2015 seems like such a long time ago. Yet that was the year chef Robert Thompson opened his eponymous restaurant in Newport, converting a run-down former flower-shop by the bus station into what immediately became, and remains, one of a select handful of reliable and successful high-end dining experiences on the Island.
Yet we cannot help casting our minds back further, to our first experience of Robert Thompson’s food in 2009, less than a year after he arrived on the Isle of Wight to cook at The Hambrough in Ventnor. We have never forgotten the velouté of Jerusalem artichoke with truffle and Parmesan which inspired us to write in the subsequent review “in one mouthful Matt was a convert to Thompsonism”. Fourteen years on, does this ability to inspire awe and wonder remain?
Thompson’s welcomed us from a cold, wet winter night into an intimate venue where twinkling lights and warm candlelight gave an immediate feeling of comfort and cosiness. A far cry from the austere environment of The Hambrough all those years ago. Our table had no cutlery on it, but we already knew the clever idea which has to be explained to newcomers – your cutlery is a charmingly mismatched selection of pre-loved silverware kept in a little drawer by every diner’s right hand. As each course arrives you pick the implements you fancy. No need for fussiness or guessing which tool to use. And, one suspects, if somebody pockets a spoon or two, a quick trip to the charity shop will allow the venue to replenish the drawers.
We started with the Thompson signature cuttlefish-ink crackers which delighted us so much in 2009 and on many occasions since. These days they are available as an appetiser, accompanied by a magnificently creamy and tangy taramasalata. We eagerly scraped the little scallop-shell serving platter clean. Our palates were well primed.
As an amuse-bouche, we were given a little pot of aubergine masala velouté, crowned with a black olive tapenade. Alongside came two tiny, but potent tandoori-spiced lamb samosas. The salty crispness of the samosa combined well with the unctuous smoothness of the warming, aromatic sauce.
Starter of velouté of butternut squash, with cheese gougères floating in the velvety potion, was scattered with toasted pumpkin seeds which gave a surprising and effective burst of smokiness and crunch.
A big, meaty portion of cod poached in noisette butter came with ash-baked celeriac root and an extraordinary pile of devilled brown shrimps on a celeriac puree. Sauteed sprouts came as a charming spherical parcel of shredded greens tightly encased in soft cabbage leaves, laced with subtle horseradish hints and nuggets of smoky ham. Devilled shrimps were the stand-out focus on the plate. Powerfully peppery, the little morsels of crustacean gave a real focus to this meal.
Cuttlefish ink crackers £9
Butternut velouté £11
Fillet of cod £29
Chocolate delice £13
Ballotine of venison was crowned with a chicken mousse studded with chunks of roast chestnut. The deer was impressively moist and tender – not always the case with even the best venison. A luscious sweet-and-sour bed of red cabbage was the perfect partner for the rich meat. A chestnut mousse and parsnip puree completed the ideal seasonal main course.
Then another complementary course – a lemon meringue pie pre-dessert. “You’ll wish there was more,” said our waitress, conspiratorially, “I did.” She was right. We did too. This classic citrus pudding in a dainty pot gave us just enough for a hint of nostalgia as we savoured the soft, creamy meringue and mild lemony sauce.
For sweet we shared a white chocolate and cherry delice. The poached cherries scattered alongside had a powerful brandy kick, and a scoop of bitter dark chocolate sorbet was an exquisite way to finish our dinner.
So, when we tell people we’re going to dine at Thompson’s, they all say the same thing. “Isn’t it a bit expensive?” The answer is a firm no. True, it’s a lot of money, but actually excellent value for what you get. The portions are not mean, and sharing our dessert and starter we cashed out at just over £9 per person per course. You could pay more at a fish and chip shop.
This was one of the best meals we have enjoyed on the Island. Thompson’s is still right up there, making us gasp with joy at the food on our plates. Leaving the restaurant we exchanged a few words with the chef-patron. Yes, he was there in the kitchen doing what he does best. No hands-off executive chef here – when you go to Thompson’s you stand a good chance of having your food prepared by the man himself. Knowing the struggle many venues are going through at the moment, with the cost of living hitting them from every side, we remain amazed and delighted that Robert Thompson is still here, still cooking and still promoting great food on the Isle of Wight.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.