Back in 2012 Matt and Cat were enjoying an ordinary Saturday night in. The rain was teeming down and and Matt was chopping some fresh Island lamb into chunks for a meaty winter stew for the next day’s Sunday lunch. It’s always nicer when it’s been, well… stewed!
Unusually for March, he heard some fireworks outside. Matt and Cat didn’t yet know it, but some wedding celebrations in Ryde were about to go with a bang and a pop, and then a sickening crackle followed by the prolonged whooshing of extinguishing water. The rest of the story is well known – the fireworks apparently initiated the flaming overture to a remarkable night. Matt shoved the stew in the oven and he and Cat turned temporarily into citizen reporters, watching horrified as one of Ryde’s best-known landmarks burnt to a smouldering shell.
The Ryde Castle was widely expected to be demolished, but guess what? It wasn’t, and in autumn 2013 it reopened, completely refurbished. Frankly underwhelmed by the old Ryde Castle way back in 2008, Matt and Cat set out to see whether, as well as doing some very nice rebuilding, the Greene King phoenix had also worked its magic in the kitchen.
Ryde Castle is one of several Greene King ‘Old English’ branded pubs on the Island; others include the Folly, the Crab and the Hare and Hounds. All of these venues have been overhauled in the last few years, some at great expense, and so it’s likely that even if the Ryde Castle hadn’t burnt down it would have undergone some major restoration before long. In some other pubs in the chain Matt and Cat have found both good and bad, and so they were keen to see where the Castle’s food was positioned on their food-o-meter.
Ryde Castle is well-located; it’s the town’s only pub with a beer garden that actually boasts some views of the sea. The sympathetic restoration of the old building and its grounds has actually enhanced its exterior. There is now another easy-access entrance to the building, and the outside space has had a makeover, which will undoubtedly be popular if we have a summer like the last one. But on this winter visit, Matt and Cat were looking for a cosy night in.
Stepping into the grand entrance hall Matt and Cat stopped, dumbstruck. Last time they were in the building was a little tired and slightly bland in a corporate way. This time… wow! The effect really was like walking into the hall of a stately home, with a grand staircase leading up to the hotel rooms above, spectacular oak panelling, ornate plasterwork ceilings, flagged floors and big stone fireplaces. Matt and Cat wandered about from room to room, admiring the restoration. Really, this was an impressive revamp – the place just oozed character and history, and even if some of it was ersatz it was done well. It was a far cry indeed from the faded town-pub atmosphere of two years ago and, in another welcome development, there were plenty of people there enjoying it.
Matt and Cat found a table next to an impressive walk-in wine-cellar which had been built into an alcove. The usual avalanche of menus was on the table, including a cute little clipboard with the specials of the day – and commendably, all of this was in muted tones to match the décor. No brash glossy flyers littering the place. But this is Greene King, so Matt and Cat were pleased to find a £7.95 two-course special offer was available. Matt was immediately drawn to the ‘mini grill’ option on this menu, whereby for an extra £1 you can have for a main course a substantial range of meat products. Alas, it seemed as though everyone else had the same idea, as the mini grill was all gone. At that point Matt recalled the meal he had eaten at Ryde Castle in 2008. Back then, he had been obliged to deal with a profoundly unsatisfactory burger which he described as a “sizeable rubbery blob”. In the present day, the Castle had earnt the chance to redeem itself, so Matt ordered the Ultimate Burger. Cat was still looking keenly at the bargain menu, and chose chicken Diane.
Unusually, both Matt and Cat had starters. Matt’s breaded garlic mushrooms came from the bargain menu and alas were barely adequate. Minute mushroom-shaped jackets of what may have been some kevlar-breadcrumb amalgam were not mitigated significantly by a handful of rocket leaves and some passable garlic mayo; but for two quid Matt was willing to grin and bear it. In contrast, Cat had looked at the dear little clipboard bearing “Today’s Specials”, and managed to procure a spectacular mushroom rarebit that more than made up for the other starter. This rarebit was excellent – two sizeable chunks of hot multi-grain toast oozing with a rich, cheesy topping that wasn’t just melted cheese but a proper mustardy sauce with a tangy bite. The greenery was much more deluxe that that of the breaded ‘shrooms: a decent assortment of mixed leaves, including some peppery watercress, was interspersed with teeny tomatoes and some unexpectedly exotic edamame beans. The dish was nearly twice the price of Matt’s, yet still a mere £3.89 – worth the extra investment!
Although Cat had given her order at the bar, this soon morphed into table service. As food was delivered and clean plates removed, so too were drinks replenished along with napkins and cutlery. At one point the waiter got particularly effusive about the place and Matt and Cat were interested to learn that nearly two dozen couples had booked the venue for their impending nuptials. Apparently Christmas had been a roaring success too, with around a thousand dinners being consumed over the period.
Cat’s chicken Diane was a surprisingly big plateful, for a budget menu. The chicken breast was served with heaps of new potatoes and peas, and lashing of the promised creamy sauce. Cat rubbed her hands in glee – she’s a massive fan of the pub chicken meal, and was pleased to find one which wasn’t being doused in cheese and barbecue sauce. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” she intoned with delight.
Mushroom rarebit £3.89
Garlic mushrooms £2.50
Ultimate burger £10.45
Chicken Diane £7.89
Set menu 2-course deal -£2.44
Lemon tart £4.99
How did the Ultimate Burger measure up? If Ryde Castle had ever read Matt and Cat’s previous review they’d certainly taken it to heart, because this burger was a far cry indeed from that previous disappointment. Matt was very impressed: inside its glazed bun the burger was big, freshly-cooked and meaty and was served with plenty of cheese, bacon and even two onion rings (as opposed to the advertised one). Alongside a pot of relish came the de rigueur pail, full of more-than-reasonable chips, but mercifully no sign of a slate. At last, a basic pub burger meal done properly. Full marks to the Ryde Castle on that one.
Dessert was almost foregone, as the previous courses had been sufficient to fill your reviewers almost to capacity – almost, but not quite. Cat had pushed aside some of her potatoes to leave room for lemon tart with crème fraiche. This was a satisfying lemony if slightly rubbery dish, with a nice sharp raspberry compote.
Then the bill, and a pleasant surprise. This was a pretty good value meal by any standards. Both Matt and Cat had absolutely all they could have wanted to eat and drink, for slightly more than £30. Totting up how the Ryde Castle had performed, it undoubtedly exceeded expectations in most areas. The food was inconsistent although never bad: some stand-out successes – the rarebit and the burger; some average efforts – the tart and the chicken Diane; and one poor show – the garlic mushrooms, albeit ridiculously cheap. The service was very attentive, smart and friendly throughout.
And the venue? Oh yes, this one is back with a vengeance. So much better, so much more stylish, so tastefully done. Ryde Castle is subtly different from the generic family dining pub. Like its sister hotel the Fountain in Cowes, the Ryde Castle hasn’t got a kiddies play area outside. There would be no reason not to bring children to this beachside venue, but it has more of a grown-up feel about it. The ultimate accolade came as the reviewers left. “Do you know,” mused Cat as they strolled out of the elegant arched doorway, “Next time your mother comes over, we ought to bring her here.” Winner, winner, in-laws dinner.