On a recent trip to Brighton, M&C were determined to try out as much interesting grub as the city had to offer.
Street food, pre-industrial fodder and neo-tapas were all on their hit list. At the time of their visit, Brighton's 64° was tipped to get a Michelin star (edit: alas not this time but it surely can't be long. However, Michelin saw fit to award its new Bib Gourmand rating in 2014). Because of its hot reputation M&C made every effort to get their feet in the door of this newish venue. Clearly exceedingly popular, Matt and Cat leapt at the chance to take the last remaining booking of the weekend - a six-thirty slot that presumably The Beautiful People thought unfashionably early. Lucky for M&C then.
64° had garnered some impressive column inches in the nationals and, when undertaking their research, Matt and Cat sat open-mouthed at the prospect of "mash that elevates the potato to hero status", "the most exciting thing to hit Brighton for years", and "astonishingly good tongue as you've never had it before". The food and the venue seemed determinedly unconventional - so was it to be playful and delicious fun, or a pile of tripe?
The J D Wetherspoon chain is to pubs what Lidl is to supermarkets. Once decried, the opening of a Spoons was seen as part of the erosion of the traditional English town pub; driving down standards and cheapening neighbourhoods. These days, the sneerers have gone very quiet. Like Lidl and stablemate Aldi, the middle classes have learnt to love the rock-bottom prices and entirely predictable offerings.
The opening of the Man in the Moon pub is a case in point. Newport's second Wetherspoon's opened in spring 2014 in what had been for years a decaying former church, to almost universal acclaim. At one point demolition seemed a likely outcome for the old church. But no - along came J D Wetherspoon and performed a spectacularly sensitive conversion on the building, making it one of the most characterful and well-appointed venues in the town. And it was here that Matt and Cat were invited to attend a works Christmas dinner - for once, the choice of dining venue was not in their hands. Paying their deposits and choosing from the menu weeks in advance, they duly joined merry colleagues from the corporate salt mine. Clad in Christmas jumpers and novelty hats they tottered along to see what Wetherspoon's had to offer by way of a festive meal.
It should never have happened. Only a few years ago the Hambrough Group was sailing unassailably high on the choppy waters of fortune. A Michelin star safely on the wall, expansion was in the air as the Pond Cafe and other properties came successfully under the wing of this behemoth. Gossip circulated about the latest places to be 'Hambroughed'. Buoyed by this investment in the town, Ventnor sprouted quality food venues on every corner.
And now? And now it's come to this. The Hambrough is a bed and breakfast. The Pond is closed. Staff come and go like buses and there's only one Hambrough Group venue left that's actually open and serving dinners - the Winter Gardens. This was one of the last acquisitions of the group, and by far the most controversial. It has taken years to reopen the bar and restaurant, and apparently a lot of work has been necessary to get to that stage. The promised hotel and conference centre is yet to come forth. It's hard not to see this aging seafront edifice as an albatross that has dragged a once prosperous business group into an alarming slump. But has it? It's a location that looks as though it couldn't fail. With the best weather in England and a huge terrace overlooking what is arguably the finest sea view on the Isle of Wight, surely this will be a visitor magnet? Well, maybe focussing on the Winter Gardens will turn out to be the canniest thing that the Hambrough Group has ever done. After all, to say they have surprised us before is an understatement. Nay-sayers are queueing up to pick nits, but nobody should underestimate the drive to succeed that has brought plaudits to the Hambrough in the past. If the same trick can be pulled off at the Winter Gardens the rewards for the owners, for Ventnor and for the Island will be even greater.
What goes around, comes around. Remember the muesli and sandals brigade who implored us to eat organic veg and humanely-farmed meat? Critic Jay Rayner does and he considers some of these compassionate food production methods to be unsustainable tosh. However, that's an argument for a different forum - like his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World.
To make your voice heard in a foodie Mecca like Brighton, you need a Concept. Some - like the wholly vegetarian offering - have been pretty much owned by Food for Friends and others. There are a few <ahem> offshoots of the meat-free menu, with some exclusively-vegan places for the die-hard self-deniers. And now the smoke is rising from the heat of a thousand eco-warriors rubbing their thighs with ecstasy at the opening of the city's most sustainable restaurant.
Silo's concept is a grand one in its ideology. Chef Douglas McMasters chooses "food sources that respect the natural order, allowing ingredients to be themselves without unnecessary processing". This is not uniquely pioneering, particularly in Brighton, home of one of the originator of 'ethical and sustainable' food Terre a Terre. However, added to this worthy aspiration is the kicker - all this he is going to deliver with zero waste. That's an issue that's arguably a lot more relevant to 21st century urban living than many of the other faddy food trends, so perhaps McMasters has got something here if he can actually do it.
Matt and Cat heard the buzz about Silo from the chef at the zeitgeisty 64 Degrees. "If you're interested in food, you must go to Silo," he recommended. And so they did. As they know from their own reviews of Isle of Wight food, the advice of a native guide is often worth taking.
Mostly Matt and Cat write about the Isle of Wight. But not always. In 2014 they took an autumn city break in Brighton where they got some great dining out tips from the locals, and this is one of several reviews they wrote there. It's one of an occasional series of mainland reviews.
They say that Ventnor is where all of the refugees from the early Isle of Wight Pop Festivals laid their roots. The Island’s most southerly town was known for its preponderance of beardies and yoghurt-weavers, partly drawn to the location’s climate and lack of police presence - perfect conditions for growing exotic weeds. Although today you may still find a cadre of whiskery hippies - identifiable by their Peruvian cardigans and green wrists from copper bangles - their children and grandchildren are now owning the town. These energetic progeny have injected an artistic vibe into Ventnor, which has drawn businesses,visitors and other creatives to this revitalised corner of the Isle of Wight.
That model is not unique though. If you can imagine Ventnor magnified several hundred times, you wouldn't be too far from envisioning Brighton. Once rather dismissively labelled ‘London by the Sea’, like Ventnor this city has evolved and grown into something really interesting. Yes, the seeds were sown by hippy forebears who themselves must have been influenced by the city’s ultimate patron of leisure and style, the dissolute Prince Regent. And now they have born fruit.