Everyone loves a bargain, but is it ever worth paying a bit more for a meal? Let’s take a trip to Abergavenny and find out…
I am going to say something that’s really hard for me to admit: quality costs money.
We’ve all got our little money saving lifehacks when it comes to food; making sarnies for lunch out of the hotel breakfast buffet say, or putting your cheese-topped bap through the self-service till as a plain roll (oh shut up, you know you have). The same goes for eating out – you’ve got your Taco Tuesdays at Wahaca, your Pizza Express vouchers, your Wriggle deals… all of which are great, but it’s gotten to the point where we feel like mugs for paying full price for something.
As is often the case, I blame Gregg Wallace. Well, not entirely, but television’s angriest greengrocer certainly doesn’t help with his Masterchef off-season side gig Eat Well For Less.
You know the drill. Wallace – essentially an egg with short man syndrome – invades a lucky family’s three-bed-semi in Durham and impounds their usual shopping as if it’s 50 keys of uncut heroin before replacing it with some guff they found behind the bins at Aldi. Why? Ostensibly to help them save money, but more to show us how stupid they are for buying nice things.
Because spending your hard earned bunce on stuff that you actually like – proper Hobnobs for example, instead of own brand Asda OatBisks that taste like wet sand mixed with tree sap – is a terrible sin. Regardless of the fact that people in the UK actually spend less on their food shopping than anyone except the US and Singapore. Bloody austerity.
Thing is, sometimes you have to spend a bit more if you want nice things. It’s just a fact. I’m not made of money (seems like it’d be horribly impractical anyway to be fair), but I don’t mind hurling my credit card at the occasional special treat. It was @ScruffyDuke‘s birthday last week, so that gave me the perfect excuse to drop some dollar on a REALLY nice meal. But where? Well it turns out you could do a lot worse than Abergavenny gastropub mainstay The Hardwick.
Stephen Terry‘s gaff is not a cheap place to eat. It is a bloody good one though. I won’t waste wordcount going into detail about the decor – suffice to say it’s a nice old-school country pub with some modern touches (but no exposed brick or industrial light fittings for a bloody change).
The menu is surprisingly lengthy given the kind of place it is, but the fact that you can have most dishes as a starter or a main is a bit of a bonus. Anyway, it’s not exactly hard to choose – if you are a human and you like pork, you’re just going to have to order the deep fried pork belly and black pudding starter. No excuses. Just bloody well do it.
This is a pork singularity – it tastes like every single pig in the universe compressed down into a two inch square block, then deep fried. And it’s fantastic. When it threatens to get so rich that the next bite might actually stop your heart, you can have a go on the pickled fennel – combined with the apple and mustard sauce it’s got a bit of a piccalilli vibe to it. Only posh, like. And then there’s that little crackling topper, which is so light it’d probably float away without the intense gravity generated by all that pork.
A taste of my better half’s anchovy and artichoke starter confirms that it also knows exactly what it’s doing, especially when it comes to the tempura-style deep-fried green beans, which defeat the object of eating healthy vegetables in the most enjoyable way possible.
My main is billed as a beef carpaccio but it’s actually cooked, or to be more accurate, it’s been waved in the general direction of some fire. It’s far from a disappointment though. The ultra-thin locally sourced sirloin would be a treat on its own, but the dressing launches it into the stratosphere.
Chucking big brawly flavours like parmesan, rosemary, anchovy and garlic all over such insanely good quality meat might seem criminal, but it really works – beefing up (heh, see what I did there?) the already massive savoury tones. It’s proper ‘close-your-eyes’ food – you don’t want your pesky eyesight distracting you from the backflips of joy your tongue will be doing.
The sides arrive too – polenta chips, and beetroot topped with melted goats cheese. The former is fine, but the latter is a bit special, with the gooey, not-too-strong goats cheese bouncing enjoyably off the earthy sweetness of the beetroot.
And at this point in our story, things take an ugly twist. The birthday girl’s main arrives, and I wail in anguish because it’s even better than mine. Thank god she was too full to finish it all.
The crispy shoulder and ragout of Brecon lamb is categorically the best thing anyone in Wales has ever done with a sheep. And I say that as a proud Welshman.
Topped with a shock of zingy red cabbage, it’s served with hunks of crispy polenta and that kind of mash you only get at good restaurants that tastes like butter and cream that might have met a potato once. The lamb ragout is great, if a bit unsexy looking, but the crispy lamb is inevitably the star here. It’s so good you’ll want to elope with it.
The contrast between the gnarled crispness of the outside and the marshmallowy tenderness of the inside is enough to make a grown man weep. Fair warning – if you’re the sort of person who finds the flavour of lamb ‘a bit strong’ there’s a good chance you’ll go into anaphylactic shock if you so much as sniff this dish. After finishing off my lovely lady’s leftovers, I’m veering dangerously into ‘waffer thin mint’ territory, but you can’t come somewhere like this and not have afters.
Lemon desserts are not my thing. This is because lemons have two main uses – making your gin look pretty, and preventing scurvy. But the Lemon Crunch is a bit of a signature dish at The Hardwick, so it seemed rude not to try it.
I’m glad I did. In short it’s a soft, pillowy meringue on top of a lemon mousse that’s as well balanced as a unicyclist on a tightrope. I might have to change my opinion on lemon desserts.
So. Time to address the elephant in the room – how much was it? I won’t be too specific as it was a prezzie, but if you’re having wine (of course you are you plum) then a meal for two will merrily sail through the hundred quid barrier without a second thought. Not as eye-wateringly expensive as some restaurants by any means, but it’s hardly Nando’s prices.
But I absolutely think it’s worth it. To quote Oscar Wilde, life is too short to drink bad wine. Given the hideous events cropping up on a weekly basis lately and the constant looming possibility of Trumpageddon, do you really want your last meal to be in Wetherspoons?
Next time you’ve got a good excuse – whether it’s a birthday, an anniversary or something to celebrate – book a table at The Hardwick. You bloody well deserve it.
Are you happy to splash the cash on a good meal or are you more of a frugal foodie? Let me know in the comments or over at @fuudblog on Twitter…