Food 2020 – Banquist #010, Gareth Ward

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Saturday, 7th November 2020 – Banquist #010, Gareth Ward

This was one I’d been looking forward to, what with the chef in question having quite the reputation, as well as a Michelin star or two. We are speaking of Gareth Ward, the man at the pass at Ynishir.
Grace Dent had reviewed it recently, and it all sounded reasonably positive or though perhaps this quote should have sounded warning bells: “People say you should cook for your customers. I say fuck that. I cook for myself.” On the other hand, the critics all seemed enamoured with the place and the food. There was only one way to find out what I think and that was to buy the Banquist box.

It was far more expensive than the previous one, claimed to involve Wagyu beef, and had that fine dining restaurant menu thing of just using one word per ingredient rather than describing what was involved. The place has been on my “would like to try it” list ever since I first read about it. Would it still be when I’d cooked his menu? Well, maybe.

One thing that did make me very happy was opening the box up and discovering that this time the instructions had a prep section. This meant I could get on during the early afternoon and get all the fiddly stuff out of the way before needing to put dinner on the table.

The first job was to dehydrate the shiitake mushrooms, slicing them very fine, laying them out on a baking sheet, and cooking them very low and slow for two hours until they were crisp. This was achieved easily, despite them having frozen in the mini-fridge I was using to store the ingredients, my main fridge being too small to take all of these items. Banquist promise you that you can: “Follow the step-by-step video guide to cook new and exciting food, guaranteed to impress your guests. Learn about the paired wine, with a guided video tasting.” While I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know doing the mushrooms, it was quite satisfying albeit more than slightly time-consuming.

The next job was to prep the apples. The first stage was to chop and cut and then make a syrup of apple juice and sugar. Interestingly there was less apple juice in the included bottle than the recipe specified but fortunately I had some pure apple juice left over from Deddington Farmers’ Market the week before. I used it and it just about got me to the correct measure. I was doing fine with them until I was called away to deal with a delivery and came back to find that the whole thing had collapsed into a mushy juice. Luckily I still had an apple left, so I salvaged what I could from the now almost transparent chunks of apple, and cooked the final one very carefully.

Next I had to puff the rice. This is not as easy as it sounds when you’re told to heat the oil to 220C but your probe thermometer cuts out at 200C! Eventually I guessed that it was hot enough, but decided that doing as suggested and testing it with a single grain first would be a good idea. On the third grain it was there, so I flung the rest of the rice in, counted to two and hauled it out again to drain and dry, chucking some salt over it for flavour.

The last prep job was to melt a large lump of butter and then brown the panko breadcrumbs in it. This was probably the easiest piece of prep on the list, and once the browned crumbs were draining I was happy to leave the kitchen until dinner time.

We started the evening’s meal with bread. The box had contained some sourdough which needed heating for 10 minutes at 180C and which was then destined to be eaten with some black garlic butter. The bread was excellent, with very good crust and crumb textures, and we thoroughly enjoyed it with some Champagne and a dose of TV culture, care of Marquee TV.

So far, so relaxing but now it was time to get back into the kitchen. The instructions for the Katsu scallop, brown butter panko, coriander dish started with something I took exception to, which was a suggestion that I should remove the orange row and not use it. I decided I’d be ignoring that, because the roe is tasty. I separated it from the white flesh though, just to make it easier to work with. The scallops didn’t cook in the time suggested (45 second per side) but then, I don’t think they were ever going to on a domestic hob. However, they eventually got there, and I was soon able to plate. That involved slicing and seasoning the scallop flesh, then topping it with the brown butter panko. The next step was to drizzle katsu ketchup over the dish, which proved to be slightly less simple than it sounded, given the packaging (a plastic bag that I cut a corner off to make a small nozzle through which I then had to squeeze the ketchup out). Finally, it was given a sprinkling of togarashi, and some chopped fresh coriander. It tasted very good, which was just as well, because it really didn’t look especially pretty!

The main course was “Wagyu steak, Newcastle brown ale glaze, nori seaweed, shiitake mushroom”. The first step was to prepare a glaze for the beef. Now all I can say is that the quantities of ingredients made it less a glaze and more of a wash. 60g sugar, 50g koji, 85ml of a mirin/sake mix, 60g miso, and a quarter of a bottle of Newcastle Brown ale is not going to thicken to a glaze no matter how long you give it, unless you start a long time in advance of needing it. I don’t think this had been properly tested in a domestic kitchen to be honest. I gave up on it in favour of getting the meat cooked.

Adding the seasoned meat to a hot pan with a little oil is clearly the way to go, and so I cooked the meat for 3 minutes a side as per the instructions. It then has butter added and allowed to foam for a minute while the steak is repeatedly turned before being set aside to rest. I toasted the nori and then crushed it in fragments, before plating the meat. The glaze was no more glaze-like than before, so I just poured some over the sliced meat, followed that up with the shiitake ketchup (again in a bag that meant I needed more hands than I’ve got!) and the added the puffed rice, dehydrated shitake, and nori. The meat was tender and of very good quality, but the sauce combination seemed to be overpoweringly sweet, and basically what we were having was just a slab of meat with a scattering of green bits.

We couldn’t manage the dessert on Saturday, so left it till Sunday, and that frankly was probably the most disappointing element of the whole experience. What the menu said was “Bramley apples and fresh custard”. He wasn’t joking. What we got in effect were over-sweetened stewed apples served with a somewhat stingy portion of cold custard.  The one thing to be said for the apples was that they kept for several days and I used them to sweeten my breakfast porridge for the remainder of the week.

I don’t care what the blurb said – for the record “Gareth Ward is … probably the only man to marry Japanese techniques and flavours with the wild ingredients of the Welsh countryside” and he may well have “a Himalayan salt chamber full of 300 day-aged wagyu” – but these dishes just seemed sadly underpowered and lacking in nuance, or subtlety of any kind.

If you want Japanese/Western fusion food, I’d suggest you won’t pay any more than the £200 Ward’s menu apparently costs if you go to Victor’s Fine Dining in Germany, and you’ll be better fed and get far more precision and artistry, as well as a better attitude to wine. After all, they’re not likely to say “the boys at Banquist would normally tell you to check out my wine tasting notes at this stage. But I don’t buy into that bullshit so just pour yourself a glass and get pissed!” either.

Actually the accompanying bottle of wine, chosen by the chef, was very good served slightly chilled. It was a Donnafugata Sherazade Nero d’Avola from Marsala, in Sicily and it went very well with the meat, managing to cut through the cloying sweetness of the sauces remarkably well. It was light and fruity, with plenty of red stone fruits, fresh and smooth. I’m not sure it made up for the disappointing nature of two out of three of the dishes though. Luckily Box #008 was so good and the next box (#011) also sounds good, so I’m assuming this was just a one-off. I shall write it down to experience, and have removed Ynishir from my list of restaurants I want to eat at.

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