England is a country simply dripping with history. Colonials, when visiting, just can’t get enough of it – understandably, maybe, as they have so little at home.
The Isle of Wight is no different. Famous as the last place in England to convert to Christianity, later history is equally lively. Can there be anyone brought up on the Island who hasn’t endured the story of King Charles getting stuck in the window of Carisbrooke Castle, whilst trying to escape his prison? And every town has its claim to fame – Darwin, Marx, Keats, Tennyson, Icke and many other great names have walked these shores.
But what about Cowes? Yes, Cowes, the dreadfully celebrated home of yachting. For such a famous place, it’s pretty short on historical namechecks. In fact, there are some living there yet who haven’t got over the snub of Victoria and Albert deciding to live across the river in East Cowes of all places. The shame! So Cowes has to make the most of those connections it does have, and one of the more obscure of those is that in 1874 Lord Randolph Churchill met his future wife in Cowes – and thus the parents of Winston Churchill came together. And where did this portentous rendezvous occur? Why, outside a place called Holmwood House, which is now the New Holmwood Hotel. In complete ignorance of this historical connection, Matt and Cat met there one wet February night 137 years later, to see if the food was any good.
The New Holmwood is a Best Western hotel, which immediately gives it a disadvantage as far as attracting hungry locals might be concerned. Whilst Matt and Cat know nothing of Best Western hotels, not having knowingly been in one before, there remains a kind of blanket suspicion of any chain hotel which leads one to expect lackadaisical service and generic food. Indeed, when learning of their intention to visit, more than one of M&C’s contacts asserted that the outcome would not be good – based only on the knowledge that the hotel was a chain. Matt and Cat, consummate amateurs that they are, hold no such prejudices. So would the New Holmwood prove the naysayers wrong?
Your reviewers climbed the steps to the front of the fairly unprepossessing building. Shaking the driving rain from themselves, they were greeted warmly by a friendly lady behind a desk. In a few moments, they were settled in a comfortable lounge, perusing some menus and sipping pre-dinner drinks offered by an attentive waiter. This was turning out pretty well so far.
The menu had a table d’hôte £22 per person fixed price option, but Matt and Cat soon turned to the slightly more tempting à la carte choices. There were a couple of pages of these – good, solid food suitable for travelling sales reps – nothing in any way adventurous, but commendably including one local beef item. Matt went for the Barnsley lamb chop with black pudding, kidneys and peppercorn sauce. Cat chose duck breast with mashed potato, prune and blackberry sauce.
The hotel was not deserted, although it was Sunday night and raining. A few couples were quietly enjoying the dining room, and next door in the bar the amiable hubbub of voices kept the atmosphere going. The chatty waiter revealed that there was a party of Spaniards watching the football in there. So clearly, unlike some other places in Cowes off-season, the Holmwood can bring them in. In the summer, M&C noted, the dining room would have had a spectacular panoramic view of the Solent – and presumably any passing yachts, should anyone be interested in that.
Matt’s Barnsley lamb chop was a very modest portion, tasty and still pink inside, it nonetheless provided little more than few mouthfuls of meat. Luckily it was generously supplemented by plenty of black pudding and kidneys, which made for a very enjoyable combination. The waiter, when delivering the vegetables by silver service, had clearly sized Matt up because he offered him a copious heap of both roast and new potatoes – in fact all of the remaining veg on the platter. Matt enjoyed his meal. It was uncomplicated and satisfying on a cold winter night. His only real criticism might be the lack of anything but a splash of gravy, but possibly this was a symptom of the very generous potato allocation.
Cat’s duck breast was similar to the Barnsley chop in presentation, except it featured a copious supply of meat laid across a pile of mashed potato. Having had a modest selection from the veg platter before Matt finished it all off, Cat realised she had three different spud types on her plate alongside broccoli, red cabbage and carrots. Cat likes to pick the skin off her duck and proceeded to perform surgery on the bird. Due to the extremely subdued lighting and the slightly blunt knife, her efforts were a bit less Hollywood nip and tuck and more HMS Mary Rose barber-surgeon. But even after this dissection she still had a decent pile of duck to enjoy. The prune and blackberry sauce (which seemed to have had a late substitution of loganberries) was a good rich accompaniment to the fowl.
Having given suitable attention to the main courses, Matt and Cat could not forgo dessert. The pudding menu was surprisingly adventurous. Matt was delighted with some caramelised banana pancake with toffee sauce. This one certainly wasn’t conjured out of the back of a catering delivery lorry via the microwave – it was freshly made. Cat was eventually defeated by a decent baked Alaska with Bailey’s ice cream on a chocolate sponge base. She decided the ice-cream inside the sweet meringue was probably Häagen-Dazs, but none the worse for that. Desserts are often where freezer-to-microwave food is most apparent, but at the New Holmwood there was no indication of this, indeed the opposite seemed to be the case – the puddings were, if anything, better than the main courses.
As the evening drew to a close, Matt and Cat found themselves pleasantly surprised by the New Holmwood Hotel. It clearly was a corporate venue, but despite the dire warnings to the contrary, this didn’t appear to be a burden that was particularly onerous. Most notably the service from all the staff was exceptional, adding to the experience greatly. The main dishes were up to standard and the desserts were a bit more interesting, and it was all well-delivered. As a final bonus, it turned out that there was a Sunday night discount of 20% which made the cost of the whole meal unexpectedly reasonable. Recommended.
New Holmwood Hotel, Cowes