The Isle of Wight does funny things to people. Some folks that move here just dont get with the vibe and cant wait to leave. If youre not used to a place where everyones cousins live nearby, the roads have names and not numbers, and local businesses are obsessed with having logos that include the county’s distinctive diamond shape, then it can take a bit of getting used to. So lets get this over with now – neither Matt or Cat were born on the Island and all of the above were notable distinctions compared with their originating counties.
But resistance is futile. Once you tune in to Wight life, then you can have the Best Fun Ever. It doesn’t take much to find your niche and M&C have certainly carved out one for themselves pontificating on the Islands food offering for nearly a decade. Its easy to see how their old associate, fellow pie-botherer and much-missed IW County Press columnist the late Keith Newbery turned down approaches from national newspapers, not wanting to forsake his Island home.
And so, perhaps, the same is true of Alan Staley, proprietor of Sandowns Ocean Deck? Following a seventeen-year stretch at Ventnors Royal Hotel, this supremely competent and experienced chef went to the Seaview Hotel before moving on to work for himself. With his charming wife Hayley on front-of-house duties, his office is now within a salty spray of The Bay, with an enviable view of the English Channel.
With all those years of catering for hundreds under his belt, Alan’s playing to his strengths, and offering a Sunday carvery at the Ocean Deck. What, a former Savoy chef doing a carvery? Yes indeed. And of course he knows exactly what he is doing. He could have established a fine dining restaurant anywhere but, in his own words, “been there, done that”. He knows that one thing people on the Isle of Wight like is somewhere relaxing to have a decent pub meal. And when you’ve got a multigenerational group hungry on a Sunday lunchtime, what they want is a carvery.
Twenty years ago, the concept was an alien one. A buffet, at a stretch, might be a possibility, but generally Sunday lunch out – if you got it at all – would be silver service and starched linen. The carvery combination of limited menu, low cost and self-service appeals to both venues and diners. That said, there’s a certain snobbish disapproval that some still bestow on the carvery. Surely something so purse-friendly must be in some way inferior? Isn’t a carvery just over-cooked school dinner for pensioners? Anyone who still believes these myths is not only wrong, but missing out in a big way. Because the carvery has come of age, and today it is a way in which a good, well-cooked sit-down meal can be enjoyed at at a bargain price. And with that in mind, Matt and Cat, accompanied by one child and two grandparents, walked confidently along Sandowns glorious seafront to the Ocean Deck.
The venue, as one might expect, has a big deck with a view of the sea. The outside tables had a welcome cooling breeze which those in the conservatory coveted but, as British summers tend to only have a fortnight (at best) of scorching weather, M&C suspect that the conservatory will come into its own on more inclement days. Further inside was a homely pub-style interior with a proper bar presided over by the ever-smiling Hayley.
Large carvery lunch: £11.95
Medium carvery lunch: £8.95
Chocolate mousse £4.95
Poached peaches £4.95
One of a host of friendly, uniformed staff showed them to their seats, and explained the carvery procedure. There was a bit of queueing required, as the place was thronged with diners, but soon young and old alike had a plate of roast dinner in front of them. There were the usual carvery options with the admirable addition of local dayboat catch; and the choice of large, medium or small. Those who’d opted for large – at extra cost – noted that the medium option was just as generous. Certainly there was no danger of anyone going away hungry. The meat was faultless; the carvery chef pointed out that the beef was Island beef from Kemphill Farm. Special mention must go to the cauliflower cheese – so often served as a watery mess with yellow goo on it. Not so here. Ocean Deck cauliflower cheese was just right in texture, and tasted perkily cheesy, with brown bits showing that it had actually been in an oven at some point. Similarly the broccoli was unexpectedly good – freshly cooked without a hint of yellowed edges or soggy stalks. This is the sort of detail which Alan Staley understands well – and it shows.
Although its lunch appeals to the pub grub demographic, the puddings at the Ocean Deck are a step away from the steamed-pudding-and-custard that one might traditionally expect. Served in conical sundae dishes, Matt and Cat enjoyed tasty desserts. Matthew had a simple but satisfying chocolate and salt caramel mousse. Obviously Alan couldn’t quite resist pressing the zeitgeisty button of this seasons unexpected sweet and salty taste combo. Cat chose Greek yoghurt with poached peaches and toasted hazelnuts. The pleasantly sour but creamy layered sweet was tempered with succulent peaches, and the crispy nut dust gave it additional texture. It was surprisingly refreshing and very welcome after the decent roast.
The whole family was more than satisfied with their carvery experience; a delicious roast dinner, enjoyed in a friendly environment. Alan has clearly used his years of experience to hone his craft in the kitchen but it’s out front that the Ocean Deck is particularly notable. Like the effervescent Rachel at Newchurch’s Pointer Inn, the venue benefits from an unflappable and charming hostess. It was clear that customer service is extremely high on the agenda. Plates were cleared as soon as the dinners were finished, staff made polite but not intrusive enquiries and were keen to help customers of all ages and mobilities. The venue was extremely busy; clearly establishing a reputation for decent food in a welcoming atmosphere within just six months of opening.
Every now and then its time to take stock. Yes, you can bust a gut working for the man, take your gold watch and spend the rest of your life leaving bitter comments on the County Press website. Or you can make a nice place for yourself, working with your loved ones doing a job you know so well – and with a commute that concludes with a breathtaking view of the sea. As Winston Churchill said, choose a job that you love and youll never work again.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 15th of August 2014.