We've just had a glorious weekend of eating - walking it off - putting it all back on again at the idyllically situated Tyddan Llan by the Berwen mountains.
Brian Webb is chef here, along with his wife Susan in charge of front of house, having decamped from Hilaire in South Kensington. It describes itself as a restaurant with rooms, but really is a bijou country house hotel with an exceptional kitchen. It made for a very interesting comparison with the set up at the similarly remote L'Enclume.
The hotel is picture perfect, with lovely grounds, and very comfortable rooms.
We had the ALC on the first night. A freebie of Wirral watercress soup was the very essence of watercress, ad a revelation for my partner who had thought he hated the stuff. I then had one of Brian's signature dishes. A crisp-skinned, moist-fleshed fillet of red mullet on aubergine puree and chilli oil. Stunning. Himself had a simple crab salad, which was very generous (a theme which was to continue). He followed with a plate of all things piggy - belly layered with crackling and black pudding, melting cheek and fillet. I had a HUGE plate of venison in an elderberry and port sauce with potato and goats cheese ''gnocchi'. A hefty slab of chocolate cheesecake for him and a pistachio creme brulee the size of a cheese plate. Not to forget the fudge/truffle/toscana petits fours.
We rolled into bed, only to drag ourselves down for the breakfast refuelling. A very hearty full Welsh breakfast which included laverbread cakes. And picked up our packed lunch which included what may have been the world's biggest cheese/ham/pickle sandwich.
There are some gorgeous walks to do nearby. We did a 2 hour one up to a 3000 year old, perfectly preserved stone circle with stunning views of the Dee Valley.
Back in time for afternoon tea, including a slice of bara brith in the cosy lounge. And then the tasting menu. Obviously kicked off with cocktails and canapes in the lounge.
Here's where the L'Enclume comparison made me laugh. Whereas the tasting menu there is a procession of tiny plates, all designed to be served as such, Brian's tasting menu is basically everything he loves on his ALC, cut in half. Or even sometimes served just as is. I don't think I have ever been more full. Where other restaurants kick off with puffs and clouds and foams, we had pea and ham broth. Then a langoustine and crab mayonnaise, which was normal size. Then a normal brioche toast with foie gras. A single scallop with cauliflower, raisin and pancetta (beautifully cooked but a bit one dimensional). A leek and truffle risotto (mercifully 'only' 10 spoons). Wild sea bass with laverbread beurre blanc (he really is brilliant with fish). Four lamb chops (I jest not) rolled in tapenade with dauphinoise potato. A groaning cheese plate including Waterloo, Wigmore, Stichelton, Caerphilly, Ardnahan (lovely Cork cheese) and Red Leicester. A damson soup with cinnamon ice cream (yum) and a rhubarb and champagne trifle. And then petits fours.
I almost didn't manage breakfast the next day but, you know what, managed to force myself ;)
Brian, when he can, uses local ingredients. They are only a few miles from the Rhug estate, which is lucky! And we saw a pheasant shoot in action on our walk so doubtless some of the fruits from that will make their way onto the plate. But he's not a slave to it, so uses fish from the south west, and cheese from wherever's jolly good at making cheese.
The only slight negative is the service which is a couple of rungs below the food. When we arrived after a long and tiring drive, we were 'greeted' by one of the French waiters who, without looking up, barked 'name?' and then 'phone number?' I was half expecting him to follow with 'bra size? favourite colour?' He then literally ran up to our room with us, not offering to carry bags or even hold doors open for us.
The pre-dinner system needs a bit of thought. Everyone is invited for cocktails and canapes in the large, comfy lounge before, where you sit, and sit. Susan seems to be the only one who takes food orders. It was probably a good hour from us arriving in the lounge before we got the first course. We therefore asked the morning after when would be best for us to come down for the tasting menu, would earlier or later suit Brian? We were told it didn't matter, so arrived at 8 and, again, sat for ages, meaning we didn't conclude the menu until the dining room was empty and bed was beckoning, A little niggle.
Similarly, as evil smokers, we were caught out three times. Each time we asked our waiter whether it was OK to go outside, we'd be 5 minutes, when the plates from the previous course were still on our table, only then to be summoned back in by Susan like naughty children to be told our food was on the table.
But those are really only minor grumbles. I think Tyddan Llan is the very archetype of the country weekend foodie break. It was just sumptuous, it really was. It's not L'Enclume. I don't tink I saw a single swoosh or smear. It's grown up, accomplished cooking, but simple ingredients, only three or four on a plate, cooked respectfully, and served generously. I think it's telling that the in laws have rolled their eyes at our descriptions of L'Enclume/Noma/etc and exclaimed they sound 'ridiculous, oh we wouldn't like that', whereas I scribbled a hasty postcard to them from Llandrillo saying 'you need to come here, it's your idea of heaven'.
And pretty close to mine too :)