These days the TV spews out task-based fodder such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and if you’re a fan you’ll know that half – if not all – of the pleasure is anticipating the cast. Will your favourite soap star be compelled to dangle from a zip-wire? Will the producers manage to persuade a minor royal, an international movie legend and disgraced MP to throw dignity to the wind?
The razzmatazz surrounding such shows ensures that, almost always, the anticipation is better than the results. Sometimes, a visit to a restaurant is the same. Having heard so many rave comments about Dan’s Kitchen in St Helen’s, Matt and Cat were keen to see if it lived up to the hype. After several attempts to secure a booking, they finally made their way through this new restaurant’s door. So, was their experience an anti-climax, like the presence of teen haircut Frankie Coccozza on Channel Five’s Celebrity Big Brother, or was it a rollicking good night – the equivalent of Prince Harry on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing?
Matt and Cat had visited this place in its previous incarnation as St Helen’s Restaurant. A stalwart in the village, in those days it had a good reputation but, on the times M&C visited, better food than atmosphere. Taking a couple of lively friends with them, they visited the venue of the moment, Dan’s Kitchen, on a Saturday night in January – potentially the deadest time of the season.
Pushing open the door, a rush of warm air and jolly chatter greeted the party. Although the decor seemed pretty much the same as before, the ambiance had certainly been spruced-up. Herds of waiting staff were on hand, and the party was promptly greeted and seated at a familiar wooden table. Matt and Cat were offered the daily menu – presented Taverners-style on a wooden clipboard.
Duck starter £6.25
Pigeon breast starter £6.50
Fillet steak £21.95
Battered fish £9.75
Seasonal veg £2.95
Lemon tart £5.25
Primitivo (bottle) £16.95
Coffee x 2 £4.40
Main courses were definitely on the hearty side – another Taverners similarity – although presented perhaps with more than a hint of the hotelesque (think The Royal Hotel). So on the specials board was shepherd’s pie, and a range of steaks, and the main menu held, for example, roast venison, fried chicken with macaroni cheese, and pork, garlic and Stilton gratin. Matt decided to go with the flow and ordered beer-battered local fish with thrice-cooked chips. As it was all pretty much what Cat would call man-food, she was compelled to make one of her irregular forays into the world of deep-fried fare, and ordered fillet steak also with the triple-cooked chips. A bottle of Primitivo Terre di Montelusa was the ideal accompaniment. Vegetables, they established after some discussion with the waitress, had to be ordered separately. As it turned out the main meals passed muster without the extra veg, so it wasn’t quite the painful necessity that separate side-orders can sometimes be.
The presence of macaroni cheese on the menu prompted a bit of discussion among the diners. For Cat, this dish is a Saturday tea-time meal aimed at the very young or the elderly; basic, cloying and monotonous. One of her dining companions begged to differ; apparently macaroni cheese is taking all of the top London restaurants by storm. It would seem that some chefs are championing this “hottest cuisine trend by adding new twists to comfort food classics, like macaroni and cheese… made with global flavors, high-end ingredients and even truffle oil-spiked sauce”. Fair ’nuff. The patient staff kindly waited while this and other order-delaying debates ensued. Which wine to have, how many starters to order – all were thrashed out with some gentle bickering.
Cat, who was anticipating having a pudding, shared a starter. A delightfully-presented salad of smoked duck breast with mango and avocado was duly split between two diners. There was certainly plenty to share, with half a dozen slices of the tasty tender meat and a good selection of leaves and accompaniments. Matt’s pan-fried pigeon breast with caramelised shallot tart was in a similar vein. A couple of good chunks of pigeon, splendidly moist and tender, on a big, crispy tartlet which was full of sweet, dark, onion: it looked and tasted very, very good.
As the wine flowed, the party took in their surroundings. The restaurant’s understated interior was jollied up with some vivid images of local beachy landmarks. The place had a good vibe about it and other parties seemed to be having an equally good time. Before long the venue was full, or near enough – it’s probably fair to say that if they’re queuing for a seat on a wet January evening in your first winter season then something is going right at a restaurant.
Matt’s fish was a fair-sized piece, with the chips served in what is now a mandatory accessory. Whoever makes tiny galvanised buckets was probably overwhelmed with orders in the last year or so. Dan’s Kitchen delivered the full gastro-chip experience, with the chips served in a crinkly bit of greaseproof paper. Matt thought the chips were good, and the fish was better. Although the tartare sauce was perhaps a little over-dominated by the chopped vegetable ingredients it was still a fresh and tangy accompaniment that Matt appreciated.
Cat’s fillet was a decent specimen. The same bucket of chips came alongside, with the addition of a brace of fresh onion rings. A big fried field mushroom was topped by a grilled tomato, and a tiny jug held some peppercorn sauce – the only choice. It all looked pretty good, and Cat got stuck into her favourite meat experience. The Kemphill Farm fillet was, as it should be, lovely and soft. She was a little surprised to see the steak sliced to reveal the pink interior; still, having had someone else cut up her food for her meant Cat could exert her energies on having a good time. However this unusual affectation didn’t really go down well with one of her companions, who was unimpressed when he discovered his rib-eye steak was similarly dissected. The chips were gnarly, which gave the impression of them being a bit rustic. Cat, hardly any expert on chips at the best of times, didn’t know if this was a deliberate feature or an aberration in the cooking process. All she knew was that they were a little greasier than she prefered.
Desserts came from a small but varied selection. Cat’s glazed lemon tart was presented with a brushed smear of what was probably blueberry, but seemed so firmly set onto the plate it was hard to tell. The tart itself was a perfect example of its genre. Cat’s particularly partial to lemon desserts and she revelled in its acid taste and burnt cream crust. Matt had a vast vanilla panna cotta with blood-orange jelly, topped with a delicious and tangy ball of sorbet. He noted with some satisfaction that his was twice the size of later deliveries of the same pudding.
Coffees arrived, served with remarkably sweet biscuits, which fortified the party for further debates about steak, skiing and social media. Consequently Matt and Cat’s party were nearly the last to leave – waved off by the attentive staff. One thing they couldn’t fault with Dan’s was the warm welcome and cheery atmosphere. Phalanxes of smartly-dressed waiting staff were deployed all over the place, and were more than happy to converse with the diners and answer questions about the food. Service was prompt, but not intrusive. Certainly the logistics of this little venue were working very smoothly.
The kitchen seemed no less efficient. A decent – albeit for the ladies at the table overly-hearty – menu was on offer. Chef Dan’s previous experience was apparent in the way it was delivered, a fusion of smart hotel and gastrogrub. Matt and Cat thought that Dan was perhaps aiming with some success at Jamie Oliver’s demographic – those who want good honest food with a twist of chefliness about it. Still, whatever Matt and Cat thought, it seemed that the people of St Helen’s and thereabouts found it to their liking: Dan’s Kitchen is already a deserved success, and a great new feature on the Island’s food map.
So, back to the laboured reality TV analogy. Matt and Cat’s expectations had been raised and although Dan’s Kitchen can’t quite match the gastro-equivalent TV gold of George Galloway playing kitty to Rula Lenska, it is clearly far from the barrel-scraping inanity of Celebrity Coach Trip with X Factor finalist Wagner Segwaying through Rome. Perhaps it’s best seen as akin to the popular John Sergeant on Strictly; familiar and a genuine contender, with a jolly twinkle that lets you know he isn’t taking himself too seriously.