This is an archive review. Cafe 44 no longer exists.
If you are a contestant on one of the ceaseless merry-go-round of televised cookery shows, you must practise, practise, practise your recipe. It’s no good window-shopping the sexed-up photographs in a celebrity chef’s recipe book the night before and settling on salmon en croute, if you don’t know how to turn on your oven. Unless you’re after some kind of pity vote.
Matt and Cat would never put themselves forward for Come Dine With Me; they are more than ready to acknowledge their culinary limitations. Sure they both have the ability to cook a meal – believe it or not they don’t eat out every day – but they are very modest about their efforts in the kitchen. Cat’s signature dish is poached egg on muffin and Matt can rustle up a passable spaghetti bolognese, but they rarely cook for others. Fortunately there are plenty of people on the Island who are delighted to share their culinary talents and charge accordingly, so why would M&C ever need to slave in front of their own stoves? Their continuing odyssey around the commercial eateries of the Isle of Wight makes their mealtimes more interesting.
And thus it was that Matt and Cat found themselves in Carisbrooke’s Café 44 one sunny autumn Sunday. The new proprietors at this prominent village eatery had been very proactive in encouraging Matt and Cat to revisit the café to see how they had changed things.
So after a noon-nudging lie-in, Matt and Cat forewent breakfast and trekked to Carisbrooke with brunch on their minds. And boy, it looked as though they’d found the right place. Café 44 had an entire ‘International Breakfast Menu’ offering what looked like some stupendous meals. Matt, predictably enough and without hesitation, ordered the English ‘Bob the Builder’ breakfast which featured Island sausages and all the usual suspects. Cat was torn between the Yankie Pankie – bacon and sausage, pancakes and maple syrup, and the Tulip Uitsmijter concoction of ham, fried egg and old Amsterdam cheese. Cat, who’s not a big fan of fried eggs, asked if she could swap for poached. The amiable Dutch waiter was gently guiding her towards the Netherlander speciality but wouldn’t be swayed on the eggs. As fried eggs were a deal-breaker, Cat politely declined his national dish and was on the verge of ordering the American brekkie. Just then a voice unexpectedly piped up from across the room and suggested that an off-menu choice might be available if Cat was set on poached eggs. Perhaps she’d care for eggs Benedict? Cat’s ears pricked up; had somebody been reading her mind? As any followers of Matt and Cat’s Twitter feed will know, Cat simply loves poached eggs. So her choice was made.
As before, Café 44 succeeded in delivering a superior eating environment. The pastel shades and woodblock surfaces had more than a hint of Scandinavia about them, and the cutlery had a satisfying heft. Even on a Sunday morning, tealight candles burned intimately on each table. Matt and Cat were the only customers in the little café and enjoyed attentive but not intrusive service.
Just as they were playing another enjoyable round of ‘guess the film theme tune’ to the piped music (film nerds will have easily guessed The Exorcist, Chariots of Fire and Bladerunner), the breakfasts arrived. Matt, to his surprise, had beans on his Bob the Builder, although he’d asked for them to be omitted. Cat’s eggs Benedict was pleasingly symmetrical, with each of the two poached eggs sat on half a toasted muffin and the whole lot smothered in a very generous puddle of yellow Hollandaise.
Like popping the foil on a new jar of coffee, the puncturing of a runny egg yolk is one of life’s simple pleasures. When one’s knife meets resistance and exposes a solid yolk this can lead to disappointment – and at Café 44 this turned out to be the case. Still, if Cat was after something yellow and runny, there was always the Hollandaise. Alas on trying this, Cat was taken aback. Hollandaise is not a simple sauce to make and keep, and for this reason it’s pretty unusual to see eggs Benedict on a café menu. But if you do make it – and promise eggs Benedict to passing Cats – you’d better be sure to get it right. Cat took one mouthful then whispered surreptitiously to Matt through downturned lips, “This is horrible”. The sauce was a sour, over-vinegary concoction that was only just holding together, and did no favours at all to the hard eggs.
While the word ‘horrible’ hung in the air, the waiter came over and asked if all was well. In their years of eating out, Matt and Cat have only complained about their food twice during their meals; they were about to make it a hat trick. Cat explained the problem with the sauce, the eggs and indeed Matt’s superfluous beans.
Bob the Builder £6.90
Eggs Benedict £3
An apology of a sort was offered followed by excuses and plenty of them, although no immediate offers of restitution. It turned out the beans had been noted on the waiter’s pad, but somehow the kitchen hadn’t got the message. The sauce, the diners learned, was being made for the second time ever. By an apprentice. And certainly would be made better next time. Although three people had tasted it in the kitchen earlier and had all liked it. Cat could come in another day and have a free meal, once the sauce was perfected. Nothing was said of the solid eggs.
If she had been offered a second go, Cat would have chosen the Yankie Pankie. But she wasn’t. So, having had nothing to eat so far that day, she scraped off the Hollandaise and picked at the eggs. Matt exchanged his unwanted beans for some of the rejected sauce and smeared it on his black pudding, where he found it an interesting contrast – albeit one he’d probably not repeat. But even his iron constitution might have recoiled at such an acid sauce alongside the gentle subtleties of eggs and ham.
Then an unexpected development. “Will you be putting those photos in your review?” asked the waiter. Ah. Matt and Cat had been sussed – and caught taking pictures to boot. They were abashed. They prefer to work anonymously while reviewing, although once that initial visit is done and dusted it can be a different story. Even though their discomfiture was nobody’s problem but their own, the fact that they were not incognito didn’t really make things any better for Café 44. It infers that the Hollandaise episode was essayed in the full knowledge that the very food reviewers who’d been invited to try the venue were in the house. Café 44 should have stuck to their tried and tested menu – which seemed to be an attractive one – rather than make such a risky call and offer the unadvertised, and seemingly underpractised, eggs Benedict. If they had, they probably could have avoided the unedifying spectacle of the staff blaming each other, and finally their apprentices, for the shortcomings Matt and Cat pointed out to them – really, a simple apology might have been better at that stage.
Matt and Cat paid up and left fairly rapidly. Café 44 had come close to delivering a pretty good experience. The venue was clean, classy and welcoming. The menu, with the international breakfast range, was particularly well-devised, and not bad value either. They clearly aspired to deliver a superior quality experience, with decent ingredients and interesting dishes. Alas offering something new and untested didn’t really work, and the recovery wasn’t particularly graceful. This drew attention to the problems with the meal rather than the many good points, such as the friendly service, excellent sausages, and decent coffee. Matt and Cat somehow feel their experience at Café 44 wasn’t typical. Or at least, they hope so. Accordingly, for now judgement is reserved.
This is an archive review. Cafe 44 no longer exists.