Over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed a Welsh food odyssey on a gastronomic grand tour of Wales. The reason I plumped for such a fabulous foodie jaunt is that a record-breaking nine restaurants won Michelin stars for Wales in 2022.
Four Welsh restaurants retained their previous accolades - Sosban and the Old Butchers, Beach House, The Whitebrook and The Walnut Tree. A further two Welsh restaurants – at Palé Hall, Llandderfel, and Chapters in Hay on Wye – secured Michelin ‘green’ stars, for their commitment to sustainability. And two brand new restaurants - SY23 in Aberystwyth and Home, Penarth – were awarded a Michelin star each, both having ‘launched’ during the Covid pandemic.
There was also Ynyshir’s elevation to the status of a ‘two star’ destination – the first time that’s ever happened in Wales. And the cherry on top of the Welsh cake was another Michelin win for SY23. Chef Nathan Davies and team were awarded one of the biggest titles of all; best new restaurant opening in the UK and Ireland for 2022.
My advice to you is to follow my lead, and book a whirlwind trip around Wales. Each restaurant has its own charm, and unique appeal.
If you’re close to Cardiff or the Vale of Glamorgan, give Home, Penarth a whirl. Nobody knows quite what to expect before ringing the restaurant’s doorbell. But once you’ve been welcomed through those luxury grey curtains, be prepared for an evening of high drama! For one thing, there is no ‘menu’, rather an eight course (£120) ‘surprise’ tasting menu full of Chef James and daughter Georgia’s Sommerin-style ‘Home’ comforts.
Of course you may state your food preferences beforehand, but I rather enjoyed the rare thrill of anticipation. Die-hard Sommerin fans will be relieved to see the classic pea ravioli. And what these two can do with a savoury bread and butter pudding has to be seen to be believed.
The Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid
For more of a country bistro or classy ‘gastro-pub’ experience, book a table at The Walnut Tree in Llanddewi Skirrid near Abergavenny. At £45 for a three-course lunch, this is the best-priced Michelin experience in Wales.
From the home-made bread, beef from Bwlch near Brecon, to the apple and Calvados pudding I savoured a feast of local treats and comforting autumnal flavours. Indeed, what left the most lasting impression was the simplest of seasonal starters; ceps and girolles on sourdough toast with a sprinkling of Welsh black truffle. Chef Shaun Hill’s classic menu is a Welsh national treasure. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a firm family favourite; a return visit is always a pleasure.
The Whitebrook, Wye Valley
If you’d prefer an ‘Into the Woods’-style fairy-tale experience, head for The Whitebrook, at the heart of the Wye Valley. Chef Chris Harrod is truly a wizard in the kitchen, casting spells with ‘forest findings’ and ‘forgotten flavours’. I adored the six-course tasting menu (£68) – which included meadowsweet-cured mackerel and the finest Wye Valley pork. But for the first time ever I found myself coveting the vegetarian menu. The radish-based dish, as well as the mugwort beets, looked absolutely stunning. Sign of the times, I wonder? Perhaps it’s not so surprising. Recently, The Whitebrook has focused its vision on elevating plant-based pleasures.
Along the same lines, and further up the Wye, you’ll find Chapters has a similar ethos. Chef Mark Mchugo sings the praises of the finest local produce as well as hyper-seasonal flavours. The excellent evening menu (£52) offers a gastronomic tour of the literary hub of Hay-on-Wye.
Much like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, it’s a hip, relaxed affair, drawing curious and mindful eaters from near and far. Begin with a glass of the hogweed and meadowsweet-infused house gin, and write a different winter’s tale for your supper. You’ll find words you may never have uttered before to describe the depth of Welsh winter flavours.
Beach House Oxwich
Talking of Welsh winter, consider the rising numbers of cold water swimmers; what they seek is is a bracing awakening of the senses and heady life-affirming experience. The culinary version of a refreshing outdoor dip is a trip to Beach House Oxwich. As a Michelin star destination, it really ticks all boxes. There’s that awe-inspiring journey to get there as well as that first lungful of fresh sea air; epic beach views and an incredible menu celebrating the best that the growers of Gower have to offer.
On top of it all, Chef Hywel Griffiths writes his own bilingual menu (£80-£110) for an authentic Welsh cultural experience. Between the laverbread bread and bara brith soufflé, you’re in for an epic immersion.
Ynyshir, Eglwys Fach, Machynlleth
And speaking of epic immersions, how does one best prepare for a 30 course 2 Michelin star menu, I wonder? If we’re talking about ‘Ynyshir’, then the best advice I can give you is, quite simply, just go with it. Open your mind, expect the unexpected and enjoy a transcendental trip to remember.
The price, at £350 per person, is a full-on investment in a fabulous food pilgrimage The wildest raw ingredients sourced from all over Ceredigion embrace full-throttle Far Eastern flavours. The name is now so famous that it’s reached peak-Welshness, in terms of mis-pronounciation. Quite simply, ‘ynys hir’ means ‘long island’ in Welsh, far removed from the usual food endeavours. Chef Gareth Ward and team have flipped the narrative of how Wales is presented to the world. In culinary terms, it’s no longer ‘the middle of nowhere’; it’s at the centre of the food universe.
Palé Hall, Llandderfel
From one Welsh ‘country manor’ to another, and a different experience altogether. On the surface, the Henry Robertson restaurant at Palé Hall near Bala positively screams ‘tradition’. Yet Chef Gareth Stevenson’s creations defiantly sing in a modern Welsh accent, providing your evening with a rather shocking dimension! Honestly, some of those flavours were enough to make me drop my napkin. Joking aside, only here did I utter words such as ‘sumptuous’ and ‘exquisite’; the food is quite simply outstanding.
This is partly explained by the restaurant’s location; Palé Hall is surrounded by many of Wales’ finest food producers. From Cae Pant farm, Llandderfel and TJ Roberts butchers in Bala, to the Palé estate’s own orchard apples. This gastronomic celebration (£80-110) demands a standing ovation closely followed by the Welsh national anthem!
Sosban and the Old Butchers, Menai Bridge
Onwards! To the isle of Anglesey, and Chef Stephen Stevens’ ideas factory, Sosban and the Old Butchers. When I visited last the artist was hidden behind the ‘pass’; he now conducts his ingredients from the dining room. To view a chef grating, pureeing, blow-torching, perfecting is truly a sight to see! It’s true, it’s not ‘food’ as we usually consume, but we are talking Michelin-grade cuisine. It actually makes you consider what an award-winning chef has to offer. A vision, an ambition, the act of creation – this is food as art, and it really is exciting to see. All dishes on the tasting menu (£175) were extraordinary. My favourite? Local lamb’s tail with mussel custard, paired with coffee and broccoli. Outrageous! And yet, OMG...
Last, but certainly not least, SY23. Indeed, I was lucky to secure a table after waiting like everyone else! On the whole, that was true for most restaurants on my recent tour, but SY23 is on another level for 2022. Indeed, it’s proof of the power that a Michelin star wields. So for Wales to win nine – or ten, if you consider ‘the double’ attained by the team at Ynyshir – what an extraordinary achievment; ‘llongyfarchiadau’, indeed. As as I arrived in Aberystwyth to enjoy this lovely ‘last meal’ – I was able to reflect, and maybe compare and contrast. But in truth, there’s no ‘comparing and contrasting’ with Michelin star restaurants; each one is entirely distinctive, and completely unique.
Yes, some restaurants may have rooms, and many enjoy a view. But the main draw for most guest is what’s on the menu. And a Michelin star menu is a mission statement, a result of the ultimate taste test; it defines an area’s flavour, its own recipe for success. It’s quite literally a ‘post-code’ menu (£120) in the case of SY23. It defines the taste of Aberystwyth, as foraged from mountain, sand and sea. Rob Rattray’s local lamb with wild garlic, preserved for many months. Aberdyfi line-caught sea bream, with sea lettuce and purslane. Local turbot dried and salted, in the manner of Basque Country chefs, skin gleefully presented with caviar and soured cream. A whole country house loaf of fermented Welsh grains from Felin Ganol mill. An autumnal pear sorbet, cream, jelly and sorrel, that looked like a delicate creature from the deep, washed up that very morning on South Beach!
This is a continuous conversation with producers with generations of expertise. It’s a creative collaboration with, and a deep love of, land and sea. It’s an acceptance and understanding of where you choose to live and breathe. It’s a confident recognition that local food that grows in season is ‘y gorau yn y byd!’ – the very best there really is. It’s finally a gift to diners that you hope they will embrace. For many, it’ll last forever as a wonderful memory of Wales.