Although it is a mere four miles away from home, Spitbank Fort luxury hotel and restaurant is not the sort of place you can just rock up at – it’s a sea-castle in the middle of the Solent for crying out loud.
Vessels have to be chartered and lunches pre-ordered to ensure that the champagne reception has the prescribed amount of canapés. Still, Matt and Cat willingly complied with the booking arrangements as their keenness to visit the fort overrode their natural indolence. As they crossed the days off their calendar, their lunch date drew closer – and landlubber Cat kept an eye on the forecast. Snow ground the Isle of Wight to a customary halt and then, on the day itself, temperatures plummeted heralding the arrival of sleet.
Wrapped up in their warmest togs, Matt and Cat started their journey on the Island Line train. Three boat rides later – with a pleasant intermission in the fort’s luxurious Gosport-based departure lounge – M&C found themselves staring up at the granite edifice. Its presence may have been sufficient to deter Napoleon III’s steam-powered warships from chuffing up the Solent but it didn’t daunt Matt and Cat, not when they knew there was a Sunday lunch inside.
Suitably impressed as they made their way through the fort’s heavy doors, Matt and Cat were swept into the warm Victory bar. Where there had previously been gun emplacements were now cosy niches in which to lounge and gossip with their fellow guests. It was like stepping into one of those Agatha Christie ensemble mysteries where a set of people are thrown together in a spectacular location. Fortunately there was no malevolent faded actress holding a grudge against a blustering colonel – just some excited diners being accommodated by the fort’s charming staff. The guests soon fell to chatting and, as drinks were served, it really felt as though a very civilised adventure had begun.
Following the champagne and canapé reception – salmon and caviare, natch – Matt and Cat were taken on a tour of the fort by the manager, who had earlier been their pilot on the launch across the Solent. Matt visited Spitbank Fort many years ago and was half-expecting to see the dank rooms and junk-filled corners of before. But things had changed radically. The place exuded luxury and quality, although there was no hiding the fort’s military origins – and nor should there have been. No detail had been missed and, in the many places where the historic features remained, they had been cleverly highlighted or re-purposed in any number of ways. The windowless lower level was an enticing neon-lit cocktail bar, with adjacent lounges, libraries and even a bar billiards table. The gundeck was transformed into luxury accommodation; each stylish vaulted suite had bolt-studded surfaces and incomparable views across the Solent towards the Isle of Wight. The lunch guests were free to poke about in every ‘corner’ of the rounded rooms – an absolute delight for nosy Cat who, like Maru, can never resist an empty box.
Lunch was heralded not by a gong but by a screaming klaxon – an authentic hand-cranked air raid siren – prompting Matt and Cat to take their places in the Officers’ Mess. They shared their table with Darren and Monique who were celebrating Mo’s special birthday. The couples got to know each other as the waiting staff filled their glasses with ‘Spit’ – soft water from Spitbank Fort’s own artesian well. The friendly and personal service continued, adding further to the feeling of being guests in a grand house.
The menu, announced some weeks in advance, was brief and each course had to be pre-booked. Matt’s starter featured Spitbank Fort line-caught mackerel with caramelised fennel salad and sauce vierge. With such a commendable lack of food miles the chef could have hung a fishing rod out of the kitchen window in the unlikely event of an unexpected guest turning up – but in this impeccably-run operation an unexpected guest would be unthinkable.
Starters looked great – in that setting most things would – but even so, no effort was spared. Matt’s mackerel came decorated with a cheeky sail of parmesan, and the tangy sauce and fennel made a rich and warm mix of flavours that perfectly undertook the job of a starter. Matt’s palette was limbered up for a main course. Cat had the vegetarian option: herb-crusted goat’s cheese with pine nuts and beetroot carpaccio. This was a work of art – the vivid colours of the green and purple made the little fort-shaped turret of whipped goat’s cheese stand out proudly. It was as tasty as it was handsome.
Matt’s main course was, appropriately enough for Sunday lunch, roasted Hampshire sirloin of beef, caramelised shallots and homemade Yorkshire pudding and thyme gravy. It was a fine pile of lunch, and Matt was delighted to recognise a familiar element when his beans came wrapped in a morsel of ham in the style of Lockslane. Instead of the delicate Italian ham this was smoky bacon, an enjoyable but unsubtle substitute. This turned out to be the theme of the dish – the powerful thyme gravy brooked no argument, whereas the Hampshire sirloin, concealed under the generous veg allowance, hardly got a look in. Perhaps the fort should try Isle of Wight beef to ensure even finer tasting meat. In any case, the roast potatoes were splendid, and the cauliflower cheese was better – it even got envious looks from Cat. A big Sunday lunch holds no fear for Matt, and he tucked into it with pleasure.
The Sunday lunch experience costs £95 per head, and payment must be made at least four weeks in advance. You also need to choose from the menu in advance, and be able to get yourself to Gosport. M&C asked if there would be any boats from the Island and the response was that they can arrange private transfers for larger parties from the Isle of Wight subject to minimum numbers.
Cat once more took the veggie route, and was delighted with her roasted butternut squash with caponata. A trio of deep-fried breaded balls of butternut squash and tangy feta with hints of ginger were positioned on a veritable pile of asparagus and rocket. Coincidentally, these last two happen to be Cat’s favourite greens, and there were also some contrasting reds in the red pepper and sun-blushed tomato salsa topping. Although the balls seemed quite modest – about the size of a squash ball (what else!) – they were surprisingly filling. Some venues treat vegetarians like nuisances that have to be tolerated, others don’t cater for them at all, or reluctantly by special order. Spitbank Fort’s menu had two items per course, one meat and one meatless without any fuss or special categorisation. Cat’s main course was tasty, interesting and plentiful – easily an equivalent to Matt’s full roast.
As with the mains, dessert was two options. Matt had the simple chocolate torte, which he found to his liking although he cast covetous gazes at Cat’s pudding, which she had bagsied as soon as it approached the table. It was poached summer pear in white wine on a vanilla sable biscuit, with homemade caramel ice cream. How one could obtain a summer pear as late as January was a mystery known only to the menu-writer. Cat devoured with pleasure the soft and alcoholic pear-flesh, perfect with the sweet caramel ice cream and elaborate spun sugar lattice.
Coffee in the Victory Bar was to follow, and some entertainment with a bar-room game involving throwing a ring onto a hook. Sounds simple? Matt thought so. Spitbank veterans will know it is far from it! As the sleet swept across the Solent, Matt and Cat were warm and comfortable in the cosy bar after a memorable and hugely enjoyable afternoon.
Eventually, the time came for the last boat back and the the diners and their new friends had to quit this Solent fastness. Back on board the launch, and as the glimmering lights of the fort retreated into the dusk, they reflected on one of the most remarkable places they had ever eaten. This wasn’t a reviewing experience like any other; the meal was only one aspect of a notable day out with an excellent lunch.
The service and very personal and friendly approach was on a par with any top end hotel that M&C have had the rare chance to experience. This can’t be just a commercial investment; all of the staff seemed to be particularly attached to their unusual workplace and their warmth and enthusiasm for the place shone through. The hospitality was all the more impressive for being delivered on a Victorian fort in the middle of the sea. But really, the main attraction is only ever going to be the fort itself. Nobody who has regularly crossed the Solent can fail to be curious about the interiors of these enigmatic structures. And now the opportunity is there to actually go inside. Anybody who has never seen them before – well, they will be in for quite a discovery. Solenteers Matt and Cat wholeheartedly recommend Spitbank Fort as venue for a special lunch that you won’t forget in a long time – and for all the right reasons.
Update: the landside departure lounge is now in the middle of Gunwharf Quays, not Gosport. So that’s a lot easier for Island travellers.
See our Facebook photo album for more images of the day (and the food).
Matt and Cat were the guests of The Clarenco Group.