In 2001, a London institution closed its doors. Hilaire was one of those neighbourhood restaurants which wasn't particularly trendy and didn't get too much press. But it was always busy, thanks to the considerable charm of its dining room, and the consistently great cooking of its chefs. The most celebrated was Simon Hopkinson, who was plucked from Hilaire by Terence Conran to cook at Bibendum. He was succeeded by Bryan Webb, who, as that relatively rare bird on the London restaurant scene, a gifted chef/patron, ran Hilaire for the next 14 years
Rent increases eventually forced Bryan and his wife Susan to sell up and move on, and in 2002, they fulfilled a long-held fantasy by returning to Bryan's native Wales and taking over a country house hotel. So far, so "Green Green Grass of Home" (only with squashy sofas at the end of the journey, rather than the electric chair).
Tyddyn Llan is a Georgian house - think farmhouse rather than mansion - in the beautiful Vale of Edeyrnion, near Bala, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. It's only 35 miles from Chester, but it feels like it's in the middle of nowhere (in the nicest possible sense). Surrounded by sheep-studded hills, it's a snug gem of a hotel, with 12 rooms and several comfortably elegant drawing rooms. That it bills itself as a "restaurant with rooms" says more about the quality of the cooking than about any deficiency in the accommodation. Because the dining experience is central to any stay at Tyddyn Llan.
If guests weren't already aware of the chef's serious intentions, the memorabilia in the bar would give the game away, from the framed "Chez Panisse" poster to the enormous collection of matchboxes from the world's great restaurants. (There's also what is certainly the biggest ornamental thimble collection of any restaurant I've ever visited, but that's by the by.)
There's nothing fancily frameable about Tyddyn Llan's own menu - it's a straightforward little document, printed out that day on the hotel's word processor. The style, and many of the dishes, will be familiar to former patrons of Hilaire: griddled scallops with vegetable relish, wild salmon with asparagus salad, free-range chicken with sweetbreads and girolles. But behind each simple description lies a dish of absolute perfection. There's a saying that "happiness writes white". Which if applied here, would mean I needn't do more than just list what we ate and follow it with a contented "Mmmm".
Our starters were superb. Fillet of red mullet came piping hot from the grill, with a rich, garlic and chilli-enhanced aubergine purée. Cross-sections of braised pig's trotter, stickily caramelised, held a mosaic of sweetbread, chicken mousse and morels; underneath, creamy celeriac remoulade; on top, sautéed foie gras and a fried quail's egg.
Next, a rack of herb-crusted lamb cutlets, with artichoke hearts and shelled broad beans. The meat, from a local organic estate, had been hung long and cooked pink, and was truly wonderful. As was an exemplary fillet of turbot, with Webb's trademark sauce, which marries butter, lemon and laverbread (a local delicacy of seaweed).
With food this fine, you're often forced to forego quantity for quality. Particularly frustrating in a country house hotel, when you've spent the day yomping around, only to be presented with three cubes of duck and a fan of dried apple. But at Tyddyn Llan there's no danger of leaving the table hungry; Bryan Webb serves what he calls "Taffy portions". As Susan, who looks after front-of-house, confided, "They expect value for money around here."
At two courses for £27 and £32 for three, I'd say they were getting it. (Lunch is even more of a bargain, offering two courses for £17.) Puddings are particularly hearty; my cherry pie was of a size so startling that even Special Agent Dale Cooper would have balked.
But a chef's doing pretty well if the customer's only complaint is that the portions are too big. The wine list, too, encourages indulgence, with a good selection of half bottles and wines by the glass, and many wines from small producers.
The barn-shaped dining room has a refreshingly unstuffy, almost New England feel, thanks to its baby-blue clapboard walls. Our fellow guests included two very glamorous Welsh-speaking ladies who looked like they were dishing the dirt on their lucrative divorce settlements, but turned out to be in the area to attend the inauguration of the new Archbishop of Wales.
Full of surprises, Wales. Not least for the kind of snooty English critics who claim it's impossible to get a decent meal there. The Good Food Guide has just recognised Tyddyn Llan as Welsh restaurant of the year, a singular achievement less than a year after opening. And thoroughly well deserved. E
GEMS FROM 'THE GOOD FOOD GUIDE'
By Caroline Stacey
Small, long-serving restaurant with new owners and big reputation intact, hence its title, Scotland newcomer of the year. Dishes such as smoked duck and warm fig salad are simple and successful.
Gullane, East Lothian (01620 843214)
No other county has one - this is the Shropshire restaurant of the year. Altogether delightful, and brilliant cooking is not as outré as the likes of foie-gras ice cream sounds; £35 for three courses.
Ludlow, Shropshire (01584 872325)
Complex, colourful and technically amazing plates of food. The eponymous chef and wife Laura hit the ground running at their monochrome Chelsea set-up - the London restaurant of the year.
43 Elystan Street, London SW3 (020-7584 2003)
White Horse Inn
Kent newcomer of the year is a village pub propelled by the landlord father and chef son into the gastropub squad's upper echelons. There's a brasserie menu as well as a serious restaurant side.
Bridge, Kent (01227 830249)Reuse content