Cuisine. A foreign word that implies foreign cooking. As the world seemingly shrinks and we all become ‘travellers’ rather than holidaymakers, our experience of other cultures becomes part of our daily vocabulary. We enjoy spicy Mexican tacos and enthuse about Italian salami, we nibble at sushi even if our only experience of Japan is streaming ancient re-runs of Banzai on 4OD.
But what of English cuisine? Historically the butt of jokes, surely nobody is going to come to England, let alone an English seaside town, to immerse themselves in its culinary delights? We thought that, and we were wrong. Having dined at Sandown’s Bellamy’s we realised that we’d stumbled onto a gem, as intrinsically part of our nation’s food identity as heritage tomatoes and rare breeds.
We’ve carped on before about the decline of this previously thriving resort and, with the best-intended optimism, spoken about Sandown’s potential resurgence. There is much to admire, from the wonderful beach to the working pier. And that’s all part of this story. If you were from say, Mexico, and decided to have the quintessential English seaside holiday, you could do far worse than come to Sandown. The town’s shabby charm is all part of its appeal; it’s a survivor – like its pier (unlike neighbouring Shanklin and Ventnor which carelessly lost theirs!). We’ve re-calibrated ourselves; instead of looking at Sandown and considering what is lost or missing, we have awakened to what is there. It’s practically a blueprint for the English seaside town; its ‘flaws’ are part of the character.
So to Bellamy’s. Boy, this place is really making an effort. In a high street peppered with boarded up shops and temporary signage, Bellamys’ owners have gone to town. The frontage stopped us in our tracks and demonstrated how, with a bit of effort and some imagination, a venue can do the switcheroo from run-down to cared-about. With the judicious application of pot plants and jolly blackboards the restaurant had us pausing, then doubling-back, then going through the door to the window seat with the view over the sea – one of the few high street eateries with such a vista.
The restaurant was filled with what we took to be holidaymakers. There was an assumption that we were not locals too, which wasn’t far wrong. After all, we had come all the way from Ryde. The menu was perfect for those wishing to have the authentic classic English seaside dining experience: cottage pie, lamb chops, sausage and mash, plus an entirely separate menu of seafood dishes.
Throughout our meal the waiting staff were extremely attentive, but not in that cloying intrusive way that is, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past. In fact, as well as being charmingly chatty, so professional was the waitress that she pre-empted Cat several times. Yes, Cat *did* want peas, and (later) custard – and yes Matt wanted chips. How did she know? She could tell just by looking at us. Uncanny, and rather endearing.
Steak and kidney pie was Matt’s archetypal choice, from the part of the menu labelled unambiguously ‘Traditional’. With the rediscovery of cheap cuts of meat in the culinary trendbook, Matt predicts that the long-overlooked steak and kidney could be in for a resurgence to rival that of the lowly macaroni cheese. If so, Bellamy’s will be in pole position – this was a good pie. Short pastry crammed with meat, of which a high proportion was big chunks of tender kidney; fresh-steamed veg and chips on the side, all sitting in a pool of gravy. Not a slate or jamjar in sight, and eaten in the shade of a union flag whilst looking at the English Channel. This is what all those food journos should be queuing up for.
Cat nibbled daintily on her small-sized home-made crispy battered cod. It was everything a seaside fish and chip dinner should be. Hot, tasty fish, crisp batter, decent chips and peas, on a fish-shaped plate. The lemon quarter was even scored artfully, to ensure even squeezing.
Fish and chips (light bite) £7.95
Steak and kidney pie £9.95
Bread and butter pudding £4.50
Apple pie £4.80
Sampling the desserts was clearly desirable here. And the menu kept up the standards. Cat enjoyed a ‘traditional’ apple pie, complete with egg glaze. Matt had that English staple, homemade bread and butter pudding. Custard with both. These were satisfying, hearty puddings that were comforting in their predictability.
And that’s the thing about Bellamy’s, and many other great places to eat in seaside towns. They might not be ground-breaking, but that’s very far from a bad thing. Let’s cherish these homely little cafes and restaurants that do what they do so very well. Sure, we revel in being shocked by a Pedro Ximénez braised beef cheek as much as anyone – but we love and respect just as much the true and unbroken food tradition of England, and you’ll find that alive and thriving on Sandown High Street.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.