Take your mouth to Wales – specifically to the workplace of Gareth Ward and his partner Amelia Eriksson. Creating tastes that blow the best of London out of the water, Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms is a portal of textures, spaces, sounds, smells and sighs. You may find food that tries to be what Ward is doing but you’ll never find the whole incredible hog unless you come here. This is why Ward won the Good Food Guide Chef of the Year 2019, Chef of the Year finalist at the National Restaurant Awards 2018, Michelin Guide: 1 Star since 2014 and Five AA Rosettes among many other accolades.
Unrivalled as a host, her death a week afterwards was unreasonably and irrationally upsetting to me: I’d only known her for a few hours
Almost three years ago I ate at Gareth’s table. The Talbots and Reens owned the place, with the divine Joan Reen as host of Ynyshir Hall (a former hunting lodge of Queen Victoria). I got lost the first time I came, my GPS sending me an hour in the wrong direction. Through the dark and the rain, Joan met me at the door with champagne on a tray. Unrivalled as a host, her death a week afterwards was unreasonably and irrationally upsetting to me: I’d only known her for a few hours. So it was with mixed feelings that I returned to “her place” – a destination that served the most memorable food I’ve had in a lifetime of Michelin stars.
Set in the soothing foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, Ynyshir – pronounced “unnis-heer” and Welsh for “long island” or more accurately “long meadow” – has been a gourmet venue since the 90s and its first Good Food Guide mention. It got a Michelin star in 2014.
When you arrive at Ynyshir, you’re greeted with warm broth and a drink in the bar, a place stripped back to simple colours and beckoning textures: sheep fleece, natural shades, soothing and peaceful. A little Scandi around the edges, Ericksson says it’s more than that. “It’s about the food, the flavour, what you’re holding in your hands… everything.” There are 26 seats in various places – chef’s table, kitchen bench, tables for two. Staffing is light and streamlined to quality. The kitchen is open and you can watch the chef work. But you’re more attuned to the experience: an ingredient-led, flavour-driven, total immersion in flavours you thought you knew but really didn’t fully comprehend. What you don’t expect is for the intensity to be so … relaxing. The restaurant fits you, and around you. That it does that to all who eat here is one of miracles of Ynyshir.
“We want people to know we’re doing something different here and that it’s worth the journey,” Ward has said. The location felt far the first time. The second time I swear the car knew the way, my taste buds acting as GPS. The roads to Ynyshir are good, and the bottom edge of Snowdonia means that the freshest ingredients are at hand. Ward is a fan of Welsh wagyu – “the greatest fat in the world” – and even puts it in dessert. There’s enough seven-day fermented sourdough, natural honey and seasonal vegetables to keep everyone happy, except the pescarians, vegans and vegetarians. For them, there’s opting out of the meat and fish-based dishes and enjoying what you will. This is a place of quality meat and fish that makes you appreciate the animal, its life and its purpose.
More Japanese than French, Ward is doing something extraordinary at Ynyshir. It’s simpler and better, streamlined lighter yet more condensed. It’s focused without being heavy, serious with a sense of humour. The times I’ve eaten here, Ward has impressed me but this is unbelievable. He’s outshone his own superb cooking of only three years ago.
Just when I thought nothing could be better than Ward’s food, he succeeds himself. It’s not just me: Ynyshir was placed fifth in the Top 50 Restaurants for this year with a score of 9 for food – an improvement from its previous 12th place in 2018. Yes, he insists on a tasting menu because he knows that works for him. You cannot do this kind of cooking at home. It takes talent, giftedness, skill, dedication and divine chance.
My dining companion was a Ynyshir newcomer. “I think you could bring anybody here, which is something that you wouldn’t normally associate with a Michelin-star restaurant. It’s not unattainable,” he tells me – and as he’s Welsh he understands the spiritual nature of the area. “But it’s not just the food that makes me feel good. The place makes me feel good. Because many places I’ve been to over the years, they’ll be a beautiful setting in a beautiful house but usually the service and the food don’t deliver.
“When you’re in a beautiful place with beautiful food, it doesn’t get any better,” he says. “Candles, real wood, moss from the garden. It’s quite stripped back but doesn’t feel bare. The staff aren’t too attentive. They also have a good choice of music on vinyl, which is a much softer sound… I’m overwhelmed by… quality.”
Driving four hours from London to experience Ynyshir may seem indulgent. But I argue wholeheartedly that you must do it – or take the train. The point of good dining is to open up your appreciation of everything, a developing sensibility that extends beyond food. Ynyshir is a lesson in how to live well. C
Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, Eglwys Fach, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 8TA, Wales
01654 781209; ynyshir.co.uk