M&C visited the Priory Bay Hotel for the first time in September 2011. Unexpectedly, their conclusion back then was a less than ringing endorsement. They said “The meal satisfied the tongue, but didn’t stimulate the imagination. And when dining at this level – and at this cost – one should not be afraid to expect to come away amazed and intrigued.”
Since then, there have been big changes behind the scenes. A new kid has appeared on the block – local man and ex-Noma alumnus Oliver Stephens – who is creating quite a buzz with his lively advocacy of foraged food and hyper-local ingredients. He has a flamboyant cooking style which Matt and Cat witnessed at a Red Funnel food show. As well as tempting the food theatre’s audience with his own pickled whelks, Stephens also cooked some locally-shot duck by pan-frying it, covering it in hay and bits of Christmas tree before setting light to the lot with a blowtorch. Judging by his impressively theatrical performance, Matt and Cat were keen to see if he’d ignited a fire under the Priory.
The maître d’ who greeted Matt and Cat and their two companions was refreshingly frank, explaining that as nobody had booked the tasting menu that night by five o’clock, the kitchen was only offering the Oyster Bar menu. Matt and Cat berated themselves for their disorganised scheduling over pre-dinner G&Ts in the faded grandeur of one of the lounges. Conveniently there were four menu options for each course, so the quartet decided to order everything and swap the food about, creating their own tasting menu.
Carrying their aperitifs on a tray, the maître d’ led the way to the main dining room. The party parked itself at a table by the gently crackling fire. As before, the Island Room presented a spectacular and unrivalled venue for dining on the Isle of Wight. The diners gazed appreciatively at the delightful murals and faintly twinkling lights far away on the horizon; mellowing in the candlelit ambience.
As Cat listened intently to talk of a hidden stash of first-edition Hogarth prints, Matt and their other friend fussed over the modestly-sized but temptingly-written wine list. With some well-informed input from the maître d’ they settled on a 2008 Vondeling Babiana white which none of the diners had ever heard of: it proved to be excellent.
In 2011 Matt and Cat wrote “The crockery was heavy-duty and utilitarian – no informal wooden platters, cheeky asymmetric bowls or artistic slate plates here.” How things have changed. A gnarly seaside stone was the charger for unsalted whipped butter (straight out of the Guardian’s hipster food glossary). Was this the shape of things to come? It seemed as though Matt and Cat’s earlier words might have been presciently anticipating the changes. A foraged pebble was just the beginning: the arrival of Cat’s ‘Priory Garden’ starter of wild mushrooms and herbs revealed hand-thrown porcelain which ex-potter Cat recognised as work by local artisan Sue Paraskeva. Matt’s ham hock terrine was on an informal wooden platter, and the carrot soup was served, exactly as they had earlier suggested, in an asymmetric bowl. This modern crockery struck a gently challenging note in the vintage dining room – perhaps the incongruity was intended to be seen as a tonic for the old dame.
The ham hock was great – solidly meaty and served with fragments of pickled onion and a spot of home-made chutney. A determinedly rustic dish that was entirely comfortable with itself. Cat’s ‘Priory Garden’ was similarly informal – a selection of greens and fungi had been been scattered on a plate for her attention – obviously an introduction to the foraging chef’s pick-and-mix approach to wild food.
As the diners were all tasting each other’s dishes, Matt and Cat got a sample of all four starters. One which sharply divided opinion was the pearl barley with linseed, sunflower seed and Gallybagger. This took the form of two substantial spoonfuls of what looked like yellow rice pudding. The texture also had echoes of that notorious school dessert, and the strong acid tang of the Gallybagger cut through the distinctive texture of the mix. Matt tried it and liked it a lot, especially the cheesy emphasis. The other three couldn’t really reconcile themselves to the sticky starter and Matt ended up finishing the dish – he didn’t take much persuading.
When Cat’s main dish arrived – Isle of Wight pigeon and beetroot – she did a double-take. It looked very similar to her starter. Unlike the fastidious presentation of matched equidistant leaves she had experienced as a garnish in other upper-end venues, the foliage had been scattered in an artfully random way. It was pretty much the same selection of herbs and greenery that she’d enjoyed with her Priory Garden. Among the herbage were perfectly-cooked slices of delicious pigeon breast, their pink colour complementing the purple beetroot.
Beef cheek is normally a cut of meat that is slow-cooked in some sort of rich casserole or stew, and Matt was expecting a winter warmer of this type. To his surprise the cheek was presented in chunks on a plate with a scattering of vegetables and the ubiquitous herbs. He was even more surprised – and very pleased – to find when sampling the meat that it had been glazed and fried after being slow-cooked, giving a remarkable and very enjoyable contrast between the soft, moist and tasty meat inside and the seared outside. This is the sort of touch that the Priory’s former menu so needed – a surprise, a challenge and a delight.
There was no choice for vegetarians out of the four mains, but there was fish of the day; skate served with new potatoes and the ubiquitous foliage. The recipient remarked on her cold plate and the soft fish’s regrettable drop in temperature. Matt was lucky enough to get a chunk of the sirloin steak that one of his companions passed across. This was an outstanding piece of meat which caused gasps around the table when it arrived, and continued to impress when eaten. The huge anvil of beef had been given just the right treatment – the excellent homemade watercress béarnaise sauce was almost unnecessary.
Priory garden £7.50
Ham hock terrine £7.95
Isle of Wight pigeon £15.95
Beef cheek £14.95
Apple & blackcurrant crumble £7.50
Salted caramel £2.50
Bottle of Vondeling £27
12.5% service charge £12.66
With the preponderance of herbs in the first two courses the diners were entertained to find that even one of the desserts – milk ice cream with milk crumble – was cheekily decorated with a few sorrel leaves. Matt’s cheesebuds had been whetted by the early sample of Gallybagger in the pearl barley starter so he took a mighty slab of the tasty local cheese with some simple bread and chutney. This couldn’t go wrong, and didn’t. The others tucked into the tangy medlar and hay ice cream and divided up the apple and blackcurrant crumble. This traditional dish, described as ‘for two to share’, was served with bread ice cream. If you like Weetabix and ice cold milk (and you should) you’ll love bread ice cream. The crumble was no less than it promised, but in presentation this simple baked dish might have been more at home served in a modest pub or café, or at your mum’s house. It seemed oddly out of place here. Perhaps it needed some herbs on it.
The foursome, having emptied their plates and wrung the last drop from the splendid Vondeling, retreated to the lounge for coffee and liqueurs, and soft cubes of salted caramel – the latter served clinging like closed anemones on a seashore pebble.
Service was flawless throughout the evening, and the diners even managed to pay the 12.5% service charge with only a modest amount of grousing and eye-rolling. In 2011 Matt and Cat described the adding of such a charge to the bill as “a disagreeable practice”. They haven’t changed their minds.
Probably the most indisputable message that Matt and Cat took away from their enjoyable evening at the Priory Bay Hotel is that things have taken a very encouraging turn in the kitchen. Chef Oliver Stephens has done a great job of publicising his new approach – he’s become familiar on the Island’s food scene, and like the best ‘celebrity’ chefs is active on social media. He demonstrates a particular enthusiasm for locally-sourced food, taking to the nearby garden and shore to find the ingredients for dinner. This keenness on foraging and minimum food miles is bang-on trend, as championed by the burgeoning locavore movement – and in this case led to a decent variety of leaves and herbs on the dinners. Delightful as these peppery tastes and pleasing shapes and textures were, Matt and Cat wanted a bit more diversity in the presentation of the meals. But the end result is the meal on the plate and in this regard the Priory is now at last starting to pull its weight. M&C salute with approval the splendidly succulent sirloin steak, the clever beef cheek, and the delicate pigeon and beetroot, all of which stood out as excellent elements to the meals.
The arrival of the bill was a startling end to the evening. The main dishes were priced quite competitively, the starters and desserts were not, and with drinks and that damnable service charge the whole thing felt steep. The Priory has never been cheap – and with such aspirations nor should it be – but this is not a plea to lower the prices. Far from it. Paying well for the very best food should not feel uncomfortable, but to make this work at the Priory the food needs to really stand out from other comparable offers. To do that it is now the job of Oliver Stephens and his colleagues to offer a distinctive and unique dining experience which is worth the money – a process which he has begun with enthusiasm.
The historic location and professional service is already in place. The Priory Bay Hotel is now capable of some good and imaginative cooking, and has started to deliver it. There’s clearly been investment in this fabulously-positioned destination and it must be a sign of more to come. If this trajectory is maintained the Priory will be once more assured of retaining its place in the first rank of Island restaurants.