Matt and Cat love fast food as much as the next person but occasionally they dust off their gladrags and go posh.
There are several delightful but purse-punishing venues on the Island and, to ensure that you dont come away from your special dinner feeling underwhelmed, M&C are here to help you. They’ve had some truly awesome dinners over the years – there’s no doubt that when the Island does fine dining well, it does it very well indeed. So when the chance arose for M&C to head west and heft cutlery finished with a coating of Viennese gold, they were powerless to resist. Yes. Thats right. Cutlery made with precious metals titanium and gold.
The Island’s newest fine dining venue to open is in one of its oldest hotels, The George, Yarmouth. This historic hostelry was recently acquired by the former chief executive of Camelot, Dianne Thompson, who was proud to announce plans to reinvigorate the hotel and its dining offer. To help her in her quest she turned to Michelin enfant celebre, Robert Thompson. This boyish chef earned his credentials at Ventnor’s award-winning Hambrough and is no stranger to the charms and local food specialisms of the Island. Between them the Two Thommies have the talent and resources to make a decent but perhaps rather staid venue into something spectacular.
Matt (for reasons too dull to explain) ended up dining without Cat and, boy, was she kicking herself to have missed such a feed. Matt reported back that he and his dinner companions had enjoyed a great meal. Inspired by the unrestrained prose of the menu, no adjective was left unturned in his description.
So, what were the specifics of this three-course dinner from the set menu? Well, for a start, it wasnt even three courses – it was much more. Enjoying pre-dinner drinks in the exclusive garden next to Yarmouth Castle, the guests nibbled on dainty canapes, enjoying a view of the Solent that the ultimate bon viveur Henry VIII could have looked across. What would he have made of the tiny morsels of tempura-battered courgette, and delicious ham? If Bluff King Hal knew anything about food – and frankly, his reputation suggests he did – he would have loved them.
Three-course fine dining menu £70
Extra cheese course £13
Grapefruit juice £2.50
Retiring to the newly-refurbished dining room, now called Islas, the party noted the interiors muted colour palette and the subtle design accents that had hints of the corporate. The tables were laid with La Tavola cutlery, positively shimmering in the light of recessed halogen bulbs. It was all exquisitely well-considered and clearly designed to draw focus to the food. No background music, no windows to look out of and no distracting paintings here. No, not even of guitars.
The menu’s description of Matt’s excellent rabbit starter ran to three lines, and the deconstructed rabbit was presented as loin, kidney, liver and leg; alongside pickled walnuts and baby globe artichokes; all suffused with what was heralded as Intense Rabbit Jus. It must have been tricky finding enough rabbits intense enough to be jussed, but surely worth the trouble.
Matts main course was the unlikely sounding pairing of belly pork and lobster – a sort of surf and sty, if you will. And, if you thought beetroot was a dull vegetable, you really ought to come and witness the Thompson magic worked on this modest root. Somehow, despite standing alongside two very distinctive meats, the melange of heritage beets came out as the stars of the show. The earthy taste and vivid colours of the perfect little vegetables were unexpected and unlikely delights.
Amuse bouche, pre-desserts and a bottle of very nice red wine came and went. The three-course formula had already been busted wide open by the restaurant itself; offering what would in some places be called a full tasting menu. And Matt and party had their own anarchy to inflict on this carefully-prescribed dinner. Yes, they inserted a cheese course where on the menu there was none. Twelve different room-temperature cheeses were presented for judgement and not found wanting. Every one was fully described, and even arranged on the plates in a suggested order of consumption.
By this time Henry VIII might have thrown in the towel and retired to his castle next door but, fortified by cheese, Matts gang continued indefatigably to the pudding course. Matt stuck his hand up for glazed rum babas with rum and raisin ice cream and some superbly intense golden raisins. Alongside were big slices of caramelized banana – the whole thing was a masterpiece of deconstruction which maybe owed more than a nod to the humble banoffee pie.
Matt was impressed by the food, and without a doubt, this was the whole purpose of the experience. The restaurant itself is, like Robert Thompson’s Hambrough before it, a reverential temple constructed with exquisite care to focus the diners’ attention solely upon the plate. And there the magic occurs – these dishes are all very highly structured, complex and painstaking. There’s no hint of the simple or rustic; but by contrast there is plenty of intrigue and excitement.
There’s no doubting the high aspirations of the George, but it’s also good to see an informal dining menu is also available, so if you don’t feel like going for the whole experience – or shelling out for it – you can still enjoy Robert Thompson’s work over a light lunch or a casual terrace supper. Still, if you do have seventy-odd quid to spare then it could be you sat in Islas, incredulising over a menu of carefully constructed, deconstructed and exquisitely described dishes. It’s a lot of money, but if you like clever food intricately prepared with immense care, it’s very much worth it.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 1st of August 2014.