It’s a brave chef who opens his tasting menu with a potato. The potato is a Mayan Twilight: scrubbed (membrane off, skin on), cooked in a water bath over night, served with shavings of truffle, chard, artichoke and a hazelnut dressing. The chef is Robert Thompson of The Hambrough, Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight.
I know the island well – my mother is a Caulkhead (that’s Wight-speak for local), however in spite of dozens of childhood visits to the island, Ventnor was never deemed worthy of an excursion. So when I heard that Ventnor was now home to a Michelin starred restaurant I had to investigate further. I spent two nights at the Hambrough and a couple of hours quizzing Thompson on a sunny July afternoon.
Our arrival at the Hambrough was not elegant, having been preluded by some serious speed-limit breaking and half an hour on a ferry (my travel nemesis). Our table was booked for half-eight, and as parking in Ventnor proved an utter bugger, we arrived at the hotel with just enough time to fling our luggage into the room before heading down for our three-hour dinner.
The tasting menu is six courses long, but as seems to be the norm with such things there were a few bonus rounds flung in as well. The shot of smoked haddock chowder with truffle oil was silky and exceptionally rich – a shot’s worth was ample. The standout dishes for me were the (comically large) scallops and the veal, which came with a bone marrow cream of which I nearly asked for a second helping.
The menu could almost be an advert for the Isle of Wight’s food and producers. Crab, lobster and sea bass all come off boats in Ventnor Harbour, only one hundred yards from the hotel. Each morning samphire and sea purslane are gathered from the nearby coast. However, Thompson is no slave to the local produce cause. If it doesn’t meet his very high standard, you will not find it on the menu. In spite of a heavy presence of vineyards on the island, there is no Isle of Wight wine on his wine list and having sampled it elsewhere, I don’t blame him.
There are only seven rooms at the Hambrough, a couple of which have balconies overlooking the sea. The décor throughout is tasteful, nothing ground breaking, very comfortable without being showy. As a caffeine addict I was very impressed to find an espresso machine in my room and, thank the lord, real milk in the fridge.
When I met with Thompson the morning after that epic tasting menu – and following an equally epic breakfast, I was interested to know how he saw the Hambrough. Is it to use the current trendy foodie term, a ‘restaurant with rooms’ or are we going with the more traditional ‘hotel’? Neither, it seems. “It’s more than just a restaurant with rooms and hotel conjures up images of room service and cloches.”
The front of house is run by his wife, Diana (they met at the Wintringham when he was head chef, and she commis pastry chef). The service is well balanced, the staff friendly without being invasive; there is a consistent lack of pretension about the place. Indeed they are currently without a sommelier, the last having lost his position for being ‘too arrogant’. I respectfully pointed out that he may have misunderstood the point of a sommelier.
When Thompson came to the island he also took over the Pond Café in nearby Bonchurch, where I dined on my second night. As my interview with Thompson took place prior to my meal at the Pond, I utilised the opportunity to get his opinion on what I should order. I knew I was in for a good meal when he recounted pretty much the entire menu as he clearly couldn’t make just one selection.
Dishes at the Pond are more on the simple side, each showcasing one or two quality ingredients without as many of the ‘cheffy’ flourishes. The location is beautiful, and very unlike the coastal Hambrough, in spite of there being only a couple of minutes drive between them. Bonchurch is a tiny village, deep in a valley, which was lush and green when I visited, with ducks splashing about and carp occasionally leaping out the water. The area has a timeless quality and the feel of the restaurant is more casual, more of a drop in type of place, even if just for a glass of wine and some very well selected appetisers.
For my main course I went with the lamb (chosen on the grounds that Thompson had praised it for ever so slightly longer than the other dishes), a gloriously tender chargrilled leg with mini roasted vegetables and salsa verde. I couldn’t resist a few forkfuls of my companion’s locally caught and delicately cooked plaice, with island samphire, mushrooms and a very light vermouth sauce.
Prior to meeting him, I had a rather romantic notion that Thompson’s move to the island was motivated by a love for its amazing local produce. Seems not. Thompson had actually visited the island only once, when he was six, before he came to view the restaurants. He rather endearingly recalled his father “piggybacking me down Blackgang Chine in Shanklin.” Instead his move to the island was due to “a lack of other similar places”, clearly a logical chap.
When he took over the two restaurants, he decided not to rename them. I asked him whether this was entirely sensible, especially as old reviews (which I had hunted out online and read with amusement) are somewhat less than complimentary. “Well what to? Pond Café – well there’s a pond. This place is on Hambrough Road.” As I said, he’s a logical man.
As well as the two restaurants there is also self-catering accommodation and the Pond now sells a range of picnic hampers, but he is not stopping there. Thompson is currently waiting on the council’s decision on plans to take over the Winter Gardens – a crumbling art deco event venue on Ventnor sea front; once white, now grubby grey. Should his plans go ahead, it would continue to be a venue but would also have space for sixty covers of fine dining upstairs, eighty covers in a less formal restaurant downstairs, an open air terrace, and rooms. The Pond café and Hambrough are both hopefully to obtain some more space as well.
Small coastal fishing town, two restaurants and plans for expansion; the comparison to Rick Stein (who has spent the last four decades building a restaurant empire in Padstow, Cornwall) was inevitable, but thankfully one that he welcomed. “That’s what you’ve got to do. Around here everyone talks about “the season”, what season? I will not build a business around the idea that I only work in the summer.”
Clearly he is making waves on the island but what about the whole celebrity chef side of things, does it appeal at all? He says he is not without offers but is very firm that he would only do it for the right project. We discussed the many chefs that are getting it wrong, with Netto adverts and a certain range of branded kitchen scales receiving some serious vitriol. In pondering TV chefs, conversation meanders back to Rick Stein, whom he cites as an example of someone who is getting it right.
Thompson’s presence in Ventnor has made the town a worthy gastronomic destination. Should his plans for expansion go ahead, and I pray they do, both Thompson and the island’s produce will get the respect they deserve. As for the comparisons to his Padstow based counterpart, I’m not sure he’ll ever be rid of the association, but I believed him when he said that unlike Stein, “it won’t take me 36 years.”
The Hambrough, Hambrough Rd, Ventnor, Isle Of Wight PO38 1SQ. Tel: 01983 856 333. Website. Pond Café, Bonchurch Village Rd, Ventnor, Isle Of Wight PO38 1RG. Tel: 01983 855 666. Website. More information about Robert Thompson can be found at his website. Follow chef Robert Thompson on Twitter.