Muddy unleashes her inner grande dame, feasting on champagne, lobster and decadence at Winchester's newest opening.
Unless your head’s been buried in a Hampshire field of late, you’ll know that the celeb hangout du nineties-jour—favourite of Kate, Brad, Liam and Nicole—has opened in our county town.
Oh sorry, you spent your formative years reading more *ahem* cerebral material than Heat Magazine? Or, er, you weren’t actually born when Britpop ruled the waves? Well, we’re talking about The Ivy or to call it by its full name: The Ivy Winchester Brasserie. Do keep up.
No Hollywood A-listers when Muddy visited, still the experience was mighty-fine.
Slappety-bang on Winchester High Street, taking on the spot vacated by L.K. Bennett; Ivy’s the name, punchy’s the game. This is the latest in the restaurant chain’s expansion across commuter belt county-towns: Bath, Harrogate and Tunbridge Wells to name a few.
Moulin Rouge excess meets Art Deco class; all palms, graphic prints, suede banquettes and silverware. The elegant, curved bar—with its voluptuous floral arrangement and cut-glass flutes—cries-out for bias-cut dresses and dry martinis. Are we really in a small, Hampshire county-town? (sorry Winch, but…). This feels like London, New York or even Paris; THE place, in short, to unleash you inner grande dame—or gangster’s moll—and feast on champagne, lobster and unadulterated decadence.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The menu is large. Winchester’s Ivy is billed as a brasserie so there are lots of lunchtime options plus champagne afternoon teas. The food is basically *very* posh pub classics as opposed to fine dining, think burgers, steak and shepherd’s pie.
The food is good, but the focus is as much on “The Ivy experience” as what’s on your plate. The menu is a whistle-stop tour of Europe with a smattering of Asia. From solidly British shepherd’s pie (no, we haven’t left yet) and Italian arancini to French classics, duck liver parfait, steak tartare—that kind of thing. My mum was my plus one. She’s a Cordon Bleu trained chef who knows her confit from her cassoulet, so I was interested to hear her verdict.
Early Thursday evening and the restaurant was busy, but not overwhelmingly so. The young staff were friendly and knowledgeable, it took a while for our first drinks to arrive—champagne, but of course—after that the service was smooth, polite and unobtrusive. Parfait.
To start we nibbled truffle arancini: bite-sized, deep fried balls of arborio rice, parmesan and truffle oil. Perfect for lovers of a crispy verses gooey texture contrast, i.e. me. The champagne washed it all down rather nicely.
Next-up I opted for tempura prawns. The dry, yet crispy tempura coating contrasted with the sweetness of the Nobashi prawns; extra points for the pickled cucumber, edamame and matcha sauce, switching the standard sweet-chilli for tangy crunch and bitter tea was an interesting twist.
Keeping things Français, my mum opted for the steak tartare to start. The plate was pure food theatre with its perfect cylinder of chopped beef striploin, Tabasco sauce, cornichons and a raw egg-yolk perched jauntily on top. The verdict? Very good indeed, delicious even. High praise indeed from la Maman.
Next-up, the main event. Pour moi, the monkfish and prawn Keralan curry. Good, not outstanding; none of the incredible aromatics that you might find from genuine Keralan street food, but with generous amounts of monkfish and prawn plus a depth of flavour that nods to well made stock.
I wanted to treat my seafood loving mum so when her eyes widened at “grilled whole lobster” on the menu, I persuaded her to order it despite pleas that she mustn’t, she couldn’t, she really could not. Typical self-effacing mum.
The lobster was tender and sweet, but fundamentally this is the kind of dish that gives as much pleasure in the ordering and anticipation, as the eating. The champagne; the silverware; the whiter-than-white table cloths and the pricey crustacean all add-up to a special, out of the ordinary evening.
Finally, pudding. My mum’s rum baba—plantation rum soaked sponge with Chantilly cream and raspberries—was light as a feather, a feat hard to achieve apparently. Anything resembling a trifle leaves me cold so I opted for cheese instead.
Props to The Ivy for sourcing local Tunworth Camembert, tasty it was too. Wouldn’t it be great to see more local food on the menu? Asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, truffles even; they all grow in Hampshire. Just saying.
OUT & ABOUT
If you’re coming into Winchester especially for The Ivy, do schedule in some shopping time. Head to Parchment Street for independent boutiques and art galleries galore. Whilst there, grab a coffee from Flat Whites, arguably the best cuppa in town *controversial*. There are also some fantastic new bars in the city for pre/post-dinner cocktails including our Muddy Award winning Incognito, a specialist gin and prosecco parlour, The Green Man for an Edwardian pub-meets-hipster vibe or The Cabinet Rooms, which also runs Winchester’s celebration of all things Juniper: Ginchester. Enough said.
For those after high culture, the cathedral is an obvious option. Winchester College, one of the UK’s top public schools, also runs tours. Finally, if the kids are in tow, have a look at The Discovery Centre’s site for one of its highly-recommended children’s plays. It also has a full programme of live music, author events and comedy for the olds. [Read Muddy Hants’ Insider Guide to Winchester]
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Those looking for an excuse to celebrate, close your eyes and you’re in London’s West End. Anyone wanting to dress-up and unleash their inner c’leb.
NOT FOR: Dyed-in-the-wool foodies, if you’re after proper fine dining then look elsewhere. The food IS good, but The Ivy is as much about the whole experience as what’s on the plate. This is not the place for very young children in the evening (fine in the day though), but it would be a fun place to take your tween/teen and give them their first taste of grown-up dining.
££: ££ Not cheap but surprisingly good value. Mains average at £15 although you can punch way above that, hello there lobster, and cocktails are around £9. The week day, three-course set menu is £21 up until 6.30pm.