‘Ingredient Led. Flavour Driven. Fat Fuelled. Meat Obsessed.’ So reads the notice over the archway to the kitchen at Ynyshir, the award-winning restaurant with rooms that has been named the Decanter/Hine UK Restaurant of the Year for 2017.
Chef Gareth Ward is indeed passionate about meat. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken and duck all feature on his 14-course tasting menu. ‘I wasn’t going to put beef on the menu – every restaurant serves beef and scallops,’ he says dismissively, ‘but when I tasted Ifor’s [Welsh farmer Ifor Humphreys] I couldn’t leave it out.’
Many restaurants have tasting menus, but few chefs have the skill to combine textures and flavours with quite the flair of Ward. His Wagyu beef, for instance, is aged for three weeks, brined for four days, cooked for three more days then finished on the barbecue giving it an incredible depth and intensity of flavour. The open kitchen has a digital display showing the time that the beef has been ageing down to the nearest second.
Ward isn’t afraid of fat either, which abounds in the Wagyu, pork belly and lamb. ‘It’s a carrier of flavour and helps our meat to age,’ he explains as he shows me a saddle of lamb he’s been cosseting. ‘We age all our own meat.’
The complicated processes that each ingredient goes through enable Ward to prepare everything ahead. It makes for far less stress for both the kitchen and customer, he says. ‘We do very little cooking during service now. It takes away all the pressure – the screaming and shouting that still seems to be the done thing in the industry but just doesn’t work any more. We have a waiting list of chefs who want to work here,’ he adds proudly.
Born just outside Newcastle, Ward didn’t set out to be a chef. ‘I left school at 16 without any sense of what I wanted to do. To be honest, I was dead fussy – I wouldn’t eat anything.’ Urged by an uncle, he fell into working in a pub and found he had a talent for cooking.
His break came through working with Aaron Patterson at Hambleton Hall, for whom he still has the greatest respect, then after a couple of other jobs, with the innovative Sat Bains in Nottingham. ‘Aaron taught me to be a chef and Sat taught me how to think,’ he says.
He took over the kitchens at Ynyshir, his first head chef position, in 2013 and gained a Michelin star the following year. In early 2017 he took a stake in the business, becoming chef proprietor, and feels he’s now developed a distinctive style of his own.
The menu is full of quirky touches, from his ‘not French onion soup’ – the result of a series of experiments cooking onions different ways that led to a Japanese-style soup with miso and dashi – to a ridiculously good British-style chicken curry, scattered with crispy chicken skin which stems from the hugely popular curries Ward cooks for staff meals. A swede is playfully carved like a Halloween lantern, the contents diced and incorporated into a Welsh cawl. This is a chef who brings a strong element of comfort food to his fine dining.
Ward’s cooking is a challenge for wine, but his partner Amelia Eriksson is undaunted. She doesn’t attempt to do wine pairing: ‘If people don’t want a single bottle I’ll pick out a few wines that will work and fit in with their taste.’
From the 60 wines available by the glass she picks a smoky Georgian Saperavi to go with a duck dish and the Wagyu, and a new-wave Californian Chardonnay to go with a dish of pork belly and pickled cherries. It’s a surprising and stunning combination.
From having been resolutely classical (there’s still the odd bottle of Sassicaia, Tertre Roteboeuf and La Turque in the cellar), the list now veers fashionably in the direction of natural wines. ‘The kitchen is trying to make the best food with the best ingredients and not to do too much to them,’ says Eriksson. ‘I take the same approach to wine.’
2017 was a good year for Ynyshir, which was not only singled out by Decanter/Hine, but rated 12th in The Good Food Guide, secured five rosettes in the AA Best Restaurants guide and held onto its Michelin star (in my view it deserves two). It’s worth not only the detour but the drive across Wales, through some of the most beautiful countryside in the British Isles. The breakfasts, with homemade crumpets, are pretty amazing too.
Ynyshir, Eglwys Fach, Machynlleth, Wales SY20 8TA
Tel: +44 (0)1654 781209
Lunch Wednesday to Saturday, 1pm-2pm. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday, 7pm-9pm. Tasting menu, bed and breakfast starts from £195
Fiona Beckett is a Decanter contributing editor and chief restaurant reviewer