Tyddyn Llan in North Wales is no ordinary hotel as the restaurant there has made the 2010 UK National Restaurant Awards list (at 95), achieved its first Michelin star two years back and has been described as serving the best food in Wales. We felt compelled to investigate.
Tyddyn Llan itself resides in an incredibly beautiful part of North Wales. If you step outside of the hotel and just listen, you can hear only three things: the wind in the trees, the birds tweeting and sheep bleating. It seems in many ways a perfect tonic to London's constant fray. Fields with sheep surround the hotel on every side, the hotel has a vegetable and herb garden and a strong commitment to the environment as befits a place that is an obvious beneficiary of the best that nature has to offer. And, they have a wine list that is so reasonably priced that we could have easily bought bottles to take home and been happy.
The dining room is comfortable, has ample natural light and pressed white table cloths to show they're serious about food. There's some nice pre dinner finger food too, some salmon, mini haddock fish cake, scotch egg etc.
The eight course tasting menu is priced at £70 for 8 courses which is almost an identical price to the eight course tasting menu at L'enclume so it's priced at the quality end of the market. How would the food compare?
We start with a pea and mint soup which is flavourful and fresh. It's followed by Dressed Cornish crab with melon and fennel salad. This is fresh to the mouth and enjoyable enough. With a dropped apostrophe, it's then Robert Carriers old fashioned pate with with herbs and onion chutney. For those, who like me are ignorant of Robert Carrier, he was a New York born chef who came to England in the 1950s, and became perhaps the UK's first celebrity chef with his TV program Carrier's Kitchen. He is, by their own account, a major influence on the cooking style at Tyddyn Llan. The pate of chunky ham hock and herbs was a good and different pate.
There's a poached duck egg next with seasonal asparagus (not pictured) with the egg cooked well to provide a nice runny yoke though as with all dishes so far, the portion sizes are too large, they seem to have made no allowance for it being a tasting menu. The previous pate dish came with a rich brioche which alone was big enough and rich enough to fill up most diners. Scallops follow and when the waitress places them in front of me and introduces them as 'scallops' I enquire of the rest of the plate. She says she doesn't know, grabs a menu and reads the menu description to me: Griddled scallops with vegetable relish and rocket. Food knowledge amongst the rank and file serving staff was not only absent but they didn't even know their own plates beyond the main item. The greens on the scallop were also just dropped on undressed.
The cheese plate provided some light relief when the waitress set it in front of me together with a list of the cheeses being served but said that she didn't know 'which cheese was which, sorry'. At a Michelin starred restaurant, is the front of house really unable to remember seven cheeses? The menu was now returned to me to pick the dessert, I chose the Rhubarb fool with Champagne jelly. A generous dessert was delivered but was so heavy that I struggled through half before giving up. Disappointing.
Overall this was a disappointing experience. Neither soup, dressed crab or egg and asparagus really qualify as Michelin cuisine surely while pate and scallops were okay. The salmon was just bad, the lamb joins the flock as another uninteresting spring lamb dish. Service was polite and while delivered the food professionally enough, it was woeful in the absence of other front of house skills.
The restaurant is situated in the heart of a great geography for first class produce, and as such, It forced us to ask two questions:
1) are good ingredients enough for a great meal or does the kitchen need to add its own magic?
2) how much benefit is derived from being so close to the source of ingredients?
It seemed to us (after this disappointing meal at least) that good ingredients are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a great meal. The kitchen must be called on to enhance even the best of available produce (unless of course served in its raw state) and the front of house has a role too. It's a rare meal where the ingredients alone can do all the heavy lifting.
As for proximity, and the rack of lamb is the most obvious example here as I could (almost) see lambs from the window, it just didn't seem to add that much in this case and I couldn't help but feel that if the same lamb were delivered to London restaurants (as I'm sure much of it is), a four hour drive in a refrigerated truck is not going to significantly change things. It returns us to our first point, the onus remains on the chef to do something interesting with the raw material.
We ate our eight courses at Tyddyn Llan back to back with the ten courses we enjoyed at L'enclume, both charge the same price and both have a Michelin star. It's almost embarrassing for everyone involved, especially Michelin if it genuinely believes in any way that these two restaurants are on a par with each other. That said, L'enclume we have suggested is the very best out there, but it doesn't matter anyway for Tyddyn Llan was found lacking in both the food and service levels that we think a Michelin star restaurant should offer.
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