Eighteen months or so ago I posited the most likely recipient of the Isle of Wight's first Michelin star would not be the ambitious (and by all accounts improving) Seaview Hotel but The Essex in Godshill. Well I was half right. The Essex, I believe, is no more, reborn as the Loaves and Fishes (I'll leave it up to IOW food bloggers Matt and Cat to review the new incarnation for now). But sure enough Michelin decided to shine not upon the Seaview but on a parvenu in Ventnor: The Hambrourgh. Having been treated to a night in both the restaurant and the hotel it's easy enough to understand why.
(Incidentally, I've just realised I've trotted out both "posited" and "parvenu" in the first paragraph. Almost certainly the consequence of too long a break from blogging. I'll try not to let it happen again.)
The Hambrough is gloriously situated halfway up the precipitous slope on which Ventnor somehow perches. In keeping with a town full of old-fashioned charm and old-fashioned shops it has a pleasingly relaxed and friendly air, albeit in a smart, modern style that justifies its claims to boutique hotel status (with room prices to match). We'd booked early enough to bag the star rooms on the first floor with adjoining enormous balconies and spectacular views. And very splendid rooms they were too, but worth a trip to the far end of the Isle of Wight? Probably not without something pretty special from the kitchen.
Fortunately, in chef Robert Thompson The Hambrough has bagged itself a winner. A winner, in fact, of his first Michelin star at the tender of age of just 23, a feat he's managed to repeat after barely six months at his new post in Ventnor. And here's why...
"Bread" came in the form of scary-looking but rather fun squid-ink breadsticks with excellent local butter and was followed by an inevitable (but welcome) amuse bouche: a smoked haddock velouté I think.
Next up (we were on the tasting menu: £59 for the grub rising relatively modestly to £81 with generous and well chosen matching wines) was another soup, this time a Jerusalem artichoke velouté poured over cubes of Parmesan with green beans and truffle. This was a real winner, rich and silky enough to begin with but really coming into its own as the cheese began to melt.
Next course for the meat eaters was a terrine of smoked eel, pork belly and foie gras. Surely one of the most enticing prospects imaginable. It didn't disappoint.
Squid ink breadsticks notwithstanding, Antonia was being treated to a full vegetarian tasting menu, also with carefully matched (usually different) wines. In general she fared well, this warm artichoke salad being a good example. We'd requested they didn't bombard us with wild mushroom options (default veggie fare at this time of year) but in retrospect we should maybe have let them have free rein: the fallback ingredient was beetroot instead, and let's face it: no-one likes beetroot.
Meanwhile the omnivores tucked into some perfectly cooked sea bream with ceps and more truffles and this nicely judged veal with a classic thyme jus. Good stuff.
Lemon posset pre-dessert. Was good I think, although the generous wine pairings have dulled the memory somewhat.
Finally (apart from some cute petit fours on their own little metal stand) a perfect chocolate fondant. Suffice to say that if Masterchef's Gregg Wallace ever goes there he'll be seeking out a dry cleaner among Ventnors fine retail establishments.
So a fine meal, comfortably up to one-star standard: a well-deserved accolade for an engaging restaurant cum boutique hotel. Our only gripe was the pace of the meal, which ended up being spread out over a good three hours and felt just a tad slow: on several occasions one or two of the party were pressing for a "background wine" to tide us over between the courses and their accompanying glasses. It may be simply that they had squeezed in too many covers: we were eating in the bar area but it had been completely laid for dining. Maybe slightly fewer covers would have cured the timing issue. It would have certainly given four enthusiastic guests somewhere other than an admittedly sumptuous bedroom to enjoy their preprandial fizz.
The Hambrough, Hambrough Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight PO38 1SQ. 01983 856333