Note: this is an archive review. The Hambrough is now run by a different team.
It’s fair to say that 2013 has been an eventful year for the Island’s most famous restaurant, The Hambrough.
Last time Matt and Cat visited this Ventnor venue it was prominently branded as Robert Thompson’s The Hambrough. No longer. 2013 was the year that the chef who was literally synonymous with his flagship restaurant left in puzzling circumstances. Also quitting the Hambrough group at around the same time was a swathe of staff including the Hambrough’s restaurant manager, their marketing officer, and even catering consultant Steve McManus. Similar problems beset sister venue the Pond Cafe in Bonchurch, with staff coming and going. Kitchens at both the Pond and the Hambrough were closed at various times over the early summer, and at least one booked event was cancelled.
This season was an uncharacteristic debacle in the life of what has been one of the Island’s most carefully curated and developed high-end names: a brand that has had a huge positive impact on many businesses and individuals in Ventnor and across the Island. Why 2013 was the time that the Hambrough group’s well-oiled machine went off the rails in such a public way is hard to fathom. Certainly Matt and Cat, like many others, watched with a morbid fascination when it seemed as though the floundering leviathan would beach itself fatally on the rocks. They breathed a sigh of relief on behalf of the Island’s hospitality industry when disaster was averted and over the summer normal service began to return to both the Hambrough and the Pond Cafe. The head chef is now Darren Beevers, a man who must be saluted for having returned order to the kitchen and beyond at a time when some assumed the Hambrough group had consumed itself. The Island’s only Michelin star is the unsurprising casualty of this season of turmoil – but Matt and Cat care little for such trimmings. They want only to know what a meal at the Hambrough is like. So after giving the restaurant and new chef a few months to settle down, it was time to head southwards once more.
Walking into the Hambrough’s dining room, Matt and Cat were inevitably reminded of their first visit there in 2009. They wrote at that time “entering the Hambrough felt like entering a church – a church dedicated to food”. There was still an ascetic air to the Hambrough’s neutral decor, but something had definitely changed. The staff were warm and welcoming, and the dining room was full of customers chatting and laughing. None of that whispering and shuffling business any more.
Matt and Cat and their two dining companions had signed up for the tasting menu; in fact there were three tasting menus to choose from: “an I.o.W. tasting…” and “a tasting of the sea…”. and “a vegetarian tasting…”.
1 x gin and tonic £12
2 x tasting menu @ £55
Bottle of wine £35
2 x bottles of still water @ £4
2 x coffee and petit fours @ £4
Charity donation £1
As the meal began, a theme began to make itself felt. The neat little breads came with cylinders of butter, including smoked butter. They were served with a smoked beetroot ketchup that was genuinely excellent – so much so that the attentive waitress noticed the enthusiasm of her charges and unbidden brought a second bowl of this intense condiment. The amuse bouche of rabbit terrine and crab bisque was garnished with a Bembridge prawn. This tasty little prawn also proved to be smoked. Perhaps Mr Beevers had recently taken possession of a smoking device.
The tasting menu – in fact, all three of the menus – provided no fewer than five courses plus amuse bouche and pre-dessert, making seven in all. At £55 this was not a bad deal. Impressively, the vegetarian menu was cheaper, at only £45. Yes, calculator-jugglers, that means that at the Hambrough, each course of the vegetarian tasting menu is only 48p more than the £5.95 one-course set menu at the newly reopened Ryde Castle. Hardly an equitable comparison, but the point is significant – dining at the Hambrough has a high price tag, but doesn’t at all have to be poor value.
The courses kept coming, with commendable timing given the fact that the kitchen was preparing three parallel tasting menus simultaneously. A few items made an appearance on more than one menu – both main tasting menus featured a course of pollack, curry spices and crispy kale, and the kale also appeared on the vegetarian dishes. This kale was something that everyone approved of – it was reminiscent of the fried ‘seaweed’ eaten at Chinese restaurants, but gentler, subtler and much nicer. And it didn’t pretend to be seaweed, either. Cat’s first course of crab tortellini with rock samphire foam was surprisingly rich. Its accompanying crab soup provided the only bit of theatre in the meal, when poured onto the pasta from a glass teapot.
Matt enjoyed the venison, salsify, blackberries and juniper on the I.o.W. tasting menu. The meat was tender, with the rich, autumnal tastes of the dish working together reliably. Matt couldn’t help primly observing that venison is hardly a prime candidate for a menu focussing on the deer-free Isle of Wight. And as far as he knows, there are only two wild juniper bushes on the Island so it’s unlikely they had much to do with it either.
While Matt was enjoying his venison, Cat used her fish knife to flake off portions from her soft seabass, and squealing with delight at her Dorset snails. She had tried these land molluscs for the first time at Valentino’s, where they were served in shells. At the Hambrough, the snails lay on the plate tightly coiled; naked without their brittle homes. Cat unfurled one, then ate it. It had a subtle taste, which was enhanced by red wine sauce and the vinegariness of pickled heritage cauliflower.
Unexpectedly, the selection of British cheeses didn’t feature any Isle of Wight cheese. That was actually something Matt and Cat perversely appreciated, as they love Isle of Wight cheese so much that they’ve invariably got some on the go at home. Consequently it was a treat to explore some different cheeses. The Hambrough did a great job with some sensational Dorset Blue Vinney served at the optimum ripeness and temperature and packing a powerful punch. Alongside were two sheeps-milk cheeses: soft, sweet Wigmore, and hard Berkswell sweating alluringly. Cheese is often treated as a stopgap between more sophisticated courses – the Hambrough clearly thought otherwise and the effort put into this selection and its presentation paid off handsomely.
Dessert – by way of a blackberry, macadamia and fig-leaf ice cream pre-dessert – was a fennelly melange, with fennel jam, anise ice cream and treacle crumbs supporting a rich dark chocolate marquise that in another world might have been mistaken for chocolate brownie. Surprisingly this course had the least going for it; each component had its own element of interest but, like Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg at their pre-election TV debate, they may have shared a stage but they didn’t compliment each other.
To wind up their evening, M&C and party ordered coffee and petit fours – which was a selection of fudges. This hid another taste sensation that almost caused conflict amongst the two gentlemen at the table, both of whom were determined to get the compellingly-salty Marmite fudge. Isle of Wight Blue made an unexpected and clever appearance paired with white chocolate in another popular fudge portion. An entertaining and playful end to the meal.
And this, friends, is where Matt and Cat should have paid up and walked back up the hill with their companions, chatting over how good it was to see the Hambrough still serving up clever and sophisticated food, exploring new tastes and offering relatively mild challenges to the diner. They would have enthused about the altered atmosphere; how the previous reverence had been swept away by bouts of occasional sauciness – an adjective surely unused to describe the Hambrough in the RT days. They’d have reflected on how chef Darren Beevers has chosen to make no radical change to the regime established under Thompson, and was wisely going for mainstream menus and a steady and safe approach to change and development. They’d most likely have speculated that if Beevers hung around, he’d probably start making his mark in the next season or two, once the memories of the Hambrough’s annus horribilis started to fade.
Sadly, such gentle ruminations were denied the party. Two obstacles stood in their way. The first was obtaining the bill. Once the coffee and fudge had been delivered, there was no further sign of what had been up until then exemplary service. The dining room is separate from the rest of the hotel, and so there was no way to catch the eye of any server – there were none to see. The air of comfortable satiation that had fallen on the group was beginning to fray at the edges. Minutes dragged on, and eventually after more than half an hour the diners began to become restive, even anxious. Somebody rushed past the open door of the dining room and was flagged down by a shout from within. She promised to bring the bill, but none was forthcoming. Eventually, it was necessary to go and seek it out. When the bill finally arrived, the second obstacle presented itself. The bill was hard to understand, and considerably larger than expected. Assistance was required from the restaurant manager, who did his best to explain the enigmatic document. Once one overcharged item had been put right, it became clear that Matt and Cat had fallen for the oldest trick in the restaurateurs’ book: lured in by a good-value main menu they’d been effectively upsold drinks, coffee, petits four and even bottled water which had served to increase their bill by an impressive 63%. Still, that’s nobody’s fault but their own, and it doesn’t stop the main menu itself from being a pretty good proposition. The two bits of advice Matt and Cat would give to diners are to ask for the bill with the coffee, and for the best value meal stick to tap water.
Matt and Cat would unreservedly recommend the Hambrough under Darren Beevers, and predict that he and his team may work their way back up to that Michelin star if they choose to do so.
Edit: the price of wine was corrected.
Note: this is an archive review. The Hambrough is now run by a different team.