Like the rest of you, we drove around the Island at the tail end of May with our car windows wound down. Mostly because the air conditioning in Cat’s Citroën is broken, but also that we might breathe in the heady aroma of wild garlic. The Isle of Wight’s roadside verges and woodland edges are stuffed with ramsons, wafting their glorious garlicky leaves and flowers our way, enticing us with their wonderful smell.
And, it was with that seasonally abundant ingredient in mind that we chose to eat at The Bistro, Ventnor. Peering at the menu outside this bijou little restaurant, we were struck almost simultaneously by two reasons to step over the threshold; wild garlic soup of the day was one. And the enthusiastic gesticulations of a jolly-faced chap sitting by the window was the other. As we caught his eye, he beckoned encouragingly before drawing his hands up to his face making shovelling motions towards his mouth, then forming a circle with forefinger and thumb.
The Bistro is a stylish yet informal venue. Although its bare wooden tables and simple white walls match many other restaurants, the hard surfaces have been softened with paintings, cushions and linen napkins, all of which help dampen any potential noise. Within moments were exploring the cocktail menu, from which Cat selected a rather splendid bakewell martini – which slipped down nicely.
As it happened, neither of us ordered the wild garlic soup. Resistance was futile for Matt once he’d seen fried black pudding and crispy pancetta. Similarly Cat’s head was turned by the Isle of Wight asparagus and melted Borthwood brie, one of the Isle of Wight Cheese Company‘s award-winning cheeses. Top marks for local provenance in this dish!
A cloth bag arrived and in it we found nuggets of novelty breads: cranberry and sunflower seed, and beetroot, served with room temperature butter. A simple detail, but it’s amazing how many venues dish up fridge-solid unspreadable butter.
Our starters turned up shortly after. Cat’s asparagus languished on its plate like one of your French girls; the spears’ modesty covered by a slowly melting wedge of the creamy brie. The cheese formed a sticky puddle around the seasonal vegetable, with a muddle of rocket leaves riding bareback. Although each ingredient has a distinctive flavour, none of them battled for supremacy; they all played nicely in Cat’s mouth and she was happy. Matt’s black pudding starter was just about describable as a salad, and with the soft, warm pudding plus plenty of chunks of seared pancetta it was the sort of salad he was more than happy to chow down on.
More locally-sourced cheese came aboard Cat’s main of roasted spring lamb rump on a rather exciting risotto. Yes, you read that right – it seems that risotto can be more than a plateful of tedious samey forkful after cloying forkful. At The Bistro flavoursome rice was cleverly punctuated with an acidic note of Green Barn goats cheese, sweet spring peas and more of that gentle asparagus, all encircled by a moat of watercress pesto. It almost didn’t need the tender pink seasoned lamb with its twiddle of pea shoots, but it was there so it got eaten – and a pleasure it was too.
Pave steak is an unusual thing to find on any menu these days, so Matt thought he’d have a go, and was glad he did. The thick, tasty steak was perfect, with every bit tender. A satisfying salty crust finished it. Alongside, the standard pub chips and a workaday salad were just filling in, but the real star of the dish was an unctuous thick orange gravy not unlike the very distinctive sauce served in Olivo.
The Bistro’s service was friendly and quick. Both ladies at the front of house did a great job of discretely checking whether our glasses might need replenishing. Empty plates were removed somewhere in that Goldilocks zone between undue haste and slack tardiness. Plus there was a little bit of personal chat; all indicators of good waiting staff.
We exchanged glances at the offer of a dessert menu and an unspoken sign between us indicated that a blowout was on the cards; cocktail, starter and main – we might as well go for puddings too. Everything that had arrived at our table had been delightful. Matt was even much taken by the cloth napkins; specifically their shiny silver napkin-rings reminded him of his childhood vicarage dinner table.
Asparagus starter £6.75
Black pudding £6.50
Lamb risotto £18.50
Pave steak £19.50
Certainly the intriguing name of Cat’s sweet was enough to lure her in. The floating island cranachan was a complicated assemblage of marshmallowy meringue, fresh raspberries, smooth vanilla custard, crumbled flapjack and raspberry sauce – or what our childhood pals would have called monkey’s blood when asking for it to be squirted on their towering ’99’ at the hatch of an ice cream van. These were all familiar flavours; part trifle custard, fluffy meringue and fruit, yet somehow it wasn’t quite working for Cat. The cranachan might be the uncontested king of Scottish dessert, but in this deconstructed version, icing sugar amplified the sweetness and the red sauce made it taste too much like a kid’s tea time pudding for Cat’s liking. Perhaps a drizzle of berry compote instead would’ve pleased her more. Although it looked interesting, Cat was defeated by the dessert’s sweetness.
The warm sweet waffle was both those things, coming with a scoop of passionfruit sorbet, some chunks of mango and a few tiny crumbs of honeycomb. It looked good, and although not as super-sweet as the cranachan it still gave a curiously syrupy impression.
Perhaps our expectations had been too high. Our own greed for pudding overcame good sense, and it shouldn’t have. We were riding high from those two first courses both of which had been outstanding. Local ingredients were beautifully presented in flavoursome and attractive dishes. The service was professional, quick and good natured. The starters and desserts were reasonably priced, even if the mains were edging into the upper regions for Isle of Wight dining. The Bistro is a very good place indeed, and the deceptively simple menu is delivered with real skill. Go there, and be delighted that Ventnor has somehow got yet another great place to eat.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Quality food
- Professional and friendly service
- Island produce used to good effect
- Sweet tooth needed for the dessert