This is a throwaway statement but, for reasons far too complex to go into the majority of decent restaurants in South Wales, lie in and around Abergavenny. It is a glorious part of the world, and a welcome break for those wishing to escape the city. Yet I would guess it’s still a tough place to run a restaurant. Competition may not be as fierce as some of our bigger towns and cities and at these prices it’s still going to be a special occasion place.
The Hardwick proudly touts itself as Michel Roux’s favourite restaurant in Wales – quite whether it met with the billing is another thing. In hindsight maybe that comment feels just a bit cosy, given Stephen Terry’s own background with the Roux’s.
The menu is pretty extensive, some 13 starters and some available as both starters or mains. That said it didn’t make the decision process any easier. Sometimes you can have too much choice. The starters were excellent considerable work had gone into the Crispy Breadcrumbed Middle White Pork Belly & Black Pudding with Pickled Fennel and Apple & Mustard Sauce and it was delicious and clever, the black pudding stepping in for the pork belly fat beautifully. The pickled Fennel was judged “the acceptable face of Fennel” by the SDB. High praise indeed from a die hard Fennel doubter.
The standout however, was the Risotto cake with mozzarella and broad beans and new asparagus. (it probable had a longer more descriptive name but you get the gist) The spring vegetables shone, they were cooked exactly and superbly. We could have eaten a bowl of them alone. Not fussy, just simple and delicious.
After a cracking start – the mains were underwhelming. I can’t help feeling there is some resting on laurels here. There is too much emphasis on showy sharing platters. I appreciate the Kitchen may want to show a range of skills and techniques and it looks and smells impressive. All well and good for the Great British Menu, yet on a warm spring evening I was craving something lighter, something fresh or green, with a spring in its step or a bounce in its tail. If I had been offered just one element i.e a pistachio crusted lamb rack along with some spring vegetables or even just a sprig or two of asparagus alone I’d have been a happy man. As it was the lamb was a combo platter (my term not theirs ) and too much of a herculean task that evening.
Sadly the veal was off, so chicken with asparagus and risotto cake was the fallback – it was good but just didn’t set the world on fire. The Wye valley asparagus chargrilled, delicious though they were, really needed little more than the gentle braise of that starter. I don’t disagree with grilling the later woodier stuff but early spring asparagus this good, needs just a flirt with some butter.
The Pan fried cod, borlotti beans and heritage tomatoes was perhaps even more disappointing. In the height of summer with some decent tomatoes this dish may well hit its stride. The fish was well cooked but the whole dish was just felt flat. This section needs to up its game, after such promising openers they let the side down.
Dessert was a perfectly good, correct pannacotta with honey and blood orange but it was a little unspectacular, and I don’t have much more than that to say, other than that was a very fine shortbread by anyone’s standards. Petit fours were an improvement and that raspberry jelly was perfect (though we were reminded they weren’t free which felt a bit awkward).
The staff were attentive and sweet but they still seemed nervous throughout. They also seemed afraid to offend, when we asked about their own highlights from the menu, simply ran through the dishes. They didn’t seem convinced and I’m afraid to say by the end neither was I.
If it were me strip back the options, ditch the tasting platters and get the guy or girl on the first section behind the mains – but then what do I know. In spite of my doubts, with 3 packed dining rooms on a busy Saturday night it’s clearly doing something right.