Godshill is an odd place. It’s always been the haunt of tourists, often by the coach-load, who stop off briefly on the way to or from somewhere else – they use the toilets, buy a cream tea and a postcard, and move on. In the winter it can be a ghost-town. So Matt and Cat were intrigued by what they’d heard about a new start at the venerable old pub formerly called the Cask and Taverners.
Entering through the courtyard door as before, the pub did not look particularly different despite the promise of a “famous top London chef”. Matt and Cat were not sure what they expected; perhaps a moustachioed maitre d’ presiding over a lectern and a leather-bound diary in which M and C’s names would not appear. As it was a friendly lady stepped out from behind the bar to greet them with a big smile and a clipboard. Thankfully she wasn’t canvassing for pub quiz contestants but proffering the menus. The bill of fare was a far cry from the dull offerings of the former pub. Every dish looked interesting and unusual. It was written in an informative yet very jaunty style, with snippets of humour amongst the worthy details of the locally sourced food. Starters included ‘classic 1970s prawn cocktail with all the bits‘ and ‘hand raised (ie odd shaped) free range pork pie‘.
As well as plenty of clearly identified local produce there was an emphasis on what Cat described as ‘man food’ – pies, chips, chops and other red meat, perfect fodder for someone who has been toiling in a field all day. In fact, she overheard the man at the next table positively exclaim at the sight of (Moor Farm) ham, (double free range) egg and chips. And it had certainly been some considerable time since Matt and Cat had seen home-made faggots, mash, peas and gravy on any pub menu.
Although the food looked wholesome enough, it all seemed a bit stodgy for Cat and she rapidly scanned the menu for chicken. Alas, none was there. She later found out that chicken was available from Tuesdays onwards due to the slaughtering schedule at the nearby poultry farm.
Matt, however, was spoilt for choice, so unusually decided to go for the full three-course experience. He chose a starter of devilled lambs kidneys on toast (£4.50) and ‘proper’ beef and ale pie in suet crust pastry with hand cut chips and peas (£10.50). Cat, with her more delicate appetite, struggled to find anything that she really wanted to eat apart from the goats cheese soufflé with roast tomato and salad leaves starter (£4.50). However, help – of a sort – was at hand from a fellow diner. A hearty lady standing at the bar alongside the vacillating reviewer decided that Cat was going to try the home-made tagliatelle with lobster, tomato and basil. “Do you like sea food?” enquired the friendly woman. Cat had to confess that she didn’t particularly. “Oh, but we live on an Island,” the lady went on to explain cajolingly, “and we eat a lot of fish here”. Cat, standing in a pub in a village which must be the furthest point from the sea on the Isle of Wight, found this a little patronising. But a glint in this lady’s eye suggested that refusal wasn’t going to be an easy option, so Cat ordered the lobster anyway: it was going to be a new experience and that’s something she never shies away from.
The food ordered and beer bought – a nice pint of Ventnor Brewery’s Undercliff bitter for Matthew, M and C sat back on the charming chapel chairs and listened to the crazy toe-tapping mash-up of French accordion music and dub reggae insinuating itself out of the bar’s speakers. Cutlery arrived, swaddled in freshly-laundered linen napkins. The London influence was beginning to reveal itself.
After some time spent, as before, listening to the locals chatting at the bar, the starter arrived. A generous portion of piping hot freshly grilled lambs kidneys sat atop two pieces of extremely crunchy bread, drizzled with a surprisingly sweet reduction. More chutnied than devilled, but splendid nonetheless. The dish was garnished with what seemed to be deep-fried sage leaves; tasteless but crunchy things prepared for texture and colour rather than for their aromatic properties. Matthew was very pleased with this delicious platter.
Although the vast pub was pretty empty, the main courses took a bit of time to be delivered. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, indicating that the food takes more than four minutes at 850 watts to prepare. Still, it might be interesting to see how they manage when a few coachloads arrive on, say Mothering Sunday or the August bank holiday.
Cat looked at her plate of lobster tagliatelle with interest. Tucking into the fishy dishy, Cat was amazed how pervasive the taste of the slightly chewy lobster was. Torn basil leaves helped temper the flavour and tangy tomatoes finished off the rich sauce. The home-made pasta was a bit clumped together in places and Matt ate the thickest bits with gusto. Later, the lady who’d suggested the lobster passed by and asked how Cat had liked it. She was able to say that the dish was very well-made, and lobster was an interesting experience, but perhaps next time she’d try her lobster in a salad.
Matt’s pie was fantastic – it was like no steak and ale pie he’d ever had before. The generous portion of meat was packed into real pastry – all the way around, not just topped with a dismal fluffy lid of air. The pie wasn’t particularly big but then it didn’t need to be. A meaty glaze on the top of the solid pastry lid gave the whole thing a really impressive taste and texture. The chips seemed to be double-cooked and this added to the crispiness.
Feeling like spoiling themselves, Matt and Cat ordered puddings. Again, these tended towards the cuisine Anglaise, bananas, custard and chunks of cake. Matt was very keen to try the intriguing-sounding fried custard with flambéed banana and vanilla ice cream and Cat chose the lemon polenta cake with lemon sorbet.
A vast wedge of the dense cake arrived with a welcome dollop of tangy sorbet. Matt’s pile of bananas was covered in a sweet caramelised toffee syrup and the fried custard had a crispy coat to protect it from the deep-frying process. Again, the dish appealed to Matt, high in calories and with a big stodge factor. And fried custard! It seemed worth ordering this just to see what turned up. It did not disappoint in any way.
When the waiter came to deliver the coffees and chocolate chip cookies he stopped for a chat, and on enquiry, explained how the fried custard was made. He also wanted to let Cat know that he had clocked her taking some photos. “Is this going to end up on some review?”, he laughed. “You’ll have to wait and see…” replied Cat, mysteriously.
Kidneys on toast £4.50
Lobster tagliatelle £11.50
Beef and ale pie £10.50
Fried custard & banana £4.50
Lemon polenta £3.95
2 x coffee 3.60
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Matt and Cat rarely, if ever, reveal themselves as reviewers or give their names to restaurateurs – it’s part of the deal. So at this stage it seemed pretty likely that their amiable host had an inkling of who he was feeding. It’s also a credit to his attention to his guests, as obviously a keen eye had noticed the photographic activity – this almost always goes unremarked elsewhere.
Perhaps this suspicion led him to offer a little extra, because the waiter, who, it transpired, was indeed the ‘famous London chef’ and proprietor, took the time to show Matt and Cat around the venue. He explained his passion for locally-sourced food, and aspirations for a welcoming pub atmosphere rather than a stuffy restaurant. It seemed that your reviewers’ expectations about the maitre d’ and lectern couldn’t have been more wrong. “I looked up this place on the internet before I bought it”, he said chattily, “and saw it on that Matt and Cat website.” Obviously fishing for Matt and Cat to step forward and throw off their disguises, Scooby-doo style. But although this wily chef seemed probably to be one of the very few who’d ever actually managed to spot your reviewers in action, they didn’t confess their identities, and went on their ways with cheery goodbyes and sincere anticipation of a return visit.
It’s to be hoped that Godshill is able to support such an ambitious venture, very different from anything else in the village. Eating at the Taverners was a bit like being in a parallel universe. The venue looked exactly the same as it had done in November 2007 and the locals were still as friendly. All that was different became clear from the board outside “New chef, new menu, new beer, new owners, welcome”.
Update: June 2015. Matt and Cat revisited the Taverners – having been several times since this review – and can confirm that this has been a massive success. The Taverners is still one of the greatest places on the Island for pub grub, and if anything it has improved over the years so this one is still highly recommended.
The Taverners, Godshill