When you go out to eat, sometimes that is all you do. Coat off, drink, eat, coat on, and out. Sometimes that’s perhaps all you actually want.
But sometimes – and, for me, make that ‘quite often’ – it is agreeable to make of your meal an ‘evening’. Unhurried, comfortable, dolce andante …
My never-to-be-forgotten Bohemia lunch in Jersey was one of those occasions: a leisurely four hour festival of (extremely) good things to eat and drink, in an atmosphere of enjoyable bonhomie. And, last night I found another, right here in Ventnor.
My friend Debby is living 72-hour weeks right now, and at the same time having her home’s interior torn out. She was feeling a tad frazzled so, on the emailed advice of Mr Gary Bonsall from London, I suggested a gentle evening at the Hillside Hotel and Restaurant, just down the road from her home. The choice could not have been better.
The Hillside is a Georgian house, chastely and classily renovated as a 23-bed hotel and dining room by Danes, Gert and Anna. They have mixed the clean, unfussy lines and style of decoration we connect with Scandinavia with the old stones in a most relaxing way. You feel comfortable the moment you arrive in the little garden in front of the dining room.
We arrived at 6.20 and, on Gert’s advice, took a small bottle of Joseph Perrier champagne in the garden whilst awaiting dinner. Awaiting? Oh, yes. Dinner is at seven. Look at the menu? There is no menu. At the Hillside, you are invited, as it were, to a private home: you eat what is served. You book 24 hours in advance, the chef buys the food required (there is a choice between meat and fish), and that is your dinner. I’ve done this only twice before: once near the Marché in Nice, circa 1979, and one last year in Maastricht. Both results were splendid. So was this.
The food was in no way pretentious – a little smoked chicken, avocado and pine-nut starter, a very nice piece of stuffed veal with delicately swirled potato and tiny carrots (Debby had a fine-looking grilled salmon), and a deliciously light little lemon sponge with raspberry coulis and fresh mint. I was horrified to see other diners leaving the mint! It is not what my pal, Montmorensy, calls ‘gar nichts’ and the profession ‘garnish’ (M is right!): you pull it apart with your fingers and mix it with the lemon ... yummy!
An excellent bottle of 2008 Sancerre rosé, a little Montbazillac with the pud, and a nice Calavdos on a Danish chaise longue on the verandah, to end … and the whole served by mine host with more warmth and style than I can ever remember meeting with in a restaurant.
We got to the end of our 2 ½ hour evening, feeling that we had been the only people in the room (we certainly weren’t), and that everybody’s efforts … and Gert’s in particular ... had been wholly devoted to making sure that we had a wonderfully relaxed and enjoyable evening out. We did, my friend, we sure as Hell did.
Oh, I suppose you want to know price. Bill for two, with all that very fine drink: 100 pounds. A couple of Ventnor parking fines.
(OK, this was written for the Ventnor press, but I'm damned if I'm writing two versions of the same thing when all I want and need to say is here!)