Red Lion, Freshwater
In the village of Freshwater is the Red Lion, an archetype of the English pub.
It nestles in a photogenic corner of the parish, next to the ancient church of All Saints. For many years it's been a quiet favourite of Matt and Cat; a place where they have enjoyed a pint and a good meal with friends and family. Word on the street is that the pub is under new management so, cranking the handle of Cat's car, they headed west to check it out.
Before they made their way into the pub, Matt and Cat took a stroll down to The Causeway. They, along with several others, leant on the old stone wall and gongoozled at the scenic Yar estuary and the surrounding countryside. It's an almost painfully picturesque scene, with throngs of cyclists, thatched cottages and wildfowl vying for attention.
It was a bit too bracing to loiter around the causeway for long so Matt and Cat decided to hang around the Red Lion's cosy bar instead. Matt enjoyed a welcome pint of Yates' Golden and, as they sipped their drinks, he and Cat studied the specials board while waiting for their friends. It was nice standing at the bar; the place had a friendly atmosphere and, as well as diners, there were locals chatting, some ruddy-faced walkers, and even a couple of well-behaved dogs lurking under the barstools. The Red Lion's recent facelift hadn't removed any of the place's essential charm.
Unexpectedly the venue operated a table service system, which meant that the diners could concentrate on the business of the day while their drinks and food were replenished as they gossiped. The staff were extremely pleasant and engaging and tolerated a bit of gentle ribbing from M&C's rascally companion.
Fishcake starter £6
Fish and chips (small) £6
Tandoori salmon £12
Chocolate mousse £5.50
Lemon posset £5.50
The menu conformed to the trends of the day, with its handwriting font and de rigueur clipboard. It held a few surprises though; among the Sunday roast and fish and chips, M&C discovered tandoori salmon and were pleased to see that this season's brioche bun has made its way out west.
For starters, the table shared a brace of cod and chorizo fishcakes, and a bowl piled high with crispy whitebait. The whitebait was fresh, light and fishy - so much better than the pre-prepared stuff which is usually suffocated in a breadcrumb jacket. The homemade fishcakes had a light hint of cod and plenty of chorizo, which pleased Matt. Both were served with a refreshing dressed green salad and a big chunk of juicy lemon.
As well as the clipboard diners could also choose from the specials board. This meant a bit of twisting in the chairs and Cat, who was the furthest from the board had it read to her. Fish, roast beef, even confit duck plus a couple of vegetarian dishes all sounded tempting.
Cat eventually chose freshly beer-battered fish of the day with triple-cooked chips, another trend that's made its way across the Island from the urban east. This dish, like several others, was available in a smaller portion which, of course, meant that Cat would have room for pudding. She smothered her chips in mayo and the pub's homemade tomato sauce, which was sweeter than Mr Heinz's version.
Matt took the first thing on the list: tandoori spiced salmon with mixed green vegetables, sweet potato wedges, minted yoghurt. This turned out to be the sensation of the day - so much so that Cat was distracted from her fried fish and she snaffled Matt's plate to undertake extensive sampling. The salmon had been baked with a potent tandoori spice mix, giving it an unexpected zing. It was matched with perfectly-judged yoghurt, giving a great cool blast to counter the fish's striking flavour. Even more impressive were the sweet potatoes. So often these vegetables are ignorantly treated like normal potato chips, and fried to a sad, chewy stick. Not here. The Red Lion knows what to do with sweet potatoes, and the big, steaming chunks of veg were roasted until perfectly tender and sweet.
As well as the beautifully-presented and delicious food, throughout the meal the diners had gradually become aware of another feature of the Red Lion that demanded their attention. Their attentive waitress was quite charming and her cheeky patter was an entertaining addition to the meal.
Having held back on her main course, Cat was gunning for dessert. Again, there was a decent selection including rum and raisin bread and butter pudding with crème Anglais, and chocolate brownie with salted caramel. Cat was highly satisfied with the perfect texture of her lemon posset; she's known lemonier, but it still prompted more face-sucking than usual. The lovely shortbread biscuits were a great accompaniment. Matt had a ramekin of thick white chocolate mousse, with two slices of honey flapjack. It tasted great, although it was such a concentrated sugar-rush that even this trencherman had to offer a few spoonfuls to Cat in the end.
Having a great meal is about so much more than food. Sure, food helps. Actually, it helps a lot. But the difference between a decent feed and a really enjoyable meal is often to be found in other things. Things such as a comfortable and interesting venue, good and stimulating company, and great service. It's not too hard to find somewhere that hits a few of these but to find them all in one place is a delight. The Red Lion hit the spot for Matt and Cat - the idyllic setting is just the beginning of the pleasures of this classic English pub.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 16th of January 2015.
Address: Red Lion, Church Place, Freshwater, PO40 9BP
Phone: 01983 754925