There are few places that are truly off the beaten track. The Boathouse seafood restaurant at Steephill Cove is not one of them.
It’s one of the Island’s worst-kept secrets, a place that all the travel writers love to imagine they discovered. And well they might. It’s probably not somewhere that you would come across en passant, not least because of the horrifyingly old-school fact that you can’t actually drive there, you have to walk. Yes, walk! The disabled access is probably under-compliant, the restaurant is not particularly well-signposted and its popularity means it is notoriously hard to get a seat in. Nevertheless, the Boathouse manages to attract customers keen to try its famous seafood dishes.
Fortunately for Matt and Cat – who have had the Boathouse suggested to them on a yearly basis but have hitherto been too indolent to book a table – a friend arranged a lunch date.
They parked in Ventnor and had what started out as an enjoyable walk along the coast. However, as they headed westwards the sky darkened. By the time they had skittered down the narrow path between a pair of stone cottages and emerged at Steephill Cove, the weather was Biblical. Massive rain drops clattered onto the roof of the Boathouse and Matt, Cat and friends took shelter under the restaurant’s fabric canopy. Their table was in the perfect spot; beach-facing, with open sides and the taut roof amplifying the rain like dried peas falling on a snare drum.
The venue really is the star of the show here. Frankly, if you get a seat at this restaurant it almost wouldn’t matter if you had to bring your own sandwiches, so stunning is the view. The English Channel at its most impressive filled the horizon, and the darkening clouds of the approaching storm just emphasised the tiny boats now scudding towards the shore. Matt and Cat sat just a few yards from the waves breaking on the sandy beach, in a comfy little structure that really had the look of a castaway’s hut; festooned as it was with old ropes and sails, and apparently built of driftwood and washed-up spars. This kind of faux-flotsam littoral architecture can irritate, but in a very few places it works wonderfully. This is one such place.
They had a jolly welcome from the staff but the spectacular lightning show flashing relentlessly across the Channel – with accompanying drum-rolls of thunder – distracted the group from all thoughts of food at first. However, exciting though the storm was, it would not be much of a restaurant review without mention of the food, and eventually the diners tore their gaze from that awesome vista long enough to order. There’s plenty to choose from on the Boathouse menu – if you like chilled seafood. A decent selection of crustaceans in different salad configurations was available, plus a veggie option and smoked salmon. The Boathouse was working to its strengths: this seafront eatery has direct links to the fishermen that have landed seafood in this cove for 500 years (if the blurb on the menu is to be believed).
Cat ordered whole dressed crab salad and Matt chose prawn and lobster Caesar. The dinners came with fresh bread and butter and they decided to supplement their meals with bowls of home-made coleslaw and new potatoes. Before long the lunches arrived, dexterously delivered by the waiter who had managed to port them without slipping down the restaurant’s rain-soaked external wooden staircase from the kitchen above.
Prawn & lobster Caesar £23.90
Dressed crab salad £18.90
New potatoes £4.50
Lemon cheesecake £6.20
Crème brulée £6.20
1 x glass white wine £7
2 x coffee £5.60
The dishes may have been simple but that doesn’t mean they weren’t impressive. Cat’s crab was beautifully dressed; the white and brown meats lay in stripes in the beast’s upturned carapace. The crab could not be faulted, tender and tasty meat kissed with a squeeze of lemon. Cat was pleased to see that her dish contained a bisected hard-boiled egg – an unexpected yet traditional ingredient – but the salad wasn’t the most diverse mix of leaves. Also, considering the emphasis on the meat’s commendable lack of food miles, there was no mention of the provenance of the salad.
As Matt ate his prawn and lobster Caesar with pleasure. There were plenty of prawns, and the meat from half a lobster was hidden in there too. A good sprinkling of finely-grated Parmesan and some lemon wedges finished off the dish. Like Cat, Matt loved the seafood, but he was less impressed with the foliage. A nice-looking ring of big lettuce leaves radiated from the bowl to provide a platform for the shelled decapods. Underneath there was a mix of freshly chopped iceberg, grated carrot and peppers. Perhaps it was because the top layer was so delightfully impressive that the latter part of the dish could be seen as a little disappointing.
One of Matt and Cat’s companions had a half-lobster salad and, with a bit of persuading, was encouraged to apply the lobster fork to her dinner’s exo-skeleton. The remaining flesh was deftly extracted. This really is an entertaining way to dine – the advice of fellow diners matched with the excitement when the tasty meat was finally extracted ensured that everybody on the table enjoyed this part of the meal.
Deciding to get the full Boathouse experience, Matt and Cat ordered desserts. Cat’s was the most fabulous lemon cheesecake; sweet, yet tart with soft cheese and acid lemon, it was delicious. Matt’s crème brulée was a perfect example of its genre with a little harvest of summer fruits nestling under its creamy and brittle topping.
All this time the thunderstorm provided a dramatic backdrop, adding an electric frisson to the meal. Imagining a hot sunny day with people playing on the beach, Matt and Cat could see why the travel writers and locals eulogise about this restaurant. Yes it’s expensive (credit cards are not accepted, so take lots of cash!) and only open in the summer, but this place is all about location, location, crustacean; and for that it is unsurpassed.
Note: The restaurant is only open from the end of May bank holiday to the end of the first week in September. Lunches only (no dinner).
The Boathouse, Steephill Cove