Ever since I moved to South Wales I’ve been keen to eat at the Hardwick, a ‘gastropub’ (I call it this because I’ve seen it featured in several lists of the best ones!) just outside Abergavenny. What was meant to be a Bank Holiday day out for me to get to know more of the area that I now live in was curtailed by bad weather and ended up just being a trip to the Hardwick for lunch – but I think that would be a good use of a Bank Holiday in any self-respecting foodie’s book, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
The Hardwick is owned and run by chef Stephen Terry, who will be familiar to many from his very successful appearances on The Great British Menu. The Hardwick’s website features complimentary quotes from the likes of Michel Roux Jr (apparently it’s his favourite place to eat in Wales) and Gregg Wallace (who for all his shoutiness does know both his literal and figurative onions), hence my excitement at finally having an opportunity to dine there.
If you didn’t know about the Hardwick, you could be forgiven for passing it by. It’s away from the beaten track, and from the outside just looks like a pub – albeit a very nice one. It’s only on going inside that you immediately realise this is something a lot more special. I don’t even think that ‘gastropub’ does it justice – it’s more of a restaurant with a bar that just happens to be ‘pub style’, and in its marketing it describes itself as a restaurant with rooms. The restaurant uses two original rooms of the pub, plus an extension, which has been nicely done, as it’s in keeping with the rest of the decor and building style, but different enough that it’s not trying too hard to fit in. We were in the extension area, and were struck by how light it was in there, despite it being a horribly grey day outside, so we really liked the atmosphere.
We hadn’t booked, but they kindly fitted us in – albeit with the caveat that we needed to order fairly quickly as they were expecting two large groups in shortly afterwards. We were still able to enjoy a pre-lunch drink in the bar, though, taking advantage of some very comfy sofas while we perused the menu!
The dishes on offer had strong Welsh influences and made use of a lot of local and seasonal ingredients to produce some innovative combinations of flavours and textures and some unusual takes on traditional dishes. While we waited, we had some lovely fresh bread which was served with local butter and chilli oil – which didn’t have too much of a hot chilli bite to it, but had a lovely flavour.
To start, I chose Welsh Rarebit on slow cooked ham hock, with a shallot, dandelion and caper salad, mustard cream and grilled sourdough. Not to put too finer point on it, this was absolutely divine, and the Rarebit topping (which was one of the best examples of the dish I’ve tried) on the tasty, chunky ham hock was inspired! The mustard cream was served in a light, fluffy quenelle and the salad gave a lovely additional texture to the dish. Personally I didn’t need the sourdough with it, but I had a bite and it was good!
Mr W went for confit duck leg and duck liver hash with a fried egg, celeriac, pomegranate and watercress salad. Again, this was really tasty and an excellent combination of flavours, which wouldn’t necessarily seem to work on paper, but were fantastic on the plate, and the presentation was beautiful – I particularly liked the perfectly formed fried egg!
Next up for me was Chicken Holstein. This was a breadcrumbed local free-range chicken breast, a fried organic egg and Ortiz anchovy, served with braised chard, capers, lemon brown butter and meat juices. The chicken breast was a bit like an escallop or schnitzel and was certainly cooked very well – again, with an unusual combination of flavours coming together really well on the plate and a particularly tasty sauce. I rarely eat chicken in restaurants as I see it as a bit of a ‘boring’ option, but as the dishes on offer at the Hardwick were so innovative, I fancied trying it as I felt sure it wouldn’t be boring! It wasn’t, but it wasn’t my favourite dish of the day either, so I’d probably go for something else next time.
Mr W’s main, on the other hand, was really good, despite being one of the more traditional ones on offer. He had a braised ox tail suet pudding, served with mashed potatoes, seasonal greens and red wine sauce, and it was excellent – the crust just substantial enough to hold the pudding (with big chunks of meat inside) together, but still rich and suety. We were also lucky enough to get to try some of the triple cooked chunky chips I’d spotted on the menu, as the people at the next table heard me coveting theirs (the shame!) and passed over some leftovers for us to try! Note to self: be more quiet when drooling over other people’s food, because although the chips were excellent, it was a little bit embarrassing!
We did momentarily consider the ‘Taste of Local Beef for two’ which comprised grilled fillet, ox tail suet pudding, rib burger and braised shin, plus a variety of vegetables and choice of potatoes, but at £56, we thought it might put a strain on our stomachs as much as our pockets – maybe another time on a really special occasion (preferably one where we’ve not eaten for a week beforehand!)
Our meal so far had been so good that we didn’t want it to end, so despite being very full up, we both chose a pudding. Mine was a pot of lemon crunch served with Italian meringue, a delight of layered lemon lusciousness, including lemon cream, crunchy biscuit, lemon mousse, a brandy snap and a topping of soft and fluffy meringue. The lemon was very sharp, but the combination of textures worked well and it was a nice pudding to have after a big meal – and nicely presented into the bargain.
Mr W’s pudding was a pannacotta served with rhubarb and ginger crumble – we were expecting a portion of pannacotta, perhaps with some rhubarb compote on the side, and a bit of crumble topping, but instead it was a layered dessert – some al dente rhubarb (which for me was a little bit too cold), a layer of pannacotta, and what tasted like pieces of crystallised ginger coated in crumble on the top. Again, a dish that challenged all our expectations!
The three courses and a bottle of wine came to £100 for the two of us, with prices edging up towards the £25 mark for some of the more substantial main courses, and of course the beef sharing dish weighing in at £56 for two. It’s not cheap, but it’s definite special occasion fare, and I’d be more than happy with the Hardwick as a venue for a birthday or family occasion. The service was attentive without being over the top – despite the restaurant being spread over three rooms, ours being the furthest from the kitchen, there was never any problem with getting someone’s attention. We also found the staff to be really knowledgeable about the menu and helpful in answering a couple of questions we had about the dishes and ingredients. I’ll definitely be back – and next time I’ll order my own chips!
Food: ***** Service: **** Ambience: ****
The Hardwick, Old Raglan Road, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire NP7 9AA