Gareth Ward at Ynyshir: mixing Welsh produce with Japanese technique

Gareth Ward at Ynyshir: mixing Welsh produce with Japanese techniques

by Helen Graves 6 September 2017

It might sound like a strange combination, but chef Gareth Ward marries Wales and Japan together with a deft touch at the Michelin-starred Ynyshir, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park – as Helen Graves finds out.

Helen Graves is Content Editor at Great British Chefs. She's also the author of the cookbook Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions, Old and New, and the editor of Pit, an independent magazine with roots in live fire cooking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

Helen Graves is Content Editor at Great British Chefs. She's also the author of the cookbook Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions, Old and New, and the editor of Pit, an independent magazine with roots in live fire cooking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

‘We really are very lucky,’ Amelia Eiriksson tells me as we bounce our way around the lanes to Ynyshir, a restaurant with rooms in the Welsh countryside. She runs the place as general manager while her partner, Gareth Ward, heads up the kitchen team. This stunning location, wedged between the foot of Snowdonia national park and the sea, is like a panacea for the fug and flurry of London. We (I’ve brought my partner) have rattled along for four long hours on the train but our problems seem distant by the time tires crunch their way up the restaurant’s gravel driveway.

The house is set within extensive grounds, fourteen whole acres in fact, so if you’re visiting, make sure you arrive in plenty of time to work up an appetite by rambling across some of them. Even the immediate gardens are impressive however, and really show off the unique microclimate of this area. Areas of Snowdonia are basically temperate rainforest and the humidity hangs in the air. In the gardens, we see tree trunks fuzzy with damp moss, gigantic-leafed aquatic plants lurking like Triffids and ferns aplenty.

Nooks and crannies of the garden explored, it’s time for a cuppa in our beautiful room – cue comments about the bathroom being the size of our London flat – and we discover that Ynyshir provide the best glazed pastries known to woman alongside their teabags. If you’ve ever eaten a kouign amann (a sort of sugar-crusted butter-laden cake) then this will remind you a little of one, perhaps crossed with a palmier. It’s basically a glorious swirl of buttery pastry with a sweet glaze that, once bitten, offers no return to the path of resistance. Top tip: Ynyshir will refresh them as many times as you like.

The ‘biscuits’ offer a not so subtle clue about what’s to come that evening at dinner, but at this point we don’t realise we’re in for one of the best meals of our lives. This may sound gushy but it’s entirely accurate. The food coming from Gareth’s kitchen is, frankly, a bit of an unexpected miracle. Being cynical London folk we’d wondered just how they’d make his approach – which is to use Welsh ingredients married with Japanese flavours and techniques – work. ‘It’s something that’s developed very slowly,’ Amelia tells us, which explains a lot about why it’s so effective. This isn’t simply a chef wading in with a ‘concept’ (shudder) but one who has developed his style organically, over time.

Everything about the dinner surprises us. Usually we’d hate the procession of twenty-one – count ‘em – mini courses, preferring a satisfying à la carte option rather than a potentially fatiguing tasting menu. But, oh, they’ve bamboozled us here too. What arrives is a succession of tiny flavour bombs, everything so skilfully punched with umami we take bite after bite before giving each other the wide eyes of wonder.

An intense onion broth comes with a glass of sake, which manages to convince the long-time sake hater at the table that the drink is worth consuming. No mean feat. Bread is of the sourdough, crackle-crusted variety and comes with two butters: one of them whipped with Welsh wagyu fat, one of them resembling a cube of fudge but spun through with miso. Both kick regular butter out of the park.

Ynyshir is a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms in Powys, and is rated the twelfth best restaurant in the UK by The Good Food Guide
The palmier-style biscuits on offer in the restaurant's rooms

To describe all the courses here would be beyond reason and so here are a few highlights: a nugget of crab so perfectly cooked it felt like something entirely new; a melting piece of pork belly with ‘last year’s cherry’, preserved; the daintiest but most intensely flavoured cheese toastie ever created; raspberry jam on toast (yes) and a spectacular arrangement of blueberries, both fresh and frozen. Have you ever really enjoyed a blueberry? Turns out you need to travel to Ynyshir to do it.

Wines, too, are excellent, with the list eschewing the classics you might expect to find in a country house hotel in favour of terroir-focused wines from up and coming (trendy) regions like Tenerife, Swartland and the Willamette Valley. You’ll also find a smattering of natural wines alongside excellent value choices from the south of France and Italy. Standout wines were a gloriously textured Chenin Blanc from Mother Rock in the Swartland, South Africa and a 1999 vintage Xinomavro from Markovitis in Naoussa, Greek Macedonia.

The meal is billed as a ‘whole evening experience’ and that it is; the courses may be small but that much food takes time to prepare and arrive. That said, service of each course is swift and emerges from an almost silent open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. You know a chef is good when he runs a quiet kitchen. Ruling by fear and flinging pots and pans is about as dated as cheese and pineapple on sticks.

We don’t want it to end, despite the inevitable fullness, which is another great reason to stay the night – it means you get to experience breakfast. This happens in the same calm room as the previous night’s dinner, although it is transformed, each table set with multiple pots and dishes full of exciting preserves, yoghurt, granola, juice, fruit and more of those fantastic biscuits, just in case you were feeling any virtue.

The homemade crumpets get us excited, particularly when heaped with more of that miso butter and all this is before the main event, a cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and a house-made lamb sausage patty. Our only complaint here is that we’d like another slab of carbohydrate to absorb those rich eggs. This is our one and only niggle throughout our stay – we even forgive the occasional use of tweezers as cutlery at dinner, which is really saying something.

Breakfast is no afterthought – the same care and attention is given to each dish as dinner the night before
The clean, minimal interior might not be what you expect to find in a restaurant with rooms in the Welsh countryside, but at Ynyshir it works perfectly

The breakfast here is recently changed to ‘fit more with the overall style’, and that it does. There’s a very zen feeling to Gareth’s food, from the daintiness of it to the calm atmosphere in which its served. Flavours are complex yet clean, bold yet refined.

Finally, it is time to head back to Machynlleth Station, a ten-minute drive by car and a journey we are rather reluctant to make. What Amelia and Gareth have created is what every ‘restaurant with rooms’ or even country house hotel aspires to be: a luxury retreat serving food that speaks of its place but is truly unique and exciting. Bravo.