Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Hardwick - Abergavenny

Last week, I had lunch at somewhere I’ve wanted to eat for ages, Stephen Terry’s The Hardwick. We were in Abergavenny for the annual Food Festival at which I ate and drank more than is ever advisable. So much so, that upon returning, I had to spend an entire day in a vegative state, recovering.

Abergavenny almost has an embarrassment of riches where it comes to eating out, with four highly regarded restaurants located nearby. The Hardwick, The Walnut Tree, The Crown at Whitebrook and The Foxhunter. Although admittedly, it’s a bit of a hike or a short cab ride out to reach any of them. Strangely, within the environs of the actual town there’s a real lack of decent places to eat, but with such a concentration of culinary excellence, more or less right on the doorstep, perhaps that’s not so surprising.

It’s worth noting that all of these restaurants are easily reachable from Bristol for lunch or dinner. It’s easy to forget the city’s proximity to Wales, but Abergavenny is a little over an hour away by train.
The Hardwick sits a little way out of town, on the Old Raglan Road, surrounded by an incredibly verdant early autumn panorama of hills and valleys. The exterior, freshly painted white, looks well kept, but a bit plain from the roadside and not especially alluring.

Fortunately, the interior is an entirely different proposition. It’s evidently very old, by virtue of the uneven tiled floors and the ancient wooden joists and there’s a definite understated air of polished comfort. Rustic but with just a veneer of fancy-pants slickness. To randomly use a (probably entirely unsuitable) nautical term, I instantly like the cut of The Hardwick’s jib.

Adopting a nonchalant, ‘damn the expense’ air, (E was paying) I glanced down at the menu coming to the instant conclusion that an ‘understated air of polished comfort’ doesn’t come frigging cheap. It’s definitely special occasion prices, for me at least. Mentally toting the menu up like an idiot savant, in the most literal sense, I reckoned that the 3 courses I wanted, plus half a bottle of wine and tip would come in at something like £60 each. That’s a pretty hefty whack for a spot of lunch in my book.

Then I spied the set menu, aaaaaand relax. 3 Courses, £21. Job-jobbed. Don’t get me wrong; I like spanking huge wads of cash on meals as much as the next corpulent bastard, but sometimes I just have to accept that although the stomach may be willing, the bank balance is a particularly barren, flaccid-sack, bereft of coinage.
Let’s talk about bread. The Hardwick is using baker Alex Gooch’s, and it’s bloody excellent. I ate more of it later that weekend, in the form of rolls at the Trealy Farm stall at the food festival itself and couldn’t have been more impressed.
So, pan-fried local pedigree pork meatloaf with red onion marmalade, toasted sourdough and cornichons. A fairly standard starter, apart from the sheer heft of the monolithic cube of meatloaf on my plate. It was frigging massive. I’m not complaining, mind, it was bloody nice, in a warm chunky pork paving-slab, kind of way.
Meanwhile, in the long shadow cast by my starter, ‘E’ was eating organic salmon and cod croquette with smashed peas, tartar sauce and lemon. And a very nice thing it was too by all accounts. From my side of the table, I particularly admired the geometrically slashed croquette styling. Fancy.
Slow cooked pork belly with celeriac puree, black pudding and salted caramel apple sauce. I’ve eaten pork belly alles uber da platz, and this was probably the best I’ve had anywhere. Ridiculously meaty, sticky, and soft but with perfectly crisp, almost lacquered skin, which I couldn’t help but wonder at. I’ve cooked muchos belly myself and never once attained such a beautiful glazed finish. I’d be really interested if anyone knows the technique to achieve similar results.

The salted caramel sauce was a nice unusual twist. As with my starter, the portion size erred on the mungus, the concluding forkful pushed into my gob with just a small degree of effort. I was very happy but stuffed silly.
‘E’s pescetarian tendencies had led her towards pan fried tomato risotto with Perroche goats cheese, grilled courgettes, rocket and black olives. As with everything else we’d ordered, this was a substantial portion of food. The risotto had been pressed into a rectangular cake and seared, which is something I haven’t seen before. Combined with a generous lump of Perroche, a fantastic fresh young goats cheese from Neal’s Yard Creamery, ‘E’ was well pleased.
As we both go a bit stupid where ordering food is concerned, we'd also requested a completely unnecessary bowl of very decent triple cooked chips and a cracking dish of courgette fries. These were different to any I’ve eaten previously in other restaurants, being cut extremely thin – shoestring style, then presumably coated in a light tempura batter and finished off with what appeared to be grated parmesan. They were frigging excellent.
Neither of us fancied the set-menu desserts, so eyes roaming over to the a la carte, ‘E’ ordered ‘A jar of lemon crunch with Italian meringue’ which proved to be very similar to something we’ve made ourselves at ‘The Basement’ supper club (ours were inspired by a dessert we’d eaten in a Bath pub). A Kilner jar, layered full of lemon curd, custard and a shortbread crumb. It was lovely, but way too big a portion of something so rich. Which isn’t much of a complaint really.
Meanwhile I was hacking into one of the trio of golden balls on my plate and gleefully watching molten chocolate slowly ooze out of the centre in an obscene display of the most depraved kind of food porn  ‘Deep fried, breadcrumbed rice pudding & chocolate arancini with morello cherry parfait’ was ridiculously good.
I really enjoyed lunch at The Hardwick. The restaurant itself has a nice relaxed feel to it. The cooking is excellent, rustic but polished with some very nice, unusual twists on classic dishes and flavour combinations.

Superb local produce is woven throughout the entire menu. You couldn’t ask for more really. The a la carte is definitely on the pricey side, but if like on my visit, you’re not feeling particularly flush then the set menu is bloody good value. I’ll definitely re-visit the next time I’m in Abergavenny.

The Hardwick
Old Raglan Road

Telephone 01873 854220


gourmetgorro said...

Need to revisit the Hardwick soon. That food looks lush and those look like my kind of portion sizes.

Dan said...

Gourmetgorro - Looking at the pics, I could eat it all again now. The food was great and the portions frigging massive. No complaints here!

dan said...

hi dan - on the question of the pork belly - i think in an old edition of great british menu mr terry showed his hand on this and the technique stuck in my mind. step 1 was effectively to confit the thing in a gallon or so of goose fat (no doubt could be achieved via sous vide / boil in a bag if that floats your boat). step 2 was to fry the cooled confit skin side down on a roasting tray placed on direct heat - the unusual thing was i think he did this with a bit of baking parchment between pig and pan, which helped it to crisp without catching. your description makes me think maybe i will have a crack this weekend!

Joe said...

Hi there just checking out your great blog for the first time, as a chef in south Wales I am very interested in the Hardwick, the food looks right up my street! Anyway I noticed you were interested in the technique for the crispy skin on the pork belly, I thought I would add to the previous comment. You can cook it confit style in fat, or with a little stock or water foiled and slow cooked for a good few hours. Then when its done you wrap in foil or cling then sandwich between two flat things, I use chopping boards or metal trays then apply weight to press it with a few bricks and leave it in the fridge overnight. The next day it can be trimmed into neat squares for a portion, then simply pan fry the skin in oil in a hot non stick pan until fairly crisp, flip it over and place in a hot oven to finish. Simple as that. Joe

Jonathan said...

What a cracking lunch. That pork belly and the chocolate arancini look incredible. Glad you liked it. It was one of our highlights of the year.

Dan said...

Dan - Blimey, thanks very much for that. Well remembered! The baking parchment trick sounds a bit nifty. I might give that a go too.

Joe - Cheers for the explanation. The Hardwick is superb. I've cooked a fair old bit of pork belly myself using the technique you describe, but the Hardwick's pork belly, particuarly the glazed skin was incredible. I wondered if there was some technique they were using outside the norm.

Jonathan - Cheers fella, it was awesome. Wales is so bloody close for me as well, which still feels a bit strange, coming from the South East.