Southsea Castle was Henry VIII’s addition to protect Portsmouth. Its thick stone walls are surrounded by a moat, now grassed over, the courtyard and barrel-vaulted spaces beyond the cobblestones housing The Courtyard, a café/Champagne bar.
Opened on April 1, a no-nonsense staff member says ‘it’s a difficult venue’ meaning it’s out of the way, far from the madding crowd.
She’s partly right but there are many who are swayed by difference, the castle a highly-distinctive, attractive alternative to the likes of identikit buildings and their copycat interiors.
The Courtyard hosted the 35th America’s Cup last month, just the kind of historic place by the sea to give the taste of Olde England to foreign sailors.
The eye-catching tiled entrance area sells jams and other goods by the on-view vaulted kitchen. It’s a find a table, recite your number to order, pay and sit kind of place. Those tables are in two other barrel-vaulted rooms housing light pine tables, smart industrial lighting, white and exposed brick walls and shelving lined with minimalist plants and artefacts. Once the Yellow Kite Café, few changes are discernible.
But where it differs from previous caterers is its appealing menu starting with breakfasts and finishing with dinners. There’s a breakfast stack of bubble and squeak, chorizo, spinach, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce (£6.95) plus a veggie one; sausage or bacon doorstep; scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or full English.
Lunch includes sharing platters (£19.50-£20.50); salads and mains. There are fish goujons with rock salt chips, lemon and caper mayo and rocket (£9.75); grilled halloumi burger with roasted vegetables (£10.50); glazed ham hock, celeriac and radish slaw, piccalilli and chips (£13.50).
Dinner ups the game and prices, website prices differing from actual menu ones. You might find pig’s cheeks; pork belly; ribeye with Béarnaise and sea bass with fennel and caper sauce.
My two-pot pasta with ‘creamy crab and Gruyère macaroni and chilli and garlic shellfish’, was a misnomer. There’s only one pot of pasta and one pot of ordinary prawns, and not a mix of shellfish. At £11.75 I expected more than two tiny black pots on a board. However, the presentation was smart. My hopes were dashed because of the lack of crab – not even a sniff of it – and overcooked pasta swimming in an oil slick, the cheese questionable as to provenance. The prawns were missing any chilli hit and whoever thought a few chives sprinkled on shells would add to their flavour obviously never ate them. Not a memorable dish, other platefuls looking a better bet. Differing-sized prawns yielded some seriously overcooked ones, someone taking their eye off the ball here.
Some rather solid cakes from £2.50 to £4 are on offer. My lemon and polenta slice (£2.50) a pleasant, moist dessert.
An excellent glass of Chilean sauvignon upped my bill to more than £16. This diner, although applauding the Courtyard’s ethos and menu choice as well as one charming staff member’s approach to service, regrets this meal did not translate too well on the plate.
The Courtyard, Southsea Castle, Clarence Esplanade, PO5 3PA (023) 9281 7454
Open 9.30–21.30 (Tue-Thur), 9.30–22.00 (Fri-Sat) & 9.30–19.00 (Sun).
Disabled access: wheelchairs may find cobblestones tricky to manoeuvre at entrance to Southsea Castle and in courtyard.
How to get there: Clarence Esplanade is Southsea’s forefront housing the pier, D-Day Museum and other attractions, the castle next to this museum. Go through the archways and head to the right to find small, discreet Entrance sign beyond the outside seating. On-street payment parking.