Some of the Island’s iconic buildings are intrinsically associated with their previous celebrated occupiers.
What would Dimbola be without pioneering photographer Julia-Margaret Cameron? Can you image Osborne minus the pervasive presence of Queen Victoria? And surely Farringford can only be known as the home of poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson?
But perhaps Tennyson’s old hat now: despite Farringford being his signature venue for over 150 years, someone else is staking a claim. And that someone is confident young chef Justin Brown, who has well-publicised aspirations for his ‘Justin Brown at Farringford’ restaurant. Is this starry-eyed chef a mere a flash in the pan or has he got what it takes to usurp over a hundred years of Tennyson’s association with this landmark property?
Farringford has a long history of attracting visitors, which started in 1853 when the Tennysons set up home there and entertained guests from the cream of Victorian society. Since then the historic estate has been used as a hotel, a holiday park, a golf course and more. Matt and Cat stayed in Tennyson’s bedroom back in 2007 and enjoyed the shabby opulence of the hotel and its Downs Restaurant. But now the building has come full circle; the paying guests have gone and the old house is being painstakingly restored for use as a country retreat. Perhaps surprisingly a major feature of the remodelled Farringford estate is a fine dining restaurant. And as no such venture is complete without a big name chef at the helm the latest star to rise in the Island’s restaurant firmament is the three-times Pub Chef of the Year winner formerly featured on Masterchef, Justin Brown.
M&C had a sneak preview of Justin Brown at Farringford the day before he officially opened his signature restaurant. However, in keeping with their aspirations towards impartiality, Matt and Cat have made another visit – on their own terms and unannounced – determined to review the restaurant as ordinary punters.
If, like Matt and Cat, you expect Justin Brown at Farringford to be, well, at Farringford, you may be in for a surprise. Technically the venue is within the curtilage of the grand house but, as you approach up the sweeping gravel drive you need to keep walking. That’s right, past the mansion with its neatly clipped leafy walls, keep going down the path – to the shed.
It’s quite a fancy shed, in the way the popular Garlic Farm and Briddlesford’s Bluebells Café are sheds, and certainly equipped with better facilities and eco-credentials than most Island homes. The modern garden restaurant at Farringford boasts a waist-level open fire, minimal decor and, in a nod to the noble lord, a few quotes decorating the walls. The venue was not the tribute to Victoriana that one might have anticipated. The ‘stunning views‘ advertised on the website are in fact a modest overview of some tennis courts and holiday bungalows. This could be a deliberate approach; the understated contemporary venue drives all attention onto the food. Well, the food plus the table settings. It seems that signature chefs love bespoke tableware – Matt and Cat first experienced this phenomenon at Robert Thompson’s The Hambrough – and Justin has commissioned some lovely plates and sourced perfectly ergonomic award-winning cutlery.
Before they had too much time to admire the crockery, it was whisked away, replaced by menus. Matt and Cat had already decided to have the eight-course tasting menu but politely browsed the bill of fare’s copious introductory text. After ordering, water was poured, cutlery placed ceremoniously on its solid rests and some bread rolls arrived.
Eight course tasting menu
Confit chicken wing stuffed with Isle of Wight tomato, and Thai salmon and pork belly in panko breadcrumbs
Coddled free-range egg with hazelnut and wild mushrooms
Wild mushrooms, garlic, pine nut pureé, salt-baked turnips and shoots
Locally-shot pigeon breast, sweetcorn, sweetcorn pureé, sweetcorn dust and red wine jus
Thai soup with local cod, mussels, crayfish tails, fresh coriander
Belly of Newchurch pork on Primo cabbage, with salt-baked potatoes and plum pureé
Trio of local cheeses
Lemon posset with gin and tonic sorbet
Vanilla bean panna cotta with blood orange granita
The overture was a warmed slate bearing morsels of fried meat, two for each of the four diners. The canapé-style pre-starters came with no cutlery, so the diners used their fingers to grapple with what proved to be searingly hot and greasy chunks. The Thai salmon was unexpectedly salty, so much so that it caused exclamations from all four diners.
However, points were soon recovered for the beautifully presented coddled egg. Spooned into broken eggshells, this egg and mushroom mixture was fun, tasty and delightful – if again, a little generously seasoned.
As with their last visit, Cat’s favourite savoury dish was the wild mushrooms, garlic, pine nut pureé, salt-baked turnips and shoots. It was a fabulous melange of fungi, complimented by the smooth foundation of pine-nut.
Pigeon breast served with a trio of sweetcorn was next. Around the table the diners found this oddly inconsistent. Some of the slices of game were soft and delicately pink, as they should be, whereas others were not. Of the four dishes served, one contained two well-done end-slices, and two contained shot – a not unexpected but nonetheless unwelcome inclusion – and, a after a bit of game prodding, both the ladies at the table passed up on the course. That was a shame, as the rich bird was complimented by the sweetness of the veg, which was presented as kernels, and also reduced as both pureé and dust. On their first visit, Justin had been keen to show Matt and Cat his kitchen gadgets, including a dehumidifier which turned grapes into the sweetest, plumpest raisins and which could also render sweetcorn niblets to dust.
The Thai soup with local cod, mussels, crayfish tails and fresh coriander was a surprisingly full bowl. It was a generous and tasty dish, with undertones of ginger and garlic. With a successfully authentic Thai feel this dish would not have been out of place at the Island’s epitome of fresh Thai cuisine, Khrua Thai Orchid in Seaview.
The main course delivered a mighty slab of belly pork with crackling. Matt devoured this with pleasure, finding it a flavoursome and delightfully rich combination of textures and tastes. Definitely worthy of the former Pub Chef of the Year. But Cat, always coy when it comes to fat, was less enthusiastic. She gamely chewed her way through a single mouthful of the primo cabbage but found it surprisingly resistant so, rejecting the cabbage, fatty meat and more salt-baked potatoes, she licked up some of the plum pureé and waited for the next course.
The award-winning Isle of Wight Cheese Company rightly has a monopoly on local cheeseboards. The three cheeses, Soft, Blue and Gallybagger were delivered with home-made crackers on chilled slate. Matt and Cat knew what to expect with the cheeses; less certain were the crackers. Like Goldilocks, the diners took a nibble of each. The third? Just right.
The lemon posset with gin and tonic sorbet was top drawer. The sorbet was masterful – the chef had managed to distil and freeze the essence of G&T with ice and a slice. The final course was a second pud, vanilla bean panna cotta with blood orange granita. Again, this was a wonderful sweet; the panna cotta was a perfect rendition, so many times Matt and Cat have ruefully bounced their dessert spoons on a rubbery version. It was complimented by the granita, once more a clever and innovative use of ice. Matt was particularly impressed by the matched dessert wine, which rounded off his meal splendidly.
2 x eight course tasting menu @ £50
1 x matched wines £25
2 x coffee @ £2.50
Throughout the dinner the service was attentive and informative. The four diners were quite garrulous and the waiter was particularly skilled at cutting through the idle chatter to introduce each dish and, for Matt, the matched wines. Every course was preceded by a discreet but efficient re-laying of cutlery and topping up of glasses.
The overall impression of the dinner was that a significant amount of effort had been put into each of the courses, with variable results. The pub chef heritage that Justin brings to his Michelin-aspirant vehicle is both a striking strength and a possible weakness. Straightforward dishes such as the Thai fish broth and panna cotta are strong and confident, needing little in the way of presentational dressing to assert themselves. Either would have been an impressive tour de force standing alone on any menu. In fact, both the desserts were slam-dunks. But it’s sometimes when Brown adds in the taradiddles and extras that designate ‘fine dining’ that he’s not so sure-footed. So, for example, if you’re making home-made crackers, they need to be really, really good crackers to be worth the extra bother. With some complex kitchen technology at his disposal there’s no shortage of novelty. But intrigue doesn’t always lead to awe and wonder. The only time the four diners simultaneously exclaimed was when they ate the very salty salmon canapés. But every diner found something within the tasting menu that they really enjoyed – and that shows promise.
Matt and Cat warmly welcome Justin Brown to the Island and applaud his high ambitions. His talent and commitment is undeniable, and his engaging approach shows a clear intention to appreciate and understand his new adopted county. The result for Matt and Cat and party was an enjoyable and stimulating evening of dining, and Matt and Cat would unhesitatingly recommend Justin Brown at the Farringford. The Michelin road is not an easy one to travel, and one can only salute those who set off so optimistically and publicly upon it: the Island and those who enjoy good dining are bound to benefit from the venture.
Still, a restaurant is more than its chef and kitchen. On the long drive back from their visit to JB at Farringford, Matt and Cat had a very hot debate about the venue. Like the approach to the eatery itself, you think you’re going to get one thing and it swerves off and you get another. M&C appreciate that Farringford is effectively now a private residence – as it was back in the mid-nineteenth century. And, like the house’s celebrated forebear, the owners seem keen to host creative talents, supporting Justin’s exciting start-up on their doorsteps. But somehow it feels odd for the restaurant to assert the direct connection with the Farringford brand. Sure, it is a part of the estate but the restaurant pays little heed to the heritage of the place. Matt and Cat imagine the restaurant back in the house, sympathetically employing a high-Victorian theme; surely Justin’s hearty style could perfectly fuse the new and the old? Give the talented Mr Brown a brief to create some grand Victorian banquets and let Farringford rise again, with twenty-four piece place settings, game shears, seven different forks and nine courses. As for the comfortable shed, it could make a tidy living serving light lunches and cream teas. Come into the garden, Maud? No – reclaim the house!