Wales

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

Ynyshir, 1st Visit of 2018

I feel like I am going to get used to the drive to Ynyshir. The nondescript hard concrete of the motorways and a-roads until Shrewsbury, with Welshpool marking that we have entered a different country. From there its rolling green hills and sheep and not much else. Roads meander in direct correlation with the streams that tumble alongside them. Homes are sparse and thinly spread apart out here – the scenery is ample friendship. It’s beautiful. I love how much the seasons have altered the landscape in the five months since we last visited. Winter has rooted itself firmly in rural Wales; the trees have exposed their souls to the elements, grass sodden and under the permanent shadow of cloud. Even in the company of a woman, the last two of the three and a bit hour journey is peaceful and revitalising.

We roll through stone posts that mark the entrance and wind around to the large white building. There have been some tweaks made. The white linen has been replaced by oversized wooden tables . The bowls and plates more dramatic, as are the hand carved spoons that greet the first course. It is a deliberate ploy to be more in tune with the surrounding environment. And it’s working. My best meal of 2017 just delivered an even better one in 2018.

I won’t go over every dish again – there is all of that on my previous post. Dinner here takes up to four hours and involves a large quantity of small dishes. The not French onion soup is still the first thing you eat and is still perfect. This is followed by a wedge of duck leg, cooked slowly, blasted through hot oil, dressed in sesame oil and topped with spring onions. It’s like the best crispy duck from your local Chinese. We have the bread course again. The sour dough seems to have improved – the pockets of air beneath the dark crust less restrained, the flavour deeper.

Mackerel is warmed through on the pass lights so that the texture has altered but the fish still retains the bright qualities of its raw state. With this is a rhubarb ketchup, slices of fermented rhubarb, and grated lardo. It is a dish that leans on acidity. It is bright and brilliantly conceived. A crab dish with sweet corn was a highlight of our last visit, this time the seasons dictate that we have turnip with the crustacean instead. It improves the dish, the earthiness working with the sweet meat and soy dressing that has the flavour of roasted shells. It is a nailed on three star dish. We have the wagyu beef burger course that takes the profile of a Big Mac and putting them in a dice sized piece of beef you hold between finger and thumb, and then the short rib from the same beast with shiitake mushroom and seaweed. I’ve eaten both dishes three times within six months. They still amaze me.

When I’m asked about Ynyshir I always say the same thing; nobody in England does flavour like Gareth Ward. Every dish is built around the maximum impact, that smashes you in the mouth with a closed fist. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, with grated smoked eel, a spelt cracker, and cubes of apple that cuts clean through the richness. It has pinpoint balance. We have the grilled prawn with umami rich soy bisque again. The langoustine, fat and sweet, is the best I’ve eaten, anywhere. The seasons have been kind.

We surge on to more protein. Duck breast with salted plum excites me a lot less than deer with crisped fat and pickled black beans. There is nothing technically wrong with the former, the breast meat just fights a little too hard to keep up with its company. The latter has more bravado, more swagger. It threatens to be too big until you grow a pair and man, or woman, up. Pork belly with a sauce using last year’s cherries is equally massive. I have no idea how long and slowly it takes to cook pork belly this well but my guess is that it’s long enough for a man, or woman, to grow a beard.

A salt baked swede, alit and sinister looking, marks the cawl course. I don’t like it. The bits of lamb heart at the base are lovely, but the rest of the stew is a bit nonplus. A dish based around swede – that watery root veg – is always going to be an uphill struggle with me. And then it’s the same two Welsh lamb courses that marked our first lunch here. The lamb spare rib is still in my top three dishes ever, the lamb neck with kombucha still the best lamb with mint sauce you’ll ever eat.

Two courses bridge the savoury to the sweet. The first is less conventional; onions, cooked for a couple of days in beer and wagyu fat, in a bowl with thickened cooking juices and torn sour dough. They call it bread and gravy, though to me it echoes French onion soup. It’s dark and heady and absolutely delicious. Beauvale cheese with pear takes two ingredients in peak condition and let’s them run with one another.

There are four desserts. The first is Manjari chocolate, cremeux-like in texture without (I think) the cream. A shard made from shiitake mushroom might not seem an obvious ally but the chocolate makes the fungi taste like coffee. It’s super clever. This is followed by a dense reduction of parsnips where the sugars have released and caramelised the veg. On to this goes a puddle of maple syrup, rye, and nitrogen set verjus. The combination is a revelation, sweet, nutty, slightly acidic, not like anything I’ve ever tried before.

S.T.P might sound like something I caught in 2004 Tenerife but the smart amongst you may know it to be sticky toffee pudding. This has the sponge replaced with dates that have been dehydrated and glued together, onto which is placed the strongest vanilla ice cream I have ever tried and that all important toffee sauce. I have no idea what they have done to the sauce to make it taste so good, but it is a skill to rework a dish purely around the memory of the best bit of an iconic. They use the same tactic with rhubarb and custard, the fruit mostly an acidic foil to the reimagining of custard that tastes just like the Birds custard that I grew up on. Its rich and oozy and probably the result of a trillion egg yolks. I could eat this every night of my life and be happy. We finish with that tiramisu course which I firmly believe is the best sweet course I have eaten. It simply cannot be improved.

With this the record player in the corner changes from Kings of Leon to Bob Marley, and we head off to bed to sleep off another outstanding meal. An experience like this doesn’t come cheap; dinner with a couple of bottles of wine, cocktails, and a bed for the night clocks close to six hundred, but it is just that: An experience. Fat Duck withstanding, I know of no place that evokes such emotion through the gentle suggestion of food memory. Coming to Ynyshir requires commitment; the travel and the expense. It pays this back with course after course after course of brilliance. I’ll reiterate what I said the last time I wrote about here: Ynyshir is right now the most exciting restaurant in the UK. And we are in it for the long haul, watching it every step along the way.

Ynyshir, Elgwys Fachs, Wales

My girlfriend is a fellow food blogger, a statement which, if you know my general disdain for the term, is something that will require therapy on my behalf to overcome. It’s not her fault; she’s one of the good guys whose interest extends further than the pique-assiette culture of never paying for a dinner. Plus, it has it’s upsides. She acts as a sub editor for my piss-poor grammar and provides the funnier observations over dinner that I steal for my writing.  And, loving food in the same way that I do, she takes me to Ynyshir for my birthday. Whadda woman.  I still can’t believe that my greatest love sprang from my greatest enemy. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only far shitter to watch.


And so, let’s move onto Ynyshir, a beautiful white walled residence in the middle of bloody nowhere, or, as the locals would prefer me to say, in Elgwys Fach, at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, near Machynlleth.  I have this theory in remote restaurants in that the journey makes a part of the experience.  Anyone can hop on a train to London, but to commit to here, or The Three Chimney’s, or L’Enclume takes a certain amount of commitment.  And boy, are we committed to food, as the next nine thousand (I’m guessing) words will show.  Those with a short attention span may want to look away now.  Those with a culinary porn problem may want to cover their modesty:  This is going to get Filthy.



The dining room pans out towards the rolling green hills of the Dyfi valley at one end and straight into the open kitchen at the other.  It is as much as a blank canvas as interior designers will allow it to be, with warm purples occasionally interspersing wooden floors and thick white linen table clothes. It is all about the food here with the first course making us sit bolt upright – a position that we would remain in for the two hour lunch and then some afterwards.  ‘Not French Onion Soup’ would transpire to be a bowl in which kombu stock was poured onto onion puree, tofu, onion oil, and pickled shallots.  It’s a whack to the face of umami, followed by a kick to the balls of acidity.  It’s big and brave, with the first sign of Japanese influences such as the dried kelp stock and miso in the onion puree.  It is perfect.  And this was just the first course.


What follows is a further ten courses that would set the marker for what I consider to be the UK’s most exciting restaurant.  A sourdough bread features a crust blacker than my soul, served with a Wagyu fat spread that overshadows an excellent miso butter.  Mackerel follows, barely cooked and draped in a pineapple jelly. Charcoal oil adds a depth, beansprouts and puffed rice texture.  As with so much of the food that follows, every flavour is amplified to eleven.



A cube of Wagyu short rib, cooked until it is only just holding it’s shape, is served with shitake mushroom, puffed rice and seaweed. The umami rich accompaniments are present to bolster the flavour of the beef, the seasoning as bold as it possibly can be. Following on from this was Mayan gold potato lightly dressed in pheasants egg, with shallots and truffle butter sauce.  We are back on the now familiar territory of umami and acidity, with the potato dice coated in a little yeast paste and the slight tang of vinegar in the sauce.  It’s a brilliant blend of two of the five basic tastes which give the dishes light and shade.  Claire says it is one of the best dishes she has ever eaten.  She’s right, but better is to come.



Lunches main protein came in the way of two courses of lamb.  The first is a rib glazed with soy and shizo that disappears as quickly as it arrives, the meat undressing from the bone at the slightest of suggestion.  The barbeque neck which follows is the first time that we would notice a familiar theme which would run through *spoiler alert* dinner the same night, in that dishes have a familiarity on the palate far removed from the world of fine dining.  The neck fillet is topped with a kombucha (a fermented Japanese herb tea) gel which echoes the best lamb with mint sauce you will ever eat.  It’s astonishing in delivery and concept, moreish to the point that it will eventually end up with it’s own addicts group.  In a day where the high points kept on rising, this was for the me the real eureka moment.



Not foreseeing the later bout of gluttony, we take the optional cheese course.  It’s cauliflower cheese, just like grandma used to make it.  Of course it’s not, I’m shitting you.  Cauliflower is compressed with -8 vinegar and topped with Beauvale that oozes and fills with a richness.  It is cauliflower cheese, right down to the breadcrumb topping, just not as you know it.  ‘Lager and lime’ really is just that, a cleansing course of yogurt panacota prepared tableside with continental lager and lime.  It takes me back to my teenage years when I used to drink my pints with a splash of cordial.




Our first dessert arrives, a blueberry dish that for me drops down to one Michelin standard – an achievement given that the restaurant presently has one star.  It’s good – the fermented berries bright in flavour, the buttermilk adding a subtle layer of fat.  We finish with a take on tiramisu.  It is glorious.  Various dots of coffee and vanilla, a shard of something crisp and see-through, with mascarpone granita and grated bitter chocolate.  It’s balanced and refined, a real statement that the sweeter courses can be to the same impossibly high standard of everything else.  We walk through the open kitchen for liquid nitrogen poached meringue filled with fennel purée, seemingly inspired by the aniseed sweets you get at the end of a curry.   I like that idea.  Anything inspired by curry houses is fine with me.  




Now that should be it.  I should surmise about a perfect meal worthy of a special journey and we should all move on with our lives.  Except I can’t, because as I alluded to earlier, that girlfriend of mine couldn’t turn down the chance to extend my birthday lunch into twenty or so more courses at dinner.  I argue that I’m not worthy of that expenditure for all of about twenty seconds before concluding that I probably am. I’m sorry but you’ve come this far to no avail, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it.

Dinner starts with the dish that is most definitely not a French onion soup, moving on to what is most definitely a glazed slice of duck leg topped with sesame.  Another mackerel dish follows, this time with a sweet and sour ketchup made from bramble, with wood sorrel and grated lardo.  The cured pork backfat is the inspired part, coating the mouth and improving the flavour.  And we’re back on that word again.  This place is all about flavour.  Everything else is secondary to the question “does it taste the best that it absolutely can?'”.  And I like that idea.  I like it a lot.  



The following two courses are two of my favourites.  Crab and sweet corn is remiscent of chowder, light and clean in profile until you hit the dark funk of a crab soy.  Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, glazed with birch sap syrup, and topped with spelt and a grating of smoked eel.  It’s smoked bacon.  Honestly.  The fat content, the back note of sweetness, the meatiness and the smoke.  I want this with a thick slice of bread and a cup of coffee.  But I can’t, so bottle number three of wine will make do. 



Duck with pickled black beans and black garlic is, of course, duck with black bean sauce.  Likewise tomato, lardo and basil is a BLT.  You get the picture; inspiration from the everyday took to a level up there with the very best.  You have to taste it to believe it.  



I can’t pinpoint the inspiration behind the barbecued langoustine but I can tell you it was damm right delicious.  It’s grilled to a meaty texture with wild garlic and a glorious dressing of roasted shells and soy sauce.  The pollock that came afterwards is, in my opinion, the weakest of the evening.  I  see what they are aiming at with the miso glaze on the fish and the dashi stock to slurp afterwards, it’s just disjointed and lacking the brutal hit of flavour of everything else we ate.  A deconstructed Caesar salad pulls it back.  The lettuce emulsion is vibrant, the Parmesan whey and anchovy crumb full of umami.  It needs the grated cured egg yolk to pull it all together, which it does brilliantly. 





Wagyu returns for three courses.  The first makes me shout “it’s a burger!” a little too loud with the addition of pickled gerkins and a genius addition of bread mayo.  This happens before a piece of sirloin that has been aged for 192 days – I’ve had engagements that have lasted less time.  The meat is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, a bastardisation of beef and blue cheese.  Served only with a grating of fresh wasabi, this is as close as I am likely to get to the prime steak houses of Tokyo.  Wagyu fudge concludes the trio.  You read that right, it’s fudge made with wagyu fat.  A genuine game changer.  Thorntons should nick the idea.



And this, Dear Reader, is where the post concludes, despite there being many courses left.  It was at this point that the days beers, the champagne, the cocktails, and the four bottles of red wine took hold.  It all became a little fuzzy and if I can’t remember it properly, I simply can’t write about it. I remember the lager and lime again, a brilliant strawberry dish that tasted like Summer Cup, and raspberries on toast.  Indeed, looking through my notes now, the dishes maintain the same form; most at the two star standard, with more at three star than one.  It seems a given to me that this restauarant is gaining a star this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it joins the top four in the coming years.  It is exhilarating; a riot of taste and precision, all hand delivered by a team of chefs who clearly love working here.  It is the best meal I’ve eaten, trumping all of the two and three star places I’ve been fortunate to dine at. And for once I wasn’t the one picking up the bill.  Gareth Ward and his team at Ynyshir have created a restaurant which rivals the very best in the country.

10/10