When Matt and Cat visited the Michelin-starred Hambrough in Ventnor back in 2009, they were stunned by the superb food, describing it as “alchemical… outstanding and clever”. The venue and service, though, they found “a bit soulless”.
So your reviewers were excited this year when they read chef-patron Robert Thompson’s unexpected words in Island Life magazine: “I can’t stand ‘fine dining’… Now it’s all about enjoying your evening, relaxing, having a right good laugh.” It sounded like a far cry from the austere, exquisite perfection of the Hambrough. Was Thompson about to open ‘Honest Bob’s Pie and Eel Stall’? Not quite: but as it turned out, he was as good as his word, and has dramatically produced another, very different dining tour de force this summer: a pop-up restaurant in the crumbling edifice of Northwood House, a stately home in the heart of Cowes.
The pop-up restaurant is the fashionable thing this year, daaahlings. So very of the moment – and Cowes Week 2010 features what must be one of the most impressive venues ever for such a Zeitgeisty way of eating. Thompson is putting his name forward again, quite literally, for a dining experience unique on the Island. His team will be providing diners with a full lunch and dinner menu, plus cocktail bar, in the decaying splendour of the grand house for just a few short weeks during July and August – before the whole lot becomes a fond memory, like a holiday romance. And it’s not just for fun: some of the profits go towards the upkeep of the historic house and park.
After Matt and Cat had a discussion on Twitter, the proactive folk at this new venture followed it up, and by the magic of social media invited Matt and Cat to come along and try the restaurant for themselves. Flattered, although deprived of their normal incognito approach, your reviewers set off to see what Mr Thompson had to offer.
Anyone who knows Northwood House will be aware of the problem of getting into it. After a few false starts, Matt and Cat found ingress. They were immediately greeted by a courteous member of staff and shown into the bar area for drinks. Tables outside on the grassy terrace were bedecked with parasols and enticingly flickering candles, the sound of laughter and the clink of glasses drifted in through the huge open casement windows, and the ultra-cool ambient lounge sound of Gotan Project spilled from a robust sound-system. Busy staff passed to and from the garden, with trays of glasses and ice buckets. This all seemed an intriguing and relaxing contrast to the asceticism of the Hambrough.
Aware of the rapidly setting sun and the associated cooling of the air, Cat voted for a seat in the opulently appointed lounge. Portraits of the great and good looked down; Matt and Cat imagined that Lord Louis Mountbatten and his nephew Prince Philip would have approved of such diversity and enterprise in the old house.
Menus arrived, and yet another engaging and courteous member of staff soon followed to enquire about drinks. Now, this particular evening Matt was recovering from man-flu and was entirely off the alcohol – so he had to most reluctantly waft away the impressive range of cocktails that were on offer. Cat was saving herself for dinner, and so they asked whether non-alcoholic cocktails could be prepared. This was gently corrected to ‘mocktails’, and in a few moments two different perfect, icy, fruity concoctions were gracing the table in front of them.
The dinner was a set price for three courses, and, as might be expected for a pop-up endeavour, advertised a small number of enticing dishes. Fish and seafood featured prominently, although there was little sign of any locally provenanced dishes except the slightly vague ‘local’ lobster. Whilst Matt and Cat were pondering, an unexpected early amuse-bouche arrived in the form of two glasses of tomato gazpacho topped with cucumber foam. The maitre d’, who delivered them with a flourish, prudently advised his charges to finish the fruity mocktails before making a start on the gazpacho.
Matt and Cat sipped their delicious appetisers and soaked up the atmosphere, and before long were invited into the dining room where they were the first party to be seated. This vast chamber was hung with swathes of fabric, huge seascape oil paintings and glittering chandeliers. Windows on three sides allowed views across the lovely parkland, and guests enjoying the terrace strolled by, cocktails in hand.
After Matt and Cat had picked from the menu, the somellier came by to tempt them with wines – and was almost comically crestfallen to discover that Matt was off the sauce. But undeterred, he undertook instead to order Matt a suitable mocktail from the bar. Cat, however, had no excuse and took little persuasion to be offered a glass of red wine.
Then, after such auspicious auguries, it was time for the food itself. Cat’s starter was a pressing of black leg chicken with foie gras and truffle, served with a toasted brioche. The little roundel of meat had a mighty slice of real truffle on top of it – the distinctive earthy aroma of the dish grabbed the attention as it arrived on the table. The chickeny disc fell apart at the probing of Cat’s fork and she nibbled at the flaky meat, enjoying its peppery garnish and complementary apricot chutney.
Matt received with delight a carpaccio of seared venison loin with Stratta raspberry vinegar, lightly pickled vegetables and wild watercress. Carpaccio turns out to be, rather daringly, a kind of raw meat dish, and accordingly had a rich purple-red colour and superbly gamey taste to it which was well-countered by the strong flavours of the accompanying greens and pickles.
Whilst Matt and Cat enjoyed their starters, a large group of diners arrived from the lawns outside and were seated at a central table. The big room filled with chatter and atmosphere, and veteran celebrity-botherer Cat nudged Matt excitedly when she spotted one of Cowes’ most famous residents, former broadcaster Kenneth Kendall.
Matt’s main course was a pan fried fillet of sea bass, which came with a generous dollop of clam risotto, and sauce vierge. This looked and smelled great, and the scent of the freshly-chopped parsley that lay on the side transported Matt, Proust-like, back to his parents’ garden in Sandown, 1971. The risotto was exactly as it should be: the clams were tender morsels, not rubbery grommets. Instead of the glass of dry white wine that he would normally have had to hand, Matt instead had been provided with his mocktail from the bar, which, apparently, had been created by the ‘mixologist’ especially to go with the fish. It was a good-looking drink, with a tall slice of cucumber and a couple of grapes perched cheekily on the side. Bubbles rose lazily in the tall glass, and when Matt sipped sipped gingerly at it he suddenly realised that another piece of magic had been undertaken right beneath his eyes. Apple, grape and cucumber together created a clear, light drink that was an unexpectedly great – and non-alcoholic – answer to the question posed by the splendid fish. This was impressive stuff indeed.
Cat’s main course was a take on the traditional roast beef dinner: Scottish beef fillet with pomme purée, summer truffle, girolle mushrooms and spinach. Once more the aroma of truffle wafted enticingly across the table, and Cat was very pleased to have been offered the ideal wine to accompany her main, an American Zinfandel. When suggesting the wine the sommelier had reeled off an extensive list of flavours, hints of which were promised in its bouquet, including blueberry, white chocolate and white pepper. It was an excellent accompaniment to the steak. Cat incised the meat’s seared exterior to reveal pinky flesh, the consistency of cheese. Fillet steak is not as robustly flavoured as other steak cuts so the course had a perky jus to help it along. The nutty-tasting fungi were great additions to the dish and Cat ate her way slowly through her meal, savouring every mouthful.
And so to the puddings. A succinct but well-chosen selection, with something for the chocaholics and those batty about fruit, plus cheese for the traditionalists. Unable to make a definitive choice, Matt and Cat asked for two puddings: rose water panna cotta and Valrhona chocolate tarte, the division of which would be determined on sight (meaning that Matt would get whichever one was left). The rose water panna cotta was beautifully presented; a wibbly perfumed blancmange orbited by little fragments of sweet jelly and strawberries, and speckled with vanilla dust. It had a subtle yet unmistakable taste.
The chocolate torte was as rich, dark and bitter as Katie Price and, unlike her faltering union with Alex Reid, was perfectly paired with coils of lime and orange zest and a dollop of crème fraiche. It was dramatically different from the understated panna cotta; the plain chocolate was an intense rush of cocoa moderated by the citrus tang.
Coffee was taken back in the bar and Cat tweeted the adventure. However, it was far from over. As soon as the coffee arrived Maitre d’ Lynden came over and chatted with your reviewers, explaining the remarkable story of how the pop-up restaurant was set up and run in such unusual surroundings. Before long, the chef himself, James Fiske, emerged and treated your reviewers to a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen which had been forged from what sounded like quite unpromising materials. This unprecedented access was an eye-opener, and made Matt and Cat even more amazed by what they had just experienced. Although parts of this building were – for want of a better word – derelict, somehow the kitchen working areas were immaculate, and fresh paint adorned the walls. Their charming host waved his hand around the labyrinthine preparation areas, pastry station and the recycled ice cream fridge, which was bursting with home-made sorbet – a glass of which was delivered to M and C once they’d returned to their seats in the lounge.
Now this had been far from an ordinary Matt and Cat anonymous review. As invited guests, they clearly saw some of the best that was on offer at Northwood: although to be fair, all the other diners that night seemed to be getting similar offerings. What’s more, although Matt and Cat didn’t know this would be the case until the end, they didn’t pay for it either as the restaurant very generously refused to charge for the meal. That’s not the usual way they do things so they wanted you to know, and bear it in mind.
So, that said, had Robert Thompson delivered on his promise of ‘a right good laugh’? Well, he had, and much, much more. The Hambrough this is not. Robert Thompson at Northwood House is a slick, clever, sassy and exciting contemporary dining experience. It delights with smart, sophisticated service; audaciously bold use of the venue, and a relaxed ambience that perfectly fits the atmosphere of Cowes in the summer.
Matt and Cat hope that you’ll take the opportunity to try this short-lived phenomenon in Northwood House. If you don’t want the full dinner menu, just pop in for a cocktail, or perhaps stretch to lunch. That’s because Robert Thompson at Northwood House has created what will almost certainly be an unrepeatable experience. After this event, the chandeliers and oil paintings are being packed up and taken away. There’s always the chance that it might happen again, but if it does, it won’t be like this. The exquisite and modern restaurant contrasts unavoidably with the declining magnificence of the grand old building, giving an unprecedented bitter-sweet piquancy to the venture. The feeling can’t be avoided that this might be the last flare of bright light from the long-burning torch of grand entertainment at Northwood House. And yet for a few weeks this summer, thanks to Robert Thompson’s boldness, we can be a true part of that long tradition and by doing so help to conserve it.
Disclosure: Matt has a professional involvement in the management of the surrounding park – but is not connected to the management of the house.
Robert Thompson at Northwood House, Cowes, 2010