Ryde is a curious town in layout – a long, thin chain of shops, pubs and restaurants snakes its way uphill from the esplanade – where the visitor arrives fresh from the ferry – thence up Union Street and along the High Street. Typically, the tourist traps, high-class joints and overpriced venues are down the bottom, presumably because visitors with heavy pockets will not want to walk far. Further up into the town the shops become more esoteric, sometimes tattier and cheaper, relying more on locals than on passing trade.
Bucking this trend, a 2007 addition to the further extent of the High Street was Monsoon. Rebuilt on the site of a previous unassuming Indian takeaway, Monsoon is now a large and modern Indian restaurant. It has an impressive presence, with big windows revealing to the street outside coloured lighting gleaming on Ikea-style furniture.
Since 2007 things have continued to go well for Monsoon, and it has become Matt and Cat’s favourite sit-down Indian meal on the entire Island. With consistently good food, a great atmosphere and service, Monsoon has overcome its out-of-the-way location with style. M & C are not alone in this view either – you’d be advised to book if you too want to enjoy Monsoon.
Matt and Cat trotted into Monsoon to give the new place a try. A phalanx of waiters immediately moved in and showed them to a table: proudly positioning their visitors right in front of the gleaming new big screen showing Bollywood classics. Matt and Cat rather ungratefully elected to sit with their backs to the screen, remarking that otherwise it might be a bit like the Wightlink ferry. Good food is not usually made better by television, although possibly the blaring box might distract attention from bad. As a consolation, they were pleased to note that Monsoon’s interior is quite softly lit, making for a more intimate atmosphere and a pleasant change from the sometimes clinical bright white lighting of some refurbished curry-houses. In fact, as the meal went on they began to realise that the soft coloured lighting was, if anything, too much – it made the curry look a funny colour.
The attentive staff brought drinks, and complimentary poppadoms. The smart new menus had the usual range of Indian restaurant essentials, alongside a few more unusual treats such as whole trout or lamb balls. Cat played it safe with chicken korma and pillau rice, and Matt thought to try a favourite, lamb dansak. For some reason this dish was ordered with rice included. It’s a perennial mystery of both Indian and Chinese menus which dishes come with rice and which do not. If there’s any pattern to it Matt and Cat would be pleased to hear of it. A mushroom bhaji to share completed the order.
Sitting back to enjoy the ambience, your reviewers were pleased to note the sizeable restaurant gradually filling with visitors, which gave the six waiters something to do. At around this point a fine old gentleman emerged to take a proprietorial stroll around the aisles – surely this was the owner? So it transpired, as he stopped and passed a few words with some regulars at a nearby table. They were full of gushing praise – “Oh, will you tell us the name of your architect?” pleaded one portly old customer, raising the unlikely prospect that he was contemplating building an Indian restaurant himself. The gracious restaurateur acknowledged that he had brought a designer all the way from Birmingham for the refurbishment. A worthwhile investment, it would seem, by the delight of his customers.
The food was very well-presented, with a (tepid) plate-heater, and beautiful pillau rice served out onto the plate by the teeming waiting staff who queued up to deliver the dishes. Cat’s korma had generous chunks of meat – but with little sign of the normal cream and coconut, and surprisingly spicy. Korma is traditionally the dish for those who really don’t want anything spicy at all, and so she was a little taken aback by the kick in this one. She enjoyed her meal but suggested afterwards that it was more like a smooth curry than a traditional korma. Matt, by contrast, got exactly what he was expecting with a rich, lentil-based sauce complementing the tender lamb pieces. Like Cat’s korma, it was very smooth and homogeneous; but unlike Cat, Matt was anticipating the spicy flavour which was delivered in spades.
Three times a different waiter courteously interrupted Matt and Cat’s meal to enquire if everything was in order. Doubtless the staff’s impressive commitment to customer service was tested by the slightly waspish dismissal that the third unfortunate waiter received, but undaunted, at the end of the meal two different waiters enquired separately whether or not the diners wanted coffee, and finally only one brought a single bill, which turned out to be satisfyingly reasonable.
Monsoon is an unexpected place – a modern, large and impressive restaurant which is positioned well away from the bustling tourist trade. The food tastes and looks great – and it’s consistent. Service is enthusiastic – as is the spice in the korma – but nonetheless it manages to offer food at very good prices. Matt and Cat would be pleased if this development signified a turn-around for the Upper High Street, and other traders followed suit.
UPDATE Summer 2009: It’s still here, and if anything it’s getting better. Monsoon has a new menu with some great new stuff on it. The lights are still unpleasantly purple – and the TVs intrude – but the food is going from great to really exceptional. Don’t miss Matt and Cat’s recommendation – Butternut Bhaji side dish is a great innovation. With a hot, steaming naan straight from the oven this is almost a meal in itself.