In the season of hibernation, following joy and celebrations, it takes a special destination to draw us out for further libations! Now if someone were to mention Bala, my mind would immediately drift to summer; famed for the tale of Mari Jones, Tegid lakeside activities and legendary eisteddfods, Bala is full to the brim with visitors when the sun is shining on Meirionnydd.
So what if I were to tell you that Bala is also the perfect place for a relaxing winter break - in particular, gastro-pub with rooms Plas yn Dre? Brothers Siôn and Owain Williams have ensured that all demands are met at this cosy home-away-from home. Located slap-bang in the middle of the high street of this vibrant and proudly Welsh town, it’s a five minute walk from Tegid lake with Winter views to restore your faith. Nearby is Stori craft ale bar and two award-winning butchers shops, and right next door is Awen Meirion, one of the loveliest bookshops in the world. Having said all that, the rooms are filled with details to tempt you to stay in bed all day. Along with complimentary wine and luxury Welsh bath products from Myddfai, you may never even have to raise your head.
But what a crime that would be when the restaurant-bar awaits with a menu to surprise and delight. At the bar, underneath the Welsh alphabet, I savoured a half of the local Mŵs Piws / Purple Moose golden ale from Porthmadog. On the shelves, an array of contemporary Welsh gins - from Cygnet and Gŵyr from Swansea, Eccentric (Caerphilly), and Snowdonia-sourced Aber Falls.
My guests for supper were two locals from Bala; my cousins Elen and Gruffudd who love to cook, and therefore rarely dine in town. Their response to the mid-week dinner was one of unexpected pleasure and a promise to return forthwith. I shared in that response, as I’d prepared to encounter the usual gastro-pub fare of burgers, fish and chips and steaks. Yes, they are all present and accounted for, but what I had not also expected was a series of flavourful dishes by Le Manoir Aux Quait’ Saisons-trained head chef Justin Fenwick-Scott.
The restaurant itself offers a warm embrace of wood, leather, and a roaring fire. I leapt for the bay-window table and savoured the citrus spice notes of Aber Falls Orange Marmalade G & T. Elen, who remembers the space as the local GP’s surgery, was struck by the retention of original features, including the stunning ceramic tiles. Gruffudd, her teenage son, made a bee-line for the menu, and chose the Menai mussels, followed by a Flatiron steak (from famed local butcher T.J. Roberts), served medium-rare.
The nibbles set the tone for an evening of full-on-flavour; we happily snacked on the crisp pork crackling served with ale and apple purée, and halloumi ‘chips’ with beetroot ketchup. I, for one, could have gorged all night on a bucketful of the truffle and Parmigiano popcorn. The creamy mussels, declared Gruffudd, were the best he’d ever tasted, enriched with bacon and tarragon, whilst Elen noted that the succulent duck fritters would be a winner with other family members.
As the surrounding area of Penllyn is a spiritual home of Welsh sheep, I plumped for the short crust pie of lamb and rosemary. Along with the minted mash and gravy, it ticked all ‘comfort-food’ boxes for me, and I enjoyed it with a bold and berry-filled Romanian Pinot Noir. A huge hit with guests is the 12-hour roasted Pork Belly, served with Dauphinoise potatoes and a mini toffee apple, which Elen devoured with glee, whilst Gruffudd guzzled the steak, but if had one critique, he would have preferred the skin-on-fries to the chunky twice-cooked ‘chips’.
Despite the hearty portions, there was still room for dessert, and the word on the street was that the ‘Apple’ treat was ‘not to be missed’. As the salted caramel apple mousse arrived, draped in a fog of dry ice, Gruffudd’s eyes were open wide; as he tasted the dessert, he closed his eyes and beamed with local pride. Elen’s tiramisu terrine was a sophisticated take on the Italian dream dessert, while a perfectly presented ‘parkin’ – a ginger sticky toffee pudding (and nod to the head-chef’s Yorkshire roots) - was the cherry on the cake of an evening of sheer delights for me.
What a lovely, comforting place to stay, with a ‘bar’ menu to blow you away. It’s certainly not ‘fine-dining’, but there’s a rare ambition here at play. Even an evening supper at Plas yn Dre will make you feel like you’re on holiday. For a brand new take on a winter break, head to Bala for a Welsh escape.
Plas yn Dre, 23 High Street, Bala, Gwynedd LL23 7LU; 01679 521256