With the arrival of Ryde Thai in Union Street in early 2014, Matt and Cat declared Ryde Leisure Strip™ to be the Islands home of international cuisine. Potential diners can zigzag across the road, lured by the tempting food of the aforementioned Thai, plus Italian, Malaysian, Indian, Wild West and until recently, Tex Mex eateries.
Although the long-established Dos Amigos unexpectedly closed this year, the building wasnt unoccupied for long. The brightly-painted premises reopened as ‘Bendula’ just in time to take advantage of the influx of Bank Holiday scooterists.
With a hastily-scrawled sign board to announce its arrival, Bendula welcomed hungry middle-aged mods sporting Paul Weller haircuts and pop-art wives. However, once Rydes air had cleared of two-stroke smog and the plastic glasses had been swept away from the Western Gardens, Matt and Cat were delighted to see that Bendula was more than a holiday weekend joint. They mentioned the restaurant on social media and soon the virtual bush telegraph was buzzing with the voices of excited would-be diners. Usually Matt and Cat like to give a new venue a few months to wean but, as their mention of Bendula had caused such an instant furore, they were keen to check it out while it was still red hot news.
The first thing to clarify is that Bendula is a Caribbean restaurant, serving both African and Caribbean food – with a pinch of some other countries cuisine. The headline dishes that everybody wants to hear about are all there – saltfish and ackee; jerk chicken and curry goat. Yes, that’s right, goats. In a curry. On Union Street.
Tiger prawns pil pil £4.95
Curry goat £9.95
Chicken domada (deli) £6.95
Banana fritter £4.95
Ice cream £4.95
Matt and Cat and their friends squeezed their knees under a narrow slice of log masquerading as a dining table. Its wibbly edges gave it an authentically hewn look, reminiscent of Cats experience of bush camping with the Guides. It’s slender form also meant that as the evening wore on the table had the potential to become crowded. Fortunately the attentive staff were obviously used to this and showed a keen alacrity in removing empty plates and glasses.
Bendulas menu is full of hearty and spicy dishes; stews, curries and plenty of chilli. Since Matt and Cat visited, it has expanded significantly into fish dishes, with some interesting seafood specials shown on a board outside the restaurant – whole baked seabass in a jerk rub sounds positively saucy! Judging by the feedback Matt and Cat have already had from diners and would-be diners, Bendula’s food seems to spark a passion and interest that’s unusual even for the Island where food is a big topic of discussion. Many people have fond memories of Caribbean cooking, either in West Indian communities such as London or Birmingham, or even in the Caribbean itself. Matt and Cat rarely leave the Isle of Wight, so to them it all seemed incredibly exotic. They were both keen to give their taste buds the journey of a lifetime, even if their bodies were steadfastly in Ryde.
Matt and Cat both wanted curry goat but Matt got there first so Cat ordered domada, a peanut stew that is the national dish of Gambia. Domada was available in lamb, chicken and vegetable and, like a lot of the stews and curries, came in regular or deli size.
To keep the anticipation of the curry goats arrival percolating, Matt ordered a starter of tiger prawns pil pil. Six of the meaty crustaceans were steeped in a sticky puddle of powerful sauce; tangy with a hearty jolt of chilli. It was a tongue-teasing combination of spicy, sweet and salty flavours, moderated by the gentle taste of the warmed soft prawns. Matt washed this down with Red Stripe, naturally; whilst he, Cat and friends discussed suitable (and increasingly unsuitable) venues in which to host a pop-up dinner. If you get an invitation to dine somewhere in the middle of the Medina, youll know at least one of the crazy ideas stuck!
Matt chose to have his curry goat with spicy couscous from the choice of accompaniments, which included traditional rice and peas (which, fact fans, is actually rice and beans). The goat flesh was awesomely soft; the rich meat was delicious with a flavourful sauce. It was excellent comfort food, and, despite expectations, was not over-blasted with chilli. Alongside was a ramekin of coleslaw and some very fresh, warmed flatbread that was the perfect vehicle for scooping the juicy goat up.
Cat’s domada was another hearty stew. She’d chosen a deli portion but the allowance was still far from meagre. It was an enjoyable concoction: big hunks of slowly-cooked chicken jostled for position with sweet potato slices in a gentle peanut sauce. However, unlike satay sauce, the peanut presence in the domada was gentle enough to be barely perceptible. Cat soaked up the mild salty stew with her rice and peas.
Also on the table was a portion of jerk chicken which one of Matt and Cat’s companions was eating. This was an impressive dish – seared almost black on the outside and smelling strongly of the grill, but perfectly soft inside, and packing a spicy punch.
There was some unexpectedly good ice cream for pudding, including a scrummy espresso-flavoured scoop that could have been something to do with the Isle of Wight Ice Cream Company. Standard banana fritters with vanilla ice cream were also on the dessert menu and Matt made sure he got his ration of these piping hot battered morsels.
With the Red Stripe flowing freely, and the inevitable Bob Marley classics pulsing out from colossal speakers, this simple reinterpretation of the old Dos Amigos was proving to be remarkably effective. The menu, like the food, was simple in concept and satisfying in delivery. The venue has an informal, cheerful atmosphere, with service casual but effective. An enjoyable little enclave of the Caribbean has washed up in Union Street, and if you want a taste of life on other islands, you would do well to try it.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 26th of September 2014.