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.
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?
The first thing that Cat noticed as she and Matt approached the Beach Shack was the specials board which proclaimed asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon and a poached egg on ciabatta. She was instantly sold. Matt, too, ordered the first thing he saw, which in his case was crab and avocado stack served with salsa, samphire and salad. It’s almost a shame that Matt and Cat didn’t take the time to properly consider the vast menu, as they missed the chance to order all manner of salads, a noteworthy amount of fish dishes including salt and pepper squid and, of course, the famous award-winning crab cakes. Fair-skinned Cat takes some persuading to sit in the sun at the best of times, but the allure of the revetment seating was just too strong even for her. Despite the lack of shade the beachside tables were the best in the house; she sat mesmerised by the sea while Matt placed their order.
Crab and avocado stack: £9.95
Smoked salmon and asparagus £6.95
While waiting for their food M&C unashamedly eavesdropped on the neighbouring tables. Behind Matt sat a trio of old ladies, who bickered objectionably like TV’s The Golden Girls, with Estelle Getty’s character being played by an irascible black dog which spent most of the time under a chair, emerging occasionally with an explosive yap. Adjacent to Cat the discussion was about an unfortunate hospitalisation. The speakers inadvertently regaled her with their ignorance of the human body. “It was shocking! The dangly bit at the back of his throat swelled ’til he couldn’t breathe.” said one. “Oh!”, exclaimed another, “His areola?” “No, NO! That’s part of your nipple! It was his vulva.”
While they were trying to remain straight-faced amid these bons mots, M&C’s lunches arrived. Cat’s looked fabulous; just how she’d hoped it would. Nestled on a butterflied ciabatta were two parcels of asparagus, gift-wrapped in smoked salmon and topped with a textbook poached egg. Cat squeezed lemon juice over the fish and her salad and tucked in. On puncturing, the egg yolk weeped gently over the bread and crunchy asparagus. The salad was excellent; as well as lettuce and and slivers of pepper, the accompaniment was sweetened by homemade pineapple salsa, with honey and mustard dressing.
Matt’s crab and avocado stack was made up of tangy avocado piled high with plenty of crabmeat. The crunchy, salty samphire with salsa was a well-judged accompaniment that contrasted splendidly with the soft crab and avocado. Sliced brown bread and pre-wrapped packs of butter was a reminder of the seaside kiosk origin of this venue, but proved ideal for soaking up the zinging juice. A smartly bisected asparagus spear made an unusual garnish. This whole meal was a far cry indeed from the usual stuff served at beachside kiosks.
Cat made her meal last but, having scoffed his wonderful avocado and crab stack, Matt tipped his chair back to harken to the Golden Girls discussing a new friend. “He goes to ballet all the time.” “Ballet?” queried a girlfriend, “How old is he?”. “In his seventies.” came the reply. “And still dancing?”. “No, NOT ballet – Bali!”
So Sandown, is the pleasure of the Beach Shack a sign of glory days to come? Clearly some of the old stagers are still going strong, like Royal China and The Reef. But there is a big potential market in this holiday resort and, with the arrival of Alan Staley at the Ocean Deck, plus the excellent work being carried out at the Beach Shack, the seaside town might be at the start of a dining revival.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 4th of July 2014.