It’s all over. The sun has resolutely taken off its hat, brushed it down and stashed it away until next year.
The summer of 2012, with its diamond jubilee, record-breaking rainfall, Olympics and Paralympics is a distant memory. Wenlock has closed his vast single eye and Mandeville’s name is tainted with the scandal of the late Sir Jimmy Savile’s association with his namesake hospital. Also consigned to the past is the day the Olympic torch came to the Isle of Wight.
Like most of the summer, the torch’s national tour was played out with a backdrop of typically British weather; yet the drizzle didn’t stop the crowds from gathering to see one of the eight thousand torches flicker through their neighbourhood. On the day the relay visited the Isle of Wight – passing through Yarmouth to East Cowes before you could say £11,000 pounds well-spent – Matt and Cat somehow missed the entire razzmatazz.
While hosts of their fellow Islanders were gawping ten-deep at joyous but sodden torchbearers, Matt and Cat were snug inside the dining room of Dandelion Café, enjoying the spectacular view of the heritage coast across Freshwater Bay and beyond.
With its dominent branding, Dandelion Café has the trappings of a franchise. However, it benefits from the personal and slightly quirky service that characterises its parent organisation, HF Holidays: a co-operative body that has strong roots in the 1930s fitness movement and links to the National Trust. There are now seven Dandelion Cafés all around the country in various HF Holiday centres and the Isle of Wight branch is in the imposing Freshwater Bay House. This impressive building dates from the 1790s and has what could quite easily be the best coastal views on the Island.
Matt and Cat strolled up the drive to the venue, past well-manicured gardens, a children’s play area and – could it be? – yes, a real croquet lawn. Mounting the steps into the main house they soon found Dandelion to be full of hearty folk on walking holidays and the like, as well as a few rubber-neckers like Matt and Cat who’d obviously come to enjoy the scenery. M&C waited until a table by the massive windows became free, then took their seats with relish, just about managing to tear their eyes from the view long enough to study the menu.
Passing over with some reluctance the homemade creamy mushroom tarts with side salad, a steal of a starter at only £4.95, Matt and Cat dived into the main dishes. Homemade tuna fishcakes with French fries and salad was Cat’s choice. In her experience, the interior of a fishcake falls into one of three camps: an unsatisfying and smooth homogeneous paste, or nothing but solid potato. Or the Third Way. The chef at Dandelion Café knew how to rustle up the kind of fishcake that made Cat sit up and take notice: well-stocked with chunky identifiable ingredients and big flakes of tuna, this cake was juicy, salty and oily in exactly the right way. And similarly the salad pressed the right buttons with its roughly-chopped tomatoes and shards of pepper stirred up with delicious oiled and toasted pine nuts, dressed with a herby drizzle. Cat squeezed a big wedge of lemon over the lot and scoffed it all down with gusto.
Matt also made a sea-inspired choice, possibly for a very obvious reason. His roasted fillet cod wrapped in bacon came with chilli and lime dressing on crushed new potatoes – and not mentioned on the menu but all part of the dish was a shell-on butterfly garlic prawn, and a generous portion of fried vegetables. The whole thing worked together very well, and was presented superbly. The cod was a big, juicy fillet that tasted great with the bacon, and the fresh, zingy sauce was just what was needed to raise a clever idea to a tour de force. For a café lunch, this was exceptional.
Cod in bacon £7.95
Desserts 2 @ £3.25
Tea 2 @ £2.00
Following such delights, dessert was impossible to miss. Fresh raspberry meringue nests were just that, arranged delicately on a plate with some soaked mandarin segments and a chocolate spill. Cat really enjoyed her homemade chocolate torte; rich with a crumbly base, served with orange-flavour cream and the same fabulous alcohol-imbued mandarin segments and choccy stick.
Keen for their Dandelion Café experience not to end, Matt and Cat ordered tea. Like everything else in the venue, it surpassed expectations. This was not just tea, but Suki Tea. M&C were each presented with a stylish teapot containing proper loose leaves, handle-less beakers with trendy silicone grips and a printed placemat explaining the tea company’s philosophy.
So, while their fellows were standing around watching the thrill that was the ‘once in a lifetime’ sight of the Olympic torch relay, Matt and Cat were enjoying an unexpectedly good lunch at an exceptional cliff-top location. The Dandelion Café delivered far more than a seaside café experience – and all at very modest prices, with friendly and informal service. It would be hard to top the breathtaking view, but the real magic goes on in the kitchen – Dandelion offers really interesting, clever and enjoyable food which complements the remarkable venue.