This is an archive review. Chiaro is now closed.
Ryde dwellers Matt and Cat are spoilt for places to eat in their home town. Tapas, Asian, Italian and even traditional English food are all readily available and it would seem that the gateway to the Island could easily be its food capital. However, there is a contender; Ventnor is nipping at Ryde’s heels in terms of new eateries. Already this year the Bohemian town has welcomed new establishments selling Indian food, seafood and round-the-world cuisine.
Satisfyingly, M and C’s list of places to review shows no sign of becoming exhausted. And, pleasurable as this reviewing lark is, there are so many restaurants and so few hours in the day. Therefore, killing two birds with one stone Matt and Cat visited Chiaro with a couple of pals before going on the the fab Ash gig at Ventnor Winter Gardens.
Ventnor Esplanade is having a makeover and, like any improvement, the change process can be disruptive. However, the work will soon be complete and this delightful little seaside town will prevail. The amount of new businesses opening – even in the off-season – is testament to that. And so it was that Matt and Cat made their way through the roadworks to Chiaro on what was yet another windy evening. The lights at the western end of the esplanade twinkled invitingly; the Spyglass, Ale and Oyster and, of course, Chiaro, were all open for business. Matt and Cat, colliding with their friends who were also being blustered along the seafront, bundled into the calm interior of this new restaurant. They had booked a table, imagining that the pre-gig hordes would be out in their droves but, on this Tuesday night in November, there was in fact no need.
Warmly welcomed, the party was seated by the vast window at the front on the restaurant. On a summer’s evening, this would be the premium spot from which to watch the sun setting over the little bay. On a night like the one Matt and Cat visited, the view was of the sea’s foaming white horses.
The waiter was an excellent salesman, rattling off the specials and offering appetisers while they party studied the bill of fare. As they had plenty of time before the gig started, they made the most of the occasion by ordering from all sections of the menu. Matt chose the delicious-sounding grilled calves liver with crispy pancetta, wilted spinach and a port jus. Commendably, the waiter asked how he’d like the liver – and Matt as ever asked for it to be ‘as rare as chef will dare’. Miss Cat, whilst entirely content to chew delicately on steak, has yet to acquire a taste for offal, so it’s when dining out that Matt will take the opportunity to indulge – and then only when he’s confident it will be done well.
Less commendably, there was a pause after the order and the waiter eventually had to ask Matt what he wanted with the liver. Ah! Light dawned. This was one of those dishes where they only put half of it on the menu, and then you have to buy the other half separately. Matt grumpily ordered Chiaro potatoes. Now Matt and Cat are in danger of over-labouring this point but they just do not like, and never will like, the idea that a meal does not come with appropriate vegetables or carbs included. If the chef has made a dish, part of that design process must surely include consideration of what goes with the main bit. Listen, restaurants – we don’t mind paying a fair price for a meal but we don’t want to pay extra for veg; that way the price on the menu is what we pay. More of which later.
Drinks and a (non-complimentary) bowl of chilled olives arrived along with a selection of ‘daily baked’ breads and the ubiquitous saucer of dipping oil and vinegar. Nibbling away, the diners chattered about the science of gambling, the Worst Place to Eat on the Island and the future of Shanklin theatre. Because the conversation and wine were flowing, and because they were positioned at the table nearest the door, Matt and Cat did not have much more than a glance around the restaurant’s interior. However, what they could see they liked; a smartly appointed, roomy venue with intimate lighting. Looking down the room, Matt got a glimpse into the gleaming new kitchen at the rear from where the occasional ping could be heard.
Starters arrived next. M and C resisted this course but their friends tucked in. A teetering pile of whitebait cushioned by leaves and drizzled with citrus mayo looked great. Sneaking a single tiny fish, Cat confirmed that they were deliciously seasoned. There was enough meat on the generous plateful of calamari for Matt to have a little taste and he expressed his assent: this was good stuff.
The presence of some other diners helped give the place a bit of atmosphere. Matt and Cat and friends were starting to enjoy themselves. Soon enough, along came the main courses. An impressive spread. Cat had penne con pollo: pasta, chicken, goats’ cheese and cherry tomatoes in a white wine sauce, that came with a tasty mountain of rocket on top. Cat rated this – and, chicken and goats’ cheese veteran that she is, this is high praise. Matt’s liver looked great too, served with a delightful crispy bacon rasher and some deliciously rich oniony port sauce. If the liver was ‘as rare as chef would dare’, it seemed that chef was having a very cautious evening, or perhaps wasn’t entirely confident in the liver. It was splendid and highly enjoyable, but rare it was not.
Main courses eaten appreciatively, there was time for some dessert and coffee before setting off for the concert-hall. Cat had tirimisu, of course. It was a big chocolate-dusted slab, stuffed with marscapone, but the expected Amaretto buzz was absent. Matt went for what was described as apple rustica. ‘It’s an apple turnover’, explained the waiter, unbidden. A necessary explanation, and an accurate one. Coffee and gossip allowed the evening to trip on cheerfully until it was time for the bill, and another unwelcome surprise.
Calves liver £12.00
Penne con pollo £8.50
Chiaro potatoes £2.95
2 x coffee £3.90
Plus 12.5% service charge £5.63
Matt and Cat are the first to admit that they are a right pair of hayseeds. A trip to The Smoke brings them out in hives and Cat has to replenish her banana guard for the overseas journey. When they were last in London together they spent the day pointing at stuff and taking photos of the Household Cavalry. For the first time, they didn’t take sandwiches, choosing instead to eat at the tourist-trap restaurants on the South Bank. It all seemed quite civilised; the food wasn’t bad – particularly in Ping Pong – but the sting in the tail to this metropolitan adventure was the 12.5 percent service charge added as standard. This frankly cheeky addition to the bill appears to be normal practice in the North Island – and probably the rest of the world, but who wants to go there? At Chiaro, M and C were agog to the point of righteous indignation to discover that this alien practice appears to be establishing its first foothold on the Island. A 12.5 percent charge had been added to Matt and Cat’s Chiaro bill. M&C have very clear guidelines for their own tipping – they will almost always tip ten percent if paying after they have eaten, although paying for food in advance means no tip. Really good service gets more than ten percent. Very occasionally – and it’s probably been three or four times in over 270 reviews – they’ve tipped less or nothing for poor service. So to have it added on automatically is just not good form – especially at the higher rate. Overners and DFLs will probably at this point be scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is about. Answer: this is Ventnor, not London. And it should stay that way, thank you.
This shocker took the edge off Matt and Cat’s evening. The food was actually pretty good, the service was great and the location was simply splendid. But really, these scrimping habits to add extras onto the bill are not on. All four of the party were less than satisfied with this but, mindful of the time and rather than make a fuss they paid up. After all, what’s 2.5%? Hardly worth quibbling over. That’s probably the idea.