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Restaurant Reviews by Matt & Cat

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Winter Gardens, Ventnor

It should never have happened. Only a few years ago the Hambrough Group was sailing unassailably high on the choppy waters of fortune. A Michelin star safely on the wall, expansion was in the air as the Pond Cafe and other properties came successfully under the wing of this behemoth. Gossip circulated about the latest places to be 'Hambroughed'. Buoyed by this investment in the town, Ventnor sprouted quality food venues on every corner.

Winter Gardens, Ventnor

And now? And now it's come to this. The Hambrough is a bed and breakfast. The Pond is closed. Staff come and go like buses and there's only one Hambrough Group venue left that's actually open and serving dinners - the Winter Gardens. This was one of the last acquisitions of the group, and by far the most controversial. It has taken years to reopen the bar and restaurant, and apparently a lot of work has been necessary to get to that stage. The promised hotel and conference centre is yet to come forth. It's hard not to see this aging seafront edifice as an albatross that has dragged a once prosperous business group into an alarming slump. But has it? It's a location that looks as though it couldn't fail. With the best weather in England and a huge terrace overlooking what is arguably the finest sea view on the Isle of Wight, surely this will be a visitor magnet? Well, maybe focussing on the Winter Gardens will turn out to be the canniest thing that the Hambrough Group has ever done. After all, to say they have surprised us before is an understatement. Nay-sayers are queueing up to pick nits, but nobody should underestimate the drive to succeed that has brought plaudits to the Hambrough in the past. If the same trick can be pulled off at the Winter Gardens the rewards for the owners, for Ventnor and for the Island will be even greater.

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Silo, Brighton

What goes around, comes around. Remember the muesli and sandals brigade who implored us to eat organic veg and humanely-farmed meat? Critic Jay Rayner does and he considers some of these compassionate food production methods to be unsustainable tosh. However, that's an argument for a different forum - like his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World.

Silo, Brighton

To make your voice heard in a foodie mecca like Brighton, you need a Concept. Some - like the wholly vegetarian offering - have been pretty much owned by Food for Friends and others. There are a few <ahem> offshoots of the meat-free menu, with some exclusively-vegan places for the die-hard self-deniers. And now the smoke is rising from the heat of a thousand eco-warriors rubbing their thighs with ecstasy at the opening of the city's most sustainable restaurant.

Silo's concept is a grand one in its ideology. Chef Douglas McMasters chooses "food sources that respect the natural order, allowing ingredients to be themselves without unnecessary processing." This is not uniquely pioneering, particularly in Brighton, home of one of the originator of 'ethical and sustainable' food Terre a Terre. However, added to this worthy aspiration is the kicker - all this he is going to deliver with zero waste. That's an issue that's arguably a lot more relevant to 21st century urban living than many of the other faddy food trends, so perhaps McMasters has got something here if he can actually do it.

Matt and Cat heard the buzz about Silo from the chef at the zeitgeisty 64 Degrees. "If you're interested in food, you must go to Silo," he recommended. And so they did. As they know from their own reviews of Isle of Wight food, the advice of a native guide is often worth taking.

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Breakfast, lunch, tea and cake in Brighton

Mostly Matt and Cat write about the Isle of Wight. But not always. In 2014 they took an autumn city break in Brighton where they got some great dining out tips from the locals, and this is one of several reviews they wrote there. It's one of an occasional series of mainland reviews.

Brighton pier. Image (c) Dom Pates

They say that Ventnor is where all of the refugees from the early Isle of Wight Pop Festivals laid their roots. The Island’s most southerly town was known for its preponderance of beardies and yoghurt-weavers, partly drawn to the location’s climate and lack of police presence - perfect conditions for growing exotic weeds. Although today you may still find a cadre of whiskery hippies - identifiable by their Peruvian cardigans and green wrists from copper bangles - their children and grandchildren are now owning the town. These energetic progeny have injected an artistic vibe into Ventnor, which has drawn businesses,visitors and other creatives to this revitalised corner of the Isle of Wight.

That model is not unique though. If you can imagine Ventnor magnified several hundred times, you wouldn't be too far from envisioning Brighton. Once rather dismissively labelled ‘London by the Sea’, like Ventnor this city has evolved and grown into something really interesting. Yes, the seeds were sown by hippy forebears who themselves must have been influenced by the city’s ultimate patron of leisure and style, the dissolute Prince Regent. And now they have born fruit.

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Ronnie and the Taco Bandits

After years in the doldrums, the Isle of Wight has become quite the destination for festivals and events. Yachts, books, hedges and even potatoes have their own celebrations.

Tacos

And, as much fun as it is bimbling around a field welly-wanging, examining artificial insemination charts and enjoying a good old fashioned sing-song, everyone needs to refuel. However, festi-nosh can be extremely varied; from the delights of a of a Secret Supper Club pop-up restaurant all the way down to some rip-off burger you'll hate yourself (and its purveyor) for eating.

Matt and Cat have chuntered on about the rise of street food on this blog before. In the days prior to the ubiquity of the hipster food wagon, for decades we on the Island spearheaded the trend with Minghella’s ice cream van and the Jolly Fryer mobile chippy. And now the Isle of Wight's peripatetic catering facility club has a new member in the playful form of Ronnie and the Taco Bandits.

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Sloop Inn, Wootton

One of the top questions Matt and Cat get asked is 'Can you recommend a decent Sunday roast?' You'd think that meatophile Matt would have a list as long as your arm of places where you can get a spectacular platter piled high with roast beef of Old England. However, you'd be wrong. Matt and Cat are so indolent that they usually miss Sunday lunch altogether, preferring instead to sleep in as late as possible - sometimes after a Saturday night to remember. After all, if a Day of Rest is good enough for God...

Sloop Inn, Wootton, roast pork

But as the nights finally draw in and the days of picnic lunches fade into the distant memory of yet another hot summer (thanks, David Thornton), M&C decided to get up early and head to Wootton Bridge to find a roast for, what for them was, breakfast.

You need to plan your strategy for a visit to the Sloop. Matt and Cat turned up one Sunday just after midday. This was a good game plan. There was room in the small car park and, more importantly, room in the pub. If you want the premium seats you need to arrive even earlier - the really early birds had staked their claim on all of the window seats at the back of the pub. Clearly these tables, with their view up the pretty river, were the most popular. Matt and Cat were resigned to grabbing a table a bit further inside, which had a disappointing lack of daylight but was within sight of some ancient and gnarly beams - presumably a remnant of the original inn.

Having staked their seating claim with judicious use of jackets flung over the seats, they trotted down to the business end of the pub - the bar and carvery. In a 2008 review of the Sloop, M&C said that the carvery concept is like 'school dinners for pensioners'. In this regard, little has changed. The system is simple: you buy your drink plus dinner ticket at the bar, which you swap for the roast of your choosing.

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Eastern Eye, Sandown

Eastern Eye, Sandown

There are a some local Indian restaurants that M&C would say are definitely worth a visit. Monsoon in Ryde is a lively, modern curry house that Matt and Cat are always happy to recommend. The veteran Saffron in Cowes also has many fans, and M&C have enjoyed several meals there. It remains true that Indian cuisine on the Isle of Wight has not universally enjoyed the huge improvements in standards and choice that other sectors of the Island's food and drink offering have seen over the last decade or so and, to be perfectly frank, Cat has all but given up going out for a curry. It may be that she always chooses poorly. Not being one for the hot stuff, her rota of chicken tikka masala, chicken passanda and chicken korma (the mildest red one, the mildest yellow one and the mildest orange one) is never going to set anyone's arse on fire.

It has been quite a while since the old Taj Tandoori in Sandown High Street emerged from its chrysalis as the shiny new Eastern Eye in early 2013. With Cat taking a curry hiatus it fell to Matt and companion Bill to give the place the once over.

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Fogg's, Ventnor

Fogg's has undergone something of a mild transformation. An earlier incarnation saw a wildly ambitious multi-page menu with an eclectic range of dishes from around the world. Probably a menu that was more fun to conceive than deliver. A change of ownership saw the menu's international offerings contract a little and in autumn 2014 another step-change occurred as the venue changed its name to Fogg's and launched another new menu.

Vodka-marinated gravadlax

Fogg's has a pretty lively voice on social media and Matt and Cat have regularly read about the restaurant's popular fish dishes - often created with locally-caught seafood brought ashore at Ventnor Haven. M&C have wondered why Fogg's doesn't just knock the world food stuff on the head and embrace its obvious strengths. Maybe bring to the fore their locally-provenanced menu with a seafood emphasis. Certainly these days, punters seem to crave local distinctiveness in their food, and visitors to the Island regularly ask M&C where the Island's fish restaurants are - the Rick Stein effect is clearly not confined to Cornwall.

And so it came to pass that Cat was left with a booking for a table for two at Fogg's, Ventnor (previously Phileas Fogg's) on a Saturday night.

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Tony's, Ryde

It's not the rarest of occasions, the opening of a new fish and chip outlet in a seaside town. Frankly, it happens pretty regularly. Some chippies stay the course for decades - or in the case of Stotesbury's, Newport, over a century. But whenever new hands take up the fryer, locals do tend to pay a bit of attention. After all, a really good fish and chip shop is going to be an asset to the town. And everybody likes chips, right?

Tony's, Ryde

Thus Matt and Cat paid close attention when they heard that central Ryde chip shop Alexander's had closed down, and shortly afterwards reopened under a new name - Tony's. The quality of fish and chips in Ryde has been the subject of heated debate on these pages in the past, and so pretty soon M&C made it their business to get down to Tony's and find out whether it was any good.

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