It’s not as though they don’t warn you.
Were you imagining a stuffy private club, where silent staff obsequiously bring gin and tonic on a silver tray to an harrumphing old commodore? There may be such places in Cowes, but The Mess Canteen isn’t one of them. Put away any idea of a nautical connotation and suddenly its name makes sense. As Matt and Cat can confirm, The Mess is a riot of kids, music, dogs, jam jar cocktails and some damned good food. No silver trays involved.
Three times Matt and Cat have visited Cowes High Street with the express purpose of going to The Mess Canteen, lured by tales about the food. Once they even got so far as to sit down at a table but alas found there was no grub on offer. But this third time the stars were in alignment; The Mess was open for an early evening dinner, and the kitchen was stocked. It’s not possible to book at the canteen, and this early approach seemed to be one that regulars were also aware of and had prepared for accordingly.
Mess club burger £8
Salmon and eggs £6
Bramble mocktail £3
Luckily Matt and Cat arrived just as a table was vacated, and were warmly welcomed by Mess staff. This only available table was in the midst of a jolly shambles of other diners, their joyous children, barking dogs and musical toys. The atmosphere was not dissimilar to that of a particularly lively multi-generational community barbecue; strangers eating together amidst unfettered toddlers scampering back and forth to reggae music. An intimate or quiet soiree it was not.
It seemed that child pie was not available the day that Matt and Cat visited, despite the promise that “Unattended children will be turned into pies”. Instead Cat ordered smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on farmhouse toast with leaves. Although advised of a twenty-five minute wait for food at this busy time, M&C’s dinners arrived within ten. The short wait gave just enough time for Cat to suck lumps of blackberry up the straw of her zingy bramble mocktail and for Matt to sup at his refreshing draft beer.
Messages and menus were chalked on pretty much every available surface – those not adorned with colanders, bicycle wheels, pew-ends and tennis racquets. One table was covered by a hessian coffee-sack, and Matt and Cat perched on an upcycled choir-stall, complete with music stand. You get the idea.
The dinners arrived. Cat was delighted with her fluffy cloud of egg peeping out from a generous blanket of silky-smooth smoked fish, pimped up with a teaspoon of caviar. The accompanying leaves were unexpectedly – and pleasantly – sweet; anointed as they were with honey and balsamic dressing. All in all a simple yet very tasty dish, and all for just six quid.
For only two pounds more, Matt took a trip down memory lane with the Mess club burger. The club sandwich was once a staple of British pub grub; an early upgrade for the diner who thought a simple sandwich just wasn’t going to do the job. These days it’s rarely seen, and the chef at The Mess Canteen has brought it bang up-to-date. A big patty of pounded chicken marinated in garlic and herbs came between two halves of a big, hot, toasted brioche bun. A tongue of bacon lolled out of the side, and as Matt cut into his dinner with a broad grin on his face his own tongue involuntarily did the same. Under the lid he discovered some massive chunks of avocado, cheese, salad and a tasty tarragon mayo. By any measure, this meal was a big success. Mysteriously, it came with a slice of raw white onion about half an inch thick. The purpose of this was obscure, but didn’t detract from the rest of it. Mischievously he hid it in the paper bag that contained his cutlery.
The diners had also ordered some chips on the side. These turned out to be skinny fries served in a colander, with rosemary seasoning, and in copious quantities. The whole lot was washed down with drinks from jam jars. Jam jars? Yes, that’s right, the hipster trend that got everyone talking about the Mess way back when it opened in 2014 is now found pretty much everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before Welcome Break starts serving them, signally the end of the end. But in Cowes The Mess Canteen leads the vanguard in these hipster beakers, plus cutlery in paper bags and milk bottle vases on the tables. The backlash against all this upcycled crockery has begun in earnest with ‘We Want Plates‘, but it can be argued that there is still a niche for this kind of lo-fi presentation.
There wasn’t really much in the way of dessert, save a couple of cakes served with local cream, but it didn’t matter. Matt and Cat had enjoyed a great meal served expertly at a bargain price in entertaining surroundings. The advice on the street is that you need to get in early if you want to get a table, and now Matt and Cat can see why – the Mess is a contrived mess, but it’s a fun mess in the best way.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- A really fun and friendly environment
- Family and dogs welcome
- Generous portions
- Great value
- It's a noisy and very lively venue
- Doesn't always serve food
- Can't book a table
- No desserts as such