'It could be Michelin Star'. Those were the words ringing in my ears, and making my stomach grumble, when we made our approach over the shingle to the aptly named Inn on The Beach, Hayling Island, for dinner.
I feared my colleague’s words, and the high expectations they had set, would only lead to disappointment but the visit would go on to prove she’d undersold it if anything.
A place that has the potential to be in that elite, often stuffy and remortage-your-house expensive category, but gives you the impression it doesn’t want to be is better than Michelin Stars.
Instead you get staff that care, talented chefs and a spectacular setting – in our case boasting views across the sea to Portsmouth – all without the fuss.
The menu was just how it should be; with plenty of choice but not too many options.
This meant when the husband stole the starter I’d been eyeing up – the smoked haddock kedgeree balls, soft boiled egg and curried mayonnaise (£7.25) – I had reserves up my sleeve and my fork poised to snatch a taste.
In terms of presentation, it can only be likened to a poster pin-up for scotch eggs. The crisp crumbed balls were artistically placed on the swirl of sauce, the tiny eggs – quail ? – were cut perfectly in half and the whole thing orbited around a vibrant serving of salad.
Seriously, it was impressive, and our first sign of the evening that the people in the kitchen not only knew what they were doing but took pride in it.
Testament to this was the taste, somehow this reinvention of the hearty spicy rice dish managed to cram in all the classic flavours, the contrast and interest, but in starter form.
What’s more it was exciting, unexpected and impressive as a result. Across the table I couldn’t pick fault either, despite having purposefully selected the salt and pepper squid to get a measure of the kitchen.
Squid is easy to get wrong and, when that happens, you can find yourself not only feeling sad for the sea-dweller but for your dentist as well. Thankfully this was so expertly cooked I could have happily eaten it on its own. However when you added the kohlrabi, radicchio, ginger and chilli dressing (£6.25) it was simply perfection.
It made my husband feel more confident as he’d chosen a main course from outside his culinary comfort zone – the pan-fried monkfish, monkfish cheeks, baby octopus, asparagus, courgette and orange hollandaise sauce (£17.95).
As it turned out, his first taste of the meaty fish could be the best he’ll ever try – buttery, melt in the mouth and just downright delicious.
Unusually for a seafood fan by the sea, I found myself selecting the vegan dish. The description: Roasted butternut squash, ginger tomatoes, air dried heritage tomatoes, edamame beans, cashew nuts and coconut lime yogurt (£11.95) made my mouth water just reading it. I added the chalk trout fillet for an extra £3.50.
Like the monkfish dish, it was a generous portion and one I will remember for a long time to come. The colour, the textures, the depth and range of flavours – it delivered on every front.
I could pretend taking on dessert was driven by a desire to give a comprehensive review of everything this former lifeboat station turned hidden foodie gem had to offer, but at this point it was just pure greed.
For him? The chocolate feuillantine, mini meringues and raspberry sorbet (£6.95). For me? The pineapple and coconut sundae and cocoa tuile (£6.50).
By now we had run out of positive adjectives and given up on finding fault – and if a place can do that to a food reviewer, well, I’d be booking a table.
Inn on the Beac, Seafront, Hayling Island
(023) 9246 0043
Ratings (out of five):