Rebellious chefs. You can’t avoid them these days. Gawd knows who’s responsible for the ‘dirty’ food revolution? Possibly naked chef and school dinner warrior, Jamie Oliver? And what about ‘dropped’ desserts? Newport’s Smokehouse introduced us to the dirty fries concept – their version delivers regulation skinny chips enhanced with shredded lettuce and smoked bacon then slathered in house sauces. While holidaying in Birmingham, we laughed our socks off at The Wilderness ‘Oh Bollocks’ dropped dessert before tucking into the upturned ice cream cone. And don’t even get us started about those rock-and-roll cheffy lads at Nomad.
But wait, aren’t we forgetting something? All these bad boys are thumbing their noses at convention but let’s not throw the baby aubergines out with the rose-scented bathwater. In the right hands, classical food, served in a formal restaurant, can be a truly outstanding experience. Such hands can reliably be found at the Royal Hotel Ventnor, and so when we were invited to try their Heritage Tasting Menu – plus matched wines – we didn’t need asking twice.
Comfortably seated at a spacious table, we were introduced to our chef de rang, and the evening’s dining began with a nip of sweet and sour tomato soup for an amuse bouche, topped with a rich dab of pesto. Starter was a remarkable pastrami which was advertised as venison, but announced as beef – we decided in the end it probably was beef. Either way, it was outstanding. Sprinkled with a smoky feta it had a rich, lasting flavour that went perfectly with the powerful matched Don Placero Rioja Crianza. Some onion marmalade divided us – Matt thought it was the perfect complement, Cat found it a bit over-dominant.
Ventnor lobster cannelloni with a spicy lobster sauce was a beautifully presented and subtle dish that Cat particularly loved. The tubes of pasta were stuffed full of white lobster meat, and the sauce had mercifully just a hint of a peppery tang to it – enough to liven up the late crustacean but not enough to mask the delicate taste.
The main was two slabs of magnificent duck breast with an exquisite sliver of foie gras. Underneath, cherry compote and toasted hazelnuts gave some contrasting flavours – a great suite of tastes that really benefited from the fruity Merlot served with it.
Pre-dessert was a shot of intense blackcurrant mousse on ginger beer jelly, with nuggets of bitter Valrhona chocolate. Then raspberry soufflé – nobody should dine at the Royal and not eat at least one soufflé. The hot, fresh souffle was rich with the flavour of raspberries, and had a pleasingly caramelised crust on the outside that gave the whole thing an echo of bonfire-scorched marshmallow. Alongside, a little pot of Eton mess and a blob of raspberry ripple ice cream finished the dessert. But the star of this course had to be the Canadian Riesling ice wine.
Finally, cheese. And instead of the usual trio of Island cheeses, the Royal chefs allowed themselves a hint of waggishness with cheese fondue. They balked at the chance to make the table share a single big bowl in the true 1970s fondue style, but nonetheless the individual bowls of this delicious hot salty sauce were soon mopped up with the soldiers of toasted brioche, and washed down with the classic glass of port.
The great thing about the Royal is how consistently reliable it is. We have been coming to the hotel on and off for many years, eaten many different meals in different circumstances and can honestly say we have never had a bad experience. This one, however, stood out – even amongst all those – as a really good menu, well delivered and very cleverly conceived. We love a bit of street food, and the occasional chance to watch the chef whip up some crazy creation under your nose; but there’s a wonderfully luxurious decadence about a full-on high-end tasting menu experience in a classic hotel restaurant. The Royal knows how to deliver this flawlessly, and we know we’ll be back for more.
We were the guests of The Royal Hotel, Ventnor.