Menuwatch: The Jackdaw, Conwy

14 November 2023 by

Pure Welsh magic is served at Nick Rudge's award-winning restaurant

Until a few years ago, Wales wasn't thought of as a heartland for fine dining restaurants. Great produce, yes – from Gower Salt Marsh lamb and Caerphilly cheese to laverbread and Anglesey sea salt. But when it comes to suggesting a place for a decadent dinner, you'd have been short of choice.

"The best food back then would have been a hotel or a pub stuck in the 1980s, but that's changed," says Nick Rudge, chef patron of the Jackdaw in North Wales.

But things are different now, from Home by James Sommerin in the south to Sosban & the Old Butchers in the north with many more in between. The Welsh dining scene has never looked so exciting.

Rudge's Jackdaw joined the furore two years ago, intent on creating a truly Welsh restaurant, not just using quality Welsh ingredients – which he certainly does – but also telling the story of the nation by tying Welsh history, culture and the landscape into his menu. The Welsh-born chef's cooking is influenced by seven years at Heston Blumenthal's the Fat Duck, where he was junior sous chef, an experience that he says: "completely blew my mind".

"The biggest surprise for me was how amazing everything actually tasted. A lot of people think it's a visual thing for Heston, but it's not just about the theatre, it tastes bloody amazing too," he says.

While he had always dreamed of, one day, returning home to open his own restaurant, the pandemic fast-tracked his plans and saw him opening the Jackdaw above an old cinema in the walled town of Conwy. Just two years later he and his team have been named Restaurant of the Year – Wales at the AA Hospitality Awards.

Rudge's menu doesn't shy away from his time spent working under Blumenthal, in fact his first course of roast chicken jelly and cream of lobster is a homage to one the Fat Duck's longest standing dishes – quail jelly served with either a cream of crayfish or langoustine.

In Rudge's interpretation he creates a jelly stock from roasted chicken wings, onions, star anise, carrots and thyme. "This is a really technical dish," he says. "Because we don't add gelatine we reduce it quite far to the correct flavour and viscosity – it's got a great depth of flavour and is a good way to kick off the menu."

Shells and the heads from lobsters caught off the Great Orme down the road are roasted with vegetables and wine before reducing down and adding cream and herbs. On top sits a quenelle of chicken liver parfait, and the whole dish is finished with a seasonal fruit compote to cut through the richness, pickled fruit and a fig gastrique, made from fig vinegar, wine and sugar.

A restaurant claiming to epitomise Wales couldn't not offer guests a bowl of comforting cawl. Taken from the Welsh word for soup, cawl is traditionally a slow-cooked stew made with lamb and vegetables.

"It's one of my favourite home-cooked dishes, and on a day when it's hammering down with rain you want a bowl of this when you get in from work, enjoyed in front of the fire with a thick slice of bread," he says.

Rudge uses the four key ingredients of lamb, swede, leek and carrot, each cubed and placed in perfect symmetry in a wooden bowl before the broth is poured over tableside.

This intense broth takes three days to make and starts by roasting lamb leg, shoulder and bones in the oven. "I roast onions until caramelised with star anise, which releases a chemical compound which reacts with the onions to give a really meaty flavour," he says.

Carrots, rosemary, thyme and garlic are then added to slowly caramelise, and the roast lamb is added back to the pot, topped up with water and left to simmer for five to six hours. The day after he clarifies the stock with lamb mince and egg white, which absorbs the impurities, before chilling, reducing and infusing with rosemary on the day of service.

A whole lamb head from Denbighshire is used for a snack of lamb's head nugget elsewhere on the menu, and the neck fillet is cooked in a salted water bath for 18 hours overnight before being frozen to allow him to cut the perfect cube for the cawl. Meanwhile, swede is salt-baked for four hours in flour and chickpea water, while the leeks are cooked in a pickle of white wine vinegar, sugar, salt and water before being infused with mint and finished with a drop of mint oil. Lastly the carrot is simmered in lots of star anise, butter, water, sugar and salt until cooked, before finishing, once cubed, with a little powder of toasted fennel seeds, star anise and Halen Mon salt.

"It's a very homely dish and the majority of people from Wales can relate to it," says Rudge. "So much so, that some guests have eaten mine and been a bit offended that it's not like their grandma's!"

From the menu

  • "Bread of heaven"– Llanrhystud wheat kefir bread and homemade butter
  • Roast chicken jelly, cream of lobster, chicken liver parfait, fig gastrique (homage to Heston)
  • Leek and potato – barbecued leek and confit potato
  • Lamb cawl
  • Welsh Salt Marsh lamb and laver
  • Sea vegetables, anchovy and watercress
  • Vale of Clwyd Denbigh plum
  • Blaenau slate – blackberry, lovage and sheeps' yogurt

Tasting menu, £85 per person

High Street, Conwy LL32 8DB

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