Some venues still think serving chips in a tiny metal pail is the acme of food trendiness. Other restaurants continue to puff out their chests, imagining that their knife-grating, gravy-liberating slates are the last word in food delivery (if only they were the last!).
But food fashion, like any other, is a fickle fast-moving beast, even here on the Isle of Wight. We’ve been waxing lyrical for a while about the street food trend, particularly since a visit to Hawker House Street Feast in That London. When done well, street food can be an exciting exploration of tastes, a journey of discovery and, hopefully, cheaper than a sit-down lunch in an actual restaurant.
But what happens in the winter; when the threat of inclement weather makes a foray to a street food truck or market stall a miserable windswept affair? Street food goes indoors, or on holiday. Sometimes it never bothers with the street bit at all; it just finds somewhere nice and sets up shop.
This is the case with the oddly-named Call It What You Want in Cowes. This attractive venue retains the tiled walls and meat hooks from way back when it a butchers. Various pretenders have come and gone in recent years and we have tried – and enjoyed – them all: Brawn’s, Nomad Cowes, Prawn and Co and now CIWYW.
There are no printed menus here; the bill of fare is written in marker on a roll of brown paper, and also in huge letters on the windows to draw you in – as indeed it did to us. We sat at a long communal refectory-style bench (which turned out to be an excellent decision), but there are smaller tables if you don’t fancy sharing your eating space. The back room is even more intimate, with low-lighting and proximity to the tiny kitchen, where the magic occurs.
We deduced the restaurant’s Deep South creole concept from the dishes’ names, which included griddled voodoo chicken breast, three-fish Louisiana chowder, and yee-haw beans. The waiter was happy to talk about the dishes and advise us on what we might like – showing a pleasingly in-depth knowledge of the menu as well as some great, helpful service.
Matt, of course, chose The Reuben, an open sandwich laden with 12-hour cooked salt beef, melted Swiss cheese, pickles and yankee mustard. A huge pile of fresh sliced beef smothered the sliver of toast below, and was in turn stacked with generous toppings. If this really had been America we would doubtless have been served that abomination that the US passes off as Swiss cheese – or, as they prefer to call it with refreshing frankness, ‘Swiss’. But as we were safely in Europe the Reuben was topped with curls of genuine grated Gruyère. This was a magnificent meal; big, dirty, meaty and so very tasty.
Alongside, we ordered those yee-haw beans to share – a wooden bowl of cowboy-style beans loaded with paprikary chorizo, successfully elevating the humble baked bean into something with a hint of the exotic.
The chowder’s base broth was smooth and creamy. At first glance it looked more like that blended favourite, soup de poisson. But as Cat’s spoon poked its depths, she scooped out pieces of smoked haddock, sea bass and mussels. The fish’s soft textures were supported by more robust vegetables; a chunk of pepper here, some celery there. Flakes of crispy bacon added yet more textural and visual interest and a slightly salty, meaty bonus. Finally, at the top of the crunch tree was the toasted bread, which Cat dunked into the creamy melange with pleasure. This was a hearty bowl of Southern soul; hard to believe that this delicious comfort food was just £7.50.
Alas there were no puddings and so, after a bit more chinwagging with the owner – Cat told him the story about the lady in the Diabetes charity shop in Ventnor who claims to have helped Elvis Presley write Wooden Heart – we prepared to settle our bill and leave. We were the last in the place and it was not long after nine o’clock so we figured the restaurant’s team would pack up and call it a night. However, Cat had been messaging friends who we had left at a wake in a nearby sailing club. Just as we stood up to go, they arrived to see the place for themselves – on the basis of Cat’s single ‘thumbs up’ emoji.
Yee-haw beans £3.50
The bench soon filled with ten of our friends and, instead of sighing “kitchen’s closed” (huffing at newly-arrived customers can start at about 2pm in some venues), the waiter seemed delighted to accommodate this sudden late influx. Yet more Reubens arrived on the long table, with portions of voodoo chicken and scampi. The biggest bowl of fries we had ever seen served appeared, with the comment, “The chef made too many, so these are for you to share.” Wine was poured and the wake continued in this little corner of Cowes.
We really like Call It What You Want. The service was great; our waiter was friendly, attentive and happy to welcome our friends when other venues would have already locked the door. The venue itself has always been an attractive place, with its big view of Cowes High Street plus back parlour if you don’t fancy the goldfish bowl. Most dishes were very competitively priced, respecting their street food origins. But, as ever with us, it has to be about the food. Call It What You Want knocks that out of the park with their bold, inspired and unusual dishes – take ten mates and tell them we sent you.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Great, interesting and tasty food
- Relaxed vibe
- Very good value
- No puddings