We recently spent a few days in Southsea. That stormy weekend which whipped Cat’s hair into even more of a nest, and caused Matt to peer at the wind and rain through the fur-trimmed hood of his snorkel parka. We stayed in the Queens Hotel, a landmark building in a twiddly Edwardian style, in the heart of this gentrified part of Portsea. It was great that the building is still very much being used and, in fact, some considerable investment and restoration is underway.
Southsea wasn’t always home to artisanal coffee shops and restaurants selling delicious vegan cauliflower wings. No, back in the early 1980s, Cat was an art student living in digs in this part of town, paying thirty quid a week for a surprisingly decent flat in a grand terrace with sea glimpses and within walking distance of those student essentials – a launderette and a pub. She lived on tuna bolognese and fish finger sandwiches – probably both good brain food for our trainee designer.
Back then, a fish finger butty was all Capt’n Birdseye and brown sauce. The fish fingers would’ve been coated in vibrant orange ‘breadcrumbs’ and the fish itself, a sort of grey mush. Nutritionally negligible white sliced bread was the order of the day for the outer layer, maybe smeared with margarine if her flat mates hadn’t used it all during a late night toast binge.
Nowadays though, like its companion macaroni cheese – cleverly rebranded as mac ‘n’ cheese for the face tattoo generation – the fish finger sandwich has been sexed up. We’ve eaten versions with homemade tartare, rocket garnish and gnarly ‘goujons’ instead of the standard rectangular fish slabs. White sliced has been replaced with ubiquitous sourdough. It’s still a good wholesome dish though and one we’re happy to choose.
And so, when Cat visited Jolliffe’s with a friend on another blustery Saturday in March, while her pal plumped for a sausage bap, Cat ordered the fish finger sandwich.
But let’s not pile straight in with the appraisal of the food. Without doubt, Jolliffe’s is one of Cowes’, nay the Island’s, finest buildings. Its Art Nouveau frontage rightly stops people in their tracks, pausing as they frequently do to admire its green tiles, vast leaded windows and quirky typography on the fascia. Thankfully the building is listed and presumably this extends to the interior’s parquet wood flooring, stained glass and sweeping central staircase. Years ago, Jolliffe’s was a shoe shop and the current occupants have placed various shoe-related artefacts about the venue, including shoes, naturally. All of this heritage and attention to detail make this a place worth visiting for fans of early twentieth century architecture.
But what of the cafe? The service is what particularly stood out for Cat and her pal. The young waiter was charming and attentive to the two middle-aged ducks; and he made several visits to the table and made sure everything was ok in a very professional manner.
The fish fingers were described as ‘jumbo’ and this wasn’t wrong. Three long fingers overhung the brioche bun by quite a way and had to be harpooned into place. Gone are the days of neon breadcrumbs; these fingers were coated in crispy batter and the fish inside was white and flaky. Deconstructing the sandwich, Cat discovered a mixture of fresh leaves and slices of tomato. It’s been a while since she ate a regular-sized tomato as smaller, sweet varieties have been all the rage for a while now. In this sort of dish, a slice was most appropriate.
Jumbo fish finger brioche £8.95
The chips were unexpectedly good; chunky (thrice-cooked?) chips, not skinny or – god forbid, shoelace – fries arrived in a little bowl next to the brioche. Other pots contained a nice perky coleslaw, a good portion of tartare and slightly vinegary tomato sauce, plus two wedges of lemon which Cat enthusiastically squeezed over the fingers (hers and the fishy ones!)
Like the Queens Hotel, itself of a similar vintage, it’s great that Jolliffe’s is still being used, allowing us to access its unique interior. It could have remained closed (as it was for some of the 1990s) or been converted to residential accommodation, but thankfully it hasn’t been. Cat enjoyed her lunch there. The venue was arresting, the food good, and the service particularly noteworthy.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.