There was a time when a ‘pop-up restaurant’ on the Isle of Wight was a phenomenon which drew naive provincial diners like moths to a cosmopolitan flame.
It was beyond exciting when a new one ‘popped up’. Tickets would sell within moments. But it didn’t take too long for even hicks to discover that pop-ups, like all other restaurants, vary in quality. Matt and Cat have been to some fantastic pop-ups, and – occasionally – the contrary. This summer Matt and Cat thought the trope must have reached its nadir when they saw a street-vending wagon with ‘pop-up burger restaurant’ written on it. But despite its ubiquity, they can’t deny that the pop-up concept still has a slight atmosphere of fun and mystery about it that is oddly alluring.
So when Twitter correspondent @iowjobs drew their attention to Yarmouth’s new pop-up fish and chip emporium, they paid attention. Catch is the on-trend name of this stylish installation that is trading for the summer from the yard of Yarmouth Institute, prominently located right by the town’s main car park. And on the evening Matt and Cat visited, it seemed to be doing brisk trade.
A temporary fish and chip shack had been erected at the back of the courtyard, and in front, picnic tables were filled with families getting down to some fried food. Matt and Cat bagged a table and went to inspect the menu chalked up by the hatch. It was all very well-presented, with the chip shanty fetchingly clad in driftwood-style timber, lively blue-painted tables, lobster pots hung enticingly on the walls and generally no effort spared in making it look like a very classy chippy.
The menu was, unexpectedly, quite reasonably priced, with basic fish and chips for only £6.95 – although there was also an impressive-sounding lobster and chips for £19.95. Matt and Cat were tempted by the Fabulous Fish Box – described as “A bit of everything if you can’t decide: battered fish, fish fingers, fish cake and posh chips.” This chippy was also licenced, so Matt enjoyed a bottle of local Yates Undercliff Experience ale, whilst Cat chose a bottle of Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola.
The fish box came neatly parcelled in cardboard. Matt had prudently ordered an extra portion of chips, which came wrapped, wonderfully, in old pages of the Isle of Wight County Press. The diners retreated to their jolly blue fish motif table and began the unboxing. Inside the fish box was a single portion of fried fish, two fish nuggets, a fishcake and some chips. A little pot of tartare sauce and a big chunk of lemon was included. Not a bad haul. Matt and Cat were keen to dig in.
Fab fish box £11.95
Bag of chips £2
Yates ale £3.50
The chips were first to be sampled. Billed as ‘proper posh twice-cooked chips’ it was clear that these were not meant to be proletariat potatoes – this was high end stuff. If so, Matt and Cat would readily have chosen improper, working-class chips. To their surprise the chips were pale, lifeless and sadly tasteless. Even the County Press was unable to breathe any hint of sophistication into them.
On to the fish. The menu promised ‘south coast’ fish, which isn’t necessarily the same as local fish. But at least they told you what the fish of the day was, and it wasn’t cod for once – it was hake. A reasonable portion of the hake was inside the batter, although getting at it proved to be tricky. Tiny wooden forks were provided, but the batter was overcooked into impenetrability, or so undercooked as to be almost too soggy to remove. How this was achieved simultaneously on the same fish was something of a mystery. Matt, tired of watching Cat’s useless little fork skid repeatedly off the batter, grabbed the fish and ripped it into pieces. Luckily, once the mechanics of accessing it were mastered, the fish inside turned out fairly well. The fish fingers, or nuggets, were cute little bits of fish which seemed like a pretty good idea. Fish and chip shops should consider serving these little morsels more often – they’d be great for younger children, although these particular ones were pretty bony for tiny mouths. Nonetheless they were fun to dip into the tartare sauce, which was a nice and possibly custom-made mix including olives.
Under all this was lurking the solitary fishcake – and it was probably hiding for a reason. Its breadcrumb coating had soaked up the copious grease from the other items; inside, it seemed to have little to do with fish, and quite a lot to do with potato. Although it wasn’t entirely devoid of taste, if there was any fish in it Matt and Cat struggled to detect it.
The rain began to spot on the ground as Matt and Cat gathered their newspaper and fish box to pop in the customised bins made of piles of old tyres. Some napkins to wipe off the grease might have been welcome, but there were none. Cat would have definitely preferred to have something resembling cutlery too, as her attempts to manipulate the food with the meagre tools provided were forking useless. The wooden prongs would have been satisfactory for chips alone but were no good for eating the rest of the meal if you didn’t want to use your hands.
The duo wandered back into the town with a feeling of disquiet. They felt that Catch, with its stylish look and cheeky menu, had overpromised and underdelivered. Even though the price had been good their meals had been unsatisfying, and they were seized with the knowledge that some of the Island’s best fish and chips were just a few minutes’ drive away at Rainbow Fish Bar, Freshwater. If they’d gone that extra mile they might have had to do without the carefully-crafted Catch experience, beer and a fish box, but by crikey they’d have had some decent fish and chips.