It should never have happened. Only a few years ago the Hambrough Group was sailing unassailably high on the choppy waters of fortune. A Michelin star safely on the wall, expansion was in the air as the Pond Cafe and other properties came successfully under the wing of this behemoth. Gossip circulated about the latest places to be ‘Hambroughed’. Buoyed by this investment in the town, Ventnor sprouted quality food venues on every corner.
And now? And now it’s come to this. The Hambrough is a bed and breakfast. The Pond is closed. Staff come and go like buses and there’s only one Hambrough Group venue left that’s actually open and serving dinners – the Winter Gardens. This was one of the last acquisitions of the group, and by far the most controversial. It has taken years to reopen the bar and restaurant, and apparently a lot of work has been necessary to get to that stage. The promised hotel and conference centre is yet to come forth. It’s hard not to see this aging seafront edifice as an albatross that has dragged a once prosperous business group into an alarming slump. But has it? It’s a location that looks as though it couldn’t fail. With the best weather in England and a huge terrace overlooking what is arguably the finest sea view on the Isle of Wight, surely this will be a visitor magnet? Well, maybe focussing on the Winter Gardens will turn out to be the canniest thing that the Hambrough Group has ever done. After all, to say they have surprised us before is an understatement. Nay-sayers are queueing up to pick nits, but nobody should underestimate the drive to succeed that has brought plaudits to the Hambrough in the past. If the same trick can be pulled off at the Winter Gardens the rewards for the owners, for Ventnor and for the Island will be even greater.
One thing that is definitely operational at the Winter Gardens is the Sunday roast. So one foggy autumn Sunday Matt and Cat set off over the downs to see if the food was as spectacular as the view. When they got there, they were delighted to find the Ventnor’s meteorological magic was working, and the sun was beating down. They leaned on the railings of the Cascade gardens and watched the fishing boats bobbing in the haven before turning to the venue.
The Winter Gardens is a grand old structure in the tradition of pre-war seaside architecture. It is positioned to take full advantage of its location and, in its glory days, must have been an asset to the town. However, years of neglect, local bickering and salty spray took their toll. In recent times the building has had a lick of paint but otherwise retains much of the character – and flaws – that it has long had. The dismally municipal grounds lead to a big, draughty lobby. Matt and Cat ventured through one of the plethora of doors and found themselves, unexpectedly, in a warm and welcoming restaurant. A polite chap greeted them and invited them to take a seat. They were pleased to have the choice of where to sit and bagged one of the prime positions, right in the window and looking over Ventnor Bay towards Steephill Cove. The sun was getting low and glinted spectacularly on the English Channel. Outside, punters were sitting in the sun sipping pints and enjoying a Sunday afternoon gasper over the newspapers.
Back indoors, Matt and Cat considered the bill of fare. A skinny menu is the latest thing: the padded tome bloated with pages of dishes has been consigned to the same dustbin of restaurant history as raffia-covered wine bottles. As experienced at Brighton’s Silo, a well-conceived offering of half-a-dozen dishes can showcase a kitchen far better than forty variations on meat and potatoes. The Winter Garden’s Sunday lunch menu was chalked on the specials board and, in the modern way, it was restricted to two types of roast, a handful of pub standards and pizza.
The tables were laid for two courses even though no starters were available and the waiter made a display of removing one set of cutlery from each place setting before swapping Cat’s knife for another knife. Drinks were brought on a tray – heck even the bill was delivered this way. This was classy treatment and Matt and Cat appreciated it.
Cat choose smoked salmon and blue cheese pizza. It may or may not have been IW cheese, but there was no indication on the Sunday menu of local provenance for this or anything. A modest rectangular pizza was delivered on a wooden board. It was a thin and crispy number with a scattering of rocket leaves which jollied it up. Both the salmon and the cheese were tasty, but together they were a pretty salty combo. It was pretty small, even by Cat’s standards and, when Matt’s roast arrived she eyed it covetously.
Matt had the choice of roasts beef or pork. Cat noted with pursed lips that there was no poultry or lamb, but Matt cared not – he had a vision of some nice fresh pork and crackling and was pleased to see a bowl of apple sauce arrive promptly, delivered on a tray with Cat’s pizza knife. When the roast dinner followed, his disappointment came soon after. No crackling. There were three modest slices of lean pork, a thin gravy and a reasonable selection of veg. Good marks for those vegetables, which included some very fresh broccoli, and sweet potato mash with a hint of rosemary; but the rest had little to distinguish itself.
Roast pork: £9.95
Salmon & blue cheese pizza £9.95
Pint of Yates’ Golden £2.90
The courteous waiter came over as soon as M&C’s cutlery was placed in the six thirty position. He was clearly keen to look after his charges and his efforts could not be faulted, even when Cat quizzed him on the activities at the Hambrough, he politely answered her questions.
Taking the plates, the chap offered desserts, but Matt and Cat just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to try any. They finished their drinks, paid up and left. The view was still great. Really great. The service was faultless, the venue was warm and clean. Even the music hit the right note with Cat when Herb Alpert’s Bitter Sweet Samba parped through the speakers. But the food? The Winter Gardens is going to have to try harder than this.
The standard of service was well above what one might expect for a seaside pub, perhaps showing echoes of the impeccable fine-dining origins of this business. This was slightly incongruous, given the beach resort character of the place. As M&C smoothed their linen tablecloth, other customers popped in and headed straight for the bar. The Winter Gardens may have aspirations to pick up from the good work of the Hambrough; but in atmosphere it’s a very different place and maybe always will be. It has a reputation locally as a drinking joint with auditorium and it may be difficult to purge this from the collective consciousness. At the moment it seems to be in a transitional phase; a few music nights are in the calendar and the bar is clearly doing business. However, if the Hambrough Group lost its focus for a bit the rest of the town certainly did not. Ventnor these days is well-provided with good quality places to eat so establishing a big new one is going to be a major task. The Winter Gardens has huge potential, as anyone in Ventnor will readily tell you whether you ask them or not. So if the Hambrough Group can just finish what they’ve started, the whole Island will applaud their return to form with delight and relief.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 5th of December 2014.