This is a collection of short reviews of Matt and Cat’s Christmas meals throughout December 2011.
See our conclusions and recommendations at the end of this article. We’ll be giving out some awards, too:
- Best value Christmas night out
- Best Christmas food
- Top service at Christmas
- Most festive atmosphere
- Overall best Christmas dinner
For a heterogeneous bunch of diners, it seems that curry is becoming a popular alternative to turkey as a Christmas dinner. Matt and Cat joined such a group in Ryde’s Cinnamon restaurant to enjoy their third seasonal spicefest. They were, surprisingly, almost the only diners there that night, which was probably a good thing given the size and liveliness of the party. The staff delivered drinks, starters and then main courses with efficiency, even if the normal yelling and passing around of various plates of naan and pilau was required to get it all sorted.
There was no special Christmas menu, but as a regular meal this was substantial and seemed to please the diners. Matt deviated from his normal balti favourite and ordered biryani, which came prettily presented as a little mound of rice decorated with carrot and cucumber. It looked embarrassingly small, until the accompanying vegetable curry turned up, and along with some of Cat’s naan bread plus okra and mushroom bhajee side dishes, proved to be plenty. Cat stayed in her comfort zone and tried the Cinnamon chicken tikka masala, which she knows from long acquaintance never disappoints. The drink flowed, the food was hot and tasty, and the company was highly entertaining. Overall it was a satisfactory experience, albeit not a conspicuously festive one.
King’s Spice, Bradford-on-Avon: 20 December 2011
No review, just this tweet!
Boathouse, Puckpool: 19 December 2011
The former Battery Inn has seen many changes in recent years.
A decade or so ago, if it had been a Christmas present, it would have been a walnut in a sock. Following an extensive refurbishment its gift equivalent was Elizabeth Duke jewellery; shiny and alluring but not long before it tarnished. The current owners have worked hard and turned the coastal pub into a destination restaurant and – to labour the pressie analogy one last time – they give you a cashmere sweater; cosy and comfortable with more than a hint of extravagance and class.
Cat and her book club rolled up to the Boathouse for their Christmas get-together. Unlike the other venues reviewed on this page, there was no sign of a festive set menu but there was a dressed tree and a warm atmosphere; very conducive to a seasonal supper. Most of the party chose from the tempting specials board. Cat’s head was turned by pan-fried chicken with sautéed potatoes and mushroom fricassée. The dish was delicious; an excellent medley of mushrooms sheltered under a brace of tender chicken breasts, with a small pile of sautéed spuds (Cat’s favourite sort!). Another of her must-haves was on the dessert menu, orange panna cotta with honey-roasted figs and orange segments. Not quite a traditional figgy pudding but near enough. It, too, was delicious.
Northbank Hotel, Seaview: 18 December 2011
A full separate review of Christmas at the Northbank is here. Matt and Cat were very impressed with this quirky venue, which was, as everyone had promised, a real trip down memory lane with genuine 60s and 70s style in both the hotel and the food – not to mention the very reasonable price.
A polite waitress in a traditional pinny shepherded Matt and Cat to their table, which was all laid out ready for the feast, with crackers, candlesticks and Christmas decorations. A simple menu was waiting, and bore everything you might expect if you were dining out in 1972. Matt and Cat soon realised the other-worldliness of the Northbank was genuine enough. Somehow they did not mind that the cutlery and crockery did not match – either around the table or within each place setting. M&C discovered that old-fashioned food need not mean skimpy or slapdash – if anything, the opposite. The meals were presented simply, but with care and style.
Bengal Palace, Newport: 17 December 2011
Some people imagine that Matt and Cats’ names swing restaurant doors wide open, the red carpet unfurls and M&C are seated at the table furthest from the toilet, with smiles and handshakes all round. The truth is that venues, if they even know who Matt and Cat are, rarely seem to go out of their way. Which is as it should be.
When they were invited to the Bengal Palace for Christmas dinner, Matt and Cat were aware that their hosts knew the proprietor and were slightly concerned that their cover would be blown. If that was indeed the case, M&C’s egos have been spectacularly deflated as no special treatment was forthcoming. At least, one hopes not.
Two and a half hours after being seated, the main course arrived. The disgruntled diners were considering phoning for a takeaway and getting it delivered to their table in the hope they’d be fed quicker. If it wasn’t for the graciousness of their host who, like a playscheme leader, kept her charges from throwing tantrums by distracting them with a quiz, they would have walked long ago.
The waiters finally flourished an array of unnamed dishes, apart from one which was given the grand title of “this one’s meat”. Cat, who’s a bit of a chilliphobe, was keen to find out which dish, if any, would be the one for her to avoid. “We don’t know what these dishes are”, she suggested to the waiter. “That’s ok”, he responded flatly. “We’d like to know”, pressed The Cat. “You will when you taste it” came the enigmatic reply.
Matt and Cat did not really enjoy their meal at the Bengal Palace. From the lack of heating to the unexplained dishes and epic delay between courses it was frankly disappointing. The different curries were not overly thrilling although the naan bread was quite nice. On the plus side, the staff – when they showed up – were very friendly and accommodating, and as M&C’s friends had made a good effort by organising crackers, games and party favours the company was great.
William Coppin, Newport: 16 December 2011
Since it opened, the William Coppin (Wetherspoon’s) has been the Christmas dinner venue of choice for Newport’s office workers.
This vast venue, conveniently located by a large car park, is as cheap and cheerful as an Internaçionale party frock and equally able to accommodate a large body. Although Cat and her colleagues have enjoyed uproarious parties at this budget chain pub, this year they went to Yelf’s. Matt’s team was not so discriminating and booked up the Coppin for their annual shindig once more. Cat came along too.
Christmas dinner at the Coppin is a slick operation. Once the party was seated, the staff bustled about dispensing starters. As always with a pre-ordered dinner there was some confusion as people scraped the dark recesses of their minds trying to remember what they’d ordered way back in August. This led to a few hiccups but generally the dishes were dispensed to the right diner.
Cat had exactly the same choices as in the review of 2009 and, as before it was all quite satisfactory. The paté starter was delicious and smooth, the salmon main course was tasty and hot; served with a generous salad and some pretty good chips. This year’s cheesecake was vanilla baked with a generous sauce of fruity berries. Not the lightest of puddings but tasty despite its bulk.
Matt had a starter of Stilton and broccoli soup, which was warming and substantial, served with some crunchy bread and plenty of butter. His main course – roast turkey – was insipid at best, but featured ‘all the trimmings’ in miniature – even down to a ball of stuffing the size of a quail’s egg.
The Coppin is unlikely to win awards for its cuisine, the cleanliness of its crockery or its undrinkable coffee. Where it excels is in its relentless ability to deliver meals to a crowd of party-goers on a tight budget. With a very purse-friendly price which included a free drink, plus a post-dinner disco, it’s easy to see why ‘Spoons is a popular venue for the novelty Santa tie and musical earrings-wearing crowd.
Quay Arts Centre, Newport: 15 December 2011
This was Matt and Cat’s Dining Club December event, and the night of the infamous chicken in a basket. Read more here. As this was very much a special event and not a Christmas meal, it isn’t included in our Christmas awards.
Olivo, Newport: 10 December 2011
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you can’t help but have noticed that Matt and Cat love Twitter. As well as being a mechanism for sharing pithy comments about their days, Matt and Cat have found Twitter to be a great medium through which to find new friends. And it was with a group of local twitterers, or tweeps, that they had their second Christmas dinner of the 2011 season at Olivo, Newport. This town centre restaurant is a favourite of Matt and Cat’s, serving consistently excellent food. How would the venue cope with a large group?
Thankfully the party had pre-ordered and the diligent waiter shouted out the names of the people as he brought the food. Cat forewent a starter but Matt had Sicilian arancino of rice, beef, porcini mushroom and saffron, pea and pancetta sauce. The crunchy ball, topped with its bacony pancetta hat was deep-fried, hot and meaty, with a great exterior – although the minced beef innards were not a million miles from cottage pie. The stand-out starter was the antipasto; a generous platter of meats and cheese. Cat’s salmon en croute was wittily presented, in its fish-shaped puff pastry with a slice of olive for an eye, it winked seductively from the plate. It was delicious; warm and tasty and stuffed with with olives, fresh tomato, chives and garlic and served with a creamy lemon and basil sauce and buttered broccoli. Matt’s roasted pork fillet momentarily confused him as it was presented in a lamb-like way, with a sprig of rosemary beckoning from the potato mash. Alas there were no accompanying vegetables but it was served in a puddle of fennel and Parma ham confit. The meat was good, but the meal seemed somehow incomplete.
Three course dinner £22.50
(plus 10% service)
Between courses the #WightChristmas crew pulled crackers, admired each others’ outfits and swapped secret Santa gifts. The guests were mostly from a Twitter-based book club so the gifts were suitably literary (apart from ‘The Loo Companion’). Desserts arrived. Cat had ordered panettone and butter pudding with crème Anglaise but decided she preferred the look of the spiced apple tart with mulled wine ice cream and managed to negotiate a swap. It may have been a mistake; the tart lived up to its name and was extraordinarily acidic, almost too much.
Normally spot on, Olivo did a reasonable job of serving up simultaneous dinners for the party of sixteen. However, there were some grumbles about cold food and Matt’s lack of veg was a surprise and disappointment. He also stayed stone-cold sober as his request for a pint of cider was lost in translation – he ended up with a liver-friendly pint of soda.
Yelfs Hotel, Ryde: 9 December 2011
Those of you who work for an organisation will know how tricky it can be to reach a consensus on anything, particularly the delicate matter of where to go for the works Christmas party. To avoid the trauma of trying to accommodate the exacting needs of everyone, Cat’s firm’s shindig was booked pretty much without consultation. Despite sounding a bit undemocratic this worked very well, meaning that the staff could concentrate on other equally trivial matters. The chosen venue was Yelf’s Hotel.
As is typical, all diners had pre-ordered their food some weeks before so it was a surprise to some what they had on their plates. Cat’s starter was leek and mushroom quiche topped with rocket salad, served with tomato and basil sauce. Tasty enough, although it seemed a little odd having the quiche sat in a soupy pond. For her main course Cat had opted for saddle of lamb, apparently the most expensive bit of the animal. Perhaps she’d been spoilt by fine dining at the Royal Hotel and the Pointer Inn, both venues had recently served her exquisite meat – lean and creatively cooked, in either a confit or some other way. Once she’d peeled off the wide outer ring of fat from her Yelf’s lamb there was just a tiny inner nugget of lean meat left. The chocolate and Greek yoghurt terrine was met with some head-scratching from around the table; was that a slab of smooth pâté nestling under a compote of winter berries? It wasn’t, of course, but it also wasn’t the most interesting or tasty of desserts, having the flavour and texture of a pot of chocolate mousse.
Cat wasn’t the only one slightly disappointed with her meal. Although the tables were nicely laid and decorated with party poppers and ubiquitous (if cheap as chips) crackers, the food didn’t quite cut it as a sophisticated meal in the town’s most distinguished and historic hotel. However, the DJ almost made up for it with his old school tunes and Cat soon forgot her dinner as she squatted down on the floor to row in time to that dance classic from 1979 ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ (a bit like this. By the way, trivia fans, it’s possible that this ridiculous dance originated at Wootton!).
Matt and Cat enjoyed no fewer than eight Christmas dinners at pubs and restaurants over the festive season (with at least one more to come!). And that’s not including at least half-a-dozen others in the houses of friends and relations – nor even the splendid repast Cat cooked up on Christmas morning when she blew the dust off her Baby Belling for its annual steam-up. Despite this marathon effort, they can hardly claim to have reviewed every Christmas dinner on offer on the Island this year – very far from it. But nonetheless they’ve certainly given it a good go – at least, as far as their belts and wallets would allow. So with that big caveat they’ve taken the step of highlighting a few of the visited venues for particular awards.
Best value Christmas night out
It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, and, oh, did you hear about how cheap it is? The William Coppin, Newport, wins the “Best value Christmas night out 2011” award. At a soupcon under £11 for three decent-sized courses, including a choice of drinks, plus free disco afterwards, this is so much cheaper than the competition it’s mystifying how they do it.
Best Christmas food
A hard category to judge, with some strong showings from several places. The likely favourite, Olivo, Newport, was most surprisingly not a contender. Cat was delighted with her salmon en croute but others in the party, including Matt, were slightly disappointed with their dishes. By contrast the splendid 1970’s lunch at the Northbank was a particularly close runner-up here. Although not technically from a festive set menu, Cat was nonetheless very pleased with her dinner at the Boathouse Springvale. The quality was great, the tastes delicious and the choice varied. The Boathouse takes the laurels for the “Best Christmas food of 2011”.
Top service at Christmas
Service is such a personal matter, this is a very subjective category. Olivo and Cinnamon met their normal high standards. The friendliness of the staff at the Bengal Palace was beyond reproach, but amiability needs also to be combined with efficiency. The place where this was best exemplified was the Northbank Hotel, Seaview. Nothing was too much trouble and the staff couldn’t have been more accommodating. This wonderful throwback of a hotel richly deserves its “Top service at Christmas 2011” award.
Most festive atmosphere
Christmas parties are not just about the food, and some places really add value by including music, dancing, crackers and other entertainment. The William Coppin did this very well, as indeed it does most nights of the year. But Cat’s works party at Yelf’s, lubricated by the indefatigable DJ, was the clear winner of the “Most festive atmosphere 2011” award.
Overall best Christmas dinner
Matt and Cat had some debate about which venue was the overall best Christmas dinner. It came down to a pair of likely contenders; the quaintly anachronistic Northbank Hotel and the town centre chain pub, the William Coppin. With these two diverse establishments it was not easy to compare like-for-like. A big group of colleagues looking for fun would be best advised to head for the town: the Coppin certainly sweeps the board for a lively knees-up at bargain price and is centrally located with a big car park and near the bus station. But for a family Christmas meal the Northbank’s unique combination of personal service, homely environment and comfortable, old school food gave it the edge, and so the Northbank is the winner of Matt and Cat’s “Overall best Christmas dinner 2011” award.