Go back seven years and Ynyshir went by the grander name of Ynyshir Hall and was a white building set back in grounds near Wales’ Snowdonia National Park. Several high-profile chefs had won Michelin stars there over the years but there was little that made the venue stand out and it looked to be following the same path as the many other fine dining rooms set in impressive but out-of-the-way locations.
And then Gareth Ward came along and ripped up the traditional country house hotel dining model completely. The venue has dropped the ‘hall’, the dining room has been remodelled, the menu now runs to well over 20 courses, the building has been painted black and the restaurant now holds two Michelin stars. It also now holds the title of being the Best Restaurant in the UK.
It took a leap of faith from Ward and Ynyshir’s owners to completely. Out went the tablecloths and many of the trappings of a traditional fine dining experience and in came a fully open kitchen where chefs served customers their dishes – not because it was cool but because they were short of the front of house staff – accompanied by a banging soundtrack.
The new, bold tack didn’t go down well with everyone, naturally, but Ynyshir’s singular approach, twinned with Ward’s uncompromising use of the best ingredients, served in a procession of small, often one-bite dishes, many with a Japanese influence, soon began to turn heads. Ynyshir soon established itself as the place to be – not to have a romantic meal or a deep and meaningful conversation – but for breathtakingly good food in an extraordinarily fun, fast-paced environment.
“It’s a pure indulgence ingredients experience,” says Ward. “You just get hit the moment you walk through the door with the best ingredients in the world. If they are local and incredible, we will use the, but if it’s further afield we’ll use them. I’m constantly looking for the best ingredients.”
Of his cooking style itself, Ward refers to a description of it made by someone as ‘polished version of British street food culture’, which he admits is quite a close to the mark. “It is like my favourite things that I love to eat, sometimes spicy, always with incredible flavour.”
Many chefs talk about putting the fun into fine dining, but few manage to carry it off with any real conviction. Not so at Ynyshir, whose idiosyncratic food is matched by the atmosphere in the room. “I just want to give you a great time,” he says. “We’ve got a DJ; it’s a relaxed atmosphere. There’s no white tablecloths or anything like that. It’s come, wear what you want, do you what you want and just have a great time.”
This attitude, combined with Ward’s supreme ability behind the stove, means that there’s likely more to come from this now famous Welsh restaurant. “We keep looking for ingredients and to get better and better,” says Ward. “I want to put Ynyshir on the world map.” This seems only a matter of time.
The National Restaurant of The Year award is sponsored by Estrella Damm