Game for Lunch winner Sarah Monier-Williams reflects on her stay at Ynyshir Hall, an understated retreat at the foot of the Cambrian Mountains.
As a child my grandfather told me that if you stare long and hard enough into a sheep’s face then you’ll be reminded of someone famous. I’d never met Hugh Grant, and yet here I was in a stunningly beautiful and tranquil corner of wild coastal Wales and a rather blue Hugh was watching me eat.
The sheep portraits by artist Rob Reen, co-owner of Ynyshir Hall, are rather extraordinary. Bright, playful and memorable, clearly brimming with talent, they add charm and character to the walls and dining tables of this Relais & Châteaux hotel. The Reens recently celebrated 25 years of ownership, but the history of the house is almost as colourful as the art. Having spotted the hall from her seat on the Royal Train, Queen Victoria was so entranced by Ynyshir that she acquired the estate as a hideaway retreat. It later passed into the cautious hands of William Hubert Mappin of the Mappin and Webb jewellery empire, who, much to the disdain of the thriving local shooting community, gifted over 1,000 acres to the RSPB on his death in 1966.
Thankfully, there is still some glorious shooting to be had locally, with challenging high pheasants at Brigands and Camlan less than half an hour away, as well as the low-key Dyffryn coastal valley shoot just across the picturesque Dovey Estuary. It’s a given that the Good Food Guide’s 2015 ‘one to watch’ head chef, Gareth Ward, has a game dealer on speed dial, and fortunately the neighbouring farmer has a keen eye for a careless mallard.
Game features regularly on the menu at the Michelin-starred restaurant here, one of only five in Wales. As does salt marsh hogget, which caused me to risk a slightly guilty, sideways glance at Hugh. The 11-course tasting menu and weighty tome of a wine list were reassuringly interesting and creative. Yet surprisingly inexpensive, given the quality of the dishes presented to us. “We could put prices up, but why rob everybody?” said Gareth. And he means it. He uses clever, not prime, cuts of meat, and inexpensive – yet beautifully prepared and presented – fish. The local mackerel, for example, is never off the menu. The influence of Gareth’s personal preference for eating Japanese food on his days off is evident. I spied his written request for dashi and panko on the daily market list, and the evening’s menu would feature Teriyaki BBQ salmon belly and two variations of Welsh wagyu beef, including a fudge. Yes, that’s fudge made with meat. Stunning.
Bleaters on Trip Advisor moan about the small portion size, but it’s refreshingly rare to enjoy 11 courses and accompanying wine flights without feeling like you’ve consumed a birthday banquet for Henry VIII. With sheer cooking theatre on offer here, each course is an entertainment in itself. We giggled in delight as the carrot cooked in hay and salt was served alongside a smoking bowl of hay to inhale as the carrot was consumed. Our eyes widened as delicate spoonfuls of basil ice-cream were made on our table using liquid nitrogen. Gareth wants his guests to feel they’ve had an experience, something different and unforgettable.
Contrary to the frivolity of the evening menu, the bountiful breakfasts are ideal for setting you up for a day of Welsh wanderings. That’s if you can tear yourself away from the ridiculously comfortable rooms with their rock star bathrooms, flat screen TVs and wood-burning stoves. And the view, of course. Each window faces out onto the stark beauty of the Cambrian Mountains which, as every review will tell you, were the inspiration behind Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.
Ynyshir Hall is a gentle place. And beautifully understated. The guests are fairly polarized, with grouse comprising most of the overnighters, whilst assorted pigeon and ‘various’ partake in afternoon tea. It’s not filled with cheap, ex-Stasi waiting staff hovering intrusively. The polite and knowledgeable team are clearly well-trained and make every guest feel welcome. Even Theo, the in-house Bernese Mountain dog, seems to have an innate sense of knowing when to raise his chin for a tickle.