Now that Twestival is over, Matt and Cat have been winched back onto the review horse and are galloping into a town near you.
Saddling up one weekday evening they rode into Cowes and wandered around its streets looking for a place to slip on the proverbial nosebags. There’s certainly plenty to choose from in this picturesque town; Indian, seafood, Italian and even Portuguese. M and C carefully examined the menus of several different places only to be thwarted by the fact that they were closed, had already featured on these pages or they just didn’t fancy them. Cat, particularly, can dismiss a place on a whim and Matt can tell in an instant the mood of The Cat (is her metaphorical tail up? Or swishing?). With this specialist knowledge of Cat’s ‘inclination barometer’ he knew that the Red Duster had caught her eye. Lingering over the menu? Check! Peering in the windows? Check! Taking a pre-emptive photo of the outside? That settled it; in they went.
The restaurant is in a prime position and, unlike some of its neighbours, has managed to resist the homogeneity of ‘modernisation’: laminate flooring, atmospheric coloured lighting and photographs of pebbles hold no truck here. The place has retained a splendid cosy charm and cleverly exudes a nautical vibe but without the oppressive clutter of nauticalia. Having given the place a favourable once-over Matt and Cat were greeted by a friendly waitress – who had been wiling away some down-time by polishing cutlery – and were shown to a neatly-laid table in the window.
The menu, an interesting creation of wood and metal, was almost overwhelming. There were so many tempting offers to choose from that Matt and Cat had to be given more time for perusal. Eating out can be a bit of a gamble, particularly if a rare treat. Often people will have an idea of what they fancy and will not deviate from their usual favourite. Which is why, dear reader, Matt and Cat try to take the risk out of eating out on the Isle of Wight for you. But fear not the dishes on the Red Duster’s menu, they were all worthy contenders with even the most unadventurous diner surely tempted by such offerings as sea bass on red pesto linguine with a Chablis and sun-dried tomato reduction or honey-glazed duck on crushed sweet roots with sharp redcurrant and juniper jus.
For his starter, Matthew was unable to resist ordering roasted Isle of Wight elephant garlic on a Caesar salad with Parmesan crackling. This deceptively simple little dish was bursting with flavour. The hefty clove of garlic was cooked to a point of mellowness and, instead of its usual dry and slightly gritty consistency, the cheese was unexpectedly presented as brittle discs which cleverly complemented the satisfyingly uncomplicated salad. The combination of tastes and textures was well conceived.
Without other fellow diners to observe, M and C had to rely on their own conversational reserves to keep themselves amused. The topics discussed ranged from the congratulatory (review of Twestival), the improbable (what would happen if the council just left the Military Road to take its chances with the forces of nature?), to the fantastic (if you could go back in time and give your fifteen-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?). This last topic occupied the pair for quite a while, in fact so long and so intently that they were slightly startled by the arrival of the main courses.
Cat’s thyme-roasted chicken on blue cheese and bacon dauphinoise was magnificent! A vast breast lolled enticingly on its cheesy bed of sliced potatoes and lean bacon strips. The smell was exquisite; the tangy aroma of the veiny fromage was quite irresistible – so Cat tucked in straight away. Savouring each mouthful she declared that the dish was on a par with those other memorable chicken dishes that have been logged both on this site and in her meat memory-bank. Firstly, the chicken and tarragon supreme at the Woodman Arms, a delicately flavoured dish served in homely surroundings. The second meal in Cat’s ‘Chicken Hall of Fame’ was the sublime chicken korma that she enjoyed at the Lifeboat in 2007. However, the more of the Red Duster’s thyme chicken dish that she ate, the more she realised that it deserved the highest accolade – the best chicken dish on the Island!
Caesar salad starter £4.95
Fillet steak £22.95
Table d’hôte two courses £16.95
Coffee x 2 £3.00
Matt’s rare-cooked fillet of beef with Yorkshire flats, bubble and squeak and crunchy bacon was the second most expensive dish that the venue offered, pipped only by the lemon scampi and crab thermidor with pink peppercorns (£23.60). Fillet steak is always a bit of a treat and the Red Duster’s offering was no exception. Delivered with a necessarily steady hand, the dish was a towering pile; patties of bubble and squeak were used as the foundation, with the lean meat and ‘Yorkshire flats’ forming the upper storeys. It was a superbly playful take on the classic roast beef Sunday lunch – every element a delicious pastiche, even down to the bubble and squeak made with fresh mange-tout and sweetcorn. ‘Yorkshire flats’ turned out to be a kind of freshly-cooked batter pancake that was related to a traditional Yorkshire pud in exactly the same way that the generous hunks of exquisite fillet were related to a humble slice of silverside beef. Matt set-to with the serrated knife and revealed the pink interior of the steak. Even the finest fillet risks blandness when compared with other cuts of beef, but this one was sublimely peppered and seared, offering one of the best fillet experiences Matt could recall. Like the starter and Cat’s wonderful chicken dish, the steak meal was an excellent combination of tastes and textures. A toweringly-generous dish of piping-hot vegetables came alongside, at no extra charge; plenty for the pair to share.
By now the waitress had other patrons to keep her busy but she still found time to tell Matt and Cat about the perils of bringing such artfully lofty constructions, such as Matt’s steak dish, down the stairs from the first floor kitchen to the ground floor tables. She was a cheerful young soul and professional with it – obviously knowledgeable and ready to discuss the menu and the food on it. It might have been more conventional not to have addressed her charges as ‘guys’ quite so often, but this mannerism might be the latest thing that fuddy-duddies Matt and Cat just haven’t caught onto yet. Clearing their satisfyingly empty plates, she offered puddings. Matt was replete but Cat had been saving a bit of room for white chocolate torte with red berries. Two coffees completed their order and they sat back patting their full bellies whilst waiting for the dessert.
Throughout the meal passers-by were seen to examine the chalkboard menus outside the restaurant. There was certainly a mighty choice, including an exceptionally good selection of vegetarian dishes such as field and forest mushroom Roquefort carbonara, and bulgar stuffed egg plant on balsamic and Parmesan beetroot. What’s more, you don’t need to shell out huge sums to get this cracking good food: so long as you’re willing to accept a much reduced choice. The table d’hôte menu had caught Cat’s eye; two courses for £14.95 and three courses for £16.95. There was certainly no diminution in either quality or quantity when comparing the table d’hôte with the pricier à la carte selection. (As it happened it was only whilst compiling this review when the diners spotted that Cat had actually been charged for the three-course table d’hôte despite ordering only two courses. Still, at a difference of £2 it was hardly anything to quibble over.)
Soon Cat’s second course arrived along with the coffees. The white chocolate torte was, like all of the other dishes, beautifully presented and wonderfully tasty. The torte was stained with the red juice of the berries, making it looked bruised. Hefty chunks of white chocolate embalmed within once again demonstrated the chef’s signature style of mixing up the dish’s textures. It was a lovely dessert and even Matt nodded his approval of the tiny mouthful he managed to wrest from Cat’s darting spoon.
Washing the remnants down with coffee, Matt and Cat decided that the Red Duster was a great restaurant at which to start the autumn/winter review season. This venue with its clever and interesting menu, cosy interior and friendly service was instantly proclaimed to be one of Matt and Cat’s favourites before they were even back out in the street. Definitely recommended.
Red Duster, Cowes
- Unusual and interesting menu, worth exploring
- Cheery service
- Good value for what you get
- Great veggie options
- Rammed in high season
- Some of the seating is a bit cosy