A while ago, Dining Club founder member and inveterate Ventnor baker Klaus lent Matt and Cat a book by Kerstin Rodgers: Supper Club: Recipes and notes from the underground restaurant.
This substantial tome told the story of how Kerstin went from keen amateur cook to running the country’s most famous pop-up restaurant in her own back room. It also gave a lot of practical advice on how to do the same. It seems that the craze for the domestic pop-up is sweeping the nation – well, London anyway. The book was a good read, and stimulated much thought about the meaning of ‘a restaurant’ and how it can be presented – but Matt and Cat concluded they’d probably need to go to the mainland if ever they wanted to experience this kind of thing. It’s taken a few years but it turns out that, like electricity, equal pay for women and a piano recital by Sir Elton John, all good things will eventually rock up on the Island if you wait long enough.
As well as being an artist and designer, Bembridge’s Holly Maslen has another string to her bow – she has opened a pop-up restaurant. As an intriguing variation to the dining-room or kitchen that domestic pop-ups seem to favour, Holly has created The Dome, a large tent set up in her back garden, where diners can relax in an opulent yurt-style environment whilst Holly works away in the nearby kitchen. Word of Holly and her set three-course French menu had reached Matt and Cat, so they gathered a few fellow foodies and set off to see whether Bembridge’s new reputation as a hotbed of eating-out innovation would be maintained.
The first thing to notice about The Dome is that its host venue is a comfortable but modest early twentieth-century house within really quite a small curtilage. You might think that to set up a restaurant in your garden you’d need a big leafy plot – not to mention understanding neighbours. The Dome, remarkably, almost filled Holly’s garden. Matt and Cat and party entered through the side gate, and immediately found themselves in the small back yard, adjacent to the tent itself. Holly herself was busy in the kitchen and waved cheerily though the window as she worked, so waitress Alice greeted the guests. Another party was already settling into the cosy tent so M&C and friends lingered to chat a while outside and enjoyed the mild evening, some nibbles that had been thoughtfully laid out, and the entertainment provided by two chaps playing vigorously on acoustic guitars. It was an outstanding welcome, and built up a level of eager anticipation for the delights that might await within The Dome.
Having peeked through the flaps, the diners were finally safely ushered into the tent by the efficient Alice. Cat’s last experience of eating under canvas was when she was in the Guides – frankly an experience that put her off camping for good. Served generic food that had to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the chow was eaten off a tin plate using a penknife or sticks or something. However, if dining at guide camp had been anything like the set-up at The Dome, its possible that Cat would have shrugged off her middle-class pretensions and demanded to live in a tent. Furnished more poshly than Matt’s parents’ vicarage, the surprisingly roomy dome had all of the required accoutrements for a fancy meal. There was none of that flimsy foldaway camping equipment here; sturdy wooden tables with delightfully mismatched chairs were bedecked with linen and lace tablecloths. The tables were laid with an assortment of on-trend vintage crockery mixed with ethnic pottery and old-fashioned cutlery. Candles were stuffed ironically into empty wine bottles and there was even a carpet on the floor and a central chandelier.
Dinner for two £40
(Bring your own drinks)
Once the diners were all settled in and the wine was flowing again, starters were produced. It was a set menu (with a vegetarian option), so everyone had soufflé au fromage – a fresh, steaming and excellently cheesy soufflé, served at just the right moment. Inside, nuggets of melted cheese could be found. This was a great start and a solidly French dish.
The main course was navarin d’agneau à la dauphinoise – lamb stew with dauphinoise potatoes. This was a meal of two halves, as the description suggested. The lamb stew was substantial, with good chunks of meat and lightly-cooked veg, but its simplicity was overshadowed by the dauphinoise potatoes, which were superb. Diners exclaimed with delight as they cut into their potato cakes – rich and succulent, with potatoes sliced impossibly thinly, lolling in lashings of silky garlicky cream.
Dessert was a competent tarte tatin with crème fraîche, followed by coffee and chit-chat. As the evening proceeded, The Dome glowed in the fading light of the guttering candles and the twinkling of the central chandelier. The diners mulled over the experience. The food was good – and, in the cases of the soufflé au fromage and the dauphinoise potatoes, outstanding. The simple French feel of the menu was cleverly conceived and delivered with sufficient panache to ensure that it felt like a special occasion. The substantial nature of the geodesic tent, with its homely furnishings, gave The Dome a contemporary Bohemian feel; perhaps this well-judged presentation reflected the design skills of artist Holly. The Dome clearly aimed at a restaurant-style experience; and there was not a single fault or slip – which in such an environment is an achievement not to be underestimated. There was professional and friendly service throughout from Alice, and some skilled work in the kitchen to ensure, for example, that the soufflé delivery was synchronised. Then of course there is the eponymous tent – it felt quite exotic to be out in the garden in such luxury.
The Dome is an impressive project for the talented Holly Maslen and Alice Lee. It is also, as a domestic pop-up restaurant, a new experience for Island diners that was worth the wait. Matt and Cat suspect that tickets for the rest of the summer will be in demand.
Note: Holly let us know that she and Alice are partners in the whole venture, so we wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. Holly writes: “There is no way I could run The Dome without Alice, we split all the work 50/50 (but Matt and Cat caught me up to my eyes in soufflé making, so I’ve been written up as Chef)”