At first glance, some things never seem to change. Bruce Forsyth’s hair suspiciously resists the march of time regardless of the fact it’s trampled all over his face.
Madonna remains steadfastly dewy and youthful despite the knarliness of the old bird’s fists. Godshill defies passing trends; pretty thatched cottages nestle in the valley below the picture postcard church, unchanged for decades. Or is it? Under new management, The Taverners has transformed itself into a renowned gastro-pub; alongside its famous cream teas the Willow Tea Rooms now sells tapas, and the former Loaves and Fishes is rebranded as The Essex.
The Essex has had many incarnations throughout the years; tea shop (natch), fish restaurant and now an upmarket dining establishment. Having earned a decent dinner by going for a tramp in the woods, Matt and Cat booked a table at the restaurant. They brushed the autumn leaves out of their hair and turned up at the fancy venue in time for their reservation.
The Essex has a civilised little bar at the front of the shop with a rather incongruous TV which, on the night M and C attended, was showing the X Factor. However, the restaurant should not be judged by its broadcasting of lowest common denominator telly. It was, in fact, a very understated venue with plain walls, fully-linened tables and attentive, well-dressed staff in pinnies who welcomed your reviewers and settled them at a table in the middle of the big dining area.
Matt and Cat were the first diners in the place, but very soon others started trooping in. There’s room for a lot of people in there, and a couple of big parties were amongst the evening’s clientèle. A young couple and an older couple took a nearby table. Maybe some new boyfriend or girlfriend being shown off? Matt and Cat’s ears were well pinned back to hear. To their surprise, the young gentleman in question turned out to be anything but: testily quibbling with the staff about the table before he even sat down. Flamboyantly dressed, this chap’s querulous mithering was almost as entertaining as his feeble preening. Was he, perhaps, overcompensating in front of his new belle’s parents? Alas it was impossible to tell who the others were, as the oldsters sat in silence the whole time, obviously unable – or unwilling – to get a word in.
Turning their attention to the food, Matt and Cat were soon presented with some nice-looking and generous meals. Cat had abandoned chicken for one of her intermittent forays into beef; choosing fillet steak au poivre. Matt received a mighty roast shoulder of lamb. Both meals came with potatoes and a big and piping-hot portion of veg.
Matt loved the big chunky look of the lamb, with the bone peeking cheekily from the meat in a robust style. If you’re going to eat flesh – and Matt certainly is – then there’s sometimes no harm in it looking like it. Under the joint was a simply delicious little podium of freshly-roasted veg, splendidly caramelised onion and perfect potatoes, soaking up juice from the meat. Loading onto his plate the fresh vegetables and excellent sautéed potatoes, Matt plunged his knife into the meat with relish. It wasn’t quite as good as it looked, but then it couldn’t be, really. The slow-roasted lamb might have been better if it had been fast-roasted, as it was on the dry side and the gravy was a scant complement. But it was nonetheless a decent bit of meat which Matt enjoyed ripping into; and the accompanying veg was beyond reproach.
Cat’s steak au poivre was a hunk of fillet rolled in a profusion of peppercorns, set in a rich, creamy puddle of sauce with a scattering of even more pepper. Her steak knife soon revealed a perfect medium steak, just as she’d requested. The smooth and soft fillet was generously endowed with the fiery pepper, so much so that Cat’s delicate tongue protested, and she even scraped some of the pepper off the meat. The creamy sauce, blended from meat juices, cream and red wine was exquisite and was a fantastic lubricant to the tender meat.
Roast lamb £14.95
Fillet steak £21.95
Desserts x 2 £10.50
Throughout the meal the staff were attentive without being bothersome; achieving that magical balance lacking in so many other places. As Matt’s pint glass looked like it was about to be drained he was offered another drink. A steak knife appeared at Cat’s side without prompting. All newcomers to the restaurant were greeted and seated.
Desserts were a foregone: the food was so good Matt and Cat weren’t going to stop half way. Cat’s raspberry crème brulée was a delicious and delicate dish, with even the raspberries having a slightly caramelised finish. Cleverly, it was served in a shallow, wide dish, so allowing more of the delicious crackly sugary covering. Matt predictably went for steamed syrup pudding ‘with a hint of ginger and lashings of golden syrup’. It was a great pudding, but that kind of lashing was more like a gentle tickle – more syrup, please, Essex.
Matt and Cat were replete and happy: The Essex is a good venue with extremely professional service. The food looked superb, and didn’t taste too bad either. The comprehensive menu will have something to tempt most diners, and the prices are not unreasonable – especially the veggie options which are a positive bargain. It seems that others think the same, as even on an off-season evening the place was thronged with happy diners. The Essex is recommended.