Abergavenny and its picturesque surrounding countryside have always been blessed with more than their fair share of good food venues and very congenial pubs. At one time, work and friends took us to the area regulary and we made the most of our opportunities to enjoy top meals at the Walnut Tree in the glory days of Ann and Franco Taruschio.
Life, work and friends moved on and our decision to stop eating meat left us often with no decent options on traditional menus, so we slowly drifted away and it’s been a while since we gazed on the beauty of the Blorenge. During a recent house clearout we were contemplating this state of affairs over some old receipts from favourite food haunts and thinking wistfully that we must find a reason to visit Abergavenny again.
It’s funny how things come together in life. Late June we read a glowing review on the Kavey Eats blog of a newly opened small plates restaurant in Abergavenny called The Gaff which looked very appealing https://www.kaveyeats.com/2019/06/run-dont-walk-to-abergavennys-newest-restaurant-the-gaff.html . Three weeks later and we bump into Kavey and Pete coincidentally while catching the last days of Romy Gill’s stunning food in her Thornbury kitchen. During our chat Kavey confirmed that The Gaff would be ideal for us and so we agreed to visit together – K&P apparently looking for any excuse for a revisit.
Entrance to The Gaff is almost directly opposite the Abergavenny Morrisons’ car park between the K&J crafts shop and Bean and Bread café. There’s a pay and display car park in the adjacent Brewery Yard and another round the block in Tiverton Place. Both are fee-free in the evening, so access was no problem. The entrance leads into a newly developed and picturesque courtyard, planted with runner beans, herbs and a grapevine as well as a thoughtful selection of herbaceous plants. Glass-topped tables and sunshades offer a great alfresco opportunity on a warm summer evening but, after drinks, we opted for inside and its added bonus of being able to view the action in the open kitchen. The interior is airy, spacious and contemporary with tasteful nods to the building’s old roots; much careful work has clearly gone in to converting three previously derelict sheds.
The drinks menu is small but perfectly formed with Flawsome soft drinks, Aperol, decent wines by the glass and two tiny rebel beers. Their sole champagne is Bollinger and Nyetimber the only sparkling, which we think shows pure class.
We started with two snacks. Pain de campagne & marmite butter was a small, round loaf of light, warm bread with a generous dollop of a punchy whipped marmite butter. No eking out or fighting over the butter here, you could spread it several mm thick and roll it round your tongue while you eat it. Even Mme., who wouldn’t look at a jar, enjoyed this mellow expression.
Mushroom Arancini was unanimously voted dish of the night, meltingly moist in the mouth with a big savoury umami mushroom hit. We all marvelled at the skill of the kitchen for getting them so moist and yet keeping them in one crunchy-crumbed piece. Each sat in a small puddle of a light garlic mayo which was not too strong, so it didn’t drown the flavour of the rice balls.
Cornish Potato Romesco might look to some like a failed attempt at patatas bravas but there was no failure here. Buttery, soft, waxy potatoes, incredibly evenly cooked. Perfect in their own right but add in the well balanced Romesco sauce and you have a substantive, super-savoury dish that is totally addictive.
Carrots, not cooked in beef fat for our benefit, were still thumpingly “roasty” in quality. Beautifully seasoned and herbed with the fulsome texture of well roasted root vegetables, yet still somehow delicate. We’ve not had better carrots.
Tenderstem broccoli came coated in a robust garlic sauce with grated veggie cheese. It was perfectly cooked to an asparagus-like texture and delectably vampire-unfriendly.
Broad bean hummus was a soft, coarsely textured savoury/sharp broad bean paste with an unexpected hit of mint. It was covered in perfectly cooked slices of their own runner beans (were they grown in the courtyard?), showcasing that vegetable at its finest. This was a very modern dish of great finesse that worked extremely well, we think it’s so good it deserves to trend.
Sri Lankan spiced potato vada, sambol and pickles was a complex mixture. Spicy, fluffy potato pieces were accompanied by a crunchy deep fried vada, delicate pickled carrot and cauliflower, a tasty chutney and a dab of creamy minted yoghurt. Excellent spicing ran throughout. The only downside was that the number of components made it very hard to divvy it up amongst four people. Mme. enjoyed the dish so much she vowed to order one all to herself next time.
The Isle of Wight tomato salad was very Mediterranean in nature with a rich, warm tomato in olive oil vibe and was topped with some amazing tiny, flat crunchy croutons and a sprinkling of chervil; a herb that seems to be back on chefs’ radar this year.
Potato croquettes, black truffle, parmesan – adapted with a veggie parmesan alternative – were soft balls of mashed potato with a fried crumb coating. The truffle was slightly muted with the cheese sprinkled on top but the fragrance came through well enough to make for a dreamy mouthful.
We could have said that the BBQ summer cabbage, with its apparently magical simplicity, sparked a lot of comments because of its classic char-grilled flavour and gentle bite. The truth was that everyone who took a bite just made appreciative moaning noises. We spied the little green egg style barbecue in the kitchen and some enquiries by Kavey revealed that it is grilled first and then there is some “finishing in the pan”. Wish we could finish cabbage like that.
Despite being quite full after all that, the siren song of the desserts could not be ignored; certainly not with the promise of Snickers dessert and a banoffee pudding with banana chantilly, both utterly sybaritic. Kavey has already described these as well as we ever could but highlights were the incredibly pure essence-of-banana flavour in the Chantilly and the luscious chocolate mousse in the Snickers. It’s not often you feel genuinely naughty for eating a dessert but, surely to goodness, these cannot be legal?
After all that spot-on wickedness, a mug of their excellent quality Java from a cafetière was positively soothing.
The Gaff is not a vegetarian restaurant, it sidesteps being defined by dietary labels. Small plates dining, properly applied and with good choices, frees up the diner to enjoy their favourites rather than a traditional set-piece, as you might choose a wine made with your preferred grape varietal rather than an appelation-defined blend. It’s great to see beautiful vegetables played to their strengths rather than relegated to mere supporting roles for a star component.
It also frees the diner up to explore and vary – and boy did we take advantage of that. Thanks a million to Kavey and Pete who kindly volunteered to stick with veggie dishes so we could explore them all; they assured us that they did not suffer in any way and it was such fun to say “we’ll have all of the vegetable dishes, please”. For omnivores there is no lack of quality, imaginative choices so you can bring along all your friends and family regardless.
Double thanks to the kitchen who adapted some of the non-vegetarian vegetable dishes to be vegetarian for us without a bat of an eyelid, and the impressively calm and friendly front of house who dealt so efficiently with our requests and questions. We would otherwise have missed out and nothing feels better than being treated as equal.
The Gaff is owned by Danielle Phillips and Dan Saunders, both of whom worked at the Walnut tree with Shaun Hill. Their venue, service and food are all of the highest standard, up there with the best and we are very pleased to shout that out to whoever’s listening. The whole sets the scene for a relaxed and sociable evening. We thought £32 per head for all those impeccable dishes and drinks was very reasonable; the Arancini are an absolute steal at £3 a plate.
We look forward to our next meal there – it won’t be soon enough.
Want to go there?
No. 4 The Courtyard, Lion Street
Abergavenny NP7 5PE
Tel: 01873 739310
Book online: https://www.thegaffrestaurant.co.uk/book-a-table
Monday: – 12.00-14.00 & 18.30-21.00
Thurs/Fri/Sat: 12.00-14.00 & 18.30-21.00