Regular readers will have discovered, through the medium of Matt and Cat, the delights of eating out on the Isle of Wight. They will have read of the skill of master chef Robert Thompson, vicariously enjoyed the fruits of Cantina‘s artisan bakers and had their mouths positively watering at the descriptions of Bruce Theobald’s dishes at the Seaview Hotel.
Well, this review is about Matt and Cat’s ability to turn raw ingredients into something palatable. No, Matt and Cat aren’t going to bore you step-by-step instructions in how Cat creates her a perfect poached egg. Nor will Matt be sharing the secrets of his world-renowned lettuce and cornflake curry. Nope, this is an account of a visit to On The Rocks in Yarmouth. And, if you like you can play along too – just preheat a lump of volcanic rock to a flesh-searingly hot temperature and you’re partway there already.
Of course, not everyone has volcanic rock at their disposal which is why it’s good news that a place like On The Rocks exists. The hot rock concept may not be a new one but is still a great way of communing with your fellow diners, like those other participatory feasts: cheese fondue and the Mongolian barbecue (apparently not much to do with Mongolia or barbecues but never-the-less a big hit back in the day).
Fancying somewhere to be warmed, Matt and Cat were blown to Yarmouth on a gusty night with a couple of chums from deepest Adgestone. They were able to park outside the restaurant so weren’t too dishevelled by the time they entered the friendly venue.
As the party was seated a jug of water arrived. This is becoming quite a regular thing on the Island and is something that M&C approve of heartily. It didn’t mean that they didn’t buy any booze – although commendably, throughout the winter you are invited to bring your own bottle to On The Rocks, without a corkage charge. Some Peroni (a fiver for 660ml, Peroni price-watch followers) and an enjoyable bottle of Malbec enhanced the table shortly after the orders were given.
The menu at On The Rocks is more like the price list in a butcher’s shop. Basically, if you haven’t already guessed, you buy some raw meat and, through the power of scorchingly hot stone, cook it to your own preference. Some rudimentary instruction was given but really, the principle is hard to get wrong. Perhaps the easiest error is to cook the wrong meat – specifically meat still attached to you; a hazard the diners fortunately managed to avoid.
Neither Matt nor Cat is much of a chef. Cat was a vegetarian for nearly two decades and has never cooked meat (other than bacon, natch). However, you don’t need to be Nigella – or Fanny, depending on your vintage – to be able to make a decent fist of your steak. If you don’t fancy one of the several cuts of beef you can always have lamb, cajun chicken, tuna, scallops or prawns. Why, there was even halloumi for the meat-shy.
The price of the steak is akin to that which is expertly cooked in some of the Island’s fancier restaurants. At On The Rocks the tariff included ‘bottomless’ chips and salad, plus there was a decent pile of tasty doorstop bread and dipping oils on the table. The salad was agreeable enough, but the chips were of the most basic quality – freshly cooked skinny french fries. This was an opportunity missed. Chips are a big part of the steak meal and we’ve all been spoilt by triple-cooked chips with all sorts of salt, spices, garlic and herbs. Perhaps some chunky, tasty jenga jobbies crisped in beef dripping would have raised these humble fries to a level worthy of the meat they accompanied.
When the radiating rocks arrived they came with the steak atop, with a bay leaf skewered to it by a little flag. The meat sizzled and hissed. Matt and Cat, who’d both eaten at a hot rocks place before knew to remove the steak as soon as possible; cut it into pieces and then return those pieces to the rock in succession, so that there is always some cooking and some cooling. Eating the morsels straight from the rock is not advised – did we mention that the rock (and anything that touches it) is HOT?!
Matt and Cat’s only (ahem) beef with On The Rocks is about the crockery. Obviously the rock has to be contained and accessible. However the little trays either side can potentially hold both cooked and raw meat, seafood or poultry. Add to these little recesses some salad and chips and they really aren’t up to the task. They’re too small and they could necessitate reaching over the hot rock to access one side or the other (which is how Cat burnt herself last time they were there). A separate dinner plate would be a real bonus; for all cooked meat plus the chips and salad sides, leaving the raw and cooling stuff to occupy the two respective trays. The lads got creative with the smoked garlic butter and used it to enhance their chips on the rock. A plate would allow sauces to mingle and there would be room to use the chips and bread to mop the juices.
Cat had fillet steak – a big 10oz wedge too. Despite her inexperience at cooking meat the results were tender and tasty. The side salad was a nice Greek-style number with feta, olives and the dreaded raw onion – which Matt and Cat sorted out by putting it straight onto their rocks.
Fillet steak £22
Sirloin surf and turf £26
Bottle of 2005 Malbec £17.50
Sparkling elderflower £2.25
The staff were attentive but not intrusive; replenishing the chip bowl before being asked and generally on-hand to guide and oversee the meal. The wine and chips flowed and the diners were all pretty satisfied by the experience but hey – pudding! Unexpectedly, for a place which just gives you ingredients and lets you get on with it, the desserts were impressively creative. An apple swan serene on the laden cheeseboard, and strawberry pavlova ‘hedgehog’ were the highlights, and even the creme brulee was tongue-caressingly smooth under its brittle crust.
So, is On The Rocks any good? Looking at the bill, it might seem a lot to pay for chips and steak you cook yourself. However, it was a fun collaborative supper; sides were shared, cooking techniques discussed and Cat even managed to scrounge one of Matt’s delicious soft scallops. The whole experience was an enjoyable one, and a rare, if not unprecedented, example of Matt and Cat cooking in public.
This is the full-length version of the shorter review that was published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Generous portions of decent meat
- It's fun messing around with the hot rocks
- Staff helpful and friendly
- Outstanding desserts
- Hard to get everything on the little plates
- Everything you wear will smell of delicious cooked meat for days
- Chips and salad were pretty basic