Cheaper Eats: Robert Thompson at The Hambrough

There is a sense of occasion about taking a ferry or an aeroplane journey, like a holiday or a boy’s own adventure. Be it all of 35 minutes, the ferry ride to the Isle of Wight  just seems like it transports you back to your childhood. I was never fortunate enough to come here for a summer break as a child, but now having made two trips in 18months I feel like I’m making up for it in some small way.  Chef proprietor Robert Thompson came to the attention of the gastro world as the protégé of Germain Schwab at Winteringham Fields, that oasis in a culinary desert that was Lincolnshire. Many moons have since passed, the Schwabs have retired to France & Mr Thompson has settled on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight.

With his unnamed backer, Mr Thompson has been likened to the Rick Stein of Ventnor by some of the islanders, something he casually laughs off & dismisses. Saying that, he’s just shown me the £4million project, which will hopefully see him turn the dilapidated Ventnor Winter Gardens into a multi dining outlet. With 10 more bedrooms, to add to the 7 at The Hambrough & the 5 at Villa Lavinia there is an element of PadStien on the horizon. We talk at length after lunch on various topics including TV, social networking, Guide books, dining out, business, blogging & recruitment. He’s an affable young man who clearly has vision & passion for his projects which he admits has taught him more about the business aspect of the restaurants.

The Hambrough sits in the middle of a row of Victorian buildings, some B&B’s, others private residences on a narrow one way street. Parking is at a premium in this part of the world but there is little that can really be done about it. With views overlooking Ventnor bay, it does have a picture perfect setting.

So to the meal, I arrived for Sunday lunch to find The Hambrough bathed in the early summer sunshine and a local tradesman making good time on redecorating the frontage before the onset of the tourist season. After using the heftily weighted chrome knocker to be let in, the door opened to an apologetic member of the team who explained a resident might have accidentally taken the latch off. After the usual formality of confirming my booking, I was shown to my table. It was virtually the same one I had last time I dined here, in the front window overlooking the bay & quay. Not long after settling in, my pre meal drink arrived along with the plethora of menus. The delightful young lady informed me of a menu change (no Bream but it was replaced with Grey Mullet on the £55 per head a la carte) and if it was possible would I be able to give my dessert order as the same time as my starter & mains. One of the main objectives of writing the ‘Cheaper Eats’ posts is exactly that, to prove that you don’t need buckets of cash to eat in highly rated restaurants. So there was no a la carte for me then! Missing out on the ‘Pressing of lightly smoked eel & foie gras’ or the ‘Steamed cannelloni of wild Rabbit & Basil’ instead I plumped for the ‘Tortellini of Chicken Confit’ followed by the ‘Local Seabass with Saffron linguini’, finishing with ‘Mascarpone Parfait with Cherries’.

After a short pause I was presented with the choice of daily breads; Sourdough, Foccacia with Rosemary & Sea salt and Walnut. It was a tough choice but I went for the sourdough. The former 3 Michelin star chef Pierre Koffmann once allegedly said

‘Serve great bread & butter at the start of a meal & all will be well’.

Whether he did or not doesn’t really matter because it’s a great philosophy to have, and the signs pointed to things being well. The sourdough was awesome if a little on the small side, I say that not because it was some Barbie doll size portion, but was not just quite enough. No matter, the piping hot Westcombe cheddar gougeres would make up for it. Now this is the sort of simple thing that separates the wheat from the chaff. These were freshly baked, & I mean that. Not baked off before service then re-heated, they were baked to order. The slightly crisp shell followed by the cheesy moisture inside these savoury profiteroles. Really was outstanding, a simple thing done well can make the heart sing.

As usual when frequenting such restaurants the amuse bouche or pre-starter appeared table side, a Carrot & black Cardamom soup with a white frothy head. Now normally I try to steer clear of these type of soups as they often lack imagination & show any real level of skill, yet Mr Thompson & his team have taken the humble carrot, blended it with a slightly unusual spice to create a rich smooth soup with carefully thought out layers of flavour, the sweetness of the carrots combined beautifully with the slight smokiness of the cardamom.

Moving on to my starter of ‘Tortellini of Confit Chicken, Roast Chicken veloute, cappuccino of Giroelle & Watercress pesto’. The bowl was presented to the table with a deft description supplied by the willing host, then the sommelier finished the dish with the Roast Chicken veloute, carefully circumnavigating the delicate foraged flowers. I’ve always liked waiting on staff finishing dishes at the table, I think that it adds such an air of theatre to the whole dining experience and that the chef trusts his front of house team to execute it to his precise instructions. The plump tortellini sat slightly adrift of a large meaty specimen Giroelle and although the dish ate really well with good combination of flavours, the slightly grainy roast chicken veloute was a blot on the landscape to make this a really good dish.

After a brief interlude, my main course arrived of ‘Pan fried fillet of Seabass, Saffron Linguini, Bouillabaisse sauce, Provencal Vegetables & Black Olive Tapenade.’. This was an outstanding dish which I could have quite happily eaten again. There are reasons why classic flavour combinations are such, it’s because they work, they are in harmony with each other and this dish echoes it with every tasty mouthful. I’m asked about what is perceived to be ‘Michelin’ food, one of the answers I always give is smell. If 100 chefs had made & cooked the pasta for this dish, only 1 or 2 would have achieved the same results. The saffron linguini not only tasted of saffron but also smelt of it, a true testament of understanding the way to cook & flavour dishes. The fillet of Seabass was expertly cooked, beautifully moist with a crispy skin & plenty of it. None of this farmed Bass with portion size fillets here, no, it was a good thick slab from a large fish. The Bouillabaisse sauce lining the bottom of the plate tied the whole dish together, not too rich to make you recoil with pain but enough to add that dimension to the dish to make it complete.

Moving into the home straight for the dessert of ‘Mascarpone Parfait with Pistachio nuts, Cherry Sorbet & Aged Balsamic Vinegar’. If this dessert had been in less capable hands it could have been a car crash moment, but having only just recruited himself a talented pastry chef this was outstanding. Just enough vinegar to enliven the poached & stoned cherries (not the punch drunk griottine ones either), yet enough to cut through the pistachio encrusted parfait. The tiny roché of cherry sorbet was almost an unnecessary passenger but then it just gave enough to lift the dish that touch further.

With lunch drawing to a close there was time to order a coffee with some petit fours, again simple things done well. A Pate du fruit of Apricot, a Chocolate truffle scented with honey & a tuile cone filled with fresh cream and raspberries. All delicate & flavour fuelled stuff, and a perfect way to round off an excellent meal.

So the nuts & bolts of it, including 2 glasses of wine (of which there are over 20 to choose from), 1 glass of tonic water, 3 courses and Coffee & petit fours £44.60 which breaks down as follows:

  • Tonic water                                        £2.60
  • 2 Glasses of Reserve de Gassac £11.00
  • 3 Course Lunch                               £28.00
  • Coffee & Petit fours                        £3.00

So the conclusion. Having eaten at The Hambrough before, Mr Thompson & his team have raised their game to a slightly higher level. Service is more polished, the food is technically very good and the team clearly have a belief in the product. Yes there are very minor flaws, such as the sauce with the Tortellini dish and that the wine glass hadn’t been polished properly leaving slight water marks on the glass. But really? For the sake of that, would I re-visit The Hambrough again? Absolutely, I spoke at length with Mr Thompson after my meal & one of the more interesting points he made was of his desire to make his eateries places where people will want to go & make them accessible. He doesn’t want the starched stuffy service and yet he has managed to find a happy medium. He recognises that food doesn’t need to played with, dipped in liquid nitrogen etc for it to be good. He’s stayed true to his roots and the teachings of his mentor Germain Schwab, flavour & technique will rule over style & fad and this is why younger chefs should look towards Mr Thompson & his ilk for their futures.

Mr Thompson can be found at:

The Hambrough
Hambrough Rd, Ventnor, IOW, Hampshire PO38 1SQ
Tel: 01983 856333

4 Responses to “Cheaper Eats: Robert Thompson at The Hambrough”
  1. chumbles says:

    £3 for coffee and those beautiful petit fours? God in heaven, it’s a shame it’s such a way away, but this summer… I love the menu photos double lap into the text, by the by. I’m with you on the taste and technique emphasis; I read recently someone complaining that their food wasn’t ‘exciting’ – sheesh!

    • chefhermes says:

      You seem to be the blog’s most ardent follower Chumbles & long may it last. I understand your point about the pictures, it looked fine when I did the preview on my net book but on my iPhone it looks shocking.
      Hopefully common sense will prevail when it comes to food, there will always be the wannabes who will follow the latest trend hoping to gain recognition from peers etc. But it is those like Mr Thompson who are comfortable in themselves and gain all the plaudits.

      Once again Chumbles, many thanks for your support, it really does mean alot.

  2. kursy forex says:

    Found you on google. Great story. Keep it going 🙂

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  1. […] my writing has progressed significantly, there is one post which has a special place, it’s the ‘Robert Thompson at The Hambrough’. This was my 2nd visit to this Isle of Wight restaurant in 18 months and if it was on the […]

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