Serendipity? You bet. What are the chances of booking a dining destination to celebrate a ‘big’ birthday and in the intervening months it wins its second Michelin star and three days before your stay gets elevated to the UK’s number one restaurant?
Ynyshir was already a hot ticket for the foodie who likes to be challenged; now chef Gareth Ward and his design-savvy partner Amelia Eiriksson are having to fend off a press pack desperate to find out what all the fuss is about on this distant edge of Wales.
We already had a fair inkling. We holed up there exactly six years ago and adored the embryo project the pair had embarked on after taking full ownership. Since when we’ve traced from afar the radical transformation of this once whitewashed hunting lodge outside Machynlleth, once owned by Queen Victoria. A doom-laden redecoration, a ram’s skull motif and brown sheepskin throws off a Game of Thrones set, a soundtrack rumoured to make Nine Inch Nails sound like loungecore and a 32-course Japanese-influenced tasting menu that has ‘imminent overdraft’ written all over it. Bring it on.
Some time after we had polished off 15 fish courses – riffs on lobster, shrimp, scallop, crab, hamachi, blue fin, black cod and madai via a sensual overload of nahm jim, wasabi, yuzu, miso, sesame– Ynyshir really kicked off. A volcanic fire pit was ignited outside the window while a mirror ball pierced every corner of the penumbral dining room and I could have sworn the DJ ratcheted up the decibels.
Luckily we had been assigned one of two tables by the window and Captain Smidge, our gourmet chihuahua, had snuggled down on a rug oblivious to the hubbub, even missing the Wagyu beef three ways which he would have wolfed. Most of the dishes would have been far too spicy for him and anyway most were one-bite size. Hard to pick a favourite. The Welsh lamb spare ribs were sensational, ditto the blue fin tuna, the scallop with duck liver or the miso cured black cod with aged kaluga.
Impeccably behaved Smidge had been given special dispensation to sleep in the main house and to join us and 22 other souls on Yynyshir’s epic culinary voyage. The large couple from Essex, who had booked the chef’s table, looked quite blown away by the perfect storm of the adjacent kitchen brigade, with Gareth Ward as Captain Ahab on the bridge, silhouetted against the flaming grill.
A quiet date place this ain’t, yet our dinner experience had started in calm fashion on our arrival at 3pm. Like the other guests, we were invited to ‘check in’ for the meal before being shown to our rooms. Overnight stays are part of the package.
In turn you are taken out from your lounge drink to be introduced to a large box of raw produce that is the inspiration for the dishes ahead. Beware getting nipped by the live crab. Your MC then composes a taster bowl of ‘Not French Onion’. It was a signature statement in 2016 – Japanese dashi stock flavoured with onion oil, diced tofu, pickled shallots, sea vegetables, onion and miso purée and brown butter croûtons. I conjecture this chawanmushi (savoury custard) has been refined but it remains utterly delicious.
Next up is a session with Ynyshir sommelier Rory Eaton to discuss your wine (or sake) requirements for the evening. The list has stratospheric bottles but also a few you’d class as accessible. We went middle ground by the glass – Alsace Pinot Gris, South African Chenin Blanc, Chablis, South African Pinot Noir and a Barolo. Rory, a class act, remained attentive to our vinous needs throughout the evening.
A similar professionalism pervades the operation. Three days before, on the Monday Gareth and Amelia had to be leant on to make the trek to London, where they triumphed at the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. No over the top celebrations, mind. Tuesday, 200 miles away, was to be business as usual. Even a scalded foot wasn’t keeping Gareth from the pass. Having risen through the ranks at Hambleton Hall and Sat Bains, the towering County Durham lad is nothing if not driven. Do not expect him to cater for your dietary requirements. You are there to eat HIS food.
In a corridor near our ground floor room hung a chef’s jacket proclaiming Yynyshir’s two Michelin star status. That achievement arrived through a deliberate policy to shake up expectations of country house dining. On our first visit it was a benign luxury country retreat. Not chintzy old school, but certainly decorous, quite at odds with the Japanese techniques/lamb fat base of dishes coming out of the kitchen. Hand in hand with a ramping up of the Orient influences and an obsessive investment in the finest raw materials (local, yes, but if the best has to be imported, so be it) came that radical reworking of the look of the place, inside and out.
Moody dark blue and grey makes a statement. As does the two teepees viewed across rewilded grounds, thronged with chest-high ox-eye daisies on our visit. They were our vista as we opted to sample the first five courses outside by the (unlit) fire pit, revelling in the kind of heat wave rarely encountered around the Dyfi estuary.
Fortunately, our ground floor bedroom – yes, moody dark blue decor – was cool in every sense. Not that we had much time to spend in the space that was formerly the lounge/bar area (before and after above). Ynyshir is a high octane experience.
By the time we reached the seven puddings, including a playful Alphonso take on a Bakewell, we were flagging, yet rallied around an old acquaintance from first time around. Gareth’s deconstructed ‘tiramisu’ is a great splatter of coffee cake puree, vanilla mayo, chilli crémant gel, coffee, mascarpone granita and a grating of intense 100 per cent chocolate.
The finale? Well, no. Further Valrhona in an ‘after dessert’ in the bar. Single origin Madagascar Manjari daringly paired with shitake mushroom and kaffir lime… a final stroke of genius from a remarkable, unique restaurant experience.
Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, Eglwysfach, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 8TA. 01654 781209. Lunch or dinner £350. Prices start at £495 per person for a house room plus dinner (drinks extra). The grounds are also home to a ‘pub with casual dining’ marquee, Legless Fach. Check out my original Ynyshir review and discover the nearby shrine to austere priest poet RS Thomas, the amazing RSPB reserve over the hill and the charms of eco-friendly Machynlleth.