It must be an interesting process, starting a new restaurant. Do you, perhaps, take over an existing established business but possibly end up having to live up (or live down) to the previous restaurateur’s reputation? Maybe it would be safer to start from scratch in a high street location where you can make your own mark: at least you might get the footfall.
Or you could start a spanking new restaurant in the middle of a field miles from any substantial settlement, like The Cow Co has. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah – and presumably not a small amount of money – to make such a bold statement and without doubt they’ve pulled it off.
Diversifying a farming business is not a new idea and, locally, it has proved to be a highly-successful model for Briddlesford Farm and the Garlic Farm. These veterans of farm diversity have both become destination venues – an admirable feat. And, by its very nature, The Cow Co restaurant at Tapnell Farm starts its life as a destination. With some clever marketing and drip-feed awareness-raising The Cow Co insinuated its way onto our radars. We also received several entreaties from our chums on social media to go try the place and, one wet February lunchtime headed way out west to see what the hype was about.
The approach to The Cow Co is well sign-posted. No discreet rustic fingerpost disappearing in a tangled hedge. Nope, the drive up to the restaurant has been clearly designed for a lot of visitors, possibly even in coaches. As we made the climb up the gravelled drive and reached the summit, we were treated to a fabulous view of the Solent and the New Forest beyond. If it was pretty breathtaking on a blustery mizzly winter’s day imagine how lovely it will be in the summer. We parked up and strolled around the complex.
We’d heard that Tapnell Farm had given a home to some of the animals from recently closed attractions to create “interactive animal encounters”. Presumably it’s not just cows then. We saw a play barn, shop and gallery (with some very nice work by local artists) and a giant inflatable pillow! There’s also a psychedelic herd and, in the distance, we even spotted some real cows. This farm has seen a niche and filled it to bursting with plenty to keep families entertained for a whole day, rain or shine.
We were there for the food, of course. The restaurant, like everything, looks like it has been designed in anticipation of a vast hungry crowd. That doesn’t mean that it’s a big barn of a place. Well, it kinda is, but it’s a barn clad with attractive – and insulating – wood. It has a mezzanine from where children could be heard larking about. The downstairs space was pleasingly civilised; we were seated, watered and had the specials explained to us – the staff at The Cow Co have clearly been taking notes in some fancy places.
As hoped, there was a fair smattering of locally-sourced food on the menu. However it’s not entirely clear if the many beef and dairy dishes actually use produce from Tapnell Farm or perhaps somewhere further afield (afield – see what we did there!). Cat, being typically obtuse, decided not to have meat at all and ordered the ‘no beef’ burger, skinny style (with no bun). The vegetarian options were far from an afterthought; Cat’s sweet potato patty was not only delicious but with a decent pile of mixed salad and skinny fries it was a pretty substantial meal. The burger was very tasty; they’d done an excellent job of giving it some texture too. It was served on a crushed avocado and basil lemony salsa which was the perfect accompaniment. The patty had a quiff of beetroot crisps, giving the dish a bit of crunch and an injection of colour. As is her habit Cat smothered her chips with mayo and The Cow Co’s own-branded tomato sauce, which was far more pleasant than the sweet vinegary stuff you get in sachets. An excellent and filling dish and pretty good value at eleven English pounds.
Matt had heard much about the burgers in this place, and wasn’t going to waste time on vegetables. The special burger of the day was spiced tomato, onion and chorizo. With a 6oz burger, brioche and skinny fries, this looked like a classic modern burger. Juices dripped enticingly from the sizzlingly-fresh chunks of chorizo, and a big, colourful fresh salad tumbled off the plate. This whole edifice: the barns, the huge driveway, the galleries, the sculptures, the playbarns and restaurant, heck even the name itself – was all about one thing: cows. And as they’d not seen many cattle up to now, Matt was getting excited for the big moment when he actually got to eat the beef. Maybe it’s unfair to load all that expectation on a single burger, because predictably enough, it was fine, but choirs of bovine angels did not start singing when Matt bit into it. For the focus of such a vast cow-temple, he was expecting at the very least to fall to the floor speaking in beef tongues. Still, he ate the lot, and enjoyed it. So you can’t really complain.
As we’d come all that way we had pudding. Well, we needed our strength for the obligatory drive to the Needles and then home via the Military Road. It could be hours before we’d eat again.
Cat enjoyed a shallow crème brûlée, with subtly-flavoured lavender shortbread and some tongue-tinglingly-tart spiced berry compote. It was smooth and crunchy, sweet and acid and nicely presented in the rustic way. Matt took on that pub-menu classic, the apple crumble. This was a pleasingly good rendition, with skin-on apples that really tasted of apple, not just some sugary green puree. On top was a scoop of a powerfully vanilla ice cream – maybe another hint of those cows? A satisfying end to an enjoyable meal.
The Cow Co is prodigious in size, scope and the speed with which it has been created. It’s part of an impressive and attractive suite of amenities at Tapnell Farm that really have been well implemented. We were impressed with the value, service and food – and delighted that the veggie dishes were one of the menu’s strengths. And if you’re tempted by the inflatable pillow we suggest having a bounce before your satisfying lunch!
This is the full-length version of the shorter review that was published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Top facilities
- Fabulous views
- Really good veggie food
- Little chance to see any actual cows
- Food provenance ambiguous