Aren’t humans lucky? We somehow find this lovely planet awash with things conveniently at a manageable scale: buttons, houses, cutlery. Also, being omnivores, we can eat pretty much anything. It’s as if it was all designed for our use! Imagine how dull life would be if you were a koala. Sure, you’d live in a nice country and look pretty cute, but what good are a pair of unfeasibly fluffy ears if you can’t manipulate a mirror to admire them? And who’d want a monovorous diet of eucalyptus leaves? Not Matt and Cat, who are out and proud as omnivores.
Not all people embrace their ability to chew and digest most of what Mother Nature provides for them. Some people live in places where their diet is not always a matter of choice; others have objections to eating animals that others simply think of as food with a face. Some choose to restrict their diet on a whim or principle: as a child, Cat was a very fussy eater and it’s a surprise that she grew up at all, living as she did on salad cream sandwiches and milk. Matthew was less discerning; tea time at the vicarage was a meal without waste.
As she got older, Cat’s diet broadened and she was a vegetarian for many years. However, eventually the lure of tuna was too much even for her steely will. This Damascene conversion suited Cat well. These days she has a penchant for fillet steak and, of course, bacon – the vegetarian’s temptress.
Both Matt and Cat are happy to eat hay for pay, so were delighted and flattered to be invited to The ‘V’ Word at The Royal Hotel, a vegetarian tasting evening where they could mingle with the Island’s eminent vegetarians. Could they spend an entire evening in such august company and not mention bacon? The only thing to do was to brush off the posh togs and find out.
Thankfully the crowd at the Royal Hotel did not appear to be vegetarian evangelists of any sort. Nor did any confess within Matt and Cat’s earshot that they were “vegetarians but ate fish”, so-called pescetarians, or meat-eaters, as pedantic ex-veggie Cat still insists on calling them. Still, however people choose to classify their eating habits is almost irrelevant for this feast because the great thing about vegetarian food is that it is the equivalent of the ‘U’ certificate in the cinema – it’s suitable for all.
About 30-odd invitees assembled in the hotel’s bar for champagne and air-kissing before being led to the opulent dining room. The guests were seated according to a plan and Matt and Cat found themselves in some very convivial company. Two of the hotel’s gracious employees chatted with the guests and explained what was going on. Abi and Paul, a couple of bone fide veggies from Goodleaf Tree Climbing were next, and Paul admitted to being a Royal Hotel ‘virgin’. A brace of County Press reporters finished this exclusive mix. Having finally drawn the long straw at the office they did not have to spend their evening listening to the pronouncements of the Island’s local politicians – who were, in fact, sitting at another table.
Before the food arrived, a short speech of welcome explained the set-up. The menu was made up of food the chefs wanted to try out, and the hotel was at pains to point out that the dishes might be amended in the light of comments the diners made. Not much responsibility there then! One of the most interesting features of this evening for M & C was that there was no need for subterfuge. Unlike normal reviewing visits, they were invited guests. Indeed the exercise was at least partly to raise the profile of The Royal’s forthcoming new vegetarian menu – so photography, usually concealed behind a napkin or raised menu, was overt and simple.
All of the invitees had made their course choices in advance and Matt and Cat were expecting just a starter and main. Imagine their boggled-eyed pleasure when little amuse-bouche glasses were placed in front of their eager faces. Old hands at this clever dish, M and C swigged at the mushroom velouté with a truffle foam. The sublime velouté was so concentrated that surely in the kitchen a coiled copper mushroom still must have been employed to make this ‘shroomy distillate? Much appreciative nodding all round the table.
Starter for Cat was sweet potato ravioli and celeriac fondant. This tiny and intense dish was splashed with audacious lettuce foam and decorated with sweetest pea shoots. It was a visual and olfactory treat. Matt had a generous bowlful of piping hot Jerusalem artichoke velouté. A sucker for velouté at the best of times, he was in raptures.
The dining companions did not stand on ceremony and, despite some of them being strangers to each other, they all peered at each others’ food – a habit that may have been downright rude under other, less communal, circumstances. But the beautiful and painstaking presentation of these dishes meant that everyone wanted to see what was around the table. Other dishes within M and C’s eyeline were tomato and basil risotto with avocado ice cream, and marinated vegetable salad with pan-fried herb gnocchi. Evidence of how difficult it had been to choose from this extraordinarily inventive menu.
Next up for Cat was caramelised shallot tart, Isle of Wight blue cheese and pickled pear. Again this pretty dish was adorned with the scrummy pea shoots. A tiny but TARDIS-like copper pan came alongside with a seemingly endless supply of excellent vegetables aboard. The tart had a beautiful mix of flavours and it was particularly pleasing to see local cheese used in its creation.
Matt had garlic and thyme roasted veg with deep fried goats cheese. This was a decent-sized portion, with a splendidly hot nugget of goats-cheese which, on opening, disgorged the aromatic melted cheese all over the veg beneath. An impressive mixture of textures although the garlic and thyme were subtle – or possibly overwhelmed entirely by the cheese.
Throughout the meal, the attentive staff topped up water and wine glasses and, having swept away the few residual crumbs of the first courses, they presented the diners with an unusual course: feedback forms. It seemed only fair that the free-loaders earned their supper. M and C were happy to pontificate on the food; Cat had been tweeting as each course arrived so she already had a virtual crib-sheet. Handing in their adjective-strewn papers, the diners were thrilled to see dessert cutlery positioned at their places. M & C hoped they knew what was to follow – was chef patissier Steve Bott going to provide a suitable finale?
Like the man who was going to St Ives who met a man with seven wives, the four-course meal culminated in a dish of five sweets. A tiny ramekin of tangy passion fruit soufflé jostled for attention with morsels of lemon parfait, and Cat’s favourite the almondy macaroon with pistachio cream filling. Oh ambassador Bott, you are spoiling us!
This incredible vegetarian banquet was such an innovative meal. Other diners at the ‘V’ Word seemed similarly impressed. The Royal Hotel has thoroughly shooed away the concept of veggie food being an afterthought to appease the beardie-weirdies. From the comments on this very website there are plenty of people wanting vegetarian food and not just cheese omelette. What’s more, being The Royal, it seems likely that this will not just be a few token veggie dishes stuck on the back of the menu. Every plateful served up was a fully-fledged course, worthy to stand alongside any meat dish.
Now, this was a promotional event. So this isn’t a food review as such. If you want to know what happened when M&C reviewed The Royal Hotel anonymously, go and read the review. But with that in mind, your reviewers have no doubt that something pretty good is going on for veggies down in Ventnor. The vegetarian menu at The Royal is fantastic, novel and fun. It seems very likely to be another success for executive head chef Alan Staley’s ever-inventive kitchen.