By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author and guest contributor to Matt and Cat’s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide. Classically trained as a chef by French, Italian and Swiss master chefs, Malcy trains UKSA Marine Hospitality students in the kitchens of The Isle of Wight College; and is author of the popular The Marine Cookery Bible.
A little history
Diane and I have not dined at The Hambrough Hotel since our friend chef-patron Robert Thompson was playing the piano at the one star Michelin-rated eatery. Having gained Michelin recognition in 2009, Robert retained that prominent status for four consecutive years. Heady days for The Hambrough and for the delightful, vibrant little Victorian town of Ventnor.
Many commentators say that having a Michelin-rated restaurant in your area sets a benchmark and ups the ante, exponentially raising the gastro-ambitions and standards of other eateries in the same area. This surely has to be true of Ventnor. The Royal Hotel had long been recognised for consistently outstanding food under the leadership of the indefatigable Alan Staley and more recently Steve Harris. But post-Robert Thompson, Ventnor now has many more other fine eateries such as Phileas Fogg’s, Hillside Bistro, Pond Cafe and Tramezzini, offering impressive, differentiated menus to suit a range of pockets. Robert departed the stormy shores of Ventnor and The Hambrough Group in April 2013 once it had become apparent that his gastronomic vision for the future direction of the restaurant was at odds with the ambitious plans of group owner Kevin Sussmilch – both were clearly heading in opposite directions.
Like a number of friends, we had avoided eating at The Hambrough since the unfortunate departure of the mega-popular chef-patron and the debacle that followed with well-respected chefs John Campbell and Olly Rouse pulling out of a deal before Olly had the opportunity to unpack his expensive chefs knives. The affable Chris Denney and Joe Gould had also quit sister eatery, the Pond Cafe, after only a couple of months or so as incumbents.
Enter the talented Darren Beevers and his equally talented sous-chef Daniel Perjesi. Their arrival was sadly followed by the departure of another friend, the well-respected chef patisière Alex Wibberley who left The Hambrough for the second time in a little over a year.
With the restaurant often in total darkness on winter nights and reports of cancelled bookings, the word on the street was that all was not well at The Hambrough. In fairness to Darren and Dani, they had arrived too late to make any meaningful impact for the retention of the Michelin star in time for the re-scheduled announcement for the 2014 Michelin Guide.
I had secretly booked une table pour deux at The Hambrough as part of our planned silver wedding anniversary dining celebrations way back in February but as both my darling wife Diane and I are very busy folk, we couldn’t fit in our rendezvous until a Wednesday in mid-April 2014. I had booked a special Price is Wight deal : a two course lunch for two people for £30. If that wasn’t a bargain to be had, then nothing was youd be lucky to get two courses at your local pub for that. However our dear old friend Mr Perception began to knock on the door and we started to wonder about what value we were going to get for just over twelve quid each excluding VAT. I’m sure you see where I’m coming from here.
Humble pie the eating of large portions
When Ian, the helpful and attentive maitre d’, took our order, I guess I should have ordered an extra-large portion of humble pie and devoured the lot, supported by the best perma-grin I could manage. I intentionally avoid the parlance of those fine food critic chaps and chapesses and many respected food bloggers when I say that This was one darn fine Michelin-standard meal – and that is very much an understatement.
I ordered a glass of dry house white for Diane and a nicely chilled cloudy apple juice for myself. Ian bought us a couple of perfectly cooked, crispy Galleybagger breadsticks and a shiny porcelain mini-vessel of beetroot ketchup; the perfect consistency and flavour worked really well together. I had previously taken the precaution of removing my brand new light tan moleskin jacket, as the deep crimson, almost cochineal coloured mélange would no doubt have been almost impossible to dry clean had I managed to miss my mouth.
Our amuse-bouche of lightly-foamed local crab bisque with tapioca, delicately garnished and full of light peppery flavours, came as a surprise as we hadn’t imagined our special meal-deal would include such Michelin-style treats. Diane was thrilled; totally in her element in fact she loves beetroot and here it was again on the menu – was that intentional? This time in the form of roasted beetroots, goats cheese, toasted seeds and frozen horseradish. Diane loved this dish. I decided on the locally caught pollock – with ceviche dressing, lime, eucalyptus and fennel salad, which had an impressive amalgam of sweet and sour flavours. If anything, the portion was a little on the large side; but I was so enthralled by the stunning flavours fighting for first place on my palate that I ate the lot.
Living on a beautiful, verdant island off the south coast of England, we are blessed with a comfortable Mediterranean climate in the summer months, so we both love to indulge ourselves in locally-landed catch of the day. Ian had informed us that the days fish was freshly-landed skate wing, boned with pink fir potatoes, caramelised yoghurt, ricotta and sea herbs. No contest on that one then for both of us. We selected a bottle of Chablis. Not the Premier Cru, you understand, at nearly £100 per bottle: the less expensive one at just over £30. Had the wine list offered a nice Petit Chablis or a Sancerre at around £65 I would maybe have gone for that. You can see where The Hambrough is missing out on up-selling product when you have alternates at a vastly differentiated prices not good, people!
The skate dish was, to put it mildly, totally orgasmic. Beautifully presented, cooked to perfection it was a total taste sensation.
We had decided earlier that we would only have the two courses. However, this was not to be, and we both were drawn to the banana parfait with salted caramel, crunchy praline and rhubarb – another Diane favourite. Unadulterated fabulousness!
OK, so The Hambrough still retains some of its old nuisances: an apparent lack of customers, shortage of atmosphere, characterless décor, a poorly designed, unimaginative, (if not predictable) wine list. So lets cut to the chase and ask the obvious questions:
Would we go back again in the near future?
Most definitely; in fact as soon as possible.
What did we think of the menu?
The menu wasn’t complex and thats not a criticism. Yes, I could make the odd professional observation, but Im not going to do that. Our meal was excellent outstanding in fact.
What can be improved?
The wine list requires some professional attention from someone who knows what they are doing to bring some contemporary thinking to the viticultural offer. Think about your current and, importantly, your future customers. Be cute, be smart, be savvy and consider sales potential. Premium priced wines have their place in moderation, but have a little thought for those with less disposable income who might eat with you more often should your wine list display more flexibility.
Lose the awful mirror and incongruous chandelier. Hire an interior designer to sort out your dining area. Not one from London, but someone who knows what Islanders like. Anne Ginger is a good place to start.
Will Darren and Dani bring a Michelin star back to The Hambrough?
If this was a sample of the quality that they can consistently produce – and I believe it is – then we see no reason why The Hambrough should not regain its Michelin Star status for 2015.
Is there room for more than one Michelin-starred restaurant on the Island?
I know its not a direct, like-for-like comparison, but the Mediterranean island of Mallorca has five Michelin restaurants, so why not? I know that Robert Thompson and his team at The George Hotel will be up there battling for their Michelin star later this year, so I would be absolutely delighted to see both Darren and Robert’s restaurants flying the flag for our island.
So, was I impressed? I am happy to say that I certainly was.
To Darren, Dani and Ian, a big thank you from Diane and myself for a fabulous meal and great service. We both left very happy and will certainly spread the good word whenever the opportunity arises.
Malcolm Alder-Smith Author of:
- No Turning Back
- The Marine Cookery Bible
- French Country Cooking 19 Cuisine Terroir Correzienne