It comes to something when the first frost of the winter is in the second week of the new year.
But it was on a cold January morning that Matt and Cat first had to scrape the ice off the car before setting off to work. Still, a year ago they were digging the same car out of the snow with a shovel, so in some ways things have changed. But these days of cold seemed almost welcome after so much unseasonably mild, damp weather in midwinter. Wandering the streets of Cowes, which looked unexpectedly empty even for January, those hardy souls who had braved the chill wind were well wrapped up. There was even one boat crew passing by, dressed impressively in full foul-weather gear and looking suitably grizzled.
On the hunt for a warming lunch, Matt and Cat spotted the bright little frontage of Sails Café, and, perhaps more pertinently, the promise of home-made beef stew and dumplings on the specials board outside. It provoked a minor outburst from Matt, bemoaning the decline of the traditional suet dumpling. A forkful of stolid, hearty dumpling is to his vicarage-raised palette the acme of accompaniments to a winter stew. A crusty baguette, a floury bap or even a toasted brioche can only ever be a disappointing also-ran in any comparison. Sadly, such substitutions are common. Rarely does a stew with dumplings get top billing – if stewed beef is to be served with anything, it is perhaps most commonly served in a pie, and even then the accompaniment is sometimes just a flimsy hat of puff-pastry. Sails Café, by contrast, was keeping the dumpling faith. Such stoicism earned it Matt and Cat’s lunchtime custom.
Sails is a small café with – wait for it – a nautical theme. The menus are set out in jolly wooden boats, that made the menus a little tricky to read when on board – M&C’s boat was helpfully derigged by the waitress. Various boaty bits were strung around the place, and the pastel walls were tastefully arrayed with those seascape-type paintings that are typically a triptych, and sometimes adorned with driftwood. Free newpapers were enticingly laid out on the tables, and as Matt and Cat settled in, a waitress told them about the soup of the day and take orders. This was all going rather well. Waitress service in such a small place was unexpected and commendable.
Beef stew and dumplings £5.95
Scrabled eggs and mushrooms on toast £3.95
Cat scanned through the menu, which had the usual lunchtime panini, sandwiches and baguettes on one side, alongside a hearty range of all-day breakfasts and light lunches on the other. Hesitating over eggs royale, she eventually asked for an off-menu lunch of scrambled egg and fried mushrooms on toast. This was accommodated with no hesitation and Cat was pleased to be offered tap water as a matter of course along with a range of other drinks.
Cat’s attention was momentarily attracted by the chap at the next table who was rhythmically thwacking a packet of sugar on the edge of his table. This is a popular but curious pastime, presumably borne out of a frustrating but distant experience of a single damp and solidified sachet. Before long the lunches arrived. Cat was favourably impressed. The mushrooms were sizzling hot from the pan, and perfectly fried with the edge of golden-brown that has to be just right to work. The mountain of fluffy egg they rested on smelt of warm slightly salty butter, which soaked agreeably into the toast.
The beef stew and dumplings was the special of the day, and Matt was equally pleased with his lunch. Real suet dumplings bobbed in the thick, meaty stew like semi-aquatic hippos part-submerged in a popular watering hole. The dumplings were heavy but soft, not too dry, and well soaked in the stew. The beef was good, solid steak, with a bite to it – tasty and not at all chewy. Carrots and parsnips gave the stew some vegetable flavour, and Matt savoured every hot, flavoursome spoonful – “I couldn’t have made it better myself” he claimed, optimistically.
Sails is a nice little café, in a convenient location. It’s clean, welcoming and comfortable, and the food is good. Matt and Cat are happy to recommend it.