Come with us on a journey through time and space, to a land of long hot summers, Cinzano and pop charts where ‘Do You Wanna Touch’ was considered a tour de force.
A place where, if they weren’t having the neighbours round for fondue bourguignonne – dipping their meat to the vibrato warblings of Demis Roussos – your parents were eating out at a restaurant like Valentino’s.
Although a venerable feature of the Carisbrooke landscape, Valentino’s has never really appeared on Matt and Cat’s radar. They’ve eaten at the village’s other food venues: The Waverley, the Eight Bells and Cafe Number 44 but not the Italian restaurant. However, a prompting tweet from their virtual friend Englane, proclaiming that it was her favourite restaurant, inspired M&C to see what it was all about.
With some chums in tow, Matt and Cat rolled up on a mild Saturday night in autumn. Despite there being no sign of life in the village, Carisbrooke’s car park was mysteriously full. As the gang made their way up the quiet hill, they speculated where the cars’ occupants were. Pushing their way into the restaurant they found out; it was jammed with jolly people chatting and eating, the lights were bright and Dino was serenading the diners with ‘That’s Amore’. After the silent gloom of the street it was like wandering into a surprise party!
Taking their seats and absorbing the atmosphere, Cat was bug-eyed with delight. Where Sandown’s retro restaurant La Scala had promised the 1970s experience, with its raffia-sheathed decanters and Mateus Rosé-bottle candelabras, it had failed to deliver. However, Valentino’s stucco walls and authentic Italian waiters looked set to press all of the right buttons for Cat, who never really got over the seventies. Regularly peering through her rose-tinted specs at punk fashions and early Grange Hill she fails to see the strikes, static-cling nightwear and the pre-pubescent popstrel puppets ‘Our Kid’ – imagining nostalgically that 1970s were entirely ‘supersonic’.
Choosing from the menu the group settled in. As the restaurant was so busy there was a bit of a lag before the first course arrived. This was mitigated by the delivery of sliced bread and butter and a half carafe of house white. So far so old school. Cat, who forewent a starter, gazed about her as the others tucked into theirs. The whitebait – or bianchetti fritti – was obviously pre-crumbed and pretty generic, but it came with a plentiful fresh salad which included a slice of orange. As Cat looked at nearby tall jars containing decoratively layered pasta she was reminded of their mineral cousins, Alum Bay’s coloured sand-filled vials.
Fillet al porto £18.90
Tournedos Rossini £18.90
Crepes Suzette (for two) £15.20
2 x coffee @ £1.60
The main courses were delivered with the slightly theatrical flourish that good Italian waiters are obliged to affect the world over. Cat had fillet al porto: prime fillet steak served with a decadent port and Stilton sauce. Matt, too, had fillet steak – tornedos rossini – with the meat topped with pâté and generously smothered in Madeira wine sauce. Both came with vegetables which were served to them by the waiter from a compartmentalised tray. At first glance there seemed to be plenty but, as Matt and Cat forget how to say ‘when’, the veg soon became depleted and the waiter offered to bring more. On his return the party asked him to leave the tray of greens on the table so they could help themselves. There was a consensus that this could lead to additional expense but, as it turned out, there was no charge for the extra vegetables, even though the group had double their allotted amount. Neither were they charged for the bread and butter which came first. Matt and Cat were very impressed by this – not only was there no charge for these extras but the waiter, seeing a need, offered them without being asked. Other restaurants would do well to emulate this generosity.
Cat’s was pleased that she hadn’t filled herself up with a starter. The fillet al porto was delicious. The port and Stilton sauce was rich and tangy, and the meat was beautifully tender without any trace of gristly bits. For what must be the first time in history, Cat ate all of her red meat dinner; not a single bit of meat was rejected. Usually she can find a chewy bit or a random tube or vein but there were none. The selection of vegetables was excellent and included cauliflower cheese, sautéed potatoes, carrots and leeks.
Matt’s tornedos looked, on first glance, not dissimilar to Cat’s splendid fillet. A generous hunk of beef was topped with some thick, rich-looking brown sauce. The traditional foie gras and truffle sported by this classic French dish had been replaced by pâté and mushroom, but Matt’s not a one to complain about such niceties. The meat was great – tender and mild as fillet should be. The sauce was remarkably thick, almost solid in places, but tasted rich and comforting. It probably wasn’t something that Auguste Escoffier would have recognised; but was nonetheless a decent meal which, with the bottomless vegetable dish, proved highly satisfying.
It was a relaxed dinner; the replenished wine lubricated the conversation which veered from positively modern topics like Twitter to the knotty matter of ‘vegetarians’ who eat fish. Twice during the evening the conversation was interrupted by a fanfare from the speakers which crackled a presumably non-copyrighted birthday song. Each time this heralded the arrival of a cake accompanied by the majority of the staff jigging along and clanging handbells. In a spirit of community, the diners chanted “happy birthday dear Whoever” and dutifully clapped.
For dessert Matt and Cat were unable to resist the crepes Suzette flambée, pancakes flambéed at the table with an orange, lemon and Grand Marnier sauce. They filmed the whole spectacle – and what an elaborate performance it was. A handful of citrus halves were squeezed of all their juice into a pan of melting sugar. Liqueur and crèpes were added and the whole lot was ignited with a whoosh then served with gelato. It was absolutely delicious; the alcohol certainly hadn’t all burnt off, there was still plenty to give the dish a fabulous kick. And what a treat to have such a drama right there at the table. It may be corny and touristy, but Matt and Cat were enchanted by the whole business.
Finishing their meals with coffee, Matt and Cat knew they’d chosen well from the menu. The food had been just right. The waiting staff were authentic and charming, as well as knowing their jobs inside out. The venue was genuinely retro without a trace of irony. Funnily enough while it channelled Cat’s inner Margot, for young buck tweeter MattDWhittaker it conjured 1980s halcyon days.
Valentino’s is an anachronism, but that is not a bad thing. Eat there and be transported back to your parents’ era. If you want the matching cuisine, go for the flambéed options. However, there is more to Valentino’s than its steadfastly traditional delivery. The service and food are spot on too. Any place that makes Cat clap her hands with glee and lick her plate clean get the thumbs up from Matt and Cat.