You come to the Isle of Wight, you want seafood. You’d think there’d be no problem with that, really. After all, we are surrounded by the stuff. Londoners arriving at their cosy cottages by the sea reasonably expect crustaceans to be marching up from the beaches and throwing themselves onto plates for immediate consumption.
But oddly enough, local fish and shellfish has not been a real strength of the Island’s tourist economy. Maybe the missing element is a photogenic, tourist-accessible harbour like Whitby or Padstow. Or perhaps it’s because traditionally, fish caught by Island fishermen has been taken to the mainland for sale.
Well, things are changing: indeed, they’ve changed. Long gone are the days when the most a visitor could expect was prawn cocktail in a stainless-steel bowl. Today, locally-sourced food is something people value, whether they are on holiday or at home. And businesses such as Captain Stan’s, Seafood Corner, and Salty Willy’s are delivering the goods. Joining that class of seafood-specialists is Ventnor’s Smoking Lobster; a bold new venture from long-standing High Street restaurant Tramezzini, which has got the Instagramming classes excited. We managed – just – to bag ourselves a table, and wandered down to Ventnor Esplanade to see what the buzz was about.
We’d booked for eight o’clock, but the place was absolutely jammed., Nonetheless we were seated by twenty past, and chowing down by eight forty. We got a complimentary drink in recognition of this delay, but in all honesty we had no complaints. The venue has a bright, modern seaside look, with a long open kitchen at the back. We were lucky enough to get a seat right by the counter, where cheeky Cat could peer at the dishes coming out and even pass conversation with the busy chefs, who were happy to tell her what was on offer.
Matt chose a starter of salt and pepper squid with a chilli dipping sauce. Found on pub menus up and down the land, he thought it would be a good way to test out the new place – and so it proved. You know that sweet chilli dipping sauce that usually comes with squid? Red, in a little bowl, the sticky stuff that packs a punch. Well forget that. Smoking Lobster sauce is something different – darker, richer and better. Plunging the hot, fresh squid rings into the dip, Matt was delighted with a sweet-and-sour, tangy flavour and texture that was far more appropriate for the delicate mollusc.
Catch of the day was an impressive three choices, but these were not the only fish on the menu. Although we were very tempted by the seafood sharing platter, Cat chose ginger and soy baked whole sea bream from the specials board. This spectacular whole fish was a splendid specimen – Cat squealed with delight when it arrived in front of her. It was topped with colourful chopped herbs and spices, which gave off a fabulous gingery-garlic aroma. Alongside was a big helping of stir-fried veg with the smoky scent of sesame oil. The topping gave an earthy aromatic flavour to the baked fish. Delving under its skin, Cat found the soft white flesh. With the jasmine rice, chilli, ginger and soy, there really is a strong Asian fusion feel about this menu, but this is no Wagamama; it’s got a local feel all of its own.
Matt’s main course was a seafood and white fish ceviche with a mint and seaweed salad. It’s not like Matt to go for a salad, but this was something else – and for £19 you’d hope so. A big pile of seaweed salad went underneath, and on top was the ceviche served in a lettuce leaf and dressed with yuzu aioli. Ok, we’ll admit, we had to look that one up, but it turns out that yuzu is a Korean citrus fruit. It tasted not unlike orange or grapefruit, and the sharp sauce went well with the very light flavour of the fish, as the juice ran down enticingly over the rest of the salad. A bonus lettuce leaf came alongside with a generous portion of crabmeat in it, but the real star of the dish was the seaweed salad that underpinned it all. This busy mix of salty leaves, mint, samphire and cabbage was supremely well-balanced. Any one of those ingredients could have overcome the others, but none did. The temptation to smother the lot in chilli, soy, or any other loud, brash flavour, was heroically resisted. A subtle end result showed some real understanding of the seafood that was the title ingredient.
Salt and pepper squid £7.50
Sea bream £23
Apple and Blackberry tart £6.50
We fought like Cat and Matt over who had the ricotta doughnuts. Matt won, but wished he hadn’t. These were essentially churros, fried doughballs dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and served with a pleasingly bitter orange and chocolate sauce. They were nice enough, but pedestrian in comparison with Cat’s apple and blackberry tart that was, to her delight, more like a Bakewell tart. The pastry base was filled with rich almond sponge and topped with two delightful miniature apple turnovers, cooked Chinese-dumpling style.
The bill was a painful necessity, but clearly paying top dollar isn’t putting off the punters, and nor should it. Smoking Lobster has worthy enthusiasm for local food provenance; as well as the line-caught fish supplied by a local fisherman, the restaurant offers Isle of Wight beef fillet and Ventnor Bay crab. We were delighted to see such an innovative, lively and ambitious menu being served so successfully, and we think that the Smoking Lobster has got something about it that could, and should, bring the seafood-lovers in from a long way away.
This is the full-length version of the review that appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Glorious, creative seafood
- Laudable local food provenance credentials
- Attractive beach side location
- Top prices