It almost seems obscene to be reviewing one of the Island’s most expensive restaurants at a time when the government is practically on the verge of issuing the populace with hair-shirts to simultaneously humiliate and keep us warm during its self-generated energy and cost of living crises. But someone has to do it.
We’re big fans of the other two lobsters in the pot: the first Smoking Lobster, on Ventnor Esplanade, we eulogised over; describing its menu as innovative, lively and ambitious. Its pod-mate, intimate sushi bar Drunken Lobster, served us a riot of flavours, beautifully presented. Either way, we knew what to expect. Attractive dishes of mainly seafood, enlivened with Asian flavours.
The Cowes iteration of this crustacean-branded chain is not as cosy as the cocktail bar. It’s a larger, more versatile space which we imagine can be reconfigured for corporate dos in this yachting mecca. The restaurant maintains the brand’s trademark open kitchen though and, on her way to do her COVID-19 handwash, Cat paused at the pass to admire the dishes lined up under the bright lights. Very photogenic – and hopefully as tasty as they looked.
The staff are all very much on board, from the lady at the door who pre-empted us stumbling over the trip hazard, to the waitress who talked us through the fish specials. Alas she was almost too quiet to be heard in the rather echoey room, but fortunately she came with subtitles in the form of a little blackboard on which were written the highlights.
Nestled on a comfortable banquet, we took stock. Somehow the experience was rather like stepping into a parallel universe where the outside world of foodbanks and economic turmoil were (temporarily) forgotten. A couple of dishes on the menu had those opaque initials ‘MP’, which we first encountered at a shambolic Cowes Week pop-up. To the uninitiated they mean ‘market price’ – or perhaps, if you have to ask, you can’t afford. We played along and ordered the fish of the day, plus some olives to start. We got a little carried away with the whole ambiance of the place; requesting a bottle of fizz to go along with our seafood, and we even ended the meal with a cheeseboard.
Cat’s half lobster was robata grilled. ‘Robata’ is short for ‘robatayaki’, which translates as ‘fireside cooking’ in Japanese cuisine. Certainly whether heated over charcoal or under British Gas, this was the most succulent grilled lobster that Cat had eaten, and she’s no stranger to this aromatic crustacean. Some cooks may be rather robust in their dealings with shellfish. Not so the Smoking Lobster’s robata chef, who had treated the arthropod tenderly. Unlike the shrivelled apology of other venues, here the meat was plumptious and buttery-moist.
Likewise the seabass fillet was perfectly-cooked; retaining a pleasantly strong flavour, which was enhanced by a spoonful of kaffir salsa. On further enquiry, we learned that the fish was seared in pomace oil, before being finished in butter. This cooking process trapped in the flavour.
Both dishes came with a choice of spuds. The seabass’ accompanying new potatoes in skins were perfectly cooked; not crumbly or soggy. Cat’s skinny fires were pretty unremarkable, but maybe that was the point. Has the triple-cooked ‘Jenga’ chip had its day?
Also on both plates came seaweed salad and yuzu slaw. The wakame salad looked much more like regular English lettuce leaves, with sliced cucumber and plum tomatoes, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a refreshing garnish; its nod to Asian cuisine was its pickled ginger note. The yuzu in the slaw gave it a delightfully citrusy tang, and both of these sides were well-matched to our seafood
For dessert, Cat chose the miso butterscotch tarte tatin. This upside-down sweet was adorned with pretty viola flowers, like tiny faces. Our contemporaneous notes advise that it was “fruity and puffy, with smooooth ice cream”. A decent reimagining of a classic.
Fish of the day £25
Half lobster £30
Tart tatin £9
Blueberry slice £8.50
Cheese and biscuits £10
We loved the presentation of the blueberry and yuzu slice. It had more than a hint of a juicy Bakewell tart, with its ginger sake poached pear making it almost trifly. The versatile yuzu, this time in the chantilly, created something akin to an oriental lemon syllabub. It all melted in the mouth.
There was still a whisper left in the prosecco bottle so we had a cheeseboard to help it on its way. Brittle hexagonal crackers in various hues were matched with a trio of cheese. We enjoyed the understated Isle of Wight brie, a bolder local blue, plus a sparky Lancashire Bomber, accompanied by a caper soy chutney, plus wafer-thin slices of crisp green apple.
Although its prices may make some baulk, the Smoking Lobster has clearly found its audience on the Island as it has expanded not only to the Drunken rendition in its hometown, but has also taken Cowes by storm. Although we didn’t sample any of the beef or pork dishes, we can attest that the seafood is cooked by extremely competent and imaginative hands. The venue itself is nicely appointed and the staff all attentive and seemingly engaged with their work. The Isle of Wight has been on the tourist map since Queen Victoria took up summer residence well over a century ago. Maybe this little offshore location will continue to draw the twenty-first century visitors, making a name for itself with its wonderful local food and splendid restaurants, such as the Smoking Lobster.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.