Is Anglesey the UK’s next great foodie destination?
- Credit: Archant
Menai Bridge and Beaumaris may be small, but they pack a foodie impact, as Rebekka O’Grady discovers
Anglesey’s land and coast is brimming with high quality produce so it’s no shock that the island is making a name for itself as a foodie destination.
Two of its towns, Menai Bridge and Beaumaris, have been leading the way for years, offering everything from sumptuous fine dining to classic, hearty dishes. One particular restaurant, Dylans, has done so well at its Menai Bridge flagship that they have opened a further two venues on the mainland, in Llandudno and Criccieth.
So what makes these two coastal towns a real destination for food lovers? We took a trip across to the island to meet some of the owners and chefs who are causing a buzz over the bridge.
For Mike Jones, it was a proud moment to be able to open his own restaurant. The 27-year-old from Bangor was schooled in Menai Bridge and spent many years working in various kitchens, including The Straits, The Loft at The Bull in Beaumaris and Hotel Portmeirion.
‘Despite being in kitchens since I was 12, I was actually hoping to become a mechanical engineer,’ said Mike, who runs Freckled Angel with his partner, Debbie Owen. ‘But my real passion was always fine food. I sort of fell into it, I went from washing dishes to cooking them.’
After learning his trade and becoming a head chef by the age of 23, Mike decided he wanted to cook his own dishes and launched Freckled Angel as a private catering business in 2013. The business is named after a friend of Mike’s who passed away, as a tribute to his memory.
‘It was really good fun; we would visit some beautiful houses and cottages, meeting lovely people and catering for them. We then did a week long pop-up restaurant in the Thomas Telford Centre and the feedback was really good, which actually gave us the confidence to launch a restaurant.’
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After a stint in smaller premises, Freckled Angel opened its doors last December. It offers a different style of food from their catering menu. The couple decided to combine the concept of Spanish tapas with British flavours and techniques to create small plates after spotting a gap in the market locally.
‘They’re dishes I would have typically cooked on a larger scale, using locally sourced ingredients. ‘Everything we use is pretty much Welsh. In the future I would like to launch a fine dining restaurant, but at the moment it’s exciting having the balance of both this restaurant and the catering side.’
When Phil and Lucy Williams were given the opportunity to run their own restaurant, they embraced it with open arms. The couple, who are from Neston on the Wirral, had been working in the restaurant industry their whole lives, so it was too good to miss. However, it did mean one thing – relocating to Menai Bridge.
‘We had worked for my dad for ten years, so for us to go on our own was pretty scary,’ said head chef, Phil. His father, also named Phil, had trained in Belize and the Creole quarter of New Orleans, where his son was born. The chef then trained Phil at his Wirral restaurant, The Marsh Cat, passing on his passion for food and the flavours of Cajun cookery. ‘It was the aspect of moving away, and not having that network of support. But we just had to throw all our energy into it and built a new life for ourselves here.’ The couple, who have been together for 17 years and are recently married, opened The Straits in 2009 and haven’t looked back. Their classic recipes with a modern twist have become a firm favourite with local and visitors alike, and they couldn’t picture having a restaurant anywhere else.
‘We have really grown to love Anglesey; I don’t think we would move back to the Wirral. It’s nice to return to see friends and family, but this is our life now – it’s a lovely place to be,’ said Lucy, who works front of house. Until recently, she was also the dessert chef and baker, before Phil decided he wanted to learn. However her signature pudding, Annie’s Nutty Tart, (a recipe from Phil’s grandmother) remains a staple on the menu. ‘There would be uproar if we took that off!’
Phil also uses some of his dad’s recipes from New Orleans to sprinkle an authentic Cajun influence onto some of the dishes, but has firmly developed his own style of cooking. ‘I am continually pushing myself, as a chef you are always learning,’ said Phil, who utilises local ingredients such as sea bass, lobster and ice cream. The restaurant has two menus, a seasonal a la carte and then fixed price offering, which changes on a monthly basis.
‘I look at my dad, who is now 62 and he is still learning. He’s my inspiration, and I still get nervous whenever I am cooking for him – it feels like when I was first training.’ So how to do they feel about the food revolution in the area? The Straits was one of the first dining destinations to open up in Menai Bridge, but for Phil and Lucy, they see it as more the merrier.
‘It keeps us on our toes! The last few years it has really blown up in terms of food offerings around here but we have a really good relationship with them all. If it encourages people to stay and spend money on the island, then that’s all for the better.’
One of the reasons that David Robertson and his then business partner, Keith Rothwell, bought The Bull in 1987 was that it was the only pub in the area that reminded them of one they might find in Cheshire.
‘This place had soul. Other places, their character had been lost but this was like being in a time warp. In the 30 years we have been here, we’ve not made any changes to the structure of The Bull, only aesthetic tweaks now and again.’ And why would you need to when you have established yourself as a top quality place to eat, drink and sleep? A coaching inn for hundreds of years, The Bull has always had a history as a destination long before David took the reins. ‘People would stay here as it was on the main route to Ireland, long before the Menai Suspension Bridge was built. It has a pretty good pedigree really,’ explained David, who was born in Liverpool and spent most of his youth living in Hale Barns, Prestbury and Bramhall before coming to Anglesey. ‘Over the years The Bull has simply continued to build a reputation for itself and of course, good food.’
The Loft, a two AA rosette restaurant lead by the former junior chef of Wales 2015, Andy Tabberner, is a popular fine dining option for residents and visitors, and The Bull’s newest addition, Coach, is sure to turn heads also. Formerly known as The Brassiere, a restaurant which when launched in 1999 was dubbed fairly avant-garde for the area, has now been transformed into a contemporary, more relaxed dining option. David says that £200,000 has been invested into the refurbishment, and the results speak for themselves.
‘The reception has been fantastic, it’s going really well. There is a lot of competition now in the market place so we knew it required a redesign. The menu is an evolution – we don’t want to box ourselves in – so you can still get fish and chips but there’s also dishes on there for more adventurous diners.’
You can also dine al fresco, as they have transformed what was a small car park into a chic outdoor eating area that wouldn’t look amiss in Manchester. As well as food, The Bull has the option that if you want to turn your trip to Beaumaris into a weekend escape, they offer five star luxury accommodation across 25 bedrooms. There are also traditional rooms at The Bull and a more contemporary offering at the 17th century Townhouse down the street.
‘We have a fantastic team here, it is hard to keep quality top notch yes, but it’s what we’re good at. So we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.’
Sosban and the Old Butchers
If we’re being stereotypical, the last place you would expect to find a Michelin starred restaurant would be sandwiched in a row of shops on a small town high street. However, Sosban and the Old Butchers is anything but stereotypical, and it’s this individuality that helped to secure the prestigious award – the first one on Anglesey.
Owned and solely run by husband and wife team, Stephen and Bethan Stevens, the restaurant opened in 2012 and rapidly built a name for itself as a destination for top quality food. In fact, so much so that the restaurant, which only opens three nights a week, is fully booked until 2018. However, it wasn’t the couple’s aim to reach for the stars; initially all they wanted to do was open a coffee shop that became a restaurant in the evenings.
‘Originally we wanted to open a casual, daytime place, but we then had our second child so we decided to only open in the evenings instead,’ said chef Stephen, who amazingly has no formal training in cooking. He started out as a plumber, and it was time spent working in kitchens that inspired him to make the transition into a chef. Since then, he has worked in a number of big restaurants, including under Marcus Wareing at Petrus, in Knightsbridge.
‘Everything has worked out in the best way it could have happened. We weren’t chasing the award; we were just focused on creating good food. The Michelin star is a reflection on both of us, our ambition and drive has just led us in that direction. It was a huge shock and not what we expected.’
Sosban and the Old Butchers is located in what was a purpose-built butchers shop, dating back to 1849. With only 16 covers served over two sittings, it’s an intimate experience. The décor still has a nod to its heritage, with one wall lined with the building’s original slate, installed to cool the room, along with historic hand painted motifs of cows on a farm. Bethan, who manages front of house, tells me that all of this was hidden away prior to them taking over, as the listed building was used as a chain wine retailer.
There is no menu, a decision taken in their second year of business. Instead what’s served is a total surprise, with Stephen creating a multi course culinary journey utilising whatever is available and in season that week.
‘Having no menu enables the diner to open their mind; they have no preconception of what is to come. The food and combination of flavours is like an explosion in your mouth, it takes you somewhere totally different,’ said Bethan.
‘There’s a real sense of place here, whether that’s the décor, service, building, location or ingredients – it’s a totally different experience. It’s an encapsulated piece of Menai Bridge.’
Other places to dine in Menai Bridge and Beaumaris
Built in the mid-19th century by Sir John Hay Williams, Plas Rhianfa was heavily inspired by his travels in France - hence its towers and spires. Today, the fairytale-like building is a luxury hotel, restaurant and wedding venue: an elegant destination for dinner.
Menai Bridge, LL59 5NS
Tel: 01248 880090, www.chateaurhianfa.com
Beau’s Tea Rooms
This traditional tea room serves over 30 types of tea in vintage china, together with a selection of homemade cakes and light meals. Situated in a Grade II listed building dating back to 1602, its low beams and deep fireplace make for a cosy atmosphere.
30 Castle Street, Beaumaris, LL58 8AP
Tel: 01248 811010
Red Boat Ice Cream Parlour
Located in this restored medieval building in Beaumaris you’ll find a splendid selection of ice creams and sorbets. Owners Tony and Lyn Green have also recently transformed the old Pier Gatehouse building in Menai Bridge into a parlour.
34 Castle Street,
Beaumaris, LL58 8BB
Tel: 01248 810022