One winter’s day a few years ago, M&C were on a business trip to Royal Tunbridge Wells, of all places. Sounds posh? Well, expensive, certainly, if that means posh. Inevitably, they ended up strolling through the town centre round about dinner time, looking to see what was on offer.
Although it was in the depths of winter, they expected that this affluent Kentish town might have something to impress. It did not. Before too long the casual saunter had become a rather hungry march to find a decent place to eat. The problem was this: they’d already had a nice lunch at some Italian place, and were looking for somewhere that wasn’t an Italian. Guess what? In Tunbridge Wells, there’s nowhere to eat that isn’t an Italian. Nowhere. Well, not that M&C could find that night anyway. You doubt this? Luckily, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council have a handy directory, categorising eateries. As of today, in this market town there are nineteen Italian venues. Yes, nineteen. Compare this with British (only fourteen), Indian (eleven) or even fish and chips (a measly four) – you see the pattern. And what’s more, of those they saw, a significant number were chains or franchises, staffed by local youngsters and serving generic pizza and pasta. Not much taste of real Italy there.
Eventually, and very reluctantly, Matt and Cat settled on some Italian place, had a reasonable meal, and paid through the nose for it. They were glad to get home from Tunbridge. It’s not like that on the Isle of Wight – Island diners are lucky enough to have a real diverse variety of eateries in most towns, and not too many franchises. Take Ryde; there’s really no possibility of a would-be diner walking around Ryde hungry for long without finding something that would suit them.
Despite this range on offer in their home town, Matt and Cat are creatures of habit. Although they often eat out at new places, they also seem to end up in the same trusty venues: Hong Kong Express, Liberty’s and Olivo’s. Sometimes Cinnamon or the Blacksheep Bar get a turn. Recently, however, Matt and Cat decided to make a long-overdue return visit to seafront eatery Michelangelo. They’d long forgotten that dreadful night in Royal Tunbridge Wells, and this time were most certainly in the mood for Italian food. Like another of their favourite places to eat, Alamo, Michelangelo is slightly off the well-worn track of Union Street and, like the steakhouse, is a quirky place that’s worth sidestepping for.
Perhaps the best thing about Michaelangelo is the feature that sets it apart from the vast swathes of Italian eateries that populate the High Streets of middle England: Michaelangelo is a Northern Italian restaurant. The restaurateurs come from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. So whilst it does indeed do pizza and pasta, there is also a lot on the menu here that you might not find elsewhere. The décor similarly has a slightly Tirolean feel about it, with plenty of wood and candlelight.
After a very friendly welcome from the chatty Italian staff, Matt and Cat were soon comfortable at a window seat, nursing some drinks and studying the menu. A jolly group of young executives were at the adjacent table, getting louder and livelier throughout the night – possibly lubricated courtesy of the flexing of a corporate credit card – and providing M&C with some entertaining eavesdropping. Bloke: “I thought he was quite young but he’s actually 38”. Bird: “Ooh, that IS old”.
The waitress, well-versed in her craft, came and explained the specials, successfully tempting Cat to order the special starter of the day, a Dolomite salad, which was Tyrolean ham on marscapone whipped with beer, with a powerfully peppery scattering of rocket. This was a delicious success, and the diners shared one starter, which was a generous portion anyway.
For her main course, Cat stuck to what she knows and loves, picking pollo al Marsala: chicken breast in a creamy Marsala wine sauce. Matt was persuaded by the special of the day – fillet of seabass with courgette and red onion in a creamy saffron sauce. Both main meals came with a single veg option, and so M&C chose one dish of sautéed potatoes and one of spinach to share between them. No extra charge for the veg: another point for Michaelangelo. While they awaited the main course, there was more outrageous posturing from the young bucks on the next table. “I have trouble sleeping,” opined one jovial chap, before adding in a conspiratorial whisper “except when I’m in Abu Dhabi or Switzerland.” Well, obviously. M&C suppressed giggles.
Special starter £7.10
Pollo al marsala £12.50
Seabass special £15.50
2 x desserts @ £5.20 £10.40
Moretti beer £3.25
Fruit juice £2.25
2 x coffees @ £1.70 £3.40
The seabass fillet looked great, served with a splendid creamy blanket which hid slivers of onion and courgette over a substantial bit of fish. The chicken similarly was a hunk of meat with a generous helping of an aromatic and interesting-looking sauce: Matt and Cat were impressed. The veg portions were slightly less exciting – the potatoes were adequate, if a little limp, whereas the spinach was little more than standard frozen spinach dusted with grated Parmesan cheese. Not bad in itself, but a bit workaday by comparison with the exquisitely-prepared mains. Still, your reviewers polished the whole lot off and enjoyed it greatly: this was comforting, substantial food.
After two good courses, M&C were not going to shy away from the final straight. Matt ordered pannacotta, and Cat had the special meringue with lemon and cream. Both of these exceeded expectations – and both were obviously made in the kitchen: you don’t get a fresh, moist meringue like that out of the freezer.
Coffee rounded off the meal, followed by complimentary liqueurs. As the commercial travellers’ table began to calm down, Matt and Cat said their goodbyes to their hosts, and slipped away to view the lights of Portsmouth twinkling across the Solent.
So Michelangelo gets good marks from Matt and Cat. It is a characterful and welcoming place, with a reasonable menu which breaks the mould of generic Italian food. It’s not the cheapest meal in town, but it’s got a bit of class and is well worth a visit. Even if you’re from Tunbridge Wells.