By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author. 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.
I'm not sure who spotted The Hambrough's potential first back in 2008. Whether it was Robert Thompson or his successful sailing-enthusiast backer Kevin Sussmilch, it was a brilliant piece of opportunism. Robert's boyish good looks and shy manner were a marketeer's dream of a perfect front man. Who will forget Julian Winslow's iconic photo of Robert, appearing to spring forth from the ocean floor brandishing a freshly 'caught' sea bass? TV food critic Jay Rayner in 2007 recognised Robert as 'a chef to watch in the future.' So I have to ask why, after nearly five years with one Michelin Star has he not achieved a second?
The Foundation Bakery is the latest venue to jostle for a place in Newport?s crowded lunchtime market.
Just when things seemed to have reached a critical mass with the arrival of national coffee outlet Costa Coffee, and rumours of Subway's imminent arrival finally confirmed, the bakery too has opened its doors to those seeking light refreshments.
The café has taken shape inside a disused furniture store on the periphery of Newport's main drag. However, Matt and Cat aren?t necessarily seduced by a prime town centre location; some of the best places to eat are worth that extra step. Take the Isobel Centre; although it?s far from the beaten track in the heart of Pan, it's well worth the diversion. Similarly the John Cheverton Centre provides a tranquil spot for a light lunch and delicious cake. But what have these venues and the Foundation Bakery got in common that may help them keep buoyant in these uncertain times?
Unlike Newport's commercial lunchtime offers such as Matt and Cat's favoured haunt the Blue Door Café, the Issy, JC and Foundation Bakery are supported by public money, charitable donations or philanthropy. Most businesses can benefit from a financial leg-up (some of the Island's most prestigious venues have silent benefactors) and the charitable ones are, by their very nature, supported through the munificence of others. At both the Isobel and John Cheverton Centres, Matt and Cat have had the pleasure of being served homemade cake by charming volunteers in clean and pleasant surroundings. Would the Foundation Bakery be able to complete the hat trick?
Think back to your childhood, and one of those family days out to meet the relatives. If you're anything like Matt and Cat, such a visit would have either been the best thing ever, or a dismal chore that nobody looked forward to. Some relatives always seemed to be worth the journey - others you just knew would be a bore.
That's the way it is with re-reviews, too. Matt and Cat have been buzzing around commenting on their dinners since 2005, and so some of their reviews are admittedly a bit long in the tooth. But there are a few that just keep on getting put off. Falling into this category is the Hare and Hounds. A big family dining pub, at a focal location, the place should have everything going for it. On top of that, it was a venue with good memories for Matt, who spent happy teenage evenings propping up the bar and sipping daringly on Watney's Red Barrel. When they first reviewed it back in 2007, Matt and Cat found the Hare and Hounds to be satisfactory, if uninspiring.
In subsequent years, comments on their review showed a consistent rising tide of disapproval - remarks such as "the worst the Island has to offer"; "VILE"; and "AVOID AT ALL COSTS!" Even stalwart commenter da yw wyth - normally the most temperate of critics - was moved to say "the main let-down was the food itself". It was perhaps to be expected then, that Matt and Cat somehow didn't get around to making a revisit themselves. Clearly things were not going well at the Hare and Hounds, and it was no surprise when it closed down in late 2012 for a major refurbishment. But what would the new incarnation be? Could hospitality behemoth Greene King turn the pub around? Soon after it reopened, a few comments seemed to suggest that it had - and da yw wyth said "the refurbishment certainly has made a gigantic difference!" That was enough for M&C, and they were finally galvanised to make that long overdue revisit to the Island's highest pub.
You may have seen them on the streets: people that seem to have given up before they've begun. Slobbing around in their onesies and slippers - garments that should only be worn (if they must) within the privacy of one's home.
Celebrated romantic Barbara Cartland; prolific author, campaigner and 'pink crusader' would have undoubtedly rolled her heavily-mascaraed eyes at this relaxing of standards. The indomitable dame was an unmissable feature on the landscape of the twentieth century. She monopolised the world of romantic fiction, selling a (disputed) billion copies of her books. As one of 1920s society's Bright Young People, she received countless marriage proposals. She was a champion of sustainability - recycling wedding dresses for forces brides over half a century before EcoIsland had been invented. In the final years of her life the grand dame's star was fading but undiminished. Determined to keep up appearances, she always wore her trademark pink froufrou and lashings of make-up, which one wit described as 'cruelty without beauty'. However, she wasn't just a caricature; she kept her eye on the ball and had a reputation for being razor sharp to the end.
Ryde's Elizabeth Pack department store seems to have held a position in sartorial society similar to that of the formidable dame. Founded and developed from various respected Island retailers, the existing incarnation opened in 1987 with the laudable aim of continuing the standards established by its owner Elizabeth Barrow: standards that go back to before the Second World War. But just because it's old, and - like the novelist's - its exterior has succumbed to the ravages of time, the store's not yet turned up its toes.
Although it is a mere four miles away from home, Spitbank Fort luxury hotel and restaurant is not the sort of place you can just rock up at - it?s a sea-castle in the middle of the Solent for crying out loud.
Vessels have to be chartered and lunches pre-ordered to ensure that the champagne reception has the prescribed amount of canapés. Still, Matt and Cat willingly complied with the booking arrangements as their keenness to visit the fort overrode their natural indolence. As they crossed the days off their calendar, their lunch date drew closer - and landlubber Cat kept an eye on the forecast. Snow ground the Isle of Wight to a customary halt and then, on the day itself, temperatures plummeted heralding the arrival of sleet.
Wrapped up in their warmest togs, Matt and Cat started their journey on the Island Line train. Three boat rides later - with a pleasant intermission in the fort?s luxurious Gosport-based departure lounge - M&C found themselves staring up at the granite edifice. Its presence may have been sufficient to deter Napoleon III?s steam-powered warships from chuffing up the Solent but it didn?t daunt Matt and Cat, not when they knew there was a Sunday lunch inside.