The north east Wight has a handful of eateries with a notable sea view; from Baywatch on the Beach you can enjoy a panorama which includes the iconic St Helens Fort; or if you get a shore-side seat outside the Old Fort in Seaview you can watch the busy maritime traffic in the Solent. Other venues – such as the magnificent Spitbank Fort and slightly less grand Costa Coffee at the end of Ryde Pier – can boast a view of the sea pretty much on all sides. A table on the balcony at Three Buoys, in Ryde’s Appley Park, gives dinner a memorable backdrop as the orange light of the sinking sun is reflected off the extensive beach. The activities of ships and yachts add interest, and the twinkling lights of Portsmouth are far enough away to look almost enticing.
The restaurant at Appley has had a number of previous incarnations and it’s not hard to see why. The awesome views aside, Three Buoys is a first-floor restaurant above a separate café, which must sometimes make it hard for potential patrons to spot that there might be more than ice cream and beachballs available at Appley these days. Also, delightful though Appley Park is, it is very much a seasonal location, and when the weather closes in there is little passing trade. What all this means is that it has to be an exceptional offering indeed up those stairs to draw in enough regular diners to make a sustainable business. Three Buoys thinks it has what it takes. So does it? You know what happens next.
As the record-breakingly harsh winter of 2013 came to to an end Matt and Cat took the chance to promenade through Appley Park, with dinner never far from their minds. After a perusal of Three Buoys tantalising menu, Matt and Cat climbed the staircase to find a busy dining room with folk already enjoying the terrace. The new arrivals were politely greeted, and after some vacillation decided to sit inside within sight of the open terrace doors.
Calamari starter £6
Sea bass fillet £16
Coffee x 1 £1.90
Estrella x 2 £7.60
A menu of summery seaside food was presented – plenty of sharing platters, pasta, seafood and salads. There were no specials on offer but the chatty waiter gave a good talk through the options, and explained unprompted that the seabass that day was local. It may have been his eloquence, the sea air, or maybe the unaccustomed sun; but it was a surprise to everyone when Cat ordered a Bellini cocktail. Matt, in similarly expansive mood, ordered a pint of chilled Estrella Damm. Normally he is an ale drinker, but there’s something about a walk in the sun – however brief – that must engender an atavistic urge in Englishmen to sip ice-cold lager. After picking over some complimentary olives, Matt and Cat ordered a starter to share: calamari with red pepper aioli. This was a delicate dish, the squid rings perfectly cooked in the slightest batter, meltingly soft and with their subtle taste only enhanced by the gentle aioli sauce; so often an unwelcome and unsubtle blast of garlic – but not so here.
Main course was a hard one to decide for both diners as the choices were good ones. Cat considered Asian battered sea trout with sesame salted chips, or smoked garlic chicken breast with risotto primavera. But in the end her choice was that local sea bass fillet, served with baby leeks, new potato and spinach gratin, and tomato butter featuring tomatoes smoked by the chef herself. The soft fillet languished on the gratin, which was a deliciously creamy mixture of vegetables and mascarpone. As well as being luscious, the dinner was nicely-presented with a pleasing chorus of dainty vegetables serenading the fish.
Just as Cat’s fruity cocktail was a deviation from her normal behaviour, Matt found himself drawn irresistibly towards one of the vegetarian options. As deep-frying and cheese feature heavily in the big man’s diet he didn’t stray too far off the path though, opting for battered halloumi with tarragon mashed peas, fries and tartare sauce. To his entertainment this came out served in the style of fish and chips – with the chunks of battered halloumi cheese taking the part of the fish. It all worked rather well; even if the fries were of the modest, stringy variety rather than chunky chip-shop sort. The smooth cheese itself was excellent, and the tarragon mashed peas were a tasty addition that wittily referenced the traditional fried fish accompaniment without giving Matt the distressing task of actually eating mushy peas.
Throughout their dinner Matt and Cat were scrutinised by the couple at the adjacent table who had seen them taking photographs and had obviously found this more entertaining than each others’ company. M&C enjoyed the intimate dining experience, and many others were doing so too. There was a party of young women celebrating a birthday – which was proclaimed by bobbing helium balloons tied to their chairs. There were holidaymakers chattering away about their days’ adventures, and locals who had popped in for a drink. The place was running smoothly and all seemed content.
Matt and Cat were putty in the hands of their waiter, who effortlessly guided his charges to choose dessert. Cat was never going to refuse chocolate and salted caramel torte; whereas Matt took a lighter option with vanilla pannacotta and peaches poached in Chambord. Both desserts were excellent. The torte was superbly rich and moussey, punctuated with the salty hit and shreds of zingy orange peel. Matt particularly enjoyed the lightly-poached peach alongside the traditional pannacotta mound. Both dishes were decorated with delightfully aromatic rosemary flowers, gathered from the nearby park in a bit of true Noma-inspired foraging. It transpired that the chef also had experience working at the nearby Priory Bay Hotel, currently the focus of some particularly hyper-local culinary alchemy.
Cat finished her meal with Baileys on ice, whilst Matt sipped a decent coffee from a substantial machine which was purring away in the corner. The price of the meal wasn’t the cheapest, but if Three Buoys can keep up these standards, it will remain value for money. Taking their drinks, Matt and Cat took a stroll out onto the terrace to see the last glimmers of the evening sun. The balcony tables were lit by candles, and Cat was delighted to find that each table had a big soft blanket to hand for the ladies to drape over their knees. Considerate and clever, it was a touch that seemed typical of Three Buoys. This new restaurant really is trying hard to make itself a place worth visiting, and for food, service, style and character, Matt and Cat would say it has succeeded. It is recommended.