The restaurant at Ynyshir Hall, Wales, shouldn’t work. Beside the village of Eglwysfach, near Machynlleth, the surrounding scenery is spectacular, with its wild sandy beaches, ancient pines and water-pummelled hills. But, although this fine-dining restaurant, set within one of the best hotels in Wales, is within relatively easy weekending distance of Birmingham, Liverpool and Cardiff, Ynyshir Hall is well over four hours’ drive from London and even further from other parts of the southeast, where many of its visitors make the pilgrimage from.
There’s also a surprising dischord between the décor and the food. The restaurant is part of a small country hotel with a colourful history and an equally vibrant design scheme. Once owned by William Mappin, of the Mappin & Webb silverware company, it’s been in the hands of local couple Joan and Rob Reen since the 1980s (aside from a short period when they sold it to – and then bought it back from – the Von Essen group). Though Joan died in February, her strong vision, work ethic and talent for hospitality is still palpable.
We loved the decor. In these days of high-backed leather dining chairs, soft beige carpeting and bland limestone bathroom tiles, Ynyshir Hall is wonderfully idiosyncratic. Bright pops of colour – and Rob Reen’s paintings of wily-looking sheep – give the hotel a warm and unique identity (if you’re not a fan of jewel colours, the hotel’s two new garden suites manage to create plenty of drama with a much more restrained colour palette). This includes the restaurant, with its turquoise walls, green flock chairs and perfectly framed views of the hotel gardens.
Beyond being a conversation point, the colourful decor is also (whisper it) quite old-fashioned. Which doesn’t mean that Ynyshir Hall appeals only to older guests – most of our co-diners were in their 30s and 40s and enjoying the hotel’s sophisticated, classic British take on luxury – but that the restaurant’s unapologetically contemporary cooking comes as even more of a surprise against this traditional background.
Sit on a plump peach sofa by the fire in the lounge, enjoying a pre-dinner G&T and gazing at the living picture on one wall (a vast window onto a rockery), and you might expect to follow it with a hearty plate of roast lamb. But meals at Ynyshir Hall are tasting menu-only, a brave move in this remote location, where the closest you might normally come to liquid nitrogen is a stroll through sea fog (overnight guests can choose a lighter, five-course menu or, if you’re staying for more than one night, a three-course menu tailored to suit).
Chef Gareth Ward won a Michelin star for Ynyshir Hall soon after arriving from Nottingham’s Sat Bains in 2013, and the four AA-star restaurant is one of the Good Food Guide 2016’s top 50 UK restaurants. Ward is both meticulous about what he serves – and brilliant at inspiring enthusiasm from the rest of the team who, both in and out of the kitchen, tread a welcoming line between formality and cheerful good humour.
Served on beautifully sparse crockery, custom-made by ceramicist Neil Alcock in Cheltenham and the perfect stage for a chef deeply influenced by Japanese flavours (even if he hasn’t yet visited the country), the resulting food is sensational. Despite the large number of courses (five for the standard lunch menu, eight for dinner menu, 14 for the restaurant’s new chef’s table experience) the carb-light style of the dishes means you leave feeling sated rather than struggling to move.
Stand-out dishes from our lunch at Ynyshir Hall included the first, ‘Not French Onion Soup’ (actually slow-cooked onions, miso, tofu, sea purslane, onion oil, pickled shallots and dashi), a rich but fresh start. Homemade sourdough followed – just enough of that telltale sourness but nicely springy and burnished at the edges – then the best mouthful (that was, sadly, all there was) of ‘Lamb Rib’ we’ve ever tasted. We sucked its meaty, soy, mint juices off the tiny bones it came on.
‘Black Garlic Scampi’ was another triumph, a sweet langoustine topped with a zingy confetti of candyfloss-pink, shaved rhubarb. ‘Swede’ was impressive for the culinary theatrics alone – a volcanic looking salt-baked version set on the table for visual and odoural effect alongside a bowl of pale miso butter swede and a thimble-like beaker of fermented swede juice.
And, while we loved the sweet-sour flavour and jelly-and-ice-cream texture of ‘Lager & Lime’ (the jelly was made with La Creuse lager, the lime both in the yoghurt below it and grated over the top), a deconstructed ‘Tiramisu’ was vouched worth the journey alone. Nothing like anything bearing that description we’d eaten before, the Ynyshir Hall version – made with coffee cake puree, vanilla mayo, Crémant gel, coffee, mascarpone granita and a grating of 100% chocolate – was deemed the hit of the meal, intense bursts of flavour matched by chill, crunch and – thanks to the granita – literal melt-in-the-mouth.
If I had a criticism it would be that, with our longer tasting menu, some of the dishes were slightly repetitive (desserts in similar colours, scattered with the same crunchy grains and topped by the same liquid nitrogen granitas, or mains laced with soy and mirin) but, then, too much of a good thing is no great hardship.
Written by Rhiannon Batten, March 2016
You might also like…
The five best Welsh hotels for foodies
Anglesey, Wales: where to eat & drink in 2016
The 13 most important chefs for 2016
Five hot culinary travel trends for 2016
Best-ever lamb recipes
Boozy tiramisu bombe