Just pass that crystal ball – Matt and Cat have seen the future.
Well, maybe they just made a lucky prediction, but you might recall when they reviewed Bembridge’s excellent Lockslane bistro back in March this year, they said “With the honourable exception of Fox’s, Bembridge has never yet been a Mecca for the Island’s diners, but maybe that tide is on the turn”. Soon after their delightful evening at Lockslane, Matt and Cat became aware that there was another Bembridge eating venue that had undergone a transformation – this time the Old Village Inn. The pub has been subsumed by the local Character Group chain and turned into a steak and alehouse. The word was that the transformation was pretty extreme, and worth investigating. So Matt and Cat were duty-bound to see for themselves – and put to the test their prediction about Bembridge’s culinary trajectory.
Matt’s got a soft spot for a village pub. Although he rarely props up a bar unless he’s about to order his dinner across it, he has a strong respect for the traditional role of the public house as a community asset – which is why it’s always a shame to see a pub turning wholesale into an eating-house: elbowing out the regulars, the dartboard, the pool table and the fruit-machine. And of course, as an enthusiastic real ale drinker, he knows from experience that a well-kept cellar is an attraction that is only ever really found in a working pub. Even Cat, no beer-lover, has been known to sip a fruit-based drink and pick appreciatively through a packet of scampi fries.
With this in mind, Matt and Cat approached the neo-Old Village Inn aware that although the previous establishment probably needed the application of a new broom, it would nonetheless be a shame if the new place simply swept away the old. They need not have worried. The exterior of the Village Inn still exuded the air of the eponymous pub, and inside, a television was quietly showing the latest Euro 2012 match whilst a couple of old blokes murmured into their pints in the comfortable bar. This clearly was still very much a village local, at least in part. A cheerful lady bounded over to the would-be diners, and showed them to the restaurant area of the pub, where as they settled in she gave them an impressively comprehensive talk-through of the menu and specials of the day.
Whilst she was off to fetch some drinks – including a very nice pint of Wight Diamond from Island Ales – another waiter bowled up and began the task of verbally delivering the menu. By the time M&C had realised what was going on he was well into what was an even more exhaustively detailed recitation and it seemed a shame to stop him. So they got the menu again, which certainly gave them plenty to consider. The mandatory chalked specials board bore some tempting offers too. Despite having heard it twice, plus examined a printed version, Matt and Cat still took time to consider the menu. The list of food itself was a good one, short and well-crafted, and clearly taking the steak and ale theme seriously. It even had a diagram of a cow for those who didn’t understand where beef came from, or perhaps to warn off illiterate vegetarians. Actually, if any such ignorami were to examine the diagram, they’d be none the wiser as it was only tangentially related to the cuts of meat on the menu. But no matter – undoubtedly the staff would have been happy to explain.
Matt and Cat ordered their main courses but the waiter was having none of it. After his epic menu run-down he wouldn’t accept such decisive choosing without being absolutely certain his charges didn’t want a starter, maybe one to share? Yes? Yes. Of course. And indeed, he was quite right. A pleasing platter of home-made smoked mackerel and horseradish pâté arrived, with a traditional chutney. It was great. The soft pâté was surprisingly smooth and creamy, with a perfect hint of the usually poky flavour of the oily fish. The promised taste of horseradish proved to be so subtle as to be unnoticeable, but combined with the really tangy yet sweet chunky chutney, and warmed discs of bread, the pâté was an excellent dish.
Mackerel pâté £6
Bembridge crab salad £10.95
Ribeye steak £17.95
Creme brulee £5.45
Apple crumble £4.95
Cat had entered this steakhouse with crustaceans on her mind. She’s highly partial to crab and lobster, and when in Bembridge it would seem almost perverse not to eat them if one gets the chance. So when she quizzed the waiter on whether the Bembridge crab salad could be offered as a main course he was delighted to assure her that it could. In fact, he even popped back to confide to her that the recent choppy weather had kept the fishing boats in the harbour and she’d ordered the only crab in the Village Inn.
Matt wasn’t swayed by the specials board’s very tempting pork loin or pie of the day – he wanted steak. There was a choice of five cuts of steak, all sourced from Woodfords the butchers across the road. The meat wasn’t Isle of Wight beef, the waiter was frank enough to point out, but Scottish beef which the chef found superior. Matt’s rib-eye steak, like the other cuts, was cut quite thinly compared to standard pub-grub steaks, and not a vast specimen either. But this was surely deliberate – whoever was preparing this meat knew what they were up to. The steak was perfectly done, looked enticing, and had a great taste. Matt was very impressed with his meat – perhaps the best meat he’d had since his induction to Hawksmoor in London.
All steaks at the Village Inn are served ‘with French fries, house salad and a choice of sauces’. It was going to be hard for those three supplementaries to measure up to this cracking steak, and in truth, they didn’t entirely do so. The so-called French fries, labouring under an unnecessarily transatlantic moniker, were steak-cut chips of a routine nature. The wholegrain mustard sauce was a good rich-textured addition, but very modest in flavour. The salad was disappointing – because there wasn’t any. Unless a single sprig of watercress – admittedly a fresh, sparky sprig – could be called a ‘house salad’. Matt didn’t notice that he was supposed to have a salad until he was looking at the menu later, by which time it was all too late. So he can’t say whether or not the salad was any good; although he did see one on the way to someone else’s table which looked more than acceptable. But don’t get the wrong idea; the bravura beef was so good that Matt was still more than pleased with his main course.
Cat’s Bembridge crab salad was pretty spectacular. Delivered in a vast bowl, the dish was fabulous. A roughly-scooped pile of crab positively teetered on a big heap of mixed salad. And, unlike some other venues’ apologies for one of Cat’s staple meals, it contained not only a variety of leaves (thankfully no iceberg) but was also laden with chopped peppers, cucumber and raw onion – though surprisingly no tomatoes. The star ingredient (apart from the crab, natch) was the perfectly-ripened avocado. Even though she flicked the raw onion to one side, Cat still didn’t manage to eat all of the salad despite her liberal application of French dressing. The salad also came with optional potatoes and Cat made the bang-on choice of sautéed. The piping hot spuds were fresh, moist and slightly seared – an outstandingly good accompaniment to the soft crab. It was all round a pretty good dinner.
The dessert choice was modest, after all, the Village Inn wasn’t a steak, ale and pudding house. Ice cream featured very heavily, so Matt was pleased to find that on the specials board was a more manly choice: apple crumble. After that great steak he was ready for some proper stodge. Stodge he certainly got – the crumble was so solid that Matt probed curiously at the base to see if it was pastry (it wasn’t). The crumble didn’t make any claim to being home-made, which was probably for the best.
Cat’s Bailey’s crème bruleé had a delicate horizon of brittle caramel. She’d have preferred a thicker spoon-defying crust, but if it had been more robust she may have not been able to access the creamy dessert underneath. Unlike the subtle mackerel pâté, the crème brulée wasn’t hiding its credentials, and had a satisfying and identifiable hit of Bailey’s about it. Served with a separate ramekin of very tasty vanilla ice cream – plus a flake, it was lush.
The Village Inn was a great venue which Matt and Cat really enjoyed. Any nitpicking above should be balanced by the things the Village Inn does really well. Like service – some of the most attentive and thorough service on the Island. And the venue – an unexpectedly successful combination of a working pub and a trendy steakhouse. And the food, of course, the food. That mackerel pâté, those sautée potatoes, and heavens, that steak. Yes, worth the journey for that alone.