Well, what do you know – the boy has done it again. He’s only gone and opened a restaurant right in the middle of Newport. What, Newport? Seriously, the place where there are two Wetherspoons? That’s the one. Not only that, but in a former cafe overlooking the bus station. Robert Thompson, once the youngest Michelin-starred chef, could have taken his pick of jobs on the mainland, or gone off to cater on some superyacht. But instead he has laid his roots down on the Isle of Wight.
Thompson’s in Newport is the hottest joint on the Island right now. The eponymous chef is a celebrated face locally, and his talent has gained national attention. Followers of Robert Thompson may have eaten at the Hambrough, the Pond or The George. In any of those venues, diners will have experienced great attention to detail, fiddly dishes with tufts, foams and gratings, and this complex style is still conspicuous in the food at Robert’s new restaurant.
What Robert has noticeably dispensed with is the support of a patron. Traditionally high-end venues have a silent – or not so silent – backer, bankrolling the talent and sometimes calling the shots. Robert has deliberately stepped away from this formula and is going it alone. Well, not quite. He has a loyal band in the kitchen who are as committed to delivering fabulous food as they are to the restaurant’s proprietor. And it shows. Unlike the hushed temple to food that Matt and Cat experienced at one-Michelin starred restaurant the Hambrough, Thompson’s is a far livelier place. Gone are the whispered tones of the waiting staff. The blank-windowed and corporate Isla’s at The George has been swapped for a corner plot with views over a bustling town centre.
8-course tasting menu 2 @ £62
Bodegaza bianco wine (bottle) £17.00
Entering the restaurant is like calling at someone’s house; tentatively opening the unsigned door, Matt and Cat found themselves stepping straight into a busy kitchen. Television producers understand the appeal of watching other people cook, and an open kitchen is now a familiar sight on the mainland, as diners are eager to see behind the curtain. M&C are no exception and really enjoyed the theatrical antics as they ate counter-side at Brighton’s 64 Degrees. Although their table at Thompson’s was on the first floor, they could still hear the activity downstairs, something that would never have happened in Robert’s previous venues where the magic occurred in a distant kitchen. If you’re lucky enough to get the option of a table by the engine room you should take it.
Matt and Cat had the tasting menu, a treat which gave them the opportunity to try some of the a la carte dishes that had caught their eye. And, at around seven quid a course, this turned out to be not cheap, but still excellent value compared to Robert’s last gig where Matt paid £70 for three courses in 2014. Matt and Cat eat out a lot and many people imagine that this is an expensive hobby. In some ways it is but, if you barely spend any of your hard-earned on groceries it’s surprising how economical dining out can be. Plus, of course, you don’t have to wash up. And when you’re having a meal of eight courses with new cutlery each time, that’s a LOT of washing up.
The service was respectful but not impersonal; certainly more bistro than exclusive restaurant. It was early doors – the first week in fact – when M&C visited and although some of the staff were finding their feet, others had more a handle on what they were doing. So at least two bottles of water arrived at the table instead of the single one that was ordered and, using dormant skills, Matt and Cat were able to flap their own napkins across their knees.
The food. Yes, it was elaborate, and it was very good. Each course was a supremely well-judged assembly of parts to create a greater whole. A few particular flavours and textures leapt out and caught the imagination in way that is characteristic of Thompson – a burnt apple compote that was a tiny spoonful of smoky delight; and some little beans so fresh and green they were almost sparkling. Some dishes were challenging; crunchy quinoa added an unwelcome grittiness. Other dishes were witty: local rabbit kebab with carrot ketchup? Mr McGregor would approve! Cheese and sea bass, pastrami tuna, a rabbit loin croquette. In the faultless presentation of the little dishes were unexpected combinations: peach and shaved duck’s liver, white chocolate and poppy seeds. Every plateful commanded attention, and got it.
In the creation of this new restaurant, there have been some considerable challenges. The building is old, nay historic, so much so that each alteration was scrutinised to ensure that the property’s integrity was not compromised. This corner plot of this new fancy-schmancy restaurant has, for years, been home to various cafes mostly plying short-order meals to a short-of-time lunchtime trade. Cranking its profile up to this high-end level, with a price to match, is bound to have some of the local hayseeds mumbling disapprovingly into their beards; but frankly, cheap food in Newport is hardly a difficult commodity to find if that’s what they want. Dining of this quality is far rarer, and it’s a good thing for Newport and the Island that Thompson has stuck his neck out here. No coincidence that this time there’s only one name above the door: his own. It’s probably time we stopped calling him ‘boy’ Robert Thompson, because with this confident and self-assured gesture, it looks as though Robert Thompson has truly come of age.
This is the full-length version of the shorter review that was first published in the County Press.
Visit the website: http://www.robertthompson.co.uk/
- Superb food
- Comfortable venue
- Great value lunchtime deals
- It's Robert Thompson
- Not the cheapest food in Newport