WLC Eats: The Terrace Rooms & Wine

Douglas Blyde journeys to the Isle of Wight to visit The Terrace Rooms & Wine. While there, he meets co-owner Tom Fahey, who switched from a career as a restaurant guidebook writer to become a restaurateur himself.

“Ashley Keen had never run a hotel and her husband Tom had never cooked professionally, but a lockdown rethink saw them relocate to Ashley’s childhood stomping ground to renovate a rundown guesthouse,” wrote Susan d’Arcy in The Times. She added: “It sounds suspiciously like the trailer for a reality TV tragicomedy but relax, St. Augustine Villa cuts a dash on Ventnor’s esplanade and this young couple are nicely steeped in sophistication.” Meanwhile, the island-residing writer, Fiona Sims awarded the venue “Best for sea views” in a Decanter feature which saw the wine room seize the cover.

Design

The clock in the tower of the slightly whimsical building, like so many spotted on the Isle of Wight, runs some time in the past. Contributing to the £300,000 overspend on the refurbishment of St. Augustine Villa, a plate glass terrace with fur-draped chairs is the setting for a dazzling four-course breakfast with optional wine pairing. This much-photographed location, and the palm-fringed sun patio below, both grasp sweeping sea views towards Cherbourg en Cotentin, 116 miles on the horizon. A sextet of bedrooms, their keys attached to buoyant Champagne corks, and served by wi-fi, the password of which is “Wine2Drink”, each contains a wine fridge. Ours had a loo with a double-aspect view which wasn’t for the faint of heart, while others feature roll-top baths.

On the principal floor, Victorian-era details have been reapplied, including a chequer-tiled floor, massive coving, and a suggestive stained-glass pane set in the entrance door. Photos of the cursed pier which once ran opposite the hotel, line the corridor. This leads from the bar which doubles as reception and features a shrine to Dima’s Ukrainian vodka, to the comfy lounge with a wood burner and ten editions of the Good Food Guide, and ultimately, the wine room, lined by 750 bins, retrievable by ladder. Plants sprout everywhere, including in the kitchen with its back-to-front sink, and bathrooms. Staffordshire bull terrier, Ronnie, who, by accident or design, once urinated over a food hygiene inspector, fortunately not altering the five-star rating, has the run of the premises. The design is by Ashley Keen, a former superyacht chef and previous head of the cookery school at Thyme, Gloucestershire.

Other than being a massive fanatic of Strictly Come Dancing, and responding with such tremendous fluency to TripAdvisor reviews that the Daily Mail splayed a feature on him, little delights Fahey, who describes himself as “a TripAdvisor gobshite”, more than seducing dyed-in-the-wool guests into less familiar vinous territories. Hence, at 5pm, Fahey hosts provocative tastings at The Terrace Rooms & Wine’s “wine cave”, which is also where, as sole chef, he performs studiously researched supper clubs, four nights per week, autumn to April. Tonight’s guests included the wine writer, Helena Nicklin, who lives locally, the imported restaurant writer, Ben McCormack, a conjugal couple who regularly celebrate their anniversaries here, and valued suppliers of produce.

Drinks

“Cow in ditch” read Fahey’s text message of the delay by Keen in picking us up from the Wight link ferry terminal, where yet another clock had stopped. On arrival, an apologetic Keen immediately delved into the boot of her vehicle, bearing The Terrace Rooms & Wine livery, to retrieve a bottle of Germar-Breton Brut Champagne to enhance the twelve-and-a-half-mile ride from Ryde, which promptly erupted over her on opening.

Rather than resort to the island’s “winebulance” Fahey has invested huge care in bolstering liquid supplies at both The Terrace Rooms & Wine and the very busy Terrace in Yarmouth. Formerly known as “Yarmouth Spice,” the latter was founded by Keen’s father, Philip, the former Yarmouth Harbour Commissioner and caters to 300 guests daily. “We can’t do just-in-time orders because of the ferry timetables,” notes Fahey. To this end, he has been known to transmit an “SOS” via social media. “I had to put a post on Twitter – ‘Can anyone pick up wine, I’ll pay the ferry and you can have a bit of lunch…’”

The flourishing collection at The Terrace Rooms & Wine bears testimony to Fahey’s alarmingly escalating fascination for wine which borders on obsession. Displayed in the wine room by country or region, with drink-in and retail prices, bottles encompass all major wine-producing countries, with a peppering of esoterica. Bins might include a fine selection, by county, of English sparklers, a deep dive into Chablis, with Vincent Dauvissat 2012 well below retail at £75 to drink in or £45 to take away, while there is a page devoted to Orange, including Seresin Beautiful Chaos 2022 at £52 (£27). Rich Spanish pickings include R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1995 at £180 (£140) which, while exceptionally well priced, is but one of a handful of wines priced over £100, such is Fahey’s determination that The Terrace Rooms & Wine is not seen by grumbling locals with deep pockets yet short hands as vertigo-inducing when it comes to costs. Thrillingly, the daily printed by-the-glass list indicates just how much is left in a bottle, right down to the last serving.

Dishes

“Do you know how much fucking harder it is to work 16-hour days when you’re 47 and suddenly 100% committed to a passion you’ve been secretly nurturing for 20 years,” posted Fahey on social media. Appropriately clad in a “Marathon Chablis” emblazoned T-shirt, Fahey, tense with energy, singlehandedly created a heroic dinner harnessing “85% island produce” including quinces from his mother’s garden. Each course was announced with the somehow throaty jingle of a handheld bell. Several dishes were conceived around wine, with flavours often eerily similar in the glass and on the plate.

Inspired by the Japanese banana trees at Ventnor Botanical Gardens, the evening opened with a “fish sandwich” of tender, though unglamorously named, dogfish pasted with lime and banana salsa. Other snacks included a breadcrumbed partridge leg ball with garlic and lovage, a homage to the cuisses de grenouille at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, said Fahey. Speared on a lengthy stick of rosemary, resourceful, mutton kebab wore measured chilli sauce and came with a scissored salad. Impressively, the bonus canapé of liver crostini with sherry, caramelised onion, and sage, was devised moments before service in honour of the £1 version served by the late Russell Norman at the first Polpo in Canaletto’s house, Soho. “I ate a lot of these when Polpo opened,” recalled Fahey. Alongside, sleek TOKU sake in a flattering Gabriel-Glas was pitched against vivid Chilterns sparkling wine, Hundred Hills Preamble 2018.

“In an act of insanity,” he said, the first dish proper involved Fahey forming no fewer than 100 slim of form, clearly handmade tortellini filled with lobster landed a few seconds stroll from the premises, with a red mullet and lobster consommé. This delivered huge flavour, akin to shrimp paste, and paired with the near architectural Côtes de Provence rosé, Clos Cibonne Cuvée Speciale 2021, rested in large barrels “lined in tartaric deposits,” said Fahey. “Mullets never left the Isle of Wight,” he replied when we asked after both the polarising haircut and subtropical fish.

Next, roast island cod from drolly named supplier, “We’ve Got Crabs” nudged a big, satisfyingly crisp chip, and “fricassee” of beans, peas, and cuttlefish. It was finished with a convincing “Sauvignon Tartar Sauce” made not with wine but dehydrated elderflower. This gentrified take on fish and chips, being “a variation on a Nathan Outlaw dish” appeared tonight in defiance of Fahey’s guests at The Terrace who lodge complaints each time he tries to remove a version of the classic seaside dish from that menu. “In the mould of Dagueneau” said Fahey, the opulent, though never shrill, Astrolabe Taihoa Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand was calmed with both indigenous fermentation then maturation in barrel.

The next course, involving Nunwell Home Farm Pork ribeye and belly, was served in the company of its farmers, who inadvertently sat in a clump at the head of the table like a jury. From a portion of a 1,000-year-old family holding in Ryde, slow-growing livestock graze lush grass, “not soya” they clarified, resulting in a rich belly half the size of a more commercially reared animal. Atop the grained ribeye was a rice-free “risotto” of diced celeriac, chestnut, and the totality of last year’s harvest of “seven green walnuts” reaped “from the garden of local chap, Graham.” The walnut aspect was particularly present, too, in the limpid Sicilian orange Malvasia, Caravalio Occhio di Terra Malvasia 2020, which divided the table on account of its hue.

Venison loin from island legend, Juan Vicente at Isle of White Deer Park was arranged on a fetching purple leaf of Castelfranco along with a portion of liver, heart and onion, beetroot and braise. Despite there not being an abattoir on the island, Vicente can despatch his herd “as if they were wild animals,” noted Fahey. “No trip to the abattoir required, single shot to the head.” This carefully cooked dish was complimented by glossy “Sauce Pinot Noir” which revived an otherwise tired parcel of Kalin Cellars Cuvee DD 2000, further enhanced with cherry juice. Bearing a tidy funk, Fahey paired 2019, low-yield Marsannay by the Bordeaux-trained Sylvain Pataille.

The final, and outright most delicious savoury course involved a former dairy cow from Briddlesford Dairy. The melting, gold-marbled eye of a ribeye received a beef, berry and nasturtium sauce and served with a trim-stuffed pepper, pepped with eucalyptus, which Fahey served with the similarly scented, and lush, decade-old Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Geoff Merrill. Of the three-year barrel matured blend of McLaren Vale and Coonawarra fruit, Fahey noted, “Geoff ages this, not me – and the current release is 2014.” Alongside, near sweet, diced deckle steak was spooned on a dripping crouton.

Keen often receives compliments on the morning coffee, attributable, says Fahey, to the milk from the island’s thirsty, third-generation Guernsey cows. Such rich dairy was on display in Briddlesford butter and Limerstone honey tart with apple and quince terrine and honey cream. Fahey clarifies the process for this impactfully delectable pudding, giving an insight into his blend of wonderfully harassed intelligence. “I burn the butter until black and deeply caramelise the honey then mix. I use 25% of the mix to make a biscuit and the rest to make a custard. One goes inside the other and is baked to 82c. I sprinkle a little more crumb on top before cutting in a race against time before it collapses. The terrine was made by cutting apples very finely into sheets, poaching quince in honey and water and arranging in a shallow mould. All the cores and peel then go back into the poaching liquid and are pressure cooked into oblivion before straining the juice and using to set the terrine.” With this skilful pudding, Fahey chose Cesar Florido’s caramel-like Moscatel de Alejandra Dorado Sherry NV. Further fireside Negronis ensued under dimmed filaments in honour of the late, bright Russell Norman.

Last word

Before he began tonight’s experience, Fahey, who spent 15 years inspecting UK restaurants for leading guidebooks, ruminated: “As a greedy person I have absolutely no sense of balancing meals and may be about to kill 12 diners with kindness. Oops.”

However, unlike the multiple slow or stopped clocks in and around Ventnor, including a whole shop of timepieces, analogous to much of the island’s rusty, time-warped approach to hospitality, The Terrace Rooms & Wine is, driven by this impressive, handsome, and vibrant couple, a world-class, destination venue which boundlessly over-delivers.

Best for

  • Nautical views
  • Prime island produce
  • Array of inquisitively selected, well-priced wines
  • House party vibes

Value: 98, Size: 96, Range: 95, Originality: 97, Experience: 98; Total: 96.8

The Terrace Rooms & Wine – St. Augustine Villa, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, PO38 1TA; [email protected]; theterraceiow.co.uk

This article originally appeared on the drinks business.

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