The Isle of Wight has felt like a gap in my experience for almost twenty-five years. At my primary school it was the traditional destination for the final year trip, but they got adventurous when my turn came and sent us all to Scarborough. Nevertheless, such was the stature of the island in school lore that our headmaster composed Isle of Wight: The Musical, which featured a complicated three-part song involving hovercrafts that those of us who’d only experienced the Yorkshire miniature railway could barely comprehend.
So it is with great anticipation that I board the ferry at Lymington and travel back to the 1950s – to a place where the houses seem built for smaller folk, the Union flag is more conspicuous, and they still have high streets with butchers and bakers and pork-pie makers. When Seb and I roll off the ferry and drive round to the south east of the island we discover that each roadside sign offers fresher, happier, freer-ranging eggs than the last, until I begin to picture the eggs themselves flagging us down from the kerbside. It seems like a good sign.
It’s the 1980s-built outhouses and the golf course (during our visit, dotted with sporadically but energetically mating pheasants) that greet you as you arrive at the Priory Bay Hotel; this feels a little disappointing when the gardens were reputedly originally designed by the famous Gertrude Jekyll, not generally known for her love of shallow bunkers. Give it a minute or two though and you’re in among the more characterful corners of this country house hotel. It is a real mix of periods – the Tudor farmhouse that used to belong to the priory forms one wing of the hotel, a Georgian addition with 1920s improvements make up the reception areas, and there is a lovely modern restaurant area surrounded by glass where you can admire the view of the woods that lead down to the hotel’s private beach.
Inside, the hotel is elegant, welcoming and in corners well-worn (in an inviting, non-precious way), and the staff are warm, chatty and accommodating, which can only encourage regular return visits. Midweek and out of holiday season, our fellow guests are retirees, and there are aspects of the hotel intended to appeal to an over-sixties demographic – a bronze of Churchill and Roosevelt chatting amiably sits on a bench on the front lawn under the magnolia trees.
Our room, in the Tudor farmhouse, is large but feels intimate, its ancient beams and splendid old chimney breast set off by antique chinoiserie, the dark wood and reds of which can look naff in a contemporary setting but which work perfectly with the exposed old brick walls here. And there is a free-standing bath to soak in at length after you’ve spent some time kicking about in the sea air, which is what we intend to do with our early evening.
A partially deaf local man assures us in no uncertain terms that the all the other locals are mad
We head down a woodland path banked with wild garlic in flower, which opens up into a glade that has been taken over by several large white rubber domes, seemingly the birth pods of some alien occupying race. We realise that this must be the new Yurt-style accommodation, perfect for those who believe they want to be at one with nature but who actually need as many luxury conveniences as can be stuffed into one alien pod; great, too, for accommodating a potentially unruly faction at a wedding. Beyond these, we arrive at the shore, which in one direction offers a rather murky view of the Portsmouth skyline and some forbidding sea fortresses, to the other a prettier slice of the island. We decide to head towards the more enticing view and end up scrambling through wooded cliffs hoping to find our way back to the hotel. Instead, we end up in the neighbouring caravan park, searching for the exit among identical rows of tidy dwellings.
In the evening, as we drive to neighbouring Bembridge to look out a local pub for dinner, Seb observes that the island is likely to be a UKIP stronghold. Sure enough, after being roped into a pub quiz at the Old Village Inn, we discover that one of our opponents is a newly elected UKIP councillor. This gives us competitive impetus and we are proud to claim our victory bottle of Shiraz at the end. As we leave, the landlord tells about his plans to build a White Whale Bar – with ribs glowing neon – that will be toured to musical festivals throughout the country. Over his shoulder, the pub’s chef hoves into view – it’s his birthday, apparently and he is appears to be on his way to getting sozzled. A partially deaf local man assures us in no uncertain terms that the all the other locals are mad. We head back to the comfort of our country house retreat totally satisfied that we’ve had the bona fide Isle of Wight experience.
– Rebecca Fortey
I first started feeling old on going to University – not straight from school, but at the ripe age of 24. It’s dismaying to acknowledge that I’ve had nearly as long to (fail to) come to terms with that condition as it took to develop. But I feel young on the Isle of Wight. There’s something distinctly retro about the whole island, harking back to an era not just before even I was born, but before rock’n’roll, as if the Lymington-Yarmouth ferry has borrowed technology from the Back to the Future DeLorean. Hotel food here, you imagine, should properly be cooked by a fat and angry Frenchman, with a walrus moustache and a toque, and consist mainly of beef wellington accompanied by vegetables cooked to mush.
So I can’t help but wonder if the two years that Priory Bay’s chef, Oliver Stephens, spent on the culinary cutting edge at Noma really served as the best preparation for his current gig. Not to mention the fact that Stephens, along with restaurant manager James Trevaskis, are noticeably young – by real world standards, that is, not just those of the Isle of Wight. Still, they’re both local boys, returning to the place they began their careers, so they should know what they’re taking on.
The pair oversee two restaurants at Priory Bay Hotel, the Island Room Restaurant and the Priory Oyster. The former, open evenings only from Wednesdays to Saturdays and requiring 24 hours’ notice of booking, offers the diner a tasting menu of many items listed, modishly, only by their single main ingredient (Pork Skin, for instance, or Wild Garlic Stems), and presumably offers Stephens the chance to flex his Noma-honed muscles. It being a Tuesday when we dine at the hotel, we are limited to The Priory Oyster, a relaxed brasserie restaurant described as serving family-style dishes. I’m actually rather glad: fancy tasting menus are all well and good, but I feel the real test of a chef is how well they handle the bread and butter stuff.
Hotel food here, you imagine, should properly be cooked by a fat and angry Frenchman, with a walrus moustache and a toque
And that includes quite literally. The butter in particular, fondant light but richly creamy, churned on the premises, and served on a flat stone from the Hotel’s private beach, is excellent. It prefigures the next item to appear at the table, a pre starter of wild herbs, leaves and flowers, foraged from the hotel grounds, arrayed on another beach stone and helpfully identified for us by Stephens himself. This proves the most Noma-ish flourish of the meal and, for me, the least successful – although that may have been largely down to my hay fever and consequently desensitized palate. It was an attractive and amusing dish (stone) but I struggled to detect a great deal by way of compelling flavour.
Our starters proper arrived, pleasingly, not on stones, nor even on Michelin approved oversized white porcelain, but on regular plates, with slightly cottagey patterns printed around the edge. Mismatched, but in a charming rather than annoyingly self-conscious manner. We’d both opted for dishes featuring home cured pork products, because if someone’s going to the trouble of curing their own pork, then it’s only polite to eat as much of it as you decently can. Becca’s terrine, formed from all the edible bits of a lovingly slow cooked pig’s head, hit just the right balance between pork meat and fat, and oozy softness to chewy bite, but we both felt it fell rather short on seasoning. An accusation that certainly couldn’t be aimed in the direction of my air-dried ham. A whole plate of this would have been overwhelmingly salty, but, served as fine shavings and acting mainly as a condiment to the accompanying local asparagus, it was not just good, but settled for me the vexed issue of whether asparagus should ever be chargrilled or barbecued. Here, the sweetness of the spears, drawn out by the heat of the grill, and emphasised by contrast to the bitter scorch marks in its flesh as well as the ham’s saltiness, lays that issue to rest: if you don’t like it, then not only do you not like asparagus, you frankly don’t like food.
Scorching also played its part in my main, with accompanying pearl onions that had been flame charred till thoroughly caramelised, yet remained crunchy, to contrast with a more conventionally caramelised slow roasted onion puree and the main feature of very slow (24-hour) braised ox cheek. The beef was, as you’d expect, meltingly soft and had a remarkable delicacy, but again, in his admirable desire to let the flavour of the meat speak for itself, Stephens’ touch with the seasoning was if anything too light.
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This lightness of touch however came into its own with Becca’s main, the fish of the day. This was a huge bream, so fresh that when Stephens presented it at table before cooking it, you felt almost compelled to pat it on the head and give it a pet name, so bright and eager were its eyes. He estimated four hours from swimming in the sea to landing on Becca’s plate. There seemed no reason to doubt him.
For dessert – always an allergy challenge for Becca – Ollie (as I feel confident in referring to him, so often had he come to our table) rustled up a thoroughly local and seasonal rhubarb sorbet, served with what were referred to as “last year’s berries”, suggesting he’s not too po-faced about the whole local/seasonal orthodoxy. My burnt custard with hay ice cream not only returned to the scorching theme, but in many ways epitomised the balance being struck here, managing to be both comfortably familiar, and yet uncompromisingly contemporary. And very nice it is too.
The same can be said of the wine list, put together by James Trevaskis. It’s not a long list, not at all daunting to the unadventurous, but much more interesting than it might appear at first glance, focussed as it is on small producers and, James tells me, about 60% organic, biodynamic and/or natural wines. The natural Faugeres (Clos Fantine) that accompanied my beef, and the Quarts de Chaume (Baumard) late harvest chenin blanc with dessert were particular highlights.
They seem like very nice people, Ollie and James, and they’re doing a very good job of running a thoroughly modern restaurant, to a very high standard of accomplishment, in an Isle of Wight hotel, without apparently alarming the old folk. I guess they did know what they were taking on.
– Sebastian Roach
Priory Bay Hotel, Priory Drive, Seaview PO34 5BU, UK
01983 613146; priorybay.co.uk