Think back to your childhood, and one of those family days out to meet the relatives. If you’re anything like Matt and Cat, such a visit would have either been the best thing ever, or a dismal chore that nobody looked forward to. Some relatives always seemed to be worth the journey – others you just knew would be a bore.
That’s the way it is with re-reviews, too. Matt and Cat have been buzzing around commenting on their dinners since 2005, and so some of their reviews are admittedly a bit long in the tooth. But there are a few that just keep on getting put off. Falling into this category is the Hare and Hounds. A big family dining pub, at a focal location, the place should have everything going for it. On top of that, it was a venue with good memories for Matt, who spent happy teenage evenings propping up the bar and sipping daringly on Watney’s Red Barrel. When they first reviewed it back in 2007, Matt and Cat found the Hare and Hounds to be satisfactory, if uninspiring.
In subsequent years, comments on their review showed a consistent rising tide of disapproval – remarks such as “the worst the Island has to offer”; “VILE”; and “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!” Even stalwart commenter da yw wyth – normally the most temperate of critics – was moved to say “the main let-down was the food itself”. It was perhaps to be expected then, that Matt and Cat somehow didn’t get around to making a revisit themselves. Clearly things were not going well at the Hare and Hounds, and it was no surprise when it closed down in late 2012 for a major refurbishment. But what would the new incarnation be? Could hospitality behemoth Greene King turn the pub around? Soon after it reopened, a few comments seemed to suggest that it had – and da yw wyth said “the refurbishment certainly has made a gigantic difference!” That was enough for M&C, and they were finally galvanised to make that long overdue revisit to the Island’s highest pub.
Once upon a time the Hare and Hounds was probably a tiny downland cottage. Vestiges of it remain but it has been extended and expanded, titivated and madeover to become a pastiche of the English pub. Wooden beams, cosy nooks and even a resident skull with its fanciful tale of child-murder and execution lend the place faint air of historic authenticity, although these days that air is thin indeed.
Matt and Cat bimbled through the pub’s labyrinth of rooms before settling into a corner. The menu, typically for Greene King, was a riot of adjective-rich options and irresistible deals spread over reams of cards and sheets – a few of which were in this case rather roguishly held together with an old-fashioned paper-fastener. With a specials board as well, there was certainly a lot to choose from. Following the ‘when in Rome’ principle, M&C considered the “Get spicy for only £7.45 every Wednesday” menu, before finally electing to pick from the “2 main courses for only £9.95” menu. This had a simpler selection of meals on it, from which Matt had award-winning hand-battered haddock and chips; and Cat – who agreed to pay an additional quid – had farm-assured chicken breast smothered in a rich cheddar and Tewkesbury mustard sauce.
Matt bought some drinks and placed their orders at the repositioned bar. Although he wasn’t given any indication of the wait for food, he overheard the next customer being told that it would be forty minutes. Thus it proved, as the bargain-priced main courses arrived almost exactly forty minutes later.
The question arose as to how the ‘award-winning’ haddock and chips could possibly have won any awards, as the pub had only been open a few weeks. Careful scrutiny of the tiny award badge on the menu divined that it said ‘National fish and chip awards 2012’. By the wonder of mobile internet M&C discovered that such an award had indeed been granted in January 2012, with the winner of the “Best Foodservice Outlet Serving Fish and Chips Award” being Old English Inns, Greene King plc, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. So not quite the Hare and Hounds itself, but a distant parent body, over a year ago. A fairly tenuous link but that’s the world of “Foodservice Outlets” for you. Perhaps more to the point, how was the haddock? Actually, not too bad. The plate it came on was not entirely clean, but then nor is newspaper and nobody minds eating fish and chips off that. The fish tasted like haddock and was hot and well-battered, let down only by a plethora of bones. Chips and salad passed the adequacy test without too much difficulty, and if the lemon slice was a little elderly, there was always the generic tartare sauce to drown it all in – and the serving of mushy peas was simple fun in the way that mushy peas should be. Overall a good effort for the low price.
The chicken breast was more Keira Knightley than Jordan. Cat shouldn’t have expected to be furnished with particularly pneumatic breasts: the day before she’d coughed up more money for a modest crab sarnie at Gossips. But this is bird-appetited Cat we’re talking about here; it’s almost unheard of for her to complain that her dinner is too small. Still, as indistinct as the meat was (particularly once she’d removed the skin), its cheddar and mustard sauce made up for it in flavour. The salad garnish was a pleasing mix of lambs lettuce and other leaves, a scattering of cucumber, and a single bisected cherry tomato, all dressed in a vinaigrette. The potatoes may have been new when Michal Morey was hanging from the gibbet but they did not look especially sprightly as they languished on Cat’s plate. Anyway, Cat ate it all but wished that there had been more of the sauce to help lubricate the chicken – she resorted to anointing the breast with Matt’s tartare sauce instead.
Haddock and chips / Chicken main courses £10.95
2 x desserts £5
The diners had taken up the optional desserts for £2.50 of which there was the choice of two. They turned out to be pretty much the same thing, albeit different colours. Syrup sponge pudding with piping hot creamy custard was orange spongy stuff with yellow hot stuff in a jug: warm chocolate and caramel fudge cake with double cream was brown spongy stuff with white cold stuff in a jug. Both puddings had the bland texture and taste of a dessert that costs £2.50. Increasingly Matt and Cat have found that in general, chocolate fudge cake has reverted from something that is moist and naughty to the inconsequential aerated relic unexpectedly resurrected from the days when Jimmy Savile was only famous for being a DJ. Why this mediocre industrially-manufactured sponge continues to appear on the menu of any pub or restaurant is unknown.
On the way out, Matt and Cat stopped to pay their respects to that elderly acquaintance which had inspired them in their last review to describe the Hare and Hounds as “The Island’s (and possibly the world’s) only capital punishment theme pub”. High up on a shelf and well hidden behind some protective bars still grinned the gap-toothed skull of Michal Morey, the original child-murdering, billhook-wielding bogeyman of Arreton on whose notoriety the Hare and Hounds has traded for centuries. The refurbishers must have been tempted to put away this last, macabre connection with the original pub, and so Greene King deserves a tip of the hat for retaining this dubious bit of local folklore. Praise too, for a very much needed revamp of the Hare and Hounds. The prices are rock-bottom and service was friendly, so some real improvements there and, judging by the comments on this website and others, long overdue. The pub itself has taken a turn for the better even if the food hasn’t particularly – and really, a forty minute wait for food of this calibre is still too long.
The renovated Hare and Hounds will succeed as it is part of the mighty Greene King (Old English) portfolio. It’s in a prime location with decent family-friendly facilities – and these things are attractive assets to any pub. The chain pub strives to deliver a homogenised experience; the Suffolk sausage that you enjoyed on the mainland is also the banger on offer on the Isle of Wight menu, despite the very local award-winning sausages that the pub could have used. However, the strength of being part of a national chain may also be the venue’s weakness. Other nationwide pubs have found themselves inadvertently serving horsemeat and, although they have responded with due haste, there must be quite a complicated supply chain to unravel. Independent pubs and restaurants have the ability to be more reactive to market trends and support local suppliers. They often benefit from the use of locally-provenanced food, which is in demand as diners are discovering the hard way that real local food can actually be the best food.
Gourmets, and those who enjoy a leisurely meal with seasonal ingredients and true local provenance, will probably find better, if pricier, dining elsewhere; if you fancy some better locally-sourced pub grub in a child-friendly environment you should probably still go to the Fighting Cocks. But for a large family group on a budget the Hare and Hounds must now be a very tempting offer – especially with Robin Hill Adventure Park so close by.