Matt and Cat were flattered to be invited to try the Oyster Grill and Bar, a pop-up restaurant at Cowes Yacht Haven for Cowes Week 2011.
At the same time last year they had a delightful experience at Robert Thompson’s pop-up at Northwood House – would this year’s temporary culinary installation pass muster?
Passing up the OGB’s courteous invitation to a preview, M and C just rolled up unannounced – a habit of theirs which, even after all these years, it seems that people don’t expect. There’s a reason why they do this, you see. Even though it might be true that they’d get the best service and food if they went by appointment, they don’t. They walk in, or (if they are organised enough) book a table under someone else’s name, or as a part of a party. This modest subterfuge is intended to make sure that M&C don’t get too big-headed about any of this stuff. But more importantly, to ensure that the experience they write about is comparable to that of a regular diner off the street.
Oyster Grill and Bar is a substantial set-up in the side of the main hall at Cowes Yacht Haven. It has a good few tables and a bar out on the decking, and some inside. When M&C arrived, it was still early and the place was deserted other than a few staff behind the bar. A young chap popped out and, after his guests had considered the bracing wind, showed them to an indoor table with a nice view over the nearby Mahiki Bar.
Drinks were produced, and the polite youngster disappeared to get a jug of water too, leaving Matt and Cat alone to study the menu. It wasn’t a big menu, although it might have been better if it had been, because M&C got pretty bored of looking at it after twenty minutes and no sign of the staff. The appeal of ‘iSpy’ eventually palled, especially when it came to iSpy the prices; over half the main meals had an asterisk where the price should be. In small type at the bottom of the menu was the proclamation “dependant on market availability and price“. This seasonal fluctuation in price may be tolerable in a restaurant which is open all year but considering that OGB is only open for a week how likely is it that the prices will change in such a short period of time? Other permanent venues manage to keep a consistent price on their seafood. Nonetheless, Matt and Cat made their choices. All they needed now was someone to take their order.
Cat, noting that other later arrivals were having their orders taken, huffed out of her chair and went to the empty bar where her steely glare eventually attracted a passing waitress. Orders were made. Back at the table, Matt had been joined by some friends. Service was looking up as a single glass of water arrived – although, to be fair, the waitress then kindly offered a complimentary bottle of iced water as compensation for the delay.
The waiter who had brought their drinks came over and offered to take a drinks order… It may come as a surprise to students, the unemployed and certain restaurant owners that being waiting staff is a skilled job. Sure, almost anyone can carry plates but that’s like saying anyone who knows which way up to hold a pencil can be an architect. Matt and Cat probably had each member of staff come up to their table at some point during the evening which meant that some things were duplicated or forgotten completely. Things like napkins, or cutlery. At these prices, it just isn’t good enough.
The RAF had considerately put on their traditional Cowes Week Red Arrows display just where it could be viewed by those waiting for food. Cat went out to stand in the doorway and observe the aerobatics. Turning to go back to her chair, she was startled by an almighty crash as the big Oyster Grill and Bar sign, which seconds ago had been above her head, fell to the ground landing just where she’d lately been standing – if she’d still been there it would have been an end to her reviewing career worthy of Patches O’Houlihan himself. Cat, though unharmed, was a bit shaken by this brush with death. Her friend, who had been outside with her, was given a glancing blow by the long board on its way down. It says something for the attentiveness of the staff that none of them were roused by this remarkable and noisy incident, nor did they come and deal with it until Cat’s friend hollered for some attention and a waitress wrestled the sign away. And any expressions of concern and offers of reparations? None, actually. Not even another free bottle of water.
Seafood chowder £6.50
Lemon sole £21.50
Langoustine quiche £8.50
Glass of rosé £5.50
Indoors after the excitement of the Red Arrows and the gravity-obeying signage, the starters finally arrived. Matt’s seafood chowder was billed as home-made soup full of fresh fish, shellfish, vegetables and lentils, finished with fresh cream and brandy. This was exactly what he got: and plenty of it. It was piping hot, and absolutely rammed with all sorts of good things – including a good handful of mussels and clams in shells, which would have made a meal by themselves. Big chunks of fresh fish were soaked with a tasty, tangy sauce. A very impressive start.
Cat had fresh buttered asparagus. The half-dozen or so slender browned spears lay regimented on their plate in a little puddle of butter. A combination of the light seasoning, creamy butter and grilling gave them an excellent flavour and the texture was just right – not too woody and not boiled to mush.
Both Matt and Cat enjoyed their starters; Matt’s was particularly impressive. They were less keen on seeing their empty plates sat at the table for longer than the regulation time. Cat found herself humming Hung Up, a hit for stringy disco cougar, Madonna – “time goes by so slowly….”
Now, a moment’s diversion might be necessary here. It’s been quite a while since M&C were obliged to rant about a practice that they thought had died out in Island restaurants. There was a time when ordering veg and carbs separately was de rigeur. No longer. When you order a meal, it should come with all components included, or at least a choice of, say, vegetables, potatoes, or salad. And usually that’s what you get. Maybe Oyster Grill and Bar were unaware of this, or disagree, because Matt and Cat made the mistake of not ordering anything with their main courses and ended up with pitifully inadequate portions. The waiting staff didn’t offer them anything, or warn them that they were ordering half a meal. Even modest eater Cat was displeased with the size of her dinner, and as for trencherman Matt, well, you don’t need to know what he thought. In his case, it was a shame, because his fresh whole grilled lemon sole served with lemon butter was really pretty good. The minuscule salad garnish was just enough to cover the flatfish’s modesty, but the fish itself was perfectly cooked, moist, tasty and simply presented with plenty of lemon butter.
The Oyster Grill and Bar must have been particularly impressed with their home-made langoustine and clotted cream quiche as they trumpeted its presence on the menu in a personal message to Matt and Cat. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Cat, a big fan of The Cream Tea, doesn’t take much persuading when there’s clotted cream to be had. She was looking forward to this dish and had no hesitation in choosing it.
Regular readers will know that Cat isn’t a big eater but when her quiche arrived she was crestfallen. A tiny sector of a modest quiche sat apologetically on the plate with a handful of dressed mixed leaves and a slice of lemon cut surgically thin. The salad was adequate, but the quiche was poor. It was dry, dull and almost lacking in langoustine – apart from a chewy piece which Cat discovered in the last mouthful. Home-made? Perhaps. But that day? Seems unlikely. Any clotted cream had been baked off, leaving the crustacean with the texture of an eraser. It was bland and uninspiring and not worth £8.50. The waiter came over as Cat was pushing the last piece in. “Everything alright?”, he asked hopefully. There was a long pause. “I’ll let you know”, said The Cat pointedly.
Having tweeted their progress throughout the meal Matt and Cat weren’t surprised to find their cover almost blown by the arrival of a small boy. “Are you Matt and Cat?”, he enquired with courteous deference. He explained that he had been eating in the OGB with his parents, who had been following Matt and Cat’s eventful meal by reading their tweets and responded in kind, saying “Portions small & they can’t even cook chips. Red Arrows were good though.” The lad was sent back to his family to confirm that he had, indeed, located the tweeting reviewers. They came over and introduced themselves. Certainly OGB was proving to be a great place for socialising, even if it was necessary to keep an eye out for falling architecture.
It was the end of the meal; and it had been a bit of a shambles. First hesitant service, then none, then too much. The Red Arrows were the highlight, the falling sign was a dangerous low-point. The starters were great but the mains were over-priced and Cat’s was pitiful. They had planned to stay for dessert but were being lured to the Mahiki Bar for cocktails in the VIP area. The arrival of the bill delivered the death blow: £21.50 for the lonely lemon sole. Ouch. Matt enjoyed the fish but at that price he would have preferred it with some vegetables, potatoes or bread, condiments and napkins.
Matt and Cat know very well that pop-up restaurants can be fantastic, exciting and adventurous places – Cowes Week last year proved that. Sadly, this one wasn’t any of those things. With Cowes offering so many other great eating-places and good-value meals, Matt and Cat felt let down by the Oyster Grill and Bar.
Oyster Grill and Bar, Cowes