This is a Matt and Cat special event report
Hands up who’s ever heard it said that the Isle of Wight is stuck in the past. Quite a few of you – you can put your hands down now.
The sneerers have missed the point; it’s actually a compliment to this slow-paced, temperate county. As The Future might not be all it was cracked up to be, who wouldn’t want to live somewhere with a steadfastly local paper, long-standing businesses and time-capsule restaurants? As ever, the Island is on-trend: vintage is the new cupcakes and The Royal Hotel, a positive Methuselah of the Isle of Wight’s hospitality industry, hosted an event to underline the Island’s leading role in the retro revival.
Scheduled to coincide with the Michelin Guide’s centenary, The Royal courted vintage fans to help it mark the rare distinction of being one of only thirty hotels to be listed in every Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland since it was first published in 1911. With a programme of entertainment and – of course – food, Matt and Cat were delighted to receive an invitation to join the festival.
Regular readers will know that M&C love the Royal Hotel and held one of their Dining Club events there. Always pleased to be eating the cuisine of executive chef Alan Staley, they were particularly excited about the weekend’s menu. Phil Baldock, head of communications at Michelin UK was also going to be in attendance on the Saturday: the kitchen staff would surely pull out all the stops.
Day One: Friday
Having rustled up some vaguely vintage clothes, Cat in a net-petticoated satin dress and Matt scrubbed up in a pre-loved suit with a psychedelic tie, they took Bellini cocktails in the bar before being called through to dinner. Seated at the biggest table with other bloggers, creatives and special guests, M&C made their introductions. Brighton blogging duo Digital Bungalow were there, on assignment for online lifestyle mag Domestic Sluttery. The Perry family from Ventnor Blog really went to town with some impressive vintage costumes. And taking a break from her celebrity-packed schedule was seasoned Ventnor journo, the Ethical Hedonist, Alison Jane Reid. Having spent far too long chatting with friends old and new they were all encouraged to choose from the à la carte menu by the ever-patient waiting staff.
Alas there isn’t room for the usual fully-detailed report as so many delicious courses quite literally made their way under Matt and Cat’s belts during the Royal Revival. The first night’s highlights included scrumptious baby lobster ‘Themidor’, which Cat had previously enjoyed as a starter on the Royal Set lunch menu. She was also unable to resist the fillet of beef with creamed potatoes, baby onions, mushrooms and pancetta. Cat was spoiled by this interpretation of a classic English dish, with its exquisitely tender meat and roasted vegetables, given a twist by the unmistakable smoky flavour of the pancetta ham. Matt unexpectedly avoided beef and chose a superb fried turbot with risotto of Ventnor Bay crab, courgettes and fennel. The soft flakes of fish were splendidly enhanced by the creamy, crab-rich sauce which permeated the perfectly sticky rice.
After dinner was the second set by the Bovril Sisters, a close harmony acapella trio who serenaded the guests with evocative songs from the 1940s. Having changed from their first set wartime uniforms they were still bang on trend with the landgirl look.
Day Two: Saturday
Following a hearty breakfast – full English with optional black pudding for Matt and eggs Benedict plus tangy berry and yoghurt compote for The Cat – they gathered their coats and hats for a trip outside the environs of the hotel. A great feature of the weekend was the entertainment that was laid on for the retronauts, and the centrepiece was an excursion in a classic 1959 Southern Vectis bus. The old lady chugged to a halt right outside the hotel, and the guests, dressed up in a range of vintage clobber, clambered aboard. The cheery clippie came around and dispensed free tickets from a hand-cranked machine, and then the charabanc set off at a stately pace towards Freshwater Bay, locally-made ice creams at Blackgang viewpoint and a delicious cream tea at Dimbola. The passengers clambered up to the top deck from where they enjoyed panoramic views of the undulating downs, heritage coast and peered into the normally concealed gardens of Niton.
Back at the hotel after all this exhausting travel and fine food Matt and Cat made their excuses, foregoing the chance to see Ventnor Film Society’s screening of Arsenic and Old Lace and Bringing Up Baby. Following a solid hour or two napping and a change of clothes – another lace-petticoated prom dress with top hat fascinator for Cat and a change of tie for Matt – they were ready for the next stage of this vintage adventure.
Dinner on day two was preceded by an interesting talk on the origins of the Michelin Guide by Phil Baldock. Much like this humble blog, the main purpose of the guide was to encourage people to broaden their horizons by visiting recommended eateries. However, unlike Matt and Cat (who aren’t in the rubber industry), the Michelin Guides’ 1911 origins were in a desire to sell tyres to the owners of new-fangled motor cars. By visiting the suggested destination restaurants, drivers would incur more mileage, wearing out their tyres in the process. Possibly the stealthiest marketing campaign ever!
Phil’s words had provided food for thought but Matt and Cat didn’t ponder them for long; their attention was diverted by the arrival of actual food. The set menu was magnificent: four glamorous dishes with Edwardian antecedents arrived in succession, each elegantly finished.
Highlights of this meal included a first-time experience for Cat who, feeling adventurous, ate an oyster. The quivering mollusc was the pinnacle of The Royal’s take on mock-turtle soup and, as she chewed it, Cat proclaimed with delight that it tasted just like the sea.
For Cat, the standout dish was the Royal duck a l’orange. A medley of duck in a puddle of orange and Grand Marnier sauce. Special mention has to go to the confit of leg; lean, tasty and incredibly soft meat.
Much discussion had been generated by the undescribed dish entitled ‘Penny Lick’ which appeared on the menu. Even the waiting staff were at a loss to explain it, and rightly so, because it proved to be a witty surprise that was all the better for the speculation. Chocolate ice-cream was served on a stick, encased in dark chocolate and dipped in various toppings. The staff brought the pre-dessert out in cheeky pink racks to the delight of the diners. This was a clever and uncharacteristically flippant touch to the Royal’s offering.
As a testament to Alan Staley’s adherence to the vintage brief, Matt was transported back to bygone days at the vicarage as he ate the beautifully-garnished lemon Sussex pond pudding. Served with Jersey cream this unassuming dome was cracked open to reveal its fragrant lemony syrup. Matt scoffed it up, decorative edible flowers and all.
After dinner the guests were entertained in the ‘speakeasy’ by Royal Revival headliner, talented jazz musician Liane Carroll. The music provided the perfect soundtrack to a coffee in the bar or a final browse in the pop-up boutiques.
The Royal Revival was an audacious weekend which included fabulous music, a trip in a Southern Vectis time machine to Dimbola – the hub of Victorian society – and spectacular food, plus unseasonably clement weather. Matt and Cat felt like they were in a time warp; hob-nobbing with moustachioed gentlemen in spats, ladies in feather boas and even a vintage ‘Air Marshal’. The hotel did what it does best, providing a relaxing yet professional atmosphere; the staff smoothed the way for a great social event which M&C feel sure will be the first of many Royal Revivals.
This isn’t a review, it’s a promotional feature. Matt and Cat were invited to attend so obviously The Royal knew they were coming! Matt and Cat’s full review of The Royal Hotel can be found here.