Cantina in Ventnor is one of those places that Matt and Cat get asked about a lot, and recommend a lot, too. But those conversations don’t always go to plan. It’s not unreasonable to ask what kind of food they serve at Cantina, but there’s no easy answer, because certainly on the Island there is nothing else like it.
The chef-proprietor is German, but it’s not a German restaurant. It has its own bakery, but it’s not a bakers shop. The kitchen has a pizza oven, but it’s not a pizzeria. It looks like a cafe, but it doesn’t serve burgers or chips. Cantina has a huge drinks and cocktail menu – but it’s not a cocktail bar. So what is it? Safest to say it’s a stylish, relaxing place where you can reliably get an interesting and enjoyable meal from morning until night, all year around.
Years back Ventnor was a bit shabby, before shabby-chic became a thing. Then some pioneering people saw the potential in this hilly town and not only made their homes there but also put their hands in their pockets and started businesses. Quite a few of them did well and nowadays the town is a successful example of a regenerated seaside resort, especially in the eating-out arena. Those early risk-takers can justifiably feel as though they have made a positive contribution to the fortunes of the town. One such business is Cantina. Matt and Cat proved this point when they decided to drive from Ryde to Ventnor one morning just to have breakfast at the little restaurant. It would have to be a good breakfast to make this hungry pair cross the Island for it. It was.
In the 1987 Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears Orton is asked by his boyfriend about his preferences for tea, “Do you want the sardines with the rice pudding or separate?” Joe opts to have it all together. Whilst that particular combination would probably never be advisable for anyone, it characterises the kind of challenging but intriguing prospect that Cantina likes to tease diners with. Nutella and buffalo mozzarella sandwich, maybe? Pig butter with truffled honey? Or try a refreshing lettuce, buttermilk dressing and ricotta salata, with crushed hazelnuts. The menu at Cantina has also renounced adjectives; this means some dishes require a bit of guesswork – Matt and Cat are looking at you ‘Lemon, lime, orange’. You may be beginning to appreciate how hard it is to classify this food. But it is no exaggeration to say that even the most outlandish-sounding meal at Cantina is going to be worth trying, because the one – in fact the only – unifying thing about food here is that it is all very, very good.
Another thing that exceeds expectations is the service. Cantina’s signage declares the venue to be bakery, cafe and kitchen, but the service is distinctly restaurant. Diners regularly have complimentary dipping oils and tasty breads from the venue’s bakery; a carafe of chilled water will arrive at your table as a matter of course, and all the food and drinks are served on a tray – a particular favourite of Cat’s. The staff are very knowledgeable about the menu and, on the day that Matt and Cat visited, the waiter was keen to describe the new range of Fritz Spritz sodas. Cat was easily persuaded and supped sparkling organic rhubarb pop with her meal.
Avocado and egg on toast £5.00
Corn waffle £6.00
Fruit juice £2.50
Like the menu the venue itself is a curious, but successful, melange of industrial chic, florid wallpaper and upcycled materials. The crockery is surprisingly conventional – all white plates and traditional glassware (apart from the ubiquitous jam-jar cocktails). Either Cantina has decided to eschew the trend for slates, buckets and tiny shopping trolleys or, like most of its output, it’s ploughing its own furrow. Expect others to follow soon.
Breakfast time is busy at Cantina, and Matt and Cat were squeezed into the last table. Matt’s poached egg on toast came with avocado, tomato, and sriracha mayo, which turned out to be a tangy Thai-style sauce. This was a superb combination. The smooth avocado and the banging mayonnaise were brought together by a perfectly runny egg. An outstanding breakfast. Cat is normally the one who likes to keep her beady eye on the runniness of eggs, and she was not disappointed by her corn waffle topped with a perky-yolked duck egg. So far, so customary – until she spied her bacon-wrapped banana. Yes, bacon and banana. Plus the egg, then add maple syrup, which Cat poured carefully over this her sweet, savoury and eggy allsorts. It was, of course, delicious. The bacon-jacketed banana was particularly inspired. Not only was it a tongue-confusing mix of sweet and savoury but the dish contained an equal number of textures.
Fuelled by some poky artisan coffee, Matt and Cat could have stayed gossiping and eating in Cantina for hours. Watching the world go by the window it really is a great little place to chill out. In fact, so long did the couple sit there that their late breakfast was supplemented by an early lunch. Matt had another round of eggs and bacon, plus black pudding and halloumi. Cat’s second course was a ham and raclette toastie with home-made tomato jam. Jam made of tomatoes? Joe Orton would’ve been proud!
Matt and Cat love Cantina, but not just because of the food. The professional service, good value, and locally-sourced ingredients – including, of course, the Ventnor-made bread and cakes – make this cafe/bakery/kitchen a textbook example of a interesting and creative local business. Cantina confidently demonstrates that it really is possible to do something new and different on the Isle of Wight. And if – like Cantina – you keep at it, and do it supremely well, people will love it.
This is the full-length version of the shorter review that was first published in the County Press.
- Open all day, every day.
- Interesting food with a continental twist.
- Great restaurant-style service in an informal cafe atmosphere.
- Fab cocktail menu.
- Cantina has a bakery too - buy yourself some artisan bread while you're there!
- You might have a moment's wait for a table at busy times.