It's fair to say that 2013 has been an eventful year for the Island's most famous restaurant, The Hambrough.
Last time Matt and Cat visited this Ventnor venue it was prominently branded as Robert Thompson's The Hambrough. No longer. 2013 was the year that the chef who was literally synonymous with his flagship restaurant left in puzzling circumstances. Also quitting the Hambrough group at around the same time was a swathe of staff including the Hambrough's restaurant manager, their marketing officer, and even catering consultant Steve McManus. Similar problems beset sister venue the Pond Cafe in Bonchurch, with staff coming and going. Kitchens at both the Pond and the Hambrough were closed at various times over the early summer, and at least one booked event was cancelled.
This season was an uncharacteristic debacle in the life of what has been one of the Island's most carefully curated and developed high-end names: a brand that has had a huge positive impact on many businesses and individuals in Ventnor and across the Island. Why 2013 was the time that the Hambrough group's well-oiled machine went off the rails in such a public way is hard to fathom. Certainly Matt and Cat, like many others, watched with a morbid fascination when it seemed as though the floundering leviathan would beach itself fatally on the rocks. They breathed a sigh of relief on behalf of the Island's hospitality industry when disaster was averted and over the summer normal service began to return to both the Hambrough and the Pond Cafe. The head chef is now Darren Beevers, a man who must be saluted for having returned order to the kitchen and beyond at a time when some assumed the Hambrough group had consumed itself. The Island's only Michelin star is the unsurprising casualty of this season of turmoil - but Matt and Cat care little for such trimmings. They want only to know what a meal at the Hambrough is like. So after giving the restaurant and new chef a few months to settle down, it was time to head southwards once more.
Matt and Cat are a right pair of provincials. Not for nothing is their website called Matt and Cat's Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide.
Sure, they have made a few forays into mainland reviewing, with a pretty good hit rate - and the occasional dud. But eating out in London must be different, mustn't it? That capital nexus of dining and the culinary arts, where tiny birds tirelessly fly luscious delicacies into your very mouth; their every wingbeat instagrammed and blogged by an army of knowing cosmopolites.
On a recent trip to That London Matt and Cat soon realised that, despite catering for the nutritional needs of metropolitans, eating out is not so different in Westminster as in Puckaster. Having lunched on a posh fish finger butty, M&C's dinner adventure began in Canary Wharf. Well, not quite in the sexy skyscraper district, but in Rotherhithe on the opposite side of the Thames. And that, dear reader, was due to the unexpected yet heart-warmingly familiar tale of a ferry being cancelled, marooning the duo on the south side of the river. Turning their backs on the twinkling lights of the financial quarter and its glut of restaurants they peered into the gloom of Rotherhithe. The first taxi driver they flagged down and asked for a recommendation offered to take them to Canary Wharf for fifteen quid, before driving off. The second one told them emphatically there was nothing in Rotherhithe. No pubs, no shops, not even a Tesco Express. It sounded like Winford but with fewer amenities. Undeterred - after a brief consultation with Google - Matt and Cat discovered an address for Café East, the only place for miles around that appeared likely to serve any kind of food. Having spelt out the unfamiliar address to the highly sceptical taxi-driver, they set off southbound past boarded-up hostelries and featureless streets.
Family pub dining is big business; if a venue can satisfy a clientèle range from grannies to newborns then it has potentially struck gold. Many venues specialise in attracting large groups, yet families sometimes pay large sums for lacklustre food whilst herds of cola-fuelled kids run around making a din. But good family pub dining does not have to be like that, and some savvy hostelries know how to deliver a respectable offering. As well as good grub, Ningwood's Horse and Groom, the Fighting Cocks at Arreton and the Chequers, Rookley to name but three, have all managed to fill this niche particularly well by dint of having a large car park and good children's play facilities. Similarly Brading's Bugle has long been a popular Sunday lunch destination for the multi-generational family group, ticking the above boxes admirably.
Tasked with entertaining some friends from abroad with a variety of youngsters in tow, Matt and Cat chose the Bugle. It had been a considerable time since they'd been to this vast pub and a significant factor for them was the draw of the indoor ballpit. M&C like a ballpit as much as the next food reviewers, but of course the crucial question about the Bugle remains: is it just for the kids or is the food also worth having?
Matt and Cat are well-known to the staff and management of Cantina, so despite requests from readers they have not visited as reviewers, thinking an anonymous review would be impossible.
Or would it? For a second time they sent instead James - Ventnor writer and gentleman. Matt and Cat promised to publish his unexpurgated views, both praise and criticism. Read on to see what James made of Cantina.
Well it seems only about ten months ago (probably because it was), that my friend Hannah and I had the pleasure of reviewing Cantina for Matt and Cat. So it was with a slight sense of deja vu that Hannah and I wandered into the new Cantina, which has magically floated up from the seafront and onto Ventnor's High Street. Our purpose on this August evening - to eat, drink, be merry... and to write up our findings. My companion being a professional writer, and me having sold a few photos in the past; we decided to reverse our natural roles as before. Just to be awkward.
Soon after Coast opened, back in 2011, Matt and Cat raised a posse and went there for dinner.
It was a great evening, with a lively atmosphere lubricated by alcohol. But what of the meal? Matt and Cat disappointingly concluded that neither the food nor service were a triumph of the restaurateurs' art. The experience formed the basis of a review that caused quite a bit of a stir among irate Cowes residents keen to defend the honour of their beloved bar - M&C's virtual postbag was positively bulging with correspondence on the matter.
Obviously there are plenty of people who are charmed by the Coast experience - certainly enough to merit its owners doubling the size of the place by expanding into the next-door shop. Clearly there is confidence in the future of Coast, but the key question remains: can they serve good food? Purely in the interests of even-handedness - and in the hope of a decent nosh-up - Matt and Cat undertook to repeat their test of Coast by accompanying a large group of pals for an anniversary dinner there, right in the middle of Cowes Week. This was the chance for Coast to shine. Read on to see how it did.