St Helens is a delightful-looking village, arranged around a series of greens to facilitate perfectly the curtain-twitching neighbourliness which village life demands.
Rather carelessly, St Helens has managed to mislay two churches – one is almost entirely fallen into the sea, whilst the other is located in the countryside about a mile from the village. This leaves a vacancy for a local community hub which is filled by the village pub, the Vine Inn.
A modest Victorian hostelry set amongst the houses looking over the green, the Vine Inn has a bit of the town-pub look about it. Would it be nothing more than a few dusty rooms and a dartboard? The lively signs outside suggested otherwise, and so Matt and Cat decided to put the Vine to the test.
Walking along the road towards the pub, the dusk was settling over the quiet streets of St Helens. Cat peered myopically at the venue’s lighted windows; “I can see a dartboard, I’m sure I can” she quavered. Certainly a group of chaps were silhouetted in a window, but little more could be discerned. She was reminded of a time long ago when she was pretty nifty with the arrows herself.
Once your reviewers made their way across the Vine’s threshold, the party who Cat had imagined to be playing darts, were in fact sitting at a table in a raised part of the pub by the window. There a waitress was just in the process of delivering a meal. So, clearly, this was a pub that served food, not a spit-and-sawdust public bar. Inside it was spacious, clean and new – even slightly unfinished in some very new parts, they noticed.
Before they had time to order their drinks, Matt and Cat were approached by a cheery barmaid who offered them a menu, having clocked them eyeing the specials board. Reading through the bill of fare, they found a good spread of standard pub grub. Cat made her choice from the specials board, which offered some interesting alternatives. Vacillating between chicken and pie of the day, the pie finally won out. Today that pie was steak and Stilton, served with chips and fresh vegetables. Matt wasn’t tempted by all that fancy stuff: zeroing in on the page headed ‘From the Grill’ he picked the impressively specified Vine Burger: a 16oz burger topped with onion ring, cheese, bacon, mushroom and pineapple or egg. As if that wasn’t enough, as he was leafing through the menu his gimlet eye spotted whitebait on the starter page. Whitebait? That’s something that both Matt and Cat have a soft spot for so for once a starter was on the list. Having placed their order and secured some drinks, they took to a comfy table in the corner. Matt was delighted by the excellent beer, trying for the first time Itchen Valley Winchester ale, which was really good.
Whilst they waited, the reviewers enjoyed the atmosphere of the comfy village pub. It had a suggestion of the limed tongue-and-groove seaside chalet about it, as befits a pub just a few miles from Bembridge: but actually under all that was still a homely village local. And homely villagers were certainly using it, popping in for a drink at the bar, and yes, even a game of darts on the dartboard which, it turns out, was still in existence and in use, but safely out the back away from the diners. A dog entered with one group of chaps, and proved to have the most remarkable voice. Whilst it was not intrusive, its high-pitched yip made both Matt and Cat exclaim simultaneously with a moment of involuntary nostalgia: both had been reminded of the distinctive sound of a plimsoll squeaking on a sports-hall floor.
The whitebait made its appearance, and was a good supply of fish, decently clad in breadcrumbs and borne on a bed of fresh lettuce. A ramekin of tartare sauce came alongside, and the hungry duo set to work, making sure none of the little fish had died in vain.
Whitebait starter £4.95
Steak and Stilton pie £9.25
Vine burger £10.95
On arrival, Cat’s pie released a splendid Stiltony smell. It came with a good variety of fresh vegetables and plenty of gravy in a gravy-boat: nice touch. The pie tasted good, but she was less impressed with the texture. The copious gravy made significant amends, but this pie was a dry pie, especially at the edges. It may have been left too long in the desiccating atmosphere of an oven as it was in places, frankly, rigid. A couple of the peripheral pieces of meat even had a suggestion of Matt’s favourite treat meat, Biltong about them. However, away from the dried edges, the interior of the pie was excellent and the strong sauce worked well with the lean red meat. The chips were especially good but, having gorged herself on whitebait, Cat made very little impression on her main course.
Matt’s Vine burger was a monster. With an entire pound of meat in it, it was a towering edifice indeed. Some good, freshly-cooked chips and decent salad set it off. Matt began to dismantle the beast. If you’ve looked at the photograph above, you may be wondering, as Matt was, where all the promised extras were? He finally managed to located the onion ring, the mushrooms, pineapple and the cheese. All were nestling safely under the top bun of the burger. So it goes without saying that the meat and bacon were by far the best represented ingredients – the others were relegated to a mere garnish. Humiliatingly, Matt was defeated by this meatfest. Perhaps it was the big portion of whitebait, which although it was shared, is always a filling starter. Or maybe it was just the volume of meat. Whatever the reason, for once Matt sent his plate back semi-loaded. So full marks to the Vine Inn for volume – they’ve achieved something few eateries can boast of.
Despite being thwarted by their meals (which may have been a reflection of their lack of capacity) Matt and Cat spent some time after their plates were removed, enjoying the pub’s genial environment. They liked the Vine Inn because of the friendly service and the obvious community atmosphere. The food was pretty basic pub fare but, apart from Cat’s overdone pie, was well-presented, fresh and plentiful. The Vine Inn is an asset to the village to be sure.
The Vine Inn, St Helens