambleton Hall in Rutland first, the right introduction to classical cooking. After which on to Sat Bains and his eponymous Nottingham restaurant. For me, he’s one of the modern and downright good chefs there are.
A reasonably bowl containing a slice of raw lobster tail in nahm jim dressing starts things off with an excellent bang. Buried under a green blizzard of coriander and holy basil, the shellfish is as sweet as a primary kiss. With a Thai dressing that doesn’t pull any punches; fish sauce, lime juice and chillies. Lots and plenty of chillies.
Dear God, it’s good, blessed with that balance – of the recent, salty and sour – so crucial to Thai cooking.
Next, a tiny chunk of claw, in a correct satay sauce, wealthy and barely sweet, with a slow-burning heat. One other exquisite bite, each dishes pure culinary foreplay, teasing and titillating the palate, stimulating the senses for the pleasures ahead.
It’s not all big, daring swagger. After a buttery, funky slap-you- in-the-face-good Singapore chilli crab, heavy on the roe and slathered throughout a deep-fried bun, we get a pristine scallop, cool and assuredly elegant.
A creamy, salt cod veloute is as smooth as a Roger Moore chat-up line. Thai duck larb is all verdant, offally, chilli-spiked crunch.
There’s a lamb spare rib, wearing nothing but salt and the fireplace’s char, as advantageous a bit of meat as I’ve ever eaten. And a pink-hued slice of char siu Iberico pork, all melting fat and luscious pigginess, that’s up there with the perfect Cantonese roasted meats.
Essentially the most delicate of blue fin tuna loins, sliced paper-thin, with summer truffle, appears after a piece of langoustine tempura, the gossamer batter clinging to the flesh like a silk negligee.
Soft-serve strawberry ice cream is followed by a divine mini Bakewell tart, and a piece of sticky toffee pudding that stops all conversation dead. Chef Gareth Ward skips from Thailand to China and Japan, with a bit of Britain thrown in, too.
What’s truly impressive is that each dish works, never making any claims as to authenticity, yet capturing the very essence of those cuisines. To have such consistency and confidence over so many various courses, styles and techniques is nothing wanting astonishing.
Because the evening goes on, the lights darken and the music becomes louder and more intense, so the ballet of the kitchen seems to maneuver faster, following the electronic beat, as cooks glide around as one.
Our sommelier, cool, calm and softly spoken, suggests wines and sakes and mescals to go together with each course. There’s no upsell, no talking down, just well-thought- out pairings, which we slurp and gulp with merry abandon. It’s been greater than 4 hours now, or is it five?
Ynyshir’s scallop, pictured left, and the Char Siu, pictured right
At this point, we now not know or care, we’re so caught up within the drama of the entire thing, feeling the warmth of the flames on our face, hearing the sizzle of fat on hot coals. There’s a rhythm to the dinner, a joyous ebb and flow, each in-your-face visceral, and strangely calming, too.
OK, Ynyshir will not be for everybody. It’s a great distance from the tranquillity of The Waterside Inn, say, although the cooking is equally exalted. And did I say it’s loud, very loud. By the top, we might be on the dancefloor of a Nineteen Nineties illegal rave.
Those with an aversion to chilli, and the magnificent funk of fish sauce, should steer clear.
Also, there’s the value: £350 for the food, without booze.
In these straitened times, it might be seen as excessive, even obscene. But while some persons are comfortable to spend £500 on a flight to Latest York, or a football season ticket, others decide to spend their hard-earned money on food. Who’re we to evaluate?
The Dinner Room package gives you dinner and an evening on the hotel (and a really advantageous room it’s) for £495. For me, that’s true value.
‘Thanks for making the epic journey to Ynyshir,’ reads the message at the underside of the bill.
I is probably not eating for the subsequent few days. But this isn’t any mere dinner – moderately a blinding, beguiling and utterly thrilling multi-sensory extravaganza. Gareth Ward is a master. Ynyshir is a blast.