I don’t frequent many Michelin star restaurants if I am honest. Being a tight arsed miser, the cost often horrifies me (mark ups on wine can be just 😱) and the formality of some (I recall a ghastly experience in a two star gaff in Paris where we were treated with a God tier level of disdain – I was mildly surprised at the time to find that the Maitre d’ didn’t just disappear up his own arsehole, but thinking about it the preening popinjay was 100% arsehole so probably couldn’t without blinking out of existence) can be more than a bit off putting.
As such my visits to starred establishments are few and far between, but I have been keen to try the cooking of Nathan Davies, which seems reminiscent of that of Victor Arguinzoniz at Asador Extebarri in Pais Vasco which Mrs. SF and I visited a fair few (pre-blog) years ago.
Both seem to be budding pyromaniacs, having an obsession with open flame.
Also it is a fair bit cheaper than the nearby Ynyshir (which gave me palpatations on just looking at the £350 a head for dinner and if go bed and breakfast to the price for two is the best part of a grand, without booze or a tip I believe, which as nice as I am sure it is is way outside of my “I’d pay that” comfort zone.
The postcode SY23, as in Aberystwyth – here smackdown in the middle of the town, seems to me to be a slightly unexpected place to find a Michelin starred gaff especially when Cardiff (if you don’t count Penarth as Cardiff – I don’t, because it isn’t) has precisely none and no sign of one anytime soon. In a big city or as a country pile maybe, but the centre of a town like Aber it is a little more surprising.
It’s presence in Aberystwyth may be a bit of a mystery to me, an enigma if you will, but a very welcome one to my mind.
To me SY23 is the sort of restaurant that could operate to kick start a renaissance in terms of Aberystwyth. If I am honest, the front is a bit dispiriting (nice beach and promenade, but the buildings on the front are in parts shockingly dilapidated). There is, however, so much potential here for brave investors.
It has all the ingredients, being by the sea surrounded by beautiful countryside,
I mean look at the picture below,
with the top one being Donostia – San Sebastian and the bottom Aberystwyth. Is it just me or do they look eerily similar? Ok DSS has the drop on Aber by some distance, but you can see the potential and Aber now has a one Michelin starred gaff in the centre and a two star one 20 mins or so up the road, both of which focus on using the bountiful local ingredients. Got to start somewhere and that is not a bad start to becoming a UK DSS!
We made the trip up to Aberystwyth, via a couple of nights in Mumbles (a rather convoluted way of handing our dog Oscar over to J, who had hired a cottage in Mumbles for that week, to look after/spoil him whilst we were away), very nice it was too.
We really have some fabulous countryside in this country
Our two night stopover in Aber had us booked into the Michelin starred SY23 on the Saturday night and on the Friday and Saturday we found a few nice spaces for food and drink prior to the main event.
and, of course, Ultracomida (love a bit of Spanish me).
On to SY23, on the Saturday night, proceedings started off in the downstairs bar.
A rather fine glass of Jim Barry Assyrtiko 2019 (£9 a glass, £50 a bottle – retails at around the £22-£23 mark). Nice orchard fruits and citrus, with a flinty core of minerality, made this a pleasing aperitif.
We supped on that whilst we perused the menu
in a rather odd twilight gloom, with music that made me feel old at a volume a touch to loud for the aged (i.e. me).
Mrs. SF and I had endless fun watching people being redirected to the more informal wine bar – it seems a lot of mix ups occur as to where to go and where people have booked in to here.
Upstairs the restaurant has a nice relaxing vibe to it, with views of the kitchen staff (like that – they all looked super chilled out and to be having fun) at work.
There is a chef’s table where you get more of a bird’s eye view of the kitchen action – couple who had it bought with them a bottle of Penfold’s Grange so must be absolutely minted (latest vintages go for £500 + a bottle and suspect this one had some age to it, so probably worth an awful lot more)!
A feature of the menu was its brevity, with the waiting staff giving a more detailed description of each dish as it was presented. Nightmare for a lazy arse blogger like me who doesn’t take notes (Mrs. SF would string me up if I did stuff like that, with her barely tolerating my photo taking) and has the attention span of a gnat, so don’t expect a perfect summation of the components of each dish (as I can’t remember).
First up was ” Mushroom‘,
which if I am honest didn’t look visually that exciting. Touch beige as J would say.
We were advised to dig in to the bottom of the bowl so as to get the full effect and what we got was a fungi fanfare, with a light but intense mushroom mousse type affair sitting atop a medley of mushrooms (Japanese, can’t recall the names, but possibly maitake, shiitake and shimeji) in a rich liquor. This all gave off an intense woody, earthy, essense of mushroom. A walk in an autumn woodland is what came to my mind. Crunchy bite size sourdough croutons added pleasing texture, which the dish needed.
On the top was a disc of mushroom, that had a mildly shammy leathery texture and a supercharged hit of shroominess to it.
Interesting dish this, with me being more enamoured with it than Mrs. SF who was not 100% sold on its lukewarm temperature.
Next up was local grains with cultured miso butter. I was half expecting a sort of porridge/congee type affair, but what we got was a whole loaf of bread.
No stinting on portions here, with the bread made from locally milled grains. Lovely contrast between the crisp crust and pillowy interior, with us saving some for mopping up duty later on rather than scoffing the lot (a wise decision based on the nature of later dishes).
Butter was made from local milk and infused with miso
Again no stinting on the portion here and this was just lovely spread copiously on the warm bread.
The next dish was a right bobby dazzler, based on a scallop dish that obtained stellar praise on the Great British Menu last year.
Really interesting contrast in terms of the cooking of the absolute whopper of a hand dived scallop, with one side beautifully caramelised
and the other side seemingly untouch by the direct heat of the grill.
The scallop was cooked perfectly and as sweet as a nut. We got a really ozone blast of the beach from both the scallop and the plentiful sea vegetables that adorned it. The inclusion of a crumb of dehydrated scallop (the roe, I presume, based on the colour) really amped up the flavours here, making this an essence of the sea dish. Very clever and pleasing stuff.
Next up was another stellar bit of fish cookery, with a salt aged turbot (can’t remember exactly how long, due to my faltering memory, but it was longer than I expected) leading to a firming up of the flesh. This was cooked like the Basque do, in metal cages over open flame, al a Elkano in Getaria and really gave what is known as the King of fish it’s due deference.
The flesh had a lovely meatiness to it that worked really well with the umaminess of the dashi broth. Cockles were briney pearls of sweetness, whilst dainty florets of broccoli brought both earthiness and a touch more sweetness to the equation.
The beauty of this dish was every element worked to centre and showcase the turbot, always working to compliment and enhance it rather than trying to be too clever and creating conflicting flavours that take away from the centre piece fish.
Tricky to say which of the scallop and the turbot dishes will be my fish dish of the year come my annual year end round up, but I very much doubt either will be beaten.
A touch of decadence followed, with crispy turbot skin scratchings (very much the “Jeff Bezos” billionaire scratching to the “me” pub piggie scratching)
This was matched with oscietra caviar and sour cream making for a rather ostentatious dip.
The genius here was the turbot skin. Packed with flavour, it was so light and crunchy, but with weight and struture. Nothing powder puff about this. I would happy pay top dollar for these packaged up as a wine snack – great with a top notch white rioja (an aged Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva – if you are Grange man – or Remelluri – if me – would be my preference) I reckon.
They didn’t really need the oscietra caviar, which was regardless very nice having a distinct nuttiness to it that would have worked a treat with a quality fino (more on the wine later on) – an Urium fino en rama or a dos palmas fino from Gonzalez Byass.
Only one meat course (I was keeping a beady eye on Grange man to see if he neck the lot at this point), but it was a doozy both visually (despite my shxte photographic skills)
and on the flavour front.
It was introduced to us by the sous chef, a very affable scouser who looked about 15 but clearly has more cooking talent in an atom in his little finger than the likes of me.
The loin was cooked ruby rare and was as close as is allowable to it still baaing. Glorious flavour to this, with a distinct herby fragrance.
A piece of breast had clearly been cooked low and very slow before a surge of heat was applied to get an exterior char. It slipped off the bone with the merest nudge from my fork, but retained a crisp fat rich shell. Very underrated cut lamb breast (not belly, never belly, in my book). A sweet shallot had been cooked in lamb fat, as had the crumbed top. A herb oil and a black garlic puree added more really punchy flavours, without detracting from star of the show, the lamb – as it should be. Lovely dish this
The optional cheese course (£15), done the French way as a prelude to dessert, split Mrs. SF and I. She was really not keen, whereas I rather enjoyed it although I am not sure I would be that fussed about paying the £15 x 2 supplement if offered the choice again (mainly because I am a tight git).
The dish (as is the mantra here) focussed on local ingredients with creamy Pen Helyg cheese (subject to a touch of the blow torch) and a positive blizzard of Welsh autumn truffle.
I really liked the contrast between the creamy cheese and the earthy truffle, with a touch of caramelised bitterness from cauliflower (making this a sort of seriously high end cauli. cheese). Mrs SF found it all a touch too overpowering and I sort of get where she was coming from with perhaps too much of a good thing from the truffle (of which there was a ridiculous amount).
On to desserts, I was intrigued watching Nathan Davies applying a glowing ember to something at the pass
and it turned out it was to our first dessert, a yuzu and meringue tartlet
Pretty as a picture, we were advised to eat it in one bite. Lovely sweet meringue with a touch of char from the application of the ember, a rich tart yuzu curd and an impossibly light pastry case. How it kept together under the weight of the curd and meringue is a mystery to me.
The second desert was a chocolate affair.
To be honest can’t tell you much about it, as I wasn’t really concentrating when they said what it was, bar from the chocolate mousse being silky and rich and infused with orange, the toasted grains being very reminiscent of sugar puffs and the ice cream a sour cream number (I thing) with miso caramel. It was blooming nice is all I can really say.
The final dessert was another interesting number, with a gel (cider/ perry based?) blanket sitting atop balls of pear and cultured cream.
Wood sorrel added a lovely hit of lemon and the toasted sunflower seeds were a game changer. Why have I always eaten them raw? Move over pinenuts there’s a new sheriff in town.
The final course was what I regard as petit fours and I thought it a bit mean to have these but not the coffee as part of the menu when it is £120 a pop (coffee was on the £65 drinks pairing menu)
Anyhow, these were very nice. The balls were creamy rich chocolate ganache and the cubes burnt butter fudge, with the addition of sea salt really getting the taste buds tingling.
On the booze front there was a suggested pairing, with me misreading the chemex coffee as chemsex coffee – which initially certainly raised an eyebrow,
but at £65 a head (that is £130 for two) I thought it was quite alot. Not sure I am sold by the optional truffle heavy cheese course pairing of port (barolo, with truffle, for me please), but otherwise it looks a pretty well judged pairing.
Looking at it I though” Nice, but I think I can come up with a pretty decent pairing off the list for a fair bit less“.
With the savoury elements of the menu being quite seafood focussed a white was the priority.
It was a toss up between the Muller Gressmann Gruner Veltiner 2020 (£35 – retail £13.60) and the Henri Ehrhart Riesling Grand Cru 2019 (£48 – retail £14.90). Marks ups across the board here are pretty good for the UK (and particularly Michelin starred UK gaffs).
The gruner (commensurate wine for a tasting menu in my view) won the day (mainly as it had a lower mark up at well below 3 x retail).
Very nice drop this, with enough weight to cope with the complex flavours on display here and a very pleasing white pepperiness.
I am going to have a moan now, well it is me, but I really dislike it when restaurants whisk away your wine and hold it elsewhere for them to choose the time of pouring. I am not 5 and I am perfectly capable of pouring my own wine, at my own pace, thank you very much.
Here the initial glass of the Gruner was poured and then the bottle whisked away so I asked for it back and was told it was kept in a communal ice bucket to keep it cold. I said I was sure they could rustle up an individual wine cooler (which they did) and the wine was promptly return to the table.
The reds on the list are pretty fairly priced, with seemingly some real bargains in the mix.
At bottom end, the Altano Naturalmente is £32 on the list and retails at £12.50 and, at the top end, the Gevrey – Chambertin is £200. The latter seems to be a total steal as against the retail price, which as far as I can tell is around the £239 mark!
With the lamb, we had an excellent glass of Chateau Musar 2015 (great wine, but still a baby),
To go with the desserts
we had the Tokaji 5 puttonyos 2013 (£7.50 a glass). Lovely stuff, if a bit young (I like my Tokaji aged for 30 plus years), with a core of citrus acidity to balance the honeyed, maramaladey, sweetness. Particularly good with the chocolate dessert and the petit four this. Forgot to take a picture.
I only have three real gripe with the list (I would bet my house it is from Tanners):
- all the wines are a bit recent (would be nice for instance to have some aged riesling in the whites and some aged gran reserva Riojas in the reds);
- the heresy of serving a palo cortado (one here is a cracker mind) in a 50ml pour – I mean why bother (should be a 100ml pour as a minimum, but a 50cl bottle of the one here is £30 so a 50ml pour at £7 is not outrageous – just would like more than a dribble) ; and
- Needs more sherry/Montilla-Moriles wines on the list (I could put together an absolutely killer pairing of these with this menu) and don’t just dump them in with the sweeties – sherry and MM wines are proper food wines, with loads that would work very well with the savoury elements on the menu here.
I do absolutely love the fact (and heartily applaud) that all wines are served by both the bottle and the glass. To me this should be the norm, at least in high-end places, based on the wine preservation technology now available.
Proceeding were bought to a close with a rather nice coffee.
We both has a seadog espresso (£2.50 each is not bad at all for the quality – tasted exactly as dscribed) and very nice (again forgot to take pic) it was too.
Let’s talk about the price first, as this place is not cheap.
There is no denying that nigh on £420 (including an automatically added 12.5% service charge – grrr – and pre paid deposit) is a lot of money and we didn’t exactly go to town on the wine front (wine prices here for a Michelin starred gaff are very fair and I would estimate I saved over £70 by eschewing the wine pairing option).
I, however, do think it is decent value as the quality of what you get, the invention and the overall experience are exceptional. Bar from my gripe relating to wine bottles being whisked away (they sorted it pronto), the service was really good with very well trained, enthusiastic and knowledgable staff.
I tend to think in the UK we are charged (in restaurants) way to much for wine (as a general rule mark ups in UK seem to me to be difficult to justify) and (many will think this controversial) not enough for food (which after all has to be prepared and where the majority of time and thus cost goes, I would have thought). In effect us wine drinkers seem to me to subsidise those that don’t. I think the pricing here, however, in terms of the food (undeniably high, but quality ingredients and the huge amount of skilled labour here have to be paid for somehow, with other overhead and a reasonable profit on top of that) and wine (pretty reasonable as it happens) is about right.
It’s a high days and holidays meal, but what a way to celebrate something!
Personally I enjoyed the meal here more than I did the one I had at Asador Extebarri, which currently sits at a lofty number 6 in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants. I would say that is praise indeed.
Address: 2 Pier Street, Aberystwyth, SY23 2LJ