Matt and Cat recently twanged their umbilicus enough to take a trip to the delightful town of Lymington – Hampshire’s answer to Cowes, with its quaint thoroughfares, yachtie-culture and quayside amenities.
They popped over to have lunch in the town’s newest fine dining venue, the Elderflower restaurant, invited by their mainland counterparts Ladies Who Lunch in Hampshire – a sort of matriarchal Matt and Cat, run by the charming ‘CJ’.
When CJ chose Elderflower for this first collaborative review, she had done her homework. The restaurant is run by chef Andrew Du Bourg and his French wife Marjolaine. Both have impressive experience in the hospitality industry: Andrew’s last gig was as head chef at the nearby five star Chewton Glen Hotel. Matt and Cat were suitably intrigued.
Lymington was heaving with visitors; it was a perfect storm of Bank Holiday weekend, the last Saturday of the school holidays, market day and the sun was shining. Expecting the venue to be rushed off its feet, Matt, Cat, CJ and pal Sue were surprised to find that they were the first diners in the place. It was pleasingly calm after the hustle and bustle of the street and, as they settled at their table, they enjoyed watching the throng through the bullseye glass in the authentic Georgian windows.
As well as making the booking CJ had the foresight to arrange a Groupon deal for the party – a two course lunch for four was a mere £12.25 per head, including a drink. Despite being on a budget, the party was given the same treatment as regular diners; linen-decked table, a regiment of cutlery, and thorough descriptions of the dishes.
The meal began with an impressively large and handmade elderflower mojito each. Sipping their cocktails and nibbling on crunchy bread with beurre noisette, the crew didn’t take long to examine the special menu. There were two choices for each course (although no vegetarian option for the main) and, to save any bickering, they ordered everything.
With tomatoes of all hues – including slices of a super-sweet yellow plum variety – intertwined with twiddles of pea shoot, Matt’s heirloom tomato and roast beetroot salad was a riot of colour. It was also served with is-it-or-isn’t-it Isle of Wight Cheese Company’s popular soft white – yes, confirmed the waitress after a bit of deliberation, it was indeed from across the Solent. The dish bubbled with truffle foam which wafted heady scents across the table. On the tongue, this was the perfect light and stimulating melange for a sunny August lunchtime. A really good starter.
The other first course choice was mussel chowder with chorizo, leek and potato. Again a generous portion, the simple creamy soup was splendid – and, in the interests of research, all four of the party dipped their spoons in for a mouthwatering and meaty sample.
The restaurant had gradually begun to fill up. Front-of-house manager Marjolaine popped over to clear the table and took the opportunity to draw the diners’ attention to the behaviour of the passers-by; cataloguing the habits of Lymington’s street bourgeoisie with an indignation that would not have disgraced a Parisian serveuse.
Course two for Cat was fish and chips. A chunky section of cod teetered above a handful of unexceptional chips. Alongside were pea puree and homemade tartare sauce, which both livened up the dish. Cat respected the simplicity of this course as she squeezed fresh lemon over it.
Matt and Cat’s bill
2 x Groupon deal £24.50
The presentation of Matt’s pork fillet was quite different. Two hunks of perfect pink pork, piping hot, were structurally arranged amongst artichoke and vegetables, as a rich garlic puree contrasted with an almost invisible meaty jus. Then an extraordinary scattering of purple polenta cubes that had been stained with grapeskin puree. Matt loved the dish – the smooth garlic and dark salty jus making a supremely well-judged assault on the delicate pork. This would not have been out of place had it come from the skilled hands of Robert Thompson or Darren Beevers.
The desserts again showed the versatility of Elderflower’s chef. Blueberry creme brulée was as good as it sounded – albeit served in a funky space-age dish, the narrow neck of which meant that instead of cracking a broad disc of caramalised sugar with a deft tap of the spoon it involved a more gynecological approach. A highly-constructed strawberry parfait was the other dessert. The parfait was perched on bisected strawberries and iced mint, castellated with a row of tiny brittle rose meringues. Iced mint? Well, that turned out to be the highlight of the dish. The very essence of fresh mint was distilled into a few mouthfuls, meaning that the verjus jelly moat was almost missed. When combined, the acid jelly and sweet mint granite were sublime; relegating the titular parfait to a mere sideshow.
Matt and Cat had a marvellous time with the charming Ladies Who Lunch. They’ve been reviewing restaurants online far longer even than veterans M&C, so what did they make of Elderflower? As for Matt and Cat, they had one of the best value meals they have ever had. Some truly excellent dishes were on that £12.25 menu. But they must admit to being a little confused by where this venue is headed. The standard of cooking at this restaurant is just so very, very good. But on Lymington Quay, the masses want chips, ice creams and burgers. Maybe this mismatch explains some of Marjolaine’s understandable frustration with the location.
Matt and Cat hope that the Elderflower can reconcile itself to running a high-end dining establishment in a seasonal, tourist-focussed town, adjacent to crab bucket shops and ice cream parlours. After all, businesses on the Isle of Wight know that this trick is possible; but Islanders have also seen many great plans come to grief and appreciate that it’s a serious challenge. Elderflower is setting out on this voyage with a remarkable display of kitchen talent, but might need to take a more broad-minded approach to enticing customers in. Meanwhile, for those in the know, Matt and Cat would say that it’s well worth a trip across the water to appreciate this place before it hits the big time.