It's a Thursday lunchtime, the second time I've been to the Hardwick in just over a week, and as I push open the door I'm once again greeted by the unmistakeable din of a packed house. The roadside pub is fizzing with the chatter and percussion of a restaurant full of customers who all seem to be in exceptional good spirits. Corks are being popped; wine glasses collide and clink; there's the whoosh of a fresh pint of beer being pulled through from the cellar. Occasional belly laughter rises up above the clamour. The till springs open and then just as urgently snaps shut again.
This is the soundtrack of success - a cacophony guaranteed to raise the spirits of just about anyone in the trade. Just about anyone, that is, except a certain executive from a Welsh brewery who, should he cross the threshold right now and witness this happy hubbub, might find himself leaving with a nasty headache and a queasy feeling in his stomach.
You see, the Hardwick wasn't the initial target for Stephen Terry and his wife, Jo, when they were looking for their own place somewhere in the Abergavenny area that has become their home. First they made a bid to take on the lease of a pub being let by the aforementioned brewers. Terry was duly interviewed and presented his plans for the place, plans that would eventually be realised at the Hardwick at the tail end of 2005. The brewery's representative furrowed his brow, fretted that the chef might be "overqualified" and went elsewhere. Stephen and Jo looked again, found the Hardwick and bought the freehold there instead. Maybe it's not quite a match for Decca's Derek Rowe passing on the Beatles, but nevertheless I doubt it's a judgement that anyone involved will look back on with much affection in years to come.
Terry himself has no trouble in identifying what he calls his own Sliding Doors moment. "I was at Coast, probably been there about six months… Gordon [Ramsay, who was at Aubergine at the time with the A-Z group] was involved with L'Oranger and he wanted me to go there and said, ‘This is a really great opportunity,' which it was, but I was really happy at Coast. I had a good team and I wanted to stay. Gordon understood, but I could have said yes and maybe it would all have been very different."
He shrugs. I don't get the feeling that Stephen Terry spends much time these days reflecting on the roads he decided not to tread. Standing in his kitchen, watching him working - tossing around the banter with his right-hand man Leigh Allmond and the rest of his small team, occasionally dipping in to offer a piece of advice, breaking into a broad grin when Jo arrives at the pass with his two kids, Phoebe and Olivia - I can see no reason why he should. The dining room is full of satisfied customers, this kitchen gives every indication of being one of the happiest I've been in for some time, and the owner and head chef appears to be enjoying every second of it. The "Any regrets?" question seems somewhat redundant when the answer is all around you.
But you can see why the question might be asked. Mentioning the name Stephen Terry still generates excitement, both within catering and among devotees of great restaurant food. A few days after I ate at the Hardwick I was in London at an event attended by a number of London chefs, including Bruce Poole, Chris and Jeff Galvin and Anthony Demetre. I was still excited about what I'd eaten at the Hardwick, and when I mentioned Terry's name and what he was up to in Abergavenny, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the reaction, the esteem in which he is held and the seemingly unanimous view that he is one of the most naturally talented chefs Britain has, to date, produced.
If you're not familiar with his personal history, start by taking a look at 1992's White Heat by Marco Pierre White, with its foreword by Albert Roux, a quote from Pierre Koffmann, and blistering photographs of the kitchen at White's iconic Wandsworth restaurant, Harvey's, by the late Bob Carlos Clarke. The only other contribution of note? A paragraph by Harvey's chef de partie, one Stephen Terry: "No one," he says, referring to Marco, "is cooking like it in Britain, and I'm here and part of it." And the proof is there in the photographs, alongside White, Ramsay and the rest, he's a vital flame in that little furnace of a kitchen. "A hugely talented cook," confirms Demetre, who himself spent a few weeks at Harvey's. "I could see then he was going to be a force in the industry."
And a force he was. Terry took on Chelsea's Canteen for White, garnering the restaurant a Michelin star; put Oliver Peyton's Coast on the map; and later, after he took his first plunge in to chef-proprietorship in 2001, he gained another star during his relatively short-lived stay at the Walnut Tree - the reason he came to Abergavenny in the first place. And then things went rather quiet.
I ran into Terry not long after he'd parted company with the Walnut Tree and his erstwhile business partner Francesco Mattioli, who remains the restaurant's current owner. At the time he seemed to have had his fill of restaurants and talked instead about opening a deli in Abergavenny. "I just think sometimes it can be a pretty hollow existence… and there's the pressure of people's expectations," he told me.
The pressure of expectation at the Walnut Tree was heightened by the fact that the restaurant was the embodiment of Franco Taruschio and his wife, Ann, who nurtured the celebrated inn for decades. Whoever took over after them was on a bit of a hiding to nothing, not because they couldn't necessarily match the standards - Terry's cooking there won plenty of acclaim - but because, for many of the customers, the place was never going to be the same without the Taruschios. Terry says he was comfortable in the kitchen at the Walnut Tree but was less at ease with what he refers to as "the bigger picture". "Ultimately, Francesco and I just saw things differently. Partnership's never easy," he explains.
Consciously or otherwise, he took himself out of the game. He did some consultancy work for Cecconi's in London and then quietly took a similar role at the Pear Tree in Whitley, Somerset, followed by a more hands-on position at the same venue. In many ways, it seems to be the Pear Tree that revealed the possibility of a new direction to him. He clearly loved the informality of it, the simplicity, the recognition that there was genuine worth in sending out a really good grilled sandwich or corned beef hash with spinach and a fried egg, a dish that features on the Hardwick menu.
Ah, the Hardwick menu. It's the kind of menu I can fall in love with at first sight. On it you'll find the likes of oxtail soup with dumplings and horseradish; braised shin of beef with rösti, Savoy cabbage, roast root veg and red wine sauce; chicken and ham pie with triple-cooked chips - triple-cooked chips, indeed - and they're as delicious as Mr Blumenthal's, by the way. Terry says he doesn't pay too much attention to what's going on in the cut-and-thrust of the cooking world, and when he raves about a couple of meals he's had in recent months, it's the Galvin brothers' "bistro" in Baker Street and Heston Blumenthal's pub, the Hinds Head, that he enthuses about, rather then any highbrow multiple-starred establishment. You get the impression that he's hugely relieved to have left the competitive stage behind. "I'm 39 years of age. It's not about winning stars or having rosettes; it's about having a successful business that means we can have a decent quality of life. I feel passionately about having a restaurant where we can cook food that isn't rocket science, the sort of food that people feel comfortable eating, that's done to a reasonable standard."
What constitutes "a reasonable standard" depends on how high you set the bar. Terry has a nice line in self-deprecation - "I've been working as a chef all these years, if I wasn't able to do it properly by now there'd be something badly wrong" - and he talks a lot about being realistic about the kind of dishes the kitchen can do well and put out at the required standard on a consistent basis. Sensible stuff, and there's not a hint of false modesty about it, but if it gives the impression that what he is serving up is just honest, reliable food, it tells only part of the story.
The truth is that ever since I had lunch at the Hardwick I've, one, been desperate to go back and, two, been a bit of a bore about it, insisting to every Tom, Dick and Dai that they need to go there without delay. Why? Well, in many ways the food broadly chimes with what we might expect from a "gastropub" - hardly a bad thing in itself - but it's much more than that, too, although that's not to say there's anything prissy about the cooking. These aren't tuned-up, "witty", reworked, over-intellectualised versions of bistro and brasserie dishes, but every flavour-packed, cleverly balanced mouthful is a reminder of the talent, experience and understanding residing in the kitchen. Put simply, it's all just done damned well.
And it's done with a smile, too. "Now I don't have to answer to anyone, and that's a pleasure. I've sort of earned that right over the years I've been working. I made quite a few people a bit of money, but that's not me. I'm never going to be a rich chef - I'm not going to be Mr Global, I couldn't get my head around it to be honest." He'll just have to be Mr Happy instead.
The Hardwick essentials
- Owners: Stephen and Jo Terry
- What's there?: A dining room, plus a dining annexe, and a small bar
- Capacity: 70 seats
- Kitchen brigade: Five, including Stephen Terry
- Food: Unfussy pub, bistro and brasserie classics cooked with skill; flavour-packed and balanced
The Hardwick, Old Raglan Road, Abergavenny NP7 9AA. Tel: 01873 854220.