After eight years away, chef John Williams returned to Bodysgallen Hall earlier this year to immediate accolade. Tom Vaughan visits a chef blessed with some incredible ingredients, some of them quite literally on his doorstep
Sitting in the library at Bodysgallen Hall, Conwy, North Wales, head chef John Williams is discussing the lure that pulled him back to the country house hotel earlier this year. “I was dining at a restaurant in Sydney Harbour, looking out at the Opera House, and I was thinking, ‘it’s not as good a view as here’. When you look out from
the dining room, all the way to Conwy Castle, it is world class.”
The National Trust-owned hotel is a jewel in the crown of the North Wales coast – a sympathetically restored 17th-century manor house set amidst stunning ornamental gardens, between the Victorian resort of Llandudno and the mountains of Snowdonia.
Grilled breast of chicken
For Williams, who was previously head chef at Bodysgallen Hall from 2003 to 2007, the brief upon his return in early 2015 was to regain the three AA rosettes that the
restaurant had lost and to make best use of local ingredients and the incredible produce from the property’s well-established walled fruit and vegetable garden.
Knowing the hotel so well, Williams intimately understands what the client base is looking for from the restaurant: “Ours isn’t an experimental kitchen. I’m a classically trained chef, but I’ve not got my head in the sand. There’s no point putting on experimental food in a setting like this because it’s not what people come here for. They want well-sourced, proper flavours and we try to stick to that.”
The bounty from the walled garden helps inform what is, at its heart, a very classical menu, priced at £49 for three courses. A stand-out dish among the starters is plump meaty scallops, dusted with curry spices and seared, served with creamed squash and young watercress and the tart finish of sliced apple. Elsewhere, goats’ cheese from goats on the hotel’s 200-acre estate is made into its own fondant, served with pickled beetroot from the garden and a seeded granola.
During summer as much as 70% of the kitchen’s fruit and vegetables can come from the garden. “We’ve got some great radishes that just came in today and some heritage carrots. There will be rainbow chard in the next few days. We had artichokes last week,” explains Williams.
The kitchen is also blessed with local meat and fish: “We’re lucky that North Wales has a great coastline. We’ve got bass coming in every day; soon I’ll be getting lovely plaice from Conwy that feeds on cockles, so it has a fantastic flavour, and mussels from Conwy next month. Then there is lamb on the doorstep. You could literally run it over on the way down. We’re incredibly lucky.”
Lamb rump is roasted and served in a beautifully simple dish with peas and a purée of broad beans – both from the garden – a deep-fried bonbon of shoulder of Anglesey mutton and a tomato-scented bouillon sauce. Meanwhile, nutty butter-poached bass is served with handmade gnocchi and a cream and fennel sauce.
As you’d expect, the fruit cages will soon lead the dessert menu during mid-summer, with loganberries, tayberries, wineberries, strawberries and raspberries soon to arrive in abundance.
“We want to do something simple with them, so it will just be a beautiful summer pudding,” says Williams. At present, an elegant dish of strawberries atop a slice of
basil cake, served with strawberry mousse, graces the dessert menu.
After winning back a third rosette within a remarkable 11 days of returning to Bodysgallen, the only remaining part of his brief is to carry on making the best of that garden produce. “I’m incredibly lucky,” he explains. “It’s a blessing for a chef.”
Bodysgallen Hall, the Royal Welsh Way, Llandudno, North Wales LL30 1RS
From the menu
- Smoked salmon, gingerbread crust, compressed cucumber, wasabi mayonnaise
- Duck egg, butter-poached yolk, warm potato terrine, new season Wye Valley asparagus, wild rocket velouté
- Grilled breast of chicken, girolles, new season broad beans, truffle-scented baby gem velouté
- Soy- and maple-glazed duck breast, salt-baked vegetables, wild mushroom sauce
- Strawberry mousse, basil cake, compressed strawberry
Three courses, £49; two courses, £39