A Frequently Asked Question of Matt and Cat is ‘are you guys really fat?’. Another question in the top ten would be ‘where’s the best place to eat?’. That question is much harder to answer than the first (which, by the way, is dodged by the statement ‘Cat is not a guy’).
The best place on the Island to eat depends on many factors: budget, tastes, company and occasion. For example, Matt and Cat would not recommend the same venue to a lively hen night (Moo Cow) as to a family on a budget looking for somewhere to celebrate an elderly lady’s birthday (Appley Manor). It should go without saying that a children’s party venue has different requirements to a romantic supper for two.
Ahh, a romantic supper for two… As it happens Love is in the Air (according to Clintons), as this review was written just before St Valentine’s Day. Militant singletons may sneer at this contrived celebration of love and romance, yet it still must be one of the busiest days in the restaurant calendar. As Dry January putters to a welcome end and pay day has sorted out the worst of the Christmas overspend, people are emerging from their slankets, blinking into the light and going out for dinner.
Matt and Cat, by dint of this website, have enjoyed many, MANY dinners for two and have been making personal Valentine supper recommendations for weeks now, via Twitter, Facebook, emails and even word of mouth. This review was intended to be of the acme of all dinners, where the boat is well and truly pushed out to impress a loved one (or soon-to-be loved one if the protagonist plays his/her cards right). However, the Royal Hotel was booked up for dinner so, M&C decided to have afternoon tea there instead.
Stepping away from the Valentine theme for a moment, the Royal Hotel’s afternoon tea is a pretty good bet for any special occasion. Matt and Cat have, over the years, raised a teacup in the Royal’s conservatory for Matt’s birthday, to his elderly parents and even some visiting European journalists. It’s a reliable and consistent option and one that M&C are now recommending as a romantic treat.
Matt and Cat’s afternoon delight was served in the hotel’s conservatory; a light, airy space lit by the low winter sun. If you’re going to pop in for tea and cake, you may as well got for the Full Monty, or the Royal Set as it is called. And, if you’re feeling particularly game, you could order the Champagne Tea (no prizes for guessing the bonus drink). Otherwise you have the choice of half a dozen or so brews from the tea menu.
Matt and Cat decided to have the tea that most described themselves. Matt’s breakfast Assam was “Statuesque and broad with plenty of structure and malty richness. A Rousing breakfast tea.” M&C hoped that last bit was a typo; arousing tea would have been appropriate for their Valentine’s meal! Despite Matt’s guffawed insistence, Cat decided that she didn’t want to be thought of as having the “bitter complexities” of whole chamomile flowers, and chose the “super-delicate and fragrant” Jasmine Silver Needle instead.
The first course of M&C’s Royal Set was sandwiches. Sarnies? Yes, but what sarnies! These are the sort of sandwiches that Cat wished her mother had made for her as a child; squashy bread (with the crusts precisely removed) and positioned side-by-side like soldiers on parade. Soldiers filled with tender roast beef and horseradish, cheese and a fabulous sweet spiced chutney, soft egg with a hint of chives, and smooth smoked salmon and cream cheese.
And, as always, the service was impeccable – as you’d expect from a venue that has been listed in every Michelin Guide since it was first published in 1911. The smartly-uniformed staff glided up to the table at regular intervals to make hushed enquiries about the status of the teapot, and to hope that the quality of the cakes and pastries met with expectations. As if there was any doubt.
Royal Set Tea for two, £46
Oh yes, there were cakes and pastries and, as tradition dictates, they were delivered on a three-tiered cake stand. The bottom and middle layers had two of each kind of cake, easy to share in a pleasingly equitable way. The top tier bore the elaborate fancies – and only one of each type. This is probably where the real courtship occurs: the true romancer must either show dominance and snatch their favourite, or yield to their partner’s sweet desires. M&C, being old hands, cut the cakes in two. And that, kids, is how to keep the romance alive.
There were six different varieties of dainty cakes; the work of a talented patisserie chef. The highlights? They all had distinct appeal: the deconstructed apple and blackcurrant crumble with its reconstructed apple was witty, sweet and tart. There was a little choux bun filled with Grand Marnier and chocolate ganache. The delicate Mont Blanc white chocolate ingot had a surprising caramel centre which Matt loved. Cat was transported to her childhood, not by the wonderful madeleines, but by the cinnamon and almond flan with the shortest of short pastry cases. Saving the scones til last, M&C had their usual debate about the position of jam or the clotted stuff. As if it actually mattered. The scones were fluffy and the strawberry jam was intense in whatever order it was laid.
And still the fragrant tea flowed, the automatic piano tickled its own ivories and the sun faded from view. Matt and Cat were transported into that otherworldly Royal Hotel time that seems to pass so slowly. Pausing only to answer the occasional solicitous enquiry from the passing staff, they sipped tea and chatted until they were the last ones in the cosy conservatory. Afternoon tea sounds like a light repast, but you’d better believe that after a meal like this you won’t be wanting much supper. Matt and Cat rose to the challenge and eventually emptied the cake stand, but others showed less fortitude – the diners noticed one party leaving with carefully packaged boxes of cakes to take home for later.
Afternoon tea at the Royal is a luxurious, indulgent treat. There’s no doubt about it – it’s an expensive meal but a very good one. The quality of the food and the friendly but impressively seamless service is hard to fault, and for a stylish, romantic venue the Royal Hotel has a charm and atmosphere that Matt and Cat find irresistible.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 13th of February 2015.