As regular readers of Matt and Cat’s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide may have deduced, the eponymous writers live in Ryde and work in Newport.
This geographical predictability means that the reviews on these pages have a tendency to cluster around these conurbations. And, dear reader, you can be pretty sure that if a new place opens or changes hands in either of the aforementioned towns, Matt and Cat will sooner or later make a visit.
As it was when one of Cat’s colleagues idly mentioned a new Indian restaurant in Shide. In typical caulkhead fashion, the venue was described as ‘where the Barley Mow used to be’. It often seems that Islanders will give directions using defunct landmarks. Take, for example, the time when Cat rang a shop in Sandown to find out its exact whereabouts. “It’s in Avenue Road, opposite where the post office used to be and where there was a chemist on the corner”. Not very helpful, unless you’ve lived on the Island all of your life. And, as if to establish her IW credentials, Cat did not need any further directions.
After a gruelling day breaking metaphorical rocks, Matt and Cat had worked up an appetite for a curry and, as it was a Monday, they knew that their favourite takeaway would be closed. How handy then, that a new Indian restaurant had opened not a couple of miles from their office. With a hop, skip and a jump, M and C arrived at this once grand old roadhouse. From the outside, it looks like its best days are behind it; the metal-framed windows seemed rusty and ill-fitting, there were visible cracks in the walls and the gas meter’s door had swung open in despair. Still, inside, the old pub looked quite smart, and a friendly welcome waited. The cheerful young waiter greeted his first customers of the evening and showed them to one of the neat new tables before hurriedly changing the ambient rock music to something a little more gentle and oriental in tone.
The menu was comprehensive, and showed some unusual departures from the standard Indian fare. Ayre tikka (Bangladeshi fish) was on the tandoori selection, as well as an entire fish specials section and a pleasingly broad vegetarian range. Intrigued, Matt – never one to turn down a new experience – stepped forward to try lamb jaipuri, described as ‘Authentic Maughal dish cooked with onion, yoghurt, jeera, coriander, tomato, fresh herbs, cream. Medium‘. Not tempted by any of the novel offerings, Cat pointed her finger unerringly at chicken tikka massala. A spinach bhaji was ordered to share.
Whilst they nibbled on the poppudums supplied, Matt and Cat relaxed and enjoyed the tasteful interior. Still recognisably a pub – and indeed one regular patron popped in for a pint later on in the evening – the Bengal Palace manages to be a reasonably well-turned-out modern Indian restaurant, with laminate flooring, soft lighting, and the ubiquitous leather-backed chairs. It also benefits from its main-road location: anyone approaching Newport from the Sandown direction will hit the Palace before almost anything else.
As M & C chatted, the next customers of the evening wandered in – or, in this case, waddled in. A chap was solicitously shepherding his colossally pregnant partner, whose drum-tight belly was largely unencumbered by her garments. To the credit of the Bengal Palace, this unusual entourage was politely and swiftly accommodated in a comfortable seat, with the utmost courtesy. When the pair explained their mission, it’s possible that a flicker of excusable concern passed across the face of the hitherto unflappable waiter. The local maternity unit had given the young lady an injection to induce her baby, and sent her off to get some supper. She had decided to try that well-known folk remedy for inducing birth – a good hot curry. This also perhaps explained her scanty attire – she proudly displayed her hospital admission bracelet on her wrist. As she chirpily asked that the meal be served soon, she declared that her baby was due in three hours time. Yes, assured the waiter hurriedly, the meal would be served very quickly indeed. Probably best for all concerned.
Soon after this diversion, the food arrived at Matt and Cat’s table. Cat’s chicken tikka massala looked good, and came with plenty of big pieces of sliced chicken tikka, rather than the usual chunks. It was pleasant, sweet but not too sweet, but ultimately she concluded that it was an average dish of no great distinction.
Matt was looking forward to his authentic Maughal dish, but found himself a little disappointed. The lamb was served in small fragments, and these apart, the rest of the sauce was bland, runny and more-or-less featureless. If there were any fresh herbs in it, they were pulverised beyond recognition. Whilst not at all unpleasant, it was simply sweet and smooth. In fact, in a blind taste test this meal would pass easily for lamb tikka massala. If it had not been yellow there really would have been little difference.
As they waited to pay, Matt and Cat had an enjoyable chat with the proprietor, who explained a little about his new enterprise. He made a great point of the fact that all his staff and the chef were from London – an accolade that went entirely over the heads of committed Islanders M & C. But he was pleased that his guests had noticed, and sampled, the new dishes on the menu, and with justifiable pride he pointed out that many could not be had at any other restaurant on the Island.
So, how does the new addition to Newport’s curry houses fare? Certainly service couldn’t be faulted, and it was a nice enough venue once the rather dismal exterior was overcome. However the food didn’t light any fires for Matt and Cat – nothing wrong with it, to be sure, but really, despite the commendable efforts to create a diverse menu, it was bland and unexceptional and couldn’t even be called particularly cheap. Let’s hope that the recently-imported chef is just finding his feet on the Island, as there’s no doubt that the Bengal Palace has the ingredients for a success, if they can but manage to blend them together.