How many Islanders does it take to change a light bulb?
“CHANGE? We don’t like change!”. Everyone must have heard that joke by now and presumably there are regional versions of it being laughed at around the world. And change? Well, Islanders embrace it, don’t they?
Now, Matt and Cat love the Island, its heritage, culture and community. They engage on many levels with all of these elements, both personally and professionally. Yet sometimes they are dismayed to see the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater in the name of progress. Hands up who thinks that the medieval market town of Newport has had its skyline improved by the tin behemoth that is the Cineworld complex? Can the addition of 800 new homes really enhance a lovely bit of urban fringe pasture-land?
Despite these subjective blots on the landscape, Islanders are a resilient lot; after all, it’s never long before they’ve got another contentious local issue in their sights. The latest is the controversy over Ventnor Botanic Garden; after forty years under council control it has recently passed into private management. But this review is not about the politics of the disposal of the Botanic Garden. If you want to discuss that there are other far more appropriate forums. Matt and Cat are interested in food, and eating out. So it was very much with those matters in mind that they made their way down to Ventnor and in through the familiar gateway of the Botanic Garden to try the café in its new non-council incarnation.
Nonetheless, let’s get it out of the way – the changes at Ventnor Botanic Garden have seen the introduction of entrance fees. Matt and Cat hadn’t visited the gardens to eat in the café since the charges came into force, so they didn’t know what to expect. It had been suggested that vast sums would be demanded. There are indeed charges for visiting the gardens themselves but as it turned out the cost for café users was a mere £2 to park, which is less than it used to be. And if you walk – maybe via the lovely path from Ventnor town along the cliff – it is free.
Making their way down the steps to the café, Matt and Cat wondered what other changes the new regime may have brought about. And you know what? The garden looked exactly the same as before. Lots of happy families were eating, chatting and playing outside. As usual the raised pond was edged with small children trying to see the resident fish, hosts of flowers turned their colourful faces optimistically towards the grey sky, and dog walkers were taking a rest at the many benches.
Matt and Cat prudently chose a table with an umbrella – not to protect themselves from the August sun’s scorching rays, but to keep the impending rain off their heads. They were also trying to keep a low profile; the new chef, Martyn Cutler, had entertained M&C’s Dining Club when he worked at Quay Arts Café and they were trying to avoid being clocked by him, in the spirit of their anonymous review policy. Matt prudently sat outside and sent Cat in to wrangle some lunch.
The first thing that struck Cat was the impressive range of fresh salads. A diverse selection of samphire, yellow courgette and Isle of Wight tomatoes and runner bean salads whetted her appetite. Some also included the garden’s own herbs. A little bit of the Quay Arts magic had certainly come to Ventnor with the chef, and this pleased Cat enormously. She moved along the counter, past the delicious-looking cakes and gave her lunch order, her cover apparently unblown. She took a copy of the menu back to the table so that Matt could try and guess what she’d ordered for him.
The menu bore the date – always a good sign. It made it very clear that the chef’s well-known obsession with local provenance was having free rein at the gardens. There were some really tempting options: Island free-range pork, sage and plum pie; or Botanic Garden meatloaf made using Island beef and pork with a pistachio crust, Isle of Wight tomato relish, both served with the day’s salad. Almost every dish had some local element identified, and there was a comprehensive and unequivocal statement trumpeting the café’s determination to use produce from the garden itself or from the Island.
The menu did go on to rather apologetically caution that ‘at busy periods it may take longer than you think‘. There could be no doubt this food was freshly prepared and cooked, so one could maybe excuse a bit of a delay. However, who could resist a time-based paradox? Certainly not pedant Matt. As a test, Matt and Cat gave some consideration and decided they thought their lunches might reasonably take 25 minutes to prepare and deliver. After ordering at 2.19pm they were pleasantly surprised to get the food after only twenty minutes, having prepared themselves to receive it at 2.45pm – in anticipation of the food being delivered later than they’d thought. Working through the logical consequences of being warned to expect food later than you’d think, they decided to move swiftly on to the business of eating before they entered an infinite loop.
For Matt, Cat had made the obvious choice of Botanic Garden meatloaf. He ate the dense and nourishing loaf with pleasure. It was a solid mass which would have risked blandness if it hadn’t been for the excellent accompanying vegetation – probably it was no accident that this was the opposite of the normal relationship between veg and meat. The toasted pistachios were crunchy and sweetly delicious, and the Isle of Wight tomato relish that topped the loaf was a great accompaniment; really zingy, with a distinct saturated colour.
Cat had chosen red onion marmalade and goat’s cheese frittata. It definitely floated her boat; the hefty discs of the slightly sour cheese peeked through their eggy crust, interspersed with a few tiny tomatoes encased in a fluffy omelettey sea.
The daily salads looked particularly alluring to cucumber-refusenik Cat, and she and Matt both tucked into the impressive combination of this season’s trendy samphire, yellow courgette, local tomatoes, French and runner beans, peppers and a medley of mixed leaves. Their delightful heaps of foliage were topped with a mix of omega-rich pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Matt, who’s rarely moved to hyperbole by anything vegetarian, declared the salad to be “absolutely fantastic”. The salads were differently accented to match each meal – and although dressed with oil were not over-seasoned, emphasising the natural flavours. These really were some of the most enjoyable and carefully considered salads M&C had ever been served.
Even though the clouds were gathering, the famous Ventnor microclimate didn’t disappoint; Matt and Cat were still able to sit outside admiring the lush planting around the garden terrace. As there was still some of the warm afternoon left and it was nearly cake o’clock, M&C decided to spoil themselves with cake and coffee. Cat’s head had earlier been turned by the chocolate brownie, but when she went to choose afters, the lure of lemon and lime sponge was irresistible. Selecting a vast meringue for Matt, from the choice of chocolate or peach, she also got two coffees and returned to the terrace. The lemon and lime cake was soft and tangy with a generous layer of piquant icing studded with lemon and lime zest. The sweet meringue shattered pleasingly under gentle pressure from Matt’s fork. Both cakes were washed down well with the decent coffee.
Lemon & lime cake £2.60
Coffee x 2 £4.65
Drinks x 2 £4.00
Parking charge £2.00
At the end of the meal, the maestro emerged from behind the scenes to acknowledge his guests. It transpired that although the pair had indeed managed to have most of their meal undetected, a sharp-eyed member of staff had spotted them in the end and alerted the chef. So much for subterfuge. Still, they had not given any prior warning of their visit and saw no sign that any special treatment had been forthcoming. They enjoyed the chat with the chef who clarified the provenance of some of the food and talked enthusiastically about future plans for the café.
So, what’s going on down at Ventnor? There was a lot of local attention when the management changes occurred, but how has all this affected the food? The café’s previous tenant, the Royal Hotel, did a great job, but something new and even more interesting is going on now. The appointment of former Quay Arts chef Martyn Cutler was a master-stroke that gives the new VBG an opportunity to really raise its game: as will be necessary if is going to thrive. Many venues make bold claims about their local produce, and often as not deliver on them. But few if any can be so well-placed as Ventnor Botanic Garden to actually make good on the promise of fresh local food all year around, in so many different areas of the menu. And so far, it seems to be working. Matt and Cat were delighted with their dining experience, and recommend the new café unreservedly.