We are often asked ‘Where is the best place on the Island to go for seafood?’. This is a very popular question, particularly of summer visitors, who seem to imagine that the Isle of Wight should have its equivalent of Rick Stein, Padstow’s dominant fish peddler.
Years ago we might have directed enquirers to the Jolly Fryer, or maybe one of the stalwart chippies, of which there is one in each seaside town. In later years, the Seaview Hotel was our go-to recommendation with its award-winning Focus on Fish menu.
How we came to neglect Cowes’ venerable fish restaurant in over fifteen years of food reviewing is frankly shameful. Holding fast in the town’s high street since the mid-1970s, this eatery has had plenty of opportunities to lure us through its portal; this autumn we finally stepped across the threshold.
An arrival at The Hut, Colwell can be made via the restaurant’s own launch; as graced by celebrities including perma-tanned and perma-frosty-faced Katie Price. No such glamour for us; we had made our way over from East Cowes, via the substitute floating bridge. As we bobbed in the exposed vessel, huddled against the chill, we wondered what it would be like to plunge into the inky swell.
Like the Red Duster and the bar at Seaview’s Northbank Hotel, there is something of Nelson‘s boudoir about Murray’s. Although now painted in cool Scandi-tones (unlike the varnished wood of the other two places), the lounge is panelled with horizontal planks. No surprise, as the eponymous Murray was nephew to boat builder Uffa Fox and allegedly used the skills learnt at his uncle’s knee to refurbish what was then the empty Commercial pub.
Pretty much on the dot of seven o’clock the venue had filled up with mostly, from what we could gather, middle-aged regulars. Oh, how lovely it was to sit in a restaurant and be able to eavesdrop again! The service at Murray’s was friendly and brisk; the doors were due to close at 9.30pm – no wonder the other diners had taken their seats promptly, to fit in all the fabulous fish fare.
We took our seats behind a perspex screen and, with a basket of mixed breads to nibble on, studied the menu. Much has been said of how humans need to reduce their intake of red meat not only for their own well-being, but for the health of the whole planet. Committed carnivores will find a few steak choices, plus there are sole chicken and vegetarian options. But unless you are particularly obtuse, you have come for the fish – as indeed did we.
Pleasingly, the set menu has different dishes to the a la carte; broadening the scope and making choice even more difficult. Careful diners might baulk at the price of the Dover sole (£32) but, unlike the sole Cat ate at Oyster Bar and Grill, at least Murray’s version was served with vegetables included.
The scallop starter was unexpectedly generous. Six favourably-sized succulent molluscs had been seared in butter, and the browned nuggets arranged radially on a leaf and tomato salad. The juice from the pan had been poured over, making a surprisingly delicious dressing. Similarly, it takes some going to out-whitebait the Taverners, but Murray’s made a good attempt with its crunchy, breaded fish and tangy homemade tartare.
Mention of inky swell earlier reminds us of the other decent-sounding starters, including salt and pepper squid, Japanese prawns, and crab and avocado. Next time, perhaps – and we won’t leave it so long, for sure.
Blueberry meringue £6.50
To be honest, it was the wild mushroom and truffle oil sauce which decided Cat on the plaice fillet. Rich and creamy, it held its own with the strong-tasting fish (umami, so the internet tells us). It’s been many years since we actually wielded a fish knife, but this traditional flatware earned its keep easing the white flakes from the soft skin. The vegetables were very good; stand-out were the melt-in-the-mouth new potatoes, supported by nicely-cooked courgette, carrot and green beans.
The daddy of the meal was the swordfish; a slab of grilled steak which could’ve taken on any beef cut for hearty protein. It was mildly-flavoured Asian-style, with notes of ginger and spring onions. The first mouthful elicited a, “That’s really good,” and the compliments kept coming.
Frankly, with all the bread and two courses quite literally under our belts, we could have called it a night. But, hey, what was that towering dessert making its way to the neighbouring table?
Cat’s eyes got the better of her stomach when she ordered the intriguing blueberry meringue with blackcurrant and clotted cream ice cream. It was a spectacle – served with summer fruits. The blueberry meringue didn’t have the gooiness we have come to love from The Pointer Inn‘s breath-taking ‘atomic’ pavlova, but the purple fruit flavoured the pudding’s brittle foundation well.
Finishing our meal just before closing time meant we were able to garner a little of the restaurant’s history, and hear about its resident ghost, a shadowy cat. We were reliably informed that this translucent tom announces its imminent arrival with breakages. Maybe our account groaned slightly as we settled up, but the bank was far from broken.
Like long-established Island restaurants such as Valentino’s and Ristorante Michelangelo, Murray’s must be doing something right to maintain its position on such a dynamic thoroughfare as Cowes High Street. Also, like those and other vintage venues, it delivers a solidly reliable experience. Our meals were made with competence and flashes of flair, served professionally in a peaceful and friendly environment.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Diverse choice of seafood dishes
- Non-fish options too
- Decent friendly service
- Pricey, but worth it