The Ivy Winchester Brasserie - is the hype justified?
The prestigious Ivy brand has arrived in Winchester. Word of mouth is extremely positive, but does the great first impression continue when visiting? James West of Winchester Bloggers reports.
From the day the Ivy announced plans to launch in Winchester, views have been divisive. Some dismissed it before it even opened, purely on the grounds of it being a 'non-independent’. Others celebrated the news, pleased that the esteemed eatery would enhance Winchester’s already stellar reputation as a foodie mecca.
My opinion is that the ownership structure is largely irrelevant when deciding where to eat. Yes, some large organisations are divorced from the community they trade in, only interested in profit. But there are also many independent businesses who act in exactly the same way. Irrespective of the politics of ownership, if a business invests in a community, offering jobs and opportunities to local workers and enhances the area for residents and visitors, surely that is a good thing? And if a restaurant provides value, quality and a great experience, again, isn’t this what we all look for when parting with our cash?
The investment shows. From the welcome, through to outstanding decor, the service experience and the quality of food, the Ivy Winchester Brasserie displays class, poise and professionalism. Myself and Kelly recently attended for a lunch and here’s our review.
The interior, by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, is a masterclass in cool and sets the scene perfectly when you arrive. Eschewing the current trend for minimalist, scandi-influenced restaurants, The Ivy Winchester uses a rich pallet incorporating colourful pictures and bold materials. And like all good design, what could soon be chaotic in less skilled hands holds together brilliantly, creating a space that is simultaneously vibrant and relaxing. It’s not huge, but the use of space and the distance between diners is spot-on, close enough to create atmosphere, spacious enough so you don’t feel crowded. And apologies if it’s crass, but I must mention the bathrooms which are the most beautifully presented and beautiful smelling I’ve ever visited.
The staff are outstanding, doing an exceptional job making sure you truly feel welcome, rather than paying lip-service to the concept. Barnaby Harris-Reid, assistant general manager, told me that huge efforts have been poured into ensuring that employees don’t just offer outstanding service, they offer the level of service that the Ivy expects. And it shows.
From the moment you walk in, The Ivy just feels ‘right’. We never felt rushed or harassed. The now obligatory and inane “how’s everything with your meal” has been dispensed, replaced instead with a member of staff regularly topping up water and making themselves available to answer our questions.
There’s a perception - sadly sometimes founded - that premium restaurants are stuffy and uncomfortable. The Ivy couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s no feeling of elitism, with no discernible dress code or expectation of clientele. Diners dress well because they want to and most importantly, diners attend to have a good time. You certainly wouldn’t want to stagger around drunk in a vest and shorts, but then again, why would you? The Ivy feels sophisticated, but it also feels inclusive and an enjoyable place to spend time.
As Barnaby explained to me, the Brasserie would love to host your four-course wedding anniversary meal complete with a bottle of Cristal, but it also welcomes you and your work colleague for nibbles and drinks at the bar on a Friday evening.
The menu is varied and extensive without being overwhelming and is skilfully curated to ensure you’ll have a problem narrowing down your selection.
My Tuna Carpaccio was a joy, the watermelon and crisp soy and lime flavours enhancing the delicious fresh tuna, while Kelly was treated to some of the freshest and cleanest tasting plates of smoked salmon she’d ever tried. The perfect scene setting for the main course.
My choice of Blackened cod fillet was an exciting mix of Asian flavours, including a memorable citrus-pickled fennel and tangy yuzu mayonnaise. The truffle and parmesan chips which I ordered to accompany it completed the posh fish and chips feel in suitable fashion. For Kelly, it was Monkfish and prawn curry which was a treat. The Keralan curry sauce was dense and exotic, and the coconut yoghurt and sweet potato crisps suited the dish perfectly.
To finish, Kelly opted for the show stopper, the chocolate bombe, complete with the hot salted caramel sauce which when poured over pleasingly melted the smooth dome of intense chocolate and honeycomb. Unlike many other ‘wish list’ desserts which quickly become too rich, this dish was surprisingly light, allowed the flavours and textures to shine. My cheese platter was exceptional, especially the Camembert and the Wookey Hole cheddar which were exceptionally flavourful.
The dishes we sampled are outstanding in every way you would hope for and we can’t wait to return to sample more. Our tip? Order the Zucchini Fritti, which we had as our pre-meal nibble. It’s as tangy, salty and moorish as you could ever hope a snack to be, and is generously portioned - one not to miss.
Don’t visit expecting 2-for-1 offers or budget (read 'corner-cutting') dishes, but the perception of eye-watering prices is dispensed equally quickly. Yes, there are some expensive dishes such as lobster (what do you expect?) but most meals are grouped in a comfortable price range. Starters are broadly in the £7-12 range with mains sitting in the £15-20 bracket.
In fact, with some of the most vaunted dishes, such as the Shepherd’s Pie, costing less than £14, the pricing stacks up favourably with many ‘ordinary’ restaurants. Yes, you can rack up a healthy bill once you add in cocktails/wine, but this is because of the myriad exciting food and drink choices rather than an exorbitant pricing structure.
If you measure ‘value’ purely on price, the Ivy isn’t for you. But if you consider value to be fantastic food, good portion sizes, quality service and ambience, The Ivy offers remarkable value. Most importantly, you leave feeling like you’ve had more than a good meal - you’ve had a memorable experience. It’s reasonably easy to find a decent meal in Winchester. But do you feel like you’re part of something really special and exciting? That’s my over-riding impression of the Ivy. I want to go back for the food. But most importantly, I want to go back for the experience. Sometimes hype is falsely generated, other times it is earned, and in the case of The Ivy Winchester Brasserie, my view that is that the hype is justified.
And yes, the rumours are true, staff DO measure the napkins and refold them if they don’t meet the specified measurement...