So far this year's been great news for cosy suppers round a roaring log fire; or shaking the rain off your galoshes before nestling down for a hot toddy. But opportunities for relaxed al fresco lunches have been, until recently, almost entirely absent.
With that in mind, the first time the sun looked as though it might peer with watery gaze through the clouds at any time near midday, Matt and Cat were out like greyhounds from the trap. They headed to one of their favourite places for a gentle stroll, the delightful grounds of Osborne House. As a mealtime wasn't far away - is it ever? - they were naturally enough moved to consider the tripartite options for eating at Osborne. Dismissing the pleasant but small-scale tea kiosk at the Swiss Cottage, they took a good look at the cafeteria in the visitor centre as they bought their tickets. It was absolutely heaving with lively pensioners who'd just toddled off a nearby brace of coaches, so that left as a lunching venue the Terrace Restaurant, in the former chapel of the main house.
Taking a meandering bimble through the famous planted terraces of the garden, Matt and Cat stepped it up a gear once they spied the Terrace Restaurant’s menu displayed discreetly on a little stand. They went to study it and, soon enough, a smartly-uniformed waiter emerged and asked if they'd like to lunch. Why, yes, they would indeed. They found themselves escorted inside and shown to a large table in a spacious room. The venue, as one might expect, was set out very well, with the room being spectacularly grand and entirely in keeping with its origins. If you come to Osborne with the aim of dining in an historic Victorian house, you're not going to be disappointed. This is no outbuilding or modern pastiche. Better still, outside is the eponymous terrace where on a fine day one can dine with a backdrop of a beautifully landscaped ornamental drive leading to superb views of the Solent. Matt and Cat settled inside, preferring to enjoy the scenery through the large windows.
The menu was framed in an ornate and old-fashioned style, and the informative waiter explained that the background was a facsimile of an original Edwardian menu used at Osborne. It contained a short but presentable à la carte selection, and a substantial range of afternoon teas and cakes - along with the proud boast that all cakes and biscuits (although not bread) were baked on site. Tempted a little by the prospect of Victorian Afternoon Tea for Two (£25.25) Matt and Cat nonetheless moved onto the lunch menu proper - they wanted a meal.
Gammon salad £10.25
Duck confit £11.25
During the brief wait for lunch, M&C fiddled with their napkins and wondered at the functionality of a nearby fireplace with no chimney-breast, only a stained glass window. Matt's salad came with glazed Isle of Wight gammon and celeriac remoulade. It was simple, and enjoyable. Thick, freshly-carved slices of ham nestled under a modest salad alongside some fresh new potatoes; and the remoulade was the dish that every coleslaw wants to be when it grows up - earthy and moist. A livelier salad might have lifted the dish to the realms of excellence.
Cat, surprisingly enough, picked a hot meaty dish - confit of duck with berry sauce. Although the duck had a couple of dry spots at its perimeter, the flesh that was under the skin was delightfully soft and moist, falling away from the bones at the merest of prods with a fork. The berry sauce, which was more of a thin gravy, had a pleasant acidic tang which went well with the bird. Small fruits bobbed satisfyingly in the puddle, along with carrots, peas and French beans. Under the duck was a nest of creamy mash which helped soak up the juices.
Alas, time and finances didn't allow for dessert, even though several tempting offerings were on display on the central sweet table. Matt and Cat paid up and moved on to admire more of the beautiful grounds of Osborne House, and to consider the unusual venue that is the Terrace Restaurant.
It's probably worth remembering that Osborne House is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. Huge numbers of people pour through its gates each year, and yet the delicate balance that managing body English Heritage must tread is to accommodate these throngs and at the same time maintain the authentic experience of visiting Queen Victoria's private house - as opposed to some modern rendition of it. Having a commercial restaurant in a conspicuous part of the historic house in no way compromises the experience for the diners nor others visiting the property. The sympathetic use of the old chapel as a restaurant provides a magnificent setting for lunch.
With that very much in mind the Terrace is rather impressive. But it's not cheap if you take into account the entry fee to the property. Maybe this is deliberate - there already is reasonably-priced food readily available elsewhere at Osborne, and part of the attraction of the Terrace is that it is unhurried, spacious and calm. That wouldn't work if it was crammed with grockles and fractious families seeking a quick cup of tea and a sit down. Few other venues would have the vast captive passing trade that can make such exclusivity work, yet this one clearly does.
The service at the Terrace Restaurant was efficient, if a little impersonally professional - and there was hardly a hint of being in a busy Victorian theme park. The big thing to factor into any visit to Osborne is the cost of admission; only the Officers' Quarters café is accessible without a ticket. Once you've got through the barrier, either as a paying visitor or getting value for money out of your English Heritage membership, then the Terrace Restaurant is surprisingly good value. Matt and Cat are amused.