There’s nothing we like better than a nice surprise. It’s a treat that never gets old when we wander into some venue anticipating an indifferent meal, and our unambitious expectations are blown away. Perhaps the best example of this in recent years was the tragically short-lived fried-fish wagon of Salty Willy’s Fish Shack, incongruously located in a car park by a derelict nightclub at Fort Street, Sandown. We recall with gratitude those meals we enjoyed once we happened upon this unassuming little van, delighting in the most glorious fresh local fish and the infectious enthusiasm of the staff. Our pleasure was made the keener by our lack of any preconceptions. The joy of discovery is a pure one.
Of course, this cuts both ways. We read recently that our respected competitor, the AA Pub Guide had chosen only three pubs from the Isle of Wight for its 2020 edition: The Taverners, the Seaview Hotel, and The Crown Inn, Shorwell. For the first two we nodded with approval. Solid contenders. And we were excited to see The Crown Inn thrust into an unexpected spotlight. To us, it’s a reasonable pub. We have in the past described it as “uninspiring” and haven’t seen any reason to consider changing our view… until now. Things truly must have taken a turn for the better if the AA’s expert inspectors consider the Crown as a better pub than, say, The Blacksmith’s, Yarbridge Inn, or the Chequers at Rookley. So we were keen to put it to the test.
After a long wait our drinks arrived, and not before we’d overheard the staff attempting to make sense of the table service arrangements. We’d decided to share a starter from the specials board, which featured Cat’s favourite combo: asparagus and poached egg, which was served with crispy parma ham. The tide was almost out on Matt’s pint by the time the asparagus was delivered; it seemed that the delay might have been caused by the stems languishing in boiling water in an attempt to make the stringy ends palatable, causing the rest to pucker and soften. Luckily the perfect poached egg was perched on top, but this was meagre consolation for the undressed spears which managed to be dry, soggy and slightly chewy all at the same time.
Asparagus starter £7.50
Goat curry £15
Crown Burger £15
Maybe the main courses would sort things out. Cat had boldly ordered one of the more unusual dishes on the ‘Country Classics’ menu, local Kingston goat curry. Chilli-shy Cat first pressed our waitress on the spiciness of the dish. Seriously, she likes curry but will only dabble at the korma end of a menu, the range with none or maybe one chilli icon in an Indian restaurant. Reassured by what she heard, she took the first mouthful like a trouper – only to reach abruptly for her drink. Despite being billed as having “a rich aromatic curry sauce”, rather than the flavour depth of a long-cooked curry this dish was powered by hot spice and little else. The pleasant raisin rice was fluffy and full of fruit, there was plenty of fresh coriander. Indeed the goat meat was generous, lean and tender, but the curry itself was all heat and no flavour, so despite stirring in an extra helping of yoghurt raita, Cat lost interest. Matt ate the remaining half but even he had to admit that it had a real afterburn.
The Crown Burger was the most expensive burger on the menu at a startling £15. Alas, that was the only outstanding thing about it. It came with two beef patties that were smooth and bland, in a brioche that was dry fluff. A slice of the mildest cheese did its best to impart some flavour, but failed. This credit for this goes solely to the little ramekin of chilli sauce, which was unexpectedly good.
At this point, our resolution wavered. Matt murmured – possibly for the first time ever – “I don’t want pudding”. Even more unlikely, Cat agreed. “Me neither. It will likely take ages and probably won’t be worth the wait.” We took a deep breath, paid, and left. Outside, we lingered for a while by the delightful duck pond, where vending machines offered food for dogs, ducks and fish.
We felt we’d been bamboozled. The Crown is actually not a bad pub. If we’d gone in there cold we probably would have concluded – as we did in 2010 – that it was underwhelming, but we’d eat there again. The problem this time was the AA Pub Guide recommendation which had us expecting better. The trappings were there: uniformed cheery staff in branded pinnies of muted hues; thickish napkins laid with nice cutlery; homely and dog-friendly surroundings – and yes, those rather alarming prices – but alas the delivery was just not up to the promise. The Crown Inn has got a lot going for it, but not as much as we had hoped. For the money, we, and the AA, could have done a lot better elsewhere.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Plenty of outside seating adjacent to pretty stream
- Homely and dog-friendly venue
- Local ingredients
- Disappointing for the price and AA Pub Guide listing