Success for chefs, as for movie stars, is all about making the right choices. There's a prescribed path to the top, and picking the right projects can separate the greats, such as Robert de Niro, from the should-have-beens, like Mickey Rourke.
For chefs, the route to greatness involves years of nose-to-the-chopping-board training with a Marco, Roux or Blanc, then a solid stint in the provinces, where your exceptional work gets you noticed. Next you move to the capital to take over a famous restaurant, before finally getting your name over the door. Being blazingly good at what you do is, of course, a given (which is where the comparison with movie stars falls apart: I give you the mystery that is Orlando Bloom).
Robert Thompson is a gifted young chef who has regularly been tipped for De Niro-style greatness. Still only 26, he was talent-spotted early at Lincolnshire's Winteringham Fields, rising through the ranks to become head chef and winning his first Michelin star at the preposterous age of 23. Last year he moved to another famous address, Cliveden, to head up the fine-dining restaurant Waldo's.
But then he broke with the conventional narrative. After a short and unhappy stint in Berkshire, Thompson has headed south – about as south as it's possible to get in Britain – to take over a restaurant in the uncharted gastronomic waters of Ventnor, on the south coast of the Isle of Wight. Not since John Profumo went to the East End has anyone chosen to bury themselves away so dramatically after an unfortunate experience at Cliveden.
The lure was a stake in The Hambrough, a Victorian boarding house that's been given a Herbert Ypma-pleasing modernist makeover. Perched high above Ventnor Bay, in one of the shabby-chic villa terraces that zigzag down to the Esplanade, it offers seven elegantly fitted bedrooms, a bar and formal dining room, all with views out across the Channel.
Thompson and his team took over the operation in July, and have set their heights unmistakably high: The Hambrough's rooms are luxurious, and even sport – a new one on me, this – their own espresso machines. All very lovely for an overnight stay or mini-break, but rather at odds with the melancholy air of decline that hangs about the town, out of season.
"Why Ventnor?" was the question that haunted us over the course of a near-flawless dinner served in a half-full dining room so austerely decorated that it still seemed to be waiting for its first consignment of soft furnishings.
Thompson's menu, simplified since his Michelin-dazzling days, relies heavily on local fish and seafood, including lobster, crab and mussels, and dishes are composed with an unshowy confidence that signals a chef reconnecting with his ingredients at source, and delighting in their quality. A rich and precisely cooked lobster risotto is finished with avocado crème fraiche and garnished with a single glistening claw. Braised oxtail is enriched with foie gras, and encased under a glossy pastry dome to form a toe-curlingly good pithivier, served with puréed local squash and sautéed wild mushrooms.
Thompson's classic-with-a-twist style came into its own in a main course that layered pan-fried fillets of red mullet with seared scallops, grilled courgette and aubergine, all stacked on a crisp of tapenade-whorled pastry. The tastes were pure Provence; the architecture could have been transplanted from the Dubai skyline. Sea bass comes with a simple sauce vierge of cherry tomatoes – the last of the local season – and a crabcake zingy with coriander shoots. Each dish is complete and harmonious in itself, with no fussy side dishes of veg required.
Several of The Hambrough staff came with Thompson from Cliveden; and the manager is fresh from The Capital in Knightsbridge, so service is correspondingly crisp and well-informed. It's hard to imagine how these sophisticated and largely Continental types must spend their off-duty hours in a run-down seaside town. Presumably staring yearningly across the channel, like the French Lieutenant's Woman.
It's just a pity one of them didn't see fit to kill the background music, MOR jazz noodling that rose steadily through the pain register to climax in a screeching alto-sax version of the theme from Titanic.
Puddings, including a lighter-than-air blackberry soufflé served with Ventnor stout ice cream, were followed by a flurry of petit-fours, showcasing the talents of the pastry chef, another Cliveden escapee who is also Thompson's partner.
Whether their move to this relative backwater will prove to be a brilliantly counter-intuitive success, or a reckless hurtle into obscurity, depends on whether enough gastro-tourists are willing to make the trip as Thompson's reputation spreads. And spread it should. We left The Hambrough feeling that it had been entirely worth the journey. All very reminiscent of that Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, with its message, "If you build it, they will come." Now, Kevin Costner, whatever did happen to him?
The Hambrough, Hambrough Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight (01983 856333)
Three-course dinner menu £45 without wine
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