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Rostra rating: 4.5
The Hardwick was the best restaurant on the European part of MagoGuide’s 2016 Grand Tour. This is one of those places where an accomplished chef “downshifts” and everybody wins. On top of that, The Hardwick boasts eight luxury rooms and a great little pub.
Chef/owner Steven Terry is world class with all the mentoring/Michelin chops that appellation implies. Terry won his spurs at Harvey’s during Marco Pierre White’s glory days. Unlike many other Harvey’s alumni, Chef Terry seems to have remained on very good terms with the UK’s original bad boy chef. Other culinary influences include Nick Nairn, Alain Passard, and Michel Roux Jr. Terry won his first Michelin star at age 25, elevated the nearby Walnut Tree to one star level, won AA’s Best Pub in England for 2005, and in 2010 the Automobile Association named The Hardwick the Best restaurant in Wales, followed by National Restaurant Awards in 2013.
And yet with all that culinary firepower and accolades, The Hardwick basically amounts to an upscale country inn that serves fantastic food in unpretentious but extremely pleasant surroundings. You will not find molecular gastronomy at The Hardwick and the closest thing to a tasting menu is the Sunday set lunch. Chef Terry’s deep background in classical French cuisine informs his kitchen output, but the menu dishes lean more Italian and even Middle Eastern than French. Above all, Chef Terry is devoted to local sourcing–the Hardwick would give any PNW eatery a run for its money in the farm/dock-to-table sweepstakes. My only serious criticism is the employment of the vile term “culinary mission statement” on the Hardwick’s web site, while my only regret is that TeamMago only had time for one meal (lunch) during our sojourn in Abergavenny, Wales.
Chef Terry pays attention to the basics and it shows. The Hardwick serves the best bread we ate in Wales. The restaurant’s staff of life hails from Alex Gooch’s bakery at Hay on Wye, and its products are worth seeking out in the local shops as well. Team Mago was served a rustic and nicely latticed sour dough bread with superb Netherend Farm salted butter and Puglian EVOO. Other attention to detail kudos include “skinny chips” (i.e., French fries, i.e., pommes frites) and thrice cooked chips (i.e., British fried taters a la Gaffer Gamgee), and polenta chips (i.e., eat your heart out Mario Batali).
Provençal style fish soup with rouille, croutons and Gruyere cheese: the real thang’. This is the only fish preparation that Patti Ann will eat anytime and anywhere. The deep salty, ichthyan flavor went perfectly with the classic rouille; nice thin salty bespoke croutons; and the not really good grated parma-like cheese (as it should be and is served all over France, because authentic parma would be lost in this gutsy prep).
Duck hash & fried local duck egg: The hash was rich, peppery, and topped with a perfectly fried duck egg (a rarity in the UK). Releasing that lake of yolk into the hash sealed the deal. Grilled crunchy sweet chicory with burnt orange dressing supplied an excellent contrast.
Hot pot: unlike any Asian hot pot I have ever had. Maybe this is a Welsh culinary term I am not familiar with? Whatever, it was waaay good dude! Savory pig candy mouthfeel augmented with confit Anya new taters, roasted red peppers, Swiss cheese, and more than a hint of heat. Pickles provided a fantastic culinary counter-punch of bright acidity; another similarity with PNW cookery.
Butter lettuce salad: excellent accompaniment to both dishes. The kitchen obviously takes its time with what are usually afterthoughts.
We were driving so did not imbibe during our lunch, but the wine list with an emphasis on Spanish, Sicilian, and Welsh wines as well as the real ales at the small and cosy bar made us wish we had booked a room to sleep off a more liquid lunch. The bar snacks looked great as well, focusing on Mediterranean offering like fried calamari, olives, almonds, and charcuterie.
MagoTip: Skip the more expensive (both food and rooms) and pretentious Walnut Tree and eat at the establishment whose chef first won the Walnut Tree its Michelin star in 2002 (although Terry’s tenure at the Walnut Tree is conspicuously absent from its website). As long as you are going to eat at The Hardwick, spend a night or two there and walk off all those glorious calories in the beautiful Brecon Beacons.