The Hardwick is a pub near Abergavenny, which Steve Terry and his wife took over in 2005. Steve has had a long career as a chef in serious kitchens, being head chef at the respected Canteen in Chelsea Harbour in the 1990s, and then at the late lamented Coast. He trained under Alain Passard at Arpege, as well as at Le Gavroche and at the legendary Harveys in the glory days of Marco Pierre White. Steve's cooking is very ingredients-led and consciously simple; he lets the ingredients speak for themselves rather than indulging in technical wizardry. Starters were £8 to £14, main courses £17 - £25, with additional vegetable dishes at £4 and desserts mostly £7 - £9.
The pub is a 17th century building, the dining room laid out in three sections plus a bar area, having a red tiled floor, no tablecloths, and low ceilings with exposed beams. The bread here is made from scratch, and had good texture (15/20). The wine list covered plenty of countries and included choices such as Casal Garcia Vinho Verde 2010 for £22 for a wine that retails at £6, Gigondas Domaine de Cassan at £45 for a wine that will set you back £14 in the shops, and Barolo Burlotto 2006 at £78 for a wine that costs £22 in the high street.
My starter of scallops had the scallops left whole (a lot of UK restaurants take the sneaky option of slicing a scallop in two or three thin slices, which makes this relatively costly ingredient appear to go further, but in my view a scallop is at its best whole, as you invariably encounter them in France) and seared. The scallops were palpably fresh and lightly cooked, served on a bed of tender beans, resting in a rich broth. This was an excellent, rustic dish, with lots of flavour and accurate seasoning (16/20).
Traditional fish soup was served with croutons, rouille and cheese, with a quenelle of mackerel and radiccio in the centre of the bowl. Often fish soup is a watery disappointment, a way for restaurants to spin out lefoovers into something profitable, but here the flavour was deep and concentrated, quite thick in texture (not over liquidised, which can give a chalky texture), and again well seasoned. This is the best fish soup I have tasted since the days when I used to eat regularly at Nico Ladenis's London restaurants (Nico earned a rare three Michelin stars in London, and made a fabulous rich fish soup involving lobster and several types of fish on a lengthy preparation). For this version 17/20 may be a mean score.
Wild sea bass had very good flavour and was accurately timed, served with a rice cake, peas, broad beans, carrots, asparagus, and spinach. The vegetables had good taste but were a little overcooked, though the main event, the bass was excellent (15/20). Rabbit was prepared in three ways, in a pithivier, as loin and also in a sausage. With a quail egg. This was served on a slate with roasted Jersey Royal potatoes. The loin of rabbit had lovely flavour and was nicely moist, the pastry of the pithivier seemed a fraction undercooked and was rather pale (perhaps the pastry glaze was omitted). The rabbit in the sausage had good flavour, with the good quality carrots served n the side a little overcooked (15/20). Steve Terry had a night off for this meal, and it was noticeable that there were no little slips like this at lunch the following day, when he was present. On the side chips were triple cooked, which in my view is the best way to cook chips, and were suitably crispy (17/20).
For dessert, lemon crunch was a layer of soft meringue, underneath which was a lemon mousse . The mousse was very well judged, having a careful balance of sweetness and acidity (16/20). Cheesecake was.deconstructed, with meringue, strawberries and cheesecake base served as three separate elements. The meringue topping was fine, but the texture of the cheesecake base was a little grainy, though the tastes of vanilla and cheese came through well. The strawberries had good flavour, but overall this was a less successful dessert (between 13/20 and 14/20). Coffee was Nespresso pods and served with biscotti (15/20). Service was friendly and efficient. if not particularly sophisticated, but was entirely appropriate for a pub setting. The bill was £81 per head with some good wine.
I was so impressed with the meal here that we returned for a quick lunch the following day, when Steve Terry was about. The lunch menu was £26.50 for three courses. A starter of cauliflower soup was very impressive, a really simple dish with just cauliflower, milk and water, garnished with cheese and chives, but again the soup was not over-liquidised, resulting in a thick texture which allowed the cauliflower flavour to come through to its full, enhanced by precise seasoning. A dish like this lives or dies by the quality of its ingredients, and this cauliflower had genuinely excellent flavour; this was the best cauliflower soup I have ever tasted (17/20).
Cod and chips had good quality cod, deep fried in a light batter that was nicely crisp and golden (15/20). It was served with lettuce, home made tartare sauce and more of the lovely triple cooked chips. Smoked haddock was again well timed, the haddock fresh and having very good taste, topped with a poached eg (15/20). Strawberry trifle was served in a little pot, and was a classical trifle. It had layers of sponge, jelly, red fruits, custard, cream and a crumble topping. The fruit again had good flavour but the star was the custard, beautifully made with visible flecks of vanilla (16/20).
Overall the cooking across these two meals averaged between a 5 and 6, but I will give this the benefit of the doubt given the genuine culinary highlights that appeared. To cook so simply, and yet to deliver such excellent flavour, is a rare skill, and Steve Terry's kitchen has it. This is certainly some of the best pub cooking in the UK.
@SimonMajumdar I can well believe that.