Aside from the Bitesize donut kiosk in Newport, Drunken Lobster must be a candidate for the Isle of Wight’s smallest eatery. Back when it was El Toro Contento, about a third of the bistro was taken up with a kitchen, and not an inconsiderable amount of space on the counter was the repository for a rather provocative jamon – complete with coquettishishly-pointing trotter. With its former occupant Pulse no longer beating; number two Pier Street, Ventnor has been resuscitated by Drunken Lobster, a creation of the team behind the successful Smoking Lobster chain (if two restaurants can be a chain).
Perched on our stools at one of the high tables, we took stock of the interior. The previously confined restaurant has been imaginatively remodelled. The kitchen is relocated to the basement, allowing the upstairs to be opened out into quite a reasonable lounge/diner with a well-tended bar – after all, this lobster is drunken! There are sofas under the newly-exposed west-facing rear window, through which should flood warming afternoon light now the evenings are drawing out again.
Having fired our mighty superlative cannon at the magnificent fish dishes when we reviewed chef ‘GC’ Giancovich’s Smoking Lobster, we were delighted to see that the Drunken Lobster menu has a similar seafood emphasis. And, like its sister eateries, there is a distinctly Asian vibe to the dishes; specifically Japanese.
Any sushi, whether decent or otherwise, used to be hard to find on the Island. Then, with full houses for our own dining club Omakase suppers at the sadly defunct Stripped, the ante was well and truly upped. In recent times, both the Cadet Beach Club and Smoking Lobster have served us these elaborate morsels – and now the Drunken Lobster has joined in on the act.
We started our meal with a cocktail; a stimulating lychee cucumber martini, mixed with authentic Japanese Roku gin and lychee liqueur. The designated driver enjoyed a refreshing virgin raspberry mojito. Both drinks feeding the Instagram machine – this venue is gloriously photogenic.
Uncharacteristically ignoring the lamb, pork and beef dishes, we ordered four seafood and one veggie plate. Our sushi was easy to share; no arguing over morsels served in prime numbers like another venue (you know who you are, with your seven jenga chips on a ‘sharing’ platter).
As one might expect, the presentation of our dishes was superb. Four pineapple Szechuan king prawn urumaki were served on a stiff leaf, itself laid on a wooden plinth not dissimilar to a three-toothed geti (a Japanese wooden flip-flop. We are nothing if not educational!). Studded with black sesame seeds, the white rice rolls were topped with delicate herb seedlings. Surfing each piece was a tender prawn, imparting a smoky meaty flavour. As we slowly savoured each mouthful, an occasional powerful chilli spark ignited on our tongues, alongside a classic pickled ginger side note. You could almost feel the flavours; a synesthetic dish.
The food arrived at our elbows when ready. We soon learned to listen out for the chime from downstairs as GC and his subterranean team heralded the completion of another order with the service bell.
Alerted by the Pavlovian tinkle, fish and chips appeared on our counter. Well, we say fish and chips, but this wasn’t your standard cod and fries. In a tall bucket, the most succulent chunks of sea bass were swaddled in tempura batter. We pincered the freshly-cooked fish with our chopsticks and plunged the coated morsels into the accompanying sauce. The viscous yuzu aioli was delicious; perfect with the thick hot fish. Did the citrusy fruit and garlic mayonnaise simulate the squeeze of lemon and the sourness of tartar you might have as condiments with a traditional chippy tea? Perhaps we are under-thinking the alchemy of the chef. It worked, whatever the inspiration.
‘Chips’ came in the form of Lo Bak Go. These enjoyable rectangles of fried turnip cake were unexpectedly fishy; explained by their parchment-like flakes of tuna.
Our second sushi dish was another urumaki (which, for the uninitiated, means that the seaweed is rolled on the inside). Tempura shimeji mushrooms were borne on more sticky rice, with a retinue of crispy leek confetti curls. Another delicate-looking roll designed to be savoured, to enjoy its unfolding flavours.
A final ping heralded the last of our five dishes; katsu salmon on grilled rice. Again an exquisite dish; delicate pink meat, carried aloft on grilled rice surrounded by a moat of mild ‘yellow’ curry. The luscious slices of fish were bordered with breadcrumbs, which delivered salty crystal bursts.
Did we say the final ping? We knew that we couldn’t finish our savoury course without another round of the mouthwatering tempura fish of the day, with its creamy yuzu aioli. And, for a bonus point, a piece of the deeply-dippy sea bass was in the shape of the Isle of Wight!
The dessert list favoured liquid over solid puddings. And in the case of the miso caramel-drizzled baked chocolate, it literally IS liquid over solid. So we shared one of those, plus the only other option which you would eat with your hands – cheese and biscuits.
The baked chocolate experienced a slow creamy caress as ice cream melted seductively over its sides. The dairy combined with sweet and salty miso caramel and, entwined, the sticky creamy combo pooled at the base of the pud. The richness of the chocolate and the salted caramel of the miso sauce, tempered by the cool ice cream, was an indulgent combination.
King prawn uramaki £8
Tempora shimeji £7
Fish of the day £8
Salmon katsu £9.50
Lo Bak Go £5
Cheese and biscuits £8.50
Baked chocolate £7
The first time you have a trio of Isle of Wight cheeses, you might feel a swell of Vectis Pride and congratulate the chef on his ingenuity. The following few times you felt like you were in early doors on what will be The Next Big Thing, and congratulate yourself for being in on the ground floor. Fifty Island-produced cheese boards later and the novelty has worn off; it’s ubiquitous. Or ubiquicheese, if you will.
But local cheese is a strength as well as a weakness (for many). So, not chucking out the baby with the bath water, the Drunken Lobster cheese board, like all twentieth-century jokes, has a trio of nationalities. Isle of Wight Blue, Italian Taleggio and French Comte had an entente cordiale on a rather stylish ceramic platter, with sliced crisp apple, sweet chutney and a trio of a trio of crackers.
Acidic, smooth and yielding; Isle of Wight Blue needs no introduction. The nutty dry Comte and silky Teleggio added texture, tang and taste to the line up. Brittle hexagonal biscuits supported our reclining slices as they headed cheese-holeward.
Our own onward journey approached. Cheeses all but eaten, we shrugged on our coats and settled up. It was not a cheap meal, but the Drunken Lobster had earned every penny. With a riot of flavours; some familiar, others fresh to your tongue, plus Instagram-worthy presentation, our sensory experience was about much more than taste.
Even after sixteen years of writing about it, the Island’s food scene still has the power to enchant us. We are delighted to recommend the Drunken Lobster; this bijou venue has assuredly quickened its pulse.
- A riot of flavours; some familiar, others fresh to your tongue
- Asian-vibe to the food's unfolding flavours
- Superb Instagram-worthy presentation