The question that Matt and Cat most often hear is “Are you guys really fat?”. Well, aside from the fact that Cat is not a ‘guy’, the answer is well – no, maybe yes, in places (mostly restaurants). While Matt is content to lean back in his chair and pat his stomach after a particularly fine mixed grill, Cat mitigates her tiramisu intake with the occasional spin on her bicycle.
The Isle of Wight is famous for its spectacular and undulating landscape. Anyone who has ever straddled a bike here will undoubtedly have encountered a climb at some point but the strenuous uphill bit is delightfully offset as you freewheel down the other side. For the less energetic there are a few flat trails on the Island, mostly on the routes of the old steam railway. One of those cycle tracks is the particularly scenic West Wight causeway, which runs alongside the Western Yar estuary. Having treadled from Yarmouth to the glorious Freshwater Bay and back, Cat drew up at the platform of Yarmouth station – now Off The Rails cafe – which was crammed with similar walkers and cyclists.
Coming to a halt on the cycle track, Cat leaned her bike against the platform with all the other bicycles (surprisingly there didn’t seem to be any bike racks at this cycle-friendly cafe). Spotting a table by the vast patio doors, she hopped in and nabbed it. This proved to be an unorthodox entry; if she’d walked in through the door she would have been properly greeted and seated and given a menu. However, having glanced around then taken a trip to the counter she was fully furnished with a menu and advised that a waiter would be over soon. Cat’s track-side seat was was an excellent place to sit and look across Thorley Brook wetland, as the afternoon sun slowly made its way across the platform.
Further – more relaxed – glancing around ensued. At this point, Matt and Cat would normally trot out some familiar cliche about how the building had undergone a stunning transformation. And, in the case of Off The Rails, this would be undoubtedly true. However, it’s less transformation more a restoration; someone with a keen eye for detail has sympathetically implemented a heritage railway theme. But better. In place of prepacked sarnies, there was a decent menu of ciabattas and hot meals. Instead of plastic furniture there were booths upholstered in reproduction London Underground fabric. Vintage distressed wicker and leather suitcases were stacked on the floor and stowed in overhead luggage racks, and cakes displayed under glass domes, Brief Encounter waiting room-style. Even the staff were in uniforms – though no peaked caps or whistles like Bernard Cribbins’ Perks the Station Master.
Cat was starting to cool down from her bike ride, helped by a chilled glass of Folkingston’s cloudy pear juice. The cafe is licensed: if Matt had been there it’s likely that he would have had an Island Brewery Yachtsmans ale or maybe a cool draught of Estrella.
Trackside sandwich £6
Home made lemonade £3.50
Folkingston’s pear juice £3
Chocolate cake £2.50
Re-reading the Off The Rails menu while writing this review Cat can’t believe that she didn’t have one of the several vegetarian lunches. The ‘Furnace’ dish: baked figs with goats cheese, raspberry dressing and focaccia croutons certainly ticked her box. Or the the ‘Signalman Salad’, a mouthwatering combo of bresaola beetroot, new potato, horseradish and tarragon creme fraiche.
Having made her order Cat was advised of a thirty minute wait; obviously Off The Rails had built up a head of steam with its publicity and was very popular. The ladies at the next table were coming to the end of their meal but were already planning to return the next day for coffee and cake. If they’d felt so inclined they could have popped back later that evening day for dinner. They could even bring their dogs to the meal. Off the Rails is one of the dog-friendliest venues M&C have ever visited: there’s even a special menu for diners’ canine companions!
Cat’s smoked salmon gourmet sandwich, with wasabi and beetroot, hummus and watercress was a good hefty ‘wich. The ciabatta was newly-warmed and quite crispy, but not so hot that the watercress had gone limp. It was served with a decent pile of house-smoked and dressed leaves. Cat was delighted with her dish; the leaves were particularly peppery – more so even than the wasabi and watercress.
Having fuelled up for the rest of her journey Cat vacated her table. The afternoon tea customers had started to arrive. Throughout her meal Cat was pleased to see that tables had been cleared promptly and, despite the rush, the staff seemed good-natured and happy to take time to chat with customers. Even on a return visit for cake, Matt and Cat got the full treatment; explanations about the creation of Matt’s lemonade, a recommendation that Cat have an extra shot of coffee in her frappuccino, plus information on the provenance of the various cakes.
There were a lot of visitors in the cafe and, being on a popular tourist walking and cycling route, the staff demonstrated enthusiasm and knowledge in their ‘citizen tourist advisor’ roles. It’s this extra attention to detail which makes all the difference. Off The Rails has pitched its offering well; exemplary customer service, decent freshly-prepared salads, with interesting and sometimes unexpected ingredients – candied pecans anyone? Just the ticket!
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 29th of August 2014.