It would be a cruel trick, wouldn’t you think, for Matt and Cat to review a restaurant that you couldn’t actually go to?
Crueller still, maybe, if they raved over it, explaining with the merest hint of embarrassment how they obtained the very last seats in the house for what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable dining experiences of their reviewing careers? Well, prepare yourself for torment.
After a tip-off on Alison Jane Reid’s excellent Ethical Hedonist blog, M & C were keeping an eye out for Island newcomer Aneke Spacie. Aneke is a chef whose impressive CV includes The Ivy, The Sotheby’s Café, working as British Airways’ first class chef, the job of setting out the food in Harrod’s food halls, and even a stint as Mohammed Al-Fayed’s personal chef.
You may have already spotted that this isn’t a normal Matt and Cat review, focussing as it does on the chef: because Aneke doesn’t have a restaurant. Instead, the word went out that she was making her first forays into Island catering by opening a pop-up restaurant in Shanklin’s Landguard Manor. Matt and Cat, late as ever, just managed to book the last tickets this side of Christmas, and turned up at Landguard one chilly November night, not really knowing what to expect.
Landguard Manor is a majestic venue with a sweeping drive, spacious hallway and comfortably furnished bar; the last time that Matt and Cat were there was for a wedding. Having dinner at Aneke Spacie’s pop-up restaurant simulated the best bits of the wedding experience admirably. Guests arrived, mostly dressed in their finery, and having had their coats taken, were ushered into the bar to make small talk with other attendees and eat delicious canapés. A classical guitarist made gentle music in a corner. If this had been a family occasion, then the indiscretions of aunts would have been whispered while small children ran around screaming. As it was, there were no toddlers in sight so the chitchat predominated.
£40 per head plus drinks
Matt and Cat spotted some friends and were soon introduced to the other guests. The great and the good were out in force, with members of the Island’s restaurant-owning elite obviously coming along to check out the new girl on the block.
As well as feeling like guests rather than customers, another key difference from the conventional restaurant experience was the wedding-style seating plan. Somebody had obviously taken on the interesting task of choosing who should be dinner partners with who. Matt and Cat were delighted to find themselves placed with a prominent local journalist and her partner; Aneke’s PR consultant; and none other than their fellow blogger, food writer Alison Jane Reid. Introductions made, they all settled down for their epicurean adventure.
Before any food was dispensed, a moment of theatre brought the gaily chattering room to attention. A gong chimed, and the chef herself appeared on deck. Wearing a Sergeant Pepper-style red tunic, Aneke enthusiastically explained how the restaurant came to be, how she was using local labour and produce and her hope that they should all enjoy the experience. She bowed out to applause; the show had begun.
The menu was a set one, and with the big round shared tables the rather enjoyable wedding-banquet feeling persisted. Each of the six courses caused exclamations of delight and intrigue from the diners. As might perhaps be expected from a chef whose past history suggests a strong interest in presenting perfect and intriguing little morsels, this format allowed Aneke to do just that, time after time.
Nor was the food just a superficial treat – some complex and interesting flavours were there. Buttered sweetcorn latte tasted like a rich, warm and foamy daal, and came with beetroot blinis which were curious minuscule dark pancakes, full of earthy taste and slightly crunchy texture: a sublime and contrasting pairing. Cat was delighted by the Japanese-themed black cod with shitake tempura. The fish had a sweet, soy glaze which she found irresistible, and couldn’t help chuckling at the witty composition when she twigged that the green edamame emulsion was obviously referring to mushy peas… ah, this was fish, chips, and peas!
The meat course, predictably enough, was the one that Matt enjoyed especially. A chunk of glazed, pressed pork was generously anointed with sweet gravy (brown), pumpkin cream (yellow) and, mmm, toffee-apple butter (red). A slice of black pudding came alongside, enigmatically described as bourdon noir. Apart from the delicious combination of sweet and tart flavours which drew him in, the visual inspiration of this dish was aimed waggishly right at Matt’s fry-up loving soul: fried breakfast with mustard, brown sauce and ketchup, anyone?
Between the courses, Matt and Cat gossiped with their new friends about the local food scene. Aneke emerged intermittently from the kitchen to chat to her charges, and, having had her attention drawn to your reviewers paused to tap Matt playfully on the arm and reprimanded him for not forewarning her of the duo’s arrival. “Would you have done anything differently, if you’d known we were coming tonight?” enquired Cat, worried that their presence might have ruffled the chef’s scarlet plumage – and wondering what further culinary triumph could possibly have been served. “Of course not!” replied the artiste with confidence.
Dessert was the understated ‘Trio of Indian fig’: understated in description, but quite the contrary in delivery. This was Aneke’s self-described ‘twisted food’ at its unleashed finest. Candy floss, Drambuie-laced ice cream with chocolate-coated space dust and a cornet with – as one of the diners exclaimed – a ‘hint of Marmite’, plus the sweetest ‘Scotch egg’ known to man. Even Willy Wonka on LSD might have struggled to create these crazy sweets! A couple of the dishes were decorated with what entomologist Matt compared to the eggs of some invertebrate. As the little transparent beads were popped ‘twixt the teeth they were found to taste of chocolatey goodness. Each of the puddings elicited gasps and then questions. What was this stuff? However was it made? Ne’er mind; it was fantastically tasty, beautifully presented and a right laugh!
As the candy floss sticks and other remnants were cleared away to make room for coffee and delicious petit fours, the diners pushed back their chairs and discussed the remarkable meal they’d just enjoyed. Aneke had delivered all that she promised; classic recipes with a twist. It was an eating experience that couldn’t really be had anywhere else on the Island. Matt and Cat had loved every moment, from the communal seating plan to the toffee apple butter ketchup. And, if all that wasn’t enough, all of the profits from the pop-up restaurant events went to a local charity.
So, you’ll be wanting to know how you can get in on this. Or you should be, anyway. In all honesty, Matt and Cat don’t know. There are no more pop-up tickets left for this season, so far as M&C are aware. Still, it seems as though Aneke is well-settled here on the Island, and a remarkable asset she is to it. Various rumours go around about her next ventures, and if any reliable ones come this way, you’ll see them here.