Seeking, as ever, to encourage everyone to chip into the Island’s biggest and best collection of food reviews, Matt and Cat offer a ‘Suggest a venue‘ page where readers can attempt to guide them towards (or away from) one venue or another.
It’s well-used and quite a long list. Matt and Cat read each suggestion carefully – a majority of the new reviews they write stem from this fertile ground. But even so they might have set a new record for responsiveness with this, their 200th review – less than 24 hours after reader Jackie Milne posted her suggestion, they were sitting down at the table. The Matt-and-Cat-beacon shone in the night sky, and your reviewers responded in super-quick time (for once)!
Matt and Cat followed the light, pointing the MattMobile in a southerly direction. Powered only by the momentum of going downhill all the way, the car came to rest at Ventnor Esplanade. The Ale and Oyster is audaciously positioned adjacent to one of the most popular dining pubs on the Isle of Wight. But, according to one of the locals, the competition is not too much of an issue as the Ale and Oyster is positively buzzing on a Sunday afternoon when the Northern Soul DJ is in the bar. So, how did it fare on a Tuesday evening?
The first thing that Matt and Cat noticed on entering the venue was the maitre d’s counter. This welcoming little sentry box is a good first port-of-call, not often seen in English restaurants (although an entire episode of Seinfeld is played out in front of one). The intimate venue had several free tables and Matt and Cat were offered one which, surprisingly, was showing remnants of the previous occupants – bits of chopped parsley, drinks rings and some leftover unused cutlery were scattered about.
The Ale and Oyster is a minimally decorated venue – its simplicity the polar opposite of the cluttered nauticalia of its near neighbour. Plain walls – in a confident chocolate brown and ochre – provided a backdrop for artistic photographs of the local landscape. Chunky wooden tables were set with plain silver accessories. Outside, the terrace is ideally positioned to get the most out of the sun and the spectacular view of the sea – and the silvery moon on the night that your reviewers visited.
The menu had plenty of salads plus, as anticipated, lots of local seafood dishes. Matt and Cat had agreed to push the boat out for this anniversary review, so for once their eyes fell readily onto the more expensive dishes without watering too much. Meat-loving Cat had been lured to Ventnor with the promise of fillet steak so her choice was already made. Matt was more considered in his perusal of the menu. The range of local specialities was good, and well-labelled. A range of ‘daily specials’ is clearly designed to allow regular menu changes to accommodate seasonal items. Eventually Matt decided to have Wheelers Bay half lobster thermidor. Thermidor is a byword for extravagance, usually being the top-priced item on any menu, although at the Ale and Oyster it was slightly cheaper than the IW fillet steak (which was £16.95) – both reasonably priced as such luxury dishes go. Matt had never had lobster like this before, and was interested to have a new eating experience.
Curiously, the place settings suggested that bread rolls might be forthcoming as there were side plates, butter knives and napkins. However, none arrived, the side plates remained and further cutlery was brought out. M and C watched with interest as other diners’ food arrived; there were certainly some big things coming out of the kitchen – a plate piled high with chips here, a vast creamy pudding dish there. The venue filled up and soon the sound of the chattering classes drowned out the piped easy listening classics – which included a rather groovy version of Caravan.
The dinners arrived. Cat’s rare fillet steak, served with an abundant salad and skinny fries, was smothered in a delightful green peppercorn sauce. The seared meat was fantastically soft and bloody, and a very generous portion. The juices soon mingled with the creamy sauce making an excellent lubricant for the disappointingly fast-food style chips.
Matt’s lobster thermidor had been the subject of much discussion and he was eagerly anticipating its arrival. It turned out to be a sort of ‘Welsh lobster’ – like a Welsh rarebit but with a carapace instead of toast; a cheesy crustacean concoction. Again this was served with a big salad and skinny fries. Matt liked it very much – it was not only tasty but also fun to eat.
Matt and Cat had taken a friend with them and she had the most unimaginative dish of the evening – potato frittata. Nothing particularly unusual about a potato omelette except that it, too, was served with the ubiquitous salad and chips, plus a side dish of potato salad. Three types of spud in one dish? Surely a potato overload. Matt, not one to see food wasted, hoovered up the fairly bland potato salad whilst a discussion about the merits and demerits of skinny fries was had. All three diners agreed that the uninspiring salad and chips, identical for all three meals, did not do justice to the respectable main components. What’s more, it seemed highly likely that the Ale and Oyster’s laudable commitment to local food did not stretch as far as the chips and salad. Cat, who is on a mission to eat all of the Wight Salads cherry tomatoes she can get her hands on, wondered if the two slices of tomato on her plate came from local fruit.
Matt, Cat and guest tormented themselves with the dessert menu eventually ordering two between the three of them. Café liégeois and pineapple and rum trifle. Surely that amounted to piña colada trifle, mused cocktail expert Cat?
Lobster thermidor £15.95
Fillet steak £16.95
Café liégeois £5.50
Two puddings and three spoons arrived. Bowls piled high with cream lead to further bickering about whether or not it was the detested squirty cream. Cat thought not, but her friend had wrinkled up her nose. Fortunately, the waitress overhead the debate and was able to clarify that it was fresh whipped cream. The spoons dipped in and indeed it was. Yummy. The café liégeois was really tasty, with real coffee and beans flooding the coffee and chocolate ice cream scoops. The trifle, too, was lovely, with its chunks of fruit and sponge soaked in rum. Simple, unpretentious deserts, good value for money and obviously home-made with decent ingredients. Top marks.
So what to make of Ventnor’s latest quality eating-place? Matt and Cat were impressed by the venue, and the menu was also pretty good, with local stuff at tolerable prices given a pleasing prominence. Service was courteous and prompt, but not the most attentive, and a clean table would have improved things even further. And the food? A curious mixture of the excellent and the mundane. Steak and lobster superbly prepared and presented delighted the diners – but why fall at the last fence with what might well as have been frozen chips and bagged salad? (note: see the Ale & Oyster’s response below – M & C are relieved to say it seems as though the salad was all local after all. No word on the chips.)
After all of the food had been eaten, plates cleared up and the bill paid, your reviewers watched the moon rise above the sea whilst chatting the night away. Eventually the affable proprietor turned off the music, tidied the tables on the terrace and locked the patio doors. As he saw his guests off the premises he enquired politely whether they were staying on the Island for one week or two? Laughing, your reviewers replied that they’d willingly signed up for a life-sentence enjoying the Island’s food… and walking away they felt sure they’d hang around for at least another 200 reviews!