Have you noticed how Ryde's Union Street is a street of two halves?
Slice it lengthwise and you will find that on the western side the eateries are mostly chain-style fast food franchises: Wimpy, Subway, KFC and the like. On the eastern side of this vertiginous thoroughfare are some more salubrious establishments. Olivo, Joe's and before its much-mourned demise, Liberty's. Obviously there are exceptions: Yelf's Hotel and Black Sheep Bar are on the shadier side and, Domino's has set its stall opposite Wetherspoon's but the pattern is still apparent.
And the trend is continuing. As part of an audacious expansion into Liberty's beautiful old building, House of Zabre fashion department store has opened a bijou coffee shop in what was the restaurant's kitchen. Matt and Cat broke the news about this venture way back in 2011 when Liberty's was hardly cold - and must admit to a certain scepticism about how well yet another café could do in Union Street. So when they popped into Zabre one day to have a nose about the handbags and gladrags, they were inevitably drawn through the shop by the aroma of coffee and a powerful sense of nosiness.
The interior of the Marchesa is a surprise. It is opulently furnished with comfy sofas and a ornate mahogany bar created from timbers recovered from a church. The coffee shop is affiliated to Ryde's intriguingly mysterious Casati House, an exclusive members-only club and boutique B&B. Although Matt and Cat have not yet been to one of Casati's famous parties, they have scrutinised its website and it was clear to see that the interior style had been reimagined for the Marchesa; Gothic-lite with all the associated paradiddles.
The barista was a friendly chap, immaculately turned-out in what was a good advertisement for the exclusive top-quality gentlemen's clothes and accessories that are sold in Zabre. He welcomed his new charges to have a coffee - Marchesa's own blend - and, despite Cat having eaten a poached egg minutes earlier, was persuasive enough to get her to buy a cake to fill her already replete stomach.
There was an attractive range of home-made cakes, including carrot cake, scones and Guinness cake. This latter duochrome delicacy caught Cat's eye; dense almost black sponge, with a head of soft cheese topping. Matt picked a firm favourite, millionaire's shortbread.
Guinness cake £3.00
As it was a one of those unseasonably hot March afternoons, the handsome barista suggested to M&C that they take their coffee and cake in the garden. This little courtyard with its tinkling fountain, potted lilies and scattering of furniture was the perfect spot for afternoon tea. With both shady and sun-soaked seating but without the traffic fumes of some pavement cafés, Matt and Cat settled in. It was hard to reconcile this little haven of civilisation with the mundane reality of the Union Road car park that had once been the kitchen entrance at Liberty's.
Moments later their drinks and cakes arrived. Cat's Guinness cake was superb; moist, rich but without being cloying or oversweet - it was the epitome of its genre. Matt's shortbread was harder to eat politely with a fork as, when pressed into the thick slab of chocolate, it just squeezed out the underlying layer of soft caramel. So, disregarding the dainty tea tradition, Matt took manly bites out of his cake and found it delicious. The real treat at Marchesa was the coffee. Blended specially, it was a poky brew. Rich, dark, and full of taste - like Matt (at least in one regard) - it was fabulous.
On the way out Matt and Cat chatted with the barista, who told them that Marchesa, which is after all a licensed bar as well as a coffee-shop, would soon be opening Friday and Saturday evenings when the main shop was closed, and that access would be by the Union Road entrance at the back - a clever idea to make a slightly out-of-the-way yet central location. It all sounded quite promising.
Marchesa helps continue Ryde's tradition of Union Street being the home of unconventional, individual venues. By the inspired addition of a garden, it also adds something to the mix that wasn't really available before. Like the Chocolate Apothecary on the Esplanade, Marchesa knows its market well. Matt and Cat thought they'd seen it all in Union Street. They hadn't. Your reviewers were surprised and delighted by Marchesa. If you fancy treating yourself to coffee and cake, forget about pining for Starbucks and step through the back of Zabre. This is where you should be spending your hard-earned on a scrumptious pick-me-up.