THERE’S a special bond between chef and diner when you’ve eaten his brains and so there is between John Parsons and me. Not that I’ve eaten his but the sheep’s brains he cooked for one of his legendary offal* evenings. They were crisp on the outside and creamy inside, if you’re interested.
So the news that he had left his berth at the Druid Inn, Birchover, for the inner city Beer Engine on Sheffield’s Cemetery Road, tucked in just behind Waitrose, got me scurrying down to try his new menu.
I’m ashamed to say I had not recently visited the Beer Engine, run by Tom Harrington (who opened on April 2, 2015, a day late because he thought people might suspect an April Fool) but it’s a delightful little pub. There are three rooms, two with carpets, the main bar with a scrubbed wooden floor, and it feels very welcoming. When the sun is shining there’s a beer garden cum smoking area.“People say it’s got good vibes,” says Tom and he could be right.
There are no one armed bandits, pool tables, slot machines or a telly but there is a bookshelf or two if you’re stuck for something to do. I should imagine that’s still many people’s idea of a proper pub.
I first came across John’s cooking at the predominantly fishy Terrace at the Millstone, in Hathersage, then followed him to Food and Fine Wine on Ecclesall Road, Fancy and the Druid.
People have praised the Beer Engine tapas in the past but John and Tom have upped the ante somewhat with more complex ‘small plates’ which you can match with the beer, lager, cider or wines on offer. With John, a thoughtful chef, expect the dishes to vary between the interesting to the downright exciting. As is the smoked eel with blood orange (£6), a favourite when he’s doing food and wine tastings, but one I hadn’t previously encountered. It’s sensational.
The eel, delightfully smoky and crispy at the edges, rests on a bed of firm, toothsome lentils. There’s a cylinder of salsify, a vegetable you don’t always encounter, and the dish is garnished with salsify crisps. The eel and orange is a match made in heaven because you’ve got smoke and sweetness mingled with earthiness on your palate. “I can only do it for two months a year when the oranges are in season,” he says.
You may have met Tom at the Sheaf View, Blake or Hilsborough Hotels. Prior to the Beer Engine he worked for Thornbridge Brewery. Way back when he helped out at the old Beer Engine in his youth. Now he has resumed a partnership with John they had at a restaurant they worked at in exclusive Cheshire. Finding that John was ‘resting’ he offered him a month’s mutual trial on Cemetery Road.
It looks like it’s paying off. Food sales are on the up. For me, the second dish was a toss up between pig’s cheek and black pudding with ham, cabbage and pork liquor or pollock and squid with celeriac, kale, buckwheat, lemon and squid ink (this is one of those menus which list every ingredient) but in the end I had neither. Instead, for a fiver, I had a dish which could be listed as artichoke anyway you want and some ways you’ve never thought of.
The dish uses Jerusalem and globe artichokes, as a puree, roasted, crisps and as hearts, with the earthiness and sweetness riff replayed, this time with roast figs doing the honours. There was something labelled ‘tobacco’ which I didn’t quite register. It didn’t have the same knockout appeal as the eel but intrigued.
“I don’t want this to be my idea of a good pub but customers’ ideas,” explains Tom, who promises a series of beer and food tasting evenings. Mine, with a half of very decent Neepsend Blonde, was an impromptu mini lunch tasting.
“The menu won’t stay the same, it will keep changing,” says John. The motto in this kitchen is Everything fresh, cooked ‘til it’s gone. So get there before the Blood Orange season ends! For offal lovers, duck hearts are promised shortly.
The Beer Engine is at 17 Cemetery Road, Sheffield S11 8FJ. Tel 0114 272 1356. Web: http://www.beerenginesheffield.com Food served Mon – Thu 12–3pm and 5pm–8pm, Fri – Sat: 12pm–8pm, Sun: 12pm–5pm