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Restaurant Reviews by Matt & Cat

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Beach Shack, Sandown

The sun has got its hat on, hip hip hip hooray! Not every day, admittedly, but today was The Day. And, as tradition dictates, everyone has to 'make the most of it'. Which, for you mainland readers, translates as an hour sat dehydrating as you rage in your car in the traffic jam from hell. Otherwise anyone within spitting distance of the beach is required to bare some flesh within sight of the sea.

Beach Shack, Sandown  crab and avocado stack

Being good citizens, Matt and Cat made their way to Sandown once the mercury hit the twenties. Now then, Matt and Cat know what you're thinking... Sandown, wasn't that once described as the Beirut of the Island? Perhaps, by someone who'd clearly never been to Lebanon's "centre for commerce, fashion, and media". Yes, Sandown has had its detractors and some parts of the town might benefit from a bit of a spruce-up. But despite years of underinvestment, the beach is still marvellous, the pier intact (yes, M&C are pointing the finger at you Ventnor, Shanklin and Seaview) and when the sun is out The Bay is blooming spectacular!

Once you've had the thrill of pouring a quid's-worth of coppers into the tuppenny falls on Sandown Pier, head southwards, being sure to enjoy the historic ruins of Zanies. At the end of the road you'll be at Devonia slipway and the wonderfully-positioned Beach Shack. Unlike some of the businesses in the seaside town, this small cafe has undergone a significant investment and is now twice the size of its previous incarnation, and without compromising its enviable sea views. Have the owners kept up their high food standards now that they can cater for even more hungry beach-going masses?

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Smokehouse Burger Company

2014 will go down in history as the year the Isle of Wight was served its last bender in a bun. Local businessman and franchisee Wayne Whittle removed the final Wimpy sign at his beachside burger bar, and rebranded the venue The Big Kahuna. And thus all things pass. Or do they?

The Smokehouse burger

The burger is considered a food staple (just ask any teenage boy), or an occasional treat, or even a thing most reviled - thanks to John Selwyn Gummer and latterly the horsemeat scandal. Now, a seemingly-endless series of such scares has led to a certain cynicism, and if you read one particular British newspaper any foodstuff could be the next enemy within. But these days consumers have become a bit more savvy about the origins of their meat, and beef of good quality can once more take its rightful place on our menus. There is an argument to be made about the sustainability of local food versus mass-production, but that is a drum we’ll leave others to bang.

Thus the humble burger, once the sole preserve of the fast food generation, has gotten all grown up: from sliders in swanky Shoreditch sham-shabby pop-ups to the Isle of Wight. Once again the burger is king. Although by the time Matt and Cat write this the metropolitans will have moved on from trendy tiny burgers to fish finger butties, macaroni cheese or crispy pancakes (two of these Saturday tea time standards have already been re-imagined by the foodniks). It’s possible that the penny-farthing-riding beardies will one day wake up and smell the coffee, then instead of having their brew created by a faux-chemist using a titchy bunsen burner, they’ll settle for a spoon of instant in a chipped mug. Or blown up their backsides with a pair of goatskin bellows. Or something else. It's anyone's guess, really.

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Wildwood Pizza

As your grandmother will tell you, people have been selling nosh from barrows since before the war.

Wildwood Pizza

In fact, since before the war before that, and the war before that. So all those bearded hipsters who try to tell you that the street food revolution started with some sockless chancer flogging overpriced organic allotment-grown mange-tout, splashed with ewe’s butter from the artisan-crafted wicker basket of an electric bicycle are talking out of their ironic pork-pie hats.

The Isle of Wight doesn't have a vast range of street food - the reliable Jolly Fryer is perhaps the most well known and certainly the longest-standing mobile food wagon. Matt and Cat haven't got much else to report on the local street-food front, apart from a nice lunch in Tansy's Pantry bus and the occasional ice cream from Plaza Ices' van or the venerable Minghella wagon on Brading Down.

However, this is one trend that is likely to continue and grow as it has an obvious appeal, not least to the purveyors. Once you have made your capital investment - bought a vehicle, fitted it out and got the appropriate permissions - then you are free from the constraints of regular eateries. The world is your lobster. You could crank up your mobile kitchen and head off to festivals around the world or, maybe travel along the Island’s scenic Military Road eastwards to Ventnor and stake your claim to a pitch with a view across the town’s picturesque bay.

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The Royal China, Sandown

It's something that Matt and Cat have sometimes pondered - what gives a place the name 'Royal'? It seems to imply some sort of royal presence or patronage, but is this title actually something that anywhere could adopt without censure?

The Royal China, Sandown

Apparently not in the case of the short-lived rebranding of Osborne House in 2011 as 'Royal Osborne'. One can infer from the rapid volte-face that Somebody expressed disapproval. Since Osborne really does have close royal connections, this was enough to veto adoption of the the word 'Royal'. Ironically enough, places that apparently have no royal links at all seem to persist in using the term with impunity. Take the Royal Esplanade Hotel in Ryde, for example. Recently Cat was passing by and, as is her way, was struck by an irresistible fit of curiosity. She went in and enquired of the staff by what right they called themselves royal? What had they to demonstrate the provenance of this honour? Remarkably, after initial expressions of ignorance, they were able to furnish her with a written history of the hotel which explained the origin of the name - suffice to say that whilst credible, it had little if anything to do with any royal patronage. Later that same week, Matt and Cat were thinking about the relatively low number of decent sit-down Chinese restaurants on the Island, and they remembered a very enjoyable meal that had eaten at the Royal China in Sandown, many years ago. Royal China eh? Maybe it was once patronised by Queen Victoria. Or possibly it had a bed that Queen Elizabeth I slept in. Time to go and find out.

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Appley Manor Hotel

You know those photos that regularly appear in the Isle of Wight County Press? The ones with a tiny old lady sat in a chintzy armchair surrounded by beaming generations of her family? There’s little great-granddaughter Courtney-Mae dandled on the knee of her granny Pamela. Various aunts and uncles gather round the back of the recliner, delighted to celebrate the old dame’s significant birthday.

Appley Manor Hotel

Matt and Cat recently had the honour of attending a 90th birthday party for Cat’s step-mother Hazel. This venerable old lady, the daughter of a Royal Marine and who made her contribution to the war effort in the barrage balloon corps, looked positively peachy as she welcomed her many guests - the young and the young-at-heart. The party was held at The Royal Beach Hotel, Southsea which is a pretty good mainland venue for a group of diverse ages and mobility. Matt and Cat enjoyed a decent buffet, sang happy birthday and chomped down a slice of cake with a nice cup of tea.

This event lead them to consider where on the Island one could hold a similar party. Of course there are many hotels more than equipped to cater for an afternoon tea for a couple of dozen people. The Royal Hotel naturally, and the tea and cakes at The Priory were, in Cat’s experience, quite sublime. But what if you don’t quite have the budget for these prestigious venues?

As luck would have it, it was Matt’s birthday the same week. And, although he's got a bit of a way to go before his ninetieth, he and Cat decided to celebrate with a Sunday lunch accompanied by Matt’s teenage offspring. The parameters were set as follows: must be in Ryde and must be good value. The Appley Manor Hotel sprang to mind so off they went.

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Malcolm Alder-Smith returns to The Hambrough: "I don't do 'impressed', but there are exceptions!"

Malcolm Alder-Smith

By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author and guest contributor to Matt and Cat's Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide. Classically trained as a chef by French, Italian and Swiss master chefs, Malcy trains UKSA Marine Hospitality students in the kitchens of The Isle of Wight College; and is author of the popular The Marine Cookery Bible.

A little history

Diane and I have not dined at The Hambrough Hotel since our friend chef-patron Robert Thompson was playing the piano at the one star Michelin-rated eatery. Having gained Michelin recognition in 2009, Robert retained that prominent status for four consecutive years. Heady days for The Hambrough and for the delightful, vibrant little Victorian town of Ventnor.

Many commentators say that having a Michelin-rated restaurant in your area sets a benchmark and ups the ante, exponentially raising the gastro-ambitions and standards of other eateries in the same area. This surely has to be true of Ventnor. The Royal Hotel had long been recognised for consistently outstanding food under the leadership of the indefatigable Alan Staley and more recently Steve Harris. But post-Robert Thompson, Ventnor now has many more other fine eateries such as Phileas Fogg's, Hillside Bistro, Pond Cafe and Tramezzini, offering impressive, differentiated menus to suit a range of pockets. Robert departed the stormy shores of Ventnor and The Hambrough Group in April 2013 once it had become apparent that his gastronomic vision for the future direction of the restaurant was at odds with the ambitious plans of group owner Kevin Sussmilch - both were clearly heading in opposite directions.

Like a number of friends, we had avoided eating at The Hambrough since the unfortunate departure of the mega-popular chef-patron and the debacle that followed with well-respected chefs John Campbell and Olly Rouse pulling out of a deal before Olly had the opportunity to unpack his expensive chef’s knives. The affable Chris Denney and Joe Gould had also quit sister eatery, the Pond Cafe, after only a couple of months or so as incumbents.

Enter the talented Darren Beevers and his equally talented sous-chef Daniel Perjesi. Their arrival was sadly followed by the departure of another friend, the well-respected chef patisière Alex Wibberley who left The Hambrough for the second time in a little over a year.

With the restaurant often in total darkness on winter nights and reports of cancelled bookings, the word on the street was that all was not well at The Hambrough. In fairness to Darren and Dani, they had arrived too late to make any meaningful impact for the retention of the Michelin star in time for the re-scheduled announcement for the 2014 Michelin Guide.

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Mrs Jones' Tea Depot

For Cat's grandparents, who married in the inter-war years, the last decades of the twentieth century may as well not have existed. Rock 'n' roll, moon landings and colour telly were of little consequence to these old people.

Time for a cuppa

Like many for whom everything had been on the ration, Fred and Madge lived out the rest of their lives in what the trendy middle classes today would brand a sustainable lifestyle. They made their own clothes, mended things when they broke, and cooked all of their own food from scratch using veg that they had grown in their garden. TV's make-do-and-mend queen Kirstie Allsopp wasn't even an eye in her father's twinkle.

Life for Matt and Cat's forebears was in some ways a bit austere and uncomfortable. But nearly seventy years on, the Second World War - which for many meant hunger, displacement and even death - has been given a shiny, optimistic gloss. Through the lens of time, the 1940s has become a pot-pourri of militaria, jitterbugging and gilt-edged china. Reproduction ration books are sold to time tourists and the pervasive "KEEP CALM and {INSERT FEEBLE THING HERE}" trend (which is itself a pastiche) shows no sign of its well-deserved demise.

But still there may be an element of worth in this trend. The vintage theme gives us a way to understand and appreciate that cataclysmic period now that those who remember it directly are a diminishing minority. Perhaps it is inevitable as time passes that those who didn't live through the 1940s will form their own way to interpret and understand it. And this time without the incessant smoking!

Into this world comes Mrs Jones' Tea Depot, which has wisely taken the nice, homely stuff from the 1940s and shoved the Holocaust and atomic bombs right to the back of the metaphorical utility cupboard.

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Seafood Corner, Newport

Although there are a couple of pretty fine restaurants in town, Newport's food offering is primarily geared towards lunches.

Seafood Corner, Newport

From about midday, office workers can be found insouciantly perusing the menu in Olivo in the way that only those with more than the statutory half an hour break can afford to do. Those who have to cram in a visit to the post office and, consequently, only have a few moments to actually refuel, may snatch a filled 'sub' or prepackaged sarnie from various retailers. For a sit-down lunch, the choice of sandwich bars, coffee vendors and traditional cafes is pretty comprehensive. On a warm day, if you can bagsy one of the benches by the church or in St James' Square, you should purchase one of the more unconventional hot grub offerings to eat al fresco. Much has been said about Noodle Pot - including fresh, tasty and excellent value. Now, these words can also be used to sum up the new kid in town: Seafood Corner.

The people who have been dishing up fried fish at Ventnor Fishery and latterly the mobile Crab on Chips wagon have now opened a permanent base in Newport, in a very prominent corner of St Thomas Square. Without resorting to clever fish-related puns like most jolly fryers, Seafood Corner has gone for the obvious. It sells seafood in a corner shop - 'nuff said.

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