You don’t need Matt and Cat to tell you that the Isle of Wight is intrinsically linked to Queen Victoria; the country’s (currently) longest-serving monarch made her home in East Cowes way back in 1848. Although that’s of no consequence when compared to the longevity of the Island’s other long-standing royal – Ventnor’s Royal Hotel – which was receiving guests a full six years before Victoria’s coronation. But it’s not just its age that marks out this historic place; it shares the rare privilege of being one of only thirty establishments to be listed in every UK Michelin Guide since it was first published in 1911. Pretty impressive. Since Matt and Cat first visited and reviewed the hotel’s restaurant way back in 2009, the Royal has been a place they have been back to many times: to dine, to stay, to take family, to relax, to do business. It’s a well-organised place; even at busy times the standard of service is formidable. M&C have always appreciated the Royal’s capacity to deliver a good and consistent experience throughout.
In early 2013 there was some kind of upheaval among the hotel’s personnel; many long-serving members of staff moved on to new things, and new faces joined the team. Most notably for Matt and Cat, chef Alan Staley left after a remarkable seventeen years. Alan’s successor and the new hand on the Royal’s kitchen tiller was Steve Harris. It was inevitable that sooner or later M&C would take the chance to see what Steve could do – and to see how the Royal was faring with the new crew. Would the famous unflappable Royal service be on display? Was it all change in the kitchen? And most importantly of all, was the Gallybagger soufflé still on the menu?
Arrival at the Royal is really one of the best first impressions of any hotel on the Island. The drive curls seductively into the beautifully-tended gardens up to the building’s ornate canopy. Around the lawn and on the terrace are chairs and tables strategically positioned; and between the subtropical plants is a south-facing swimming pool. In the evening the frontage is charmingly lit up. Just to walk into the hotel one is obliged to pass through a relaxing oasis – a good introduction to what might lie within.
Although they turned up on spec Matt and Cat were fortunate to get a table and, as it was being prepared, they whiled away some time sipping aperitifs in the bar. After spending a moment reminiscing about the Bellinis they’d supped at various fancy events in that very room, a smartly-uniformed waiter picked up their drinks on a tray and escorted them to their table. Matt and Cat, who’d neither booked nor given their names, were greeted by the restaurant manager herself, and it was clear that whilst this review was unannounced, it wasn’t going to be anonymous. The Royal’s attentive service certainly hadn’t put a foot wrong yet.
Matt was delighted that they had been ushered to the ‘gangster seat’, the prime table in the corner with a view of the vast dining room, bedecked with huge chandeliers and more white linen than coachload of choirboys. Having had plenty of time to peruse the menu, M&C wasted no time in giving their orders. Starter had to be the Gallybagger soufflé with white onion velouté. Produced by the Isle of Wight Cheese Company, Gallybagger is a strong hard cheese which Matt is partial to in any form. And the finest means to transport this excellent cheese to the palate is via the Royal Gallybagger soufflé. Cat chided Matt gently – when reviews are being undertaken it’s sometimes fun to venture off the well-worn fairway and into the rough. So, choosing the hotel’s most popular dish as starter could be seen as being a bit unchallenging. Matt was unrepentant. It was imperative to discover whether this signature dish was still worth recommending. It was.
If Matt decided to push at an open door (so to speak) so too did Cat. To her fillet steak is an irresistible temptation and reading of an enticingly-described roasted fillet of Isle of Wight beef on the menu, she placed her order. At this point it’s worth mentioning the Royal’s pricing – for dinner there is now a set price menu with two courses for £31 per person and three courses for £40 per person. Matt and Cat are in favour of this kind of thing – it ensures that there are no surprises when the bill comes. Nonetheless Cat managed to subvert the system by ordering the fillet, which came at a premium. It was, as it turned out, an extra six quid wisely invested. The meat was served with hand cut triple-cooked chips, local ‘gourmet’ mushrooms, buttered spinach and béarnaise sauce. This softest of steaks was evenly-cooked and seasoned, demonstrating the skill of the chef.
The glazed slow-cooked shoulder of Isle of Wight pork with poached white peaches, sweet potato, choi sum and pork jus was a beautiful dish. The gentle pink of the tender meat was surrounded by a complex assembly of colours and shapes. The taste and texture of the disparate elements of the dish were well-judged, and the very slightly exotic selection of ingredients reflected what was, for the Royal, a modest but successful excursion away from conventional and conservative cooking.
A substantial selection of desserts was on offer, and it was here that Matt and Cat had the clearest indication that the new head chef was making his mark. Classic rhubarb crumble and custard headed the pudding menu – presumably for those who know what they like – and as Matt and Cat read on they discovered a really good range of interesting and tempting dishes. Cat’s chocolate molleaux came with white coffee ice cream, aerated chocolate and espresso jelly. Espresso jelly! Who could turn that down? Certainly not Cat. The espresso jelly was fabulous, with an intense coffee shot. The chocolate molleaux was a sponge with a secret, which was revealed after a prod with Cat’s spoon; an intense hot liquid chocolate centre oozed out like lava. With coffee ice cream and potent chocolate tablet, which must surely have been made with one hundred per cent cocoa powder, it was an exciting and rich dessert.
A safe taste of tradition wasn’t far from Matt’s mind when he chose raspberry soufflé, raspberry ripple ice cream and Eton mess. Two soufflés in one meal? Well, at the Royal, why not? The raspberry soufflé was decent, and well-populated with real fresh raspberries. But the star of the show for Matt was the Eton mess – served in a shot glass this exquisite little confection was a splendid treat. Rich, sweet and tasting of summer, it was adorned with a couple of slivers of meringue that tipped it from being just a good pud, to a memorable dish of note.
Two course dinner £31.00
Beef fillet supplement £6.00
Three course dinner £40.00
2 glasses of wine £9.75
Coffee beckoned, and Matt and Cat retired to the comfortable bar where they sat in a corner nibbling petit fours and reflected on their evening. Really, they needn’t have worried about the Royal Hotel. The dining experience was as good as ever – and where desserts were concerned, maybe even a bit better. The cost of such a meal is still perhaps one for special occasions, but the fixed-price menu helped to keep this manageable. In any case, this is the kind of food and service that’s worth saving up for. The service was outstanding, and plenty of carefully considered detail right across the hotel’s presentation went towards making the Royal Hotel a venue that for Matt and Cat, is likely to retain its popularity for some time to come: undoubtedly until 9 September 2015 when Queen Elizabeth is due to become the longest reigning British monarch ever.
- Outstanding service
- Consistently good food
- Luxurious environment
- Not as expensive as you'd imagine
- Great views across Ventnor Bay
- Parking can be fraught
- Gets busy at peak times