By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author and guest contributor to Matt and Cat's Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide. Classically trained as a chef by French, Italian and Swiss master chefs, Malcy trains UKSA Marine Hospitality students in the kitchens of The Isle of Wight College; and is author of the popular The Marine Cookery Bible.
A little history
Diane and I have not dined at The Hambrough Hotel since our friend chef-patron Robert Thompson was playing the piano at the one star Michelin-rated eatery. Having gained Michelin recognition in 2009, Robert retained that prominent status for four consecutive years. Heady days for The Hambrough and for the delightful, vibrant little Victorian town of Ventnor.
Many commentators say that having a Michelin-rated restaurant in your area sets a benchmark and ups the ante, exponentially raising the gastro-ambitions and standards of other eateries in the same area. This surely has to be true of Ventnor. The Royal Hotel had long been recognised for consistently outstanding food under the leadership of the indefatigable Alan Staley and more recently Steve Harris. But post-Robert Thompson, Ventnor now has many more other fine eateries such as Phileas Fogg's, Hillside Bistro, Pond Cafe and Tramezzini, offering impressive, differentiated menus to suit a range of pockets. Robert departed the stormy shores of Ventnor and The Hambrough Group in April 2013 once it had become apparent that his gastronomic vision for the future direction of the restaurant was at odds with the ambitious plans of group owner Kevin Sussmilch - both were clearly heading in opposite directions.
Like a number of friends, we had avoided eating at The Hambrough since the unfortunate departure of the mega-popular chef-patron and the debacle that followed with well-respected chefs John Campbell and Olly Rouse pulling out of a deal before Olly had the opportunity to unpack his expensive chef’s knives. The affable Chris Denney and Joe Gould had also quit sister eatery, the Pond Cafe, after only a couple of months or so as incumbents.
Enter the talented Darren Beevers and his equally talented sous-chef Daniel Perjesi. Their arrival was sadly followed by the departure of another friend, the well-respected chef patisière Alex Wibberley who left The Hambrough for the second time in a little over a year.
With the restaurant often in total darkness on winter nights and reports of cancelled bookings, the word on the street was that all was not well at The Hambrough. In fairness to Darren and Dani, they had arrived too late to make any meaningful impact for the retention of the Michelin star in time for the re-scheduled announcement for the 2014 Michelin Guide.
Although there are a couple of pretty fine restaurants in town, Newport's food offering is primarily geared towards lunches.
From about midday, office workers can be found insouciantly perusing the menu in Olivo in the way that only those with more than the statutory half an hour break can afford to do. Those who have to cram in a visit to the post office and, consequently, only have a few moments to actually refuel, may snatch a filled 'sub' or prepackaged sarnie from various retailers. For a sit-down lunch, the choice of sandwich bars, coffee vendors and traditional cafes is pretty comprehensive. On a warm day, if you can bagsy one of the benches by the church or in St James' Square, you should purchase one of the more unconventional hot grub offerings to eat al fresco. Much has been said about Noodle Pot - including fresh, tasty and excellent value. Now, these words can also be used to sum up the new kid in town: Seafood Corner.
The people who have been dishing up fried fish at Ventnor Fishery and latterly the mobile Crab on Chips wagon have now opened a permanent base in Newport, in a very prominent corner of St Thomas Square. Without resorting to clever fish-related puns like most jolly fryers, Seafood Corner has gone for the obvious. It sells seafood in a corner shop - 'nuff said.
Matt and Cat are well-known to the staff and management of Ryde Thai, and their enthusiasm for its previous incarnation in Seaview, the now-closed Khrua Thai, is well documented. At their very first visit way back in 2009 Matt and Cat famously ate the wonderful 'Set Menu B' and said of it "the food itself was faultless, and the service charming. Its extraordinary alchemy of tastes and textures was a pleasure to eat". Since then, Matt and Cat have had family dinners, takeaways and even birthday parties to the taste of this great Thai food. And, like a great many regular customers, have become friends of the management and staff. So they could hardly be their usual impartial selves.
As is occasionally their habit they sent trustworthy but unknown agents instead. This time it was local writer Emma Brown and her husband Stephen. Matt and Cat promised to publish Emma's unexpurgated views, both praise and criticism. So read on to see what Emma made of Ryde Thai, before seeing Matt and Cat's own conclusions at the end.
I'd been following the transformation of Khrua Thai in Seaview to Ryde Thai quite closely, especially after they caused a bit of a stir when their new cooker got stuck in the door. Not being a resident of Ryde, I wasn't sure where they had moved to so checked their website but unfortunately it hasn't been updated and states that they're still based in Seaview. Google soon assured me that they can now be found at the bottom end of Union Street so I booked for us to go on the day after Valentine's Day.
When Sandown boy Matt worked in the Fens he was struck by three things: the searingly cold easterly wind, the uncanny flatness of the countryside and the dialect.
He learnt how to stoke up a woodburner, heard the legend of Ol? Shuck and updated his vocabulary with words including 'clunch' and 'docky'. The docky hut was a shed with runners that was dragged about the fields and parked up to provide a temporary shelter for men to eat their lunch - or 'docky'.
It is entirely right that something as important as lunch has its own local word, and on the Isle of Wight docky is called nammet. In 2013 a new restaurant appeared in Shanklin calling itself - with commendable local distinctiveness - Fine Nammet. It goes without saying that to wear such a name with honour, Fine Nammet would need to be a cut above your average cheese sarnie.
It?s amazing how many people think that they are a ?natural? at something. For every warbling show-off who imagines that their dreary back-story and falsetto interpretation of ?Oops I Did It Again? on Britain?s Got Asthma is the route to instant glory, there are thousands of people who know that hard work and a decent education are truly the key to long-term rewards.
Matt and Cat have from time to time visited restaurants and been served by uninterested children without the wherewithal to even make eye contact. And do you know why? It?s because people imagine that hospitality work is that which any fule can do. Well it isn?t. Like being a successful pop star, it takes training and guidance and mentoring and on-the-job experience.
Having had a fabulous Sunday lunch at the award-winning Isle of Wight College-based UKSA Essential Marine Hospitality kitchen, Matt and Cat were keen to see to see where other fledgling chefs, servers and restaurateurs learn their craft. As it happens, the hospitality trainees at the Isle of Wight College need to have people to practice their craft on, and some friends had invited Matt and Cat to join them for dinner there. So it was back to the college, this time to the student-run restaurant.