Good things come in threes

THE 7th Sheffield Food Festival runs at the end of the month from 27 – 29 May in Fargate and the Peace Gardens. I shall be judging some of the foodie events. A little while ago the festival website asked me to contribute an article on the city’s independent restaurateurs. If you missed it, here it is.

 YOU can’t get the true flavour of a city from its chain restaurants, convenient though they may be. For that, seek out the independents, men and women who put life and soul into feeding local appetites. Food blogger MARTIN DAWES highlights three very different people.

 CARY BROWN, Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley.

 

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Cary Brown in command of his kitchen

THEY once called Cary Brown the ‘bad lad of Sheffield cuisine.’ He’s quietened down now and is a bit older but he’s a serial restaurateur who has either owned or run a dozen venues.

 Cary, now 51, burst upon the local scene in the Eighties as head chef, at the precocious age of 22, at the Charnwood Hotel on London Road, with its French-style bistro and upmarket Henfrey’s restaurant.

 The first place of his own was Carriages on Abbeydale Road South, followed by a series of others, among them the celebrated Slammers on Ecclesall Road, named after the fishy ‘tapas’ in slammer glasses, the Mini Bar on Hunters Bar, and the city centre London Club steak and fish restaurant. He came to The Dev via the Royal Oak at Millthorpe and his current berth still has a decidedly piscine flavour, concentrating on good fish and big steaks. His hallmark is big flavours with unabashed showmanship.

 If anyone can gauge the Sheffield taste it is Cary. “Yorkshire people like to know what they are getting but Sheffield is not just a flat cap and meat and potato pie place. They like a little bit more consideration on price and are doubtful about what I call the new nouvelle cuisine, molecular gastronomy.”

 Asked what he liked what best about the hospitality industry, he has no doubts. “I would not have met as many people as I have. And we’d do a lot better if industry in general was modelled on the kitchen with its method, strictness, respect and teamwork. When I’m in the kitchen, that’s my home.”

 SIGNATURE DISHES: Monkfish with chilli jam, fish slammers and bread and butter pudding

 Facebook: TheDevMiddleHandley

 
NANCY DALLAGIOVANNI, Bella Napoli, Abbeydale Road

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Nancy Dallagiovanna at Bella Napoli

 

 
 IF you blink you might miss the bijou Bella Napoli Italian restaurant, squeezed in between an Asian grocers and a lifestyle shop. And if you didn’t blink you might dismiss it as yet another Italian restaurant.

 This 26-seater has been run by Nancy Dallagiovanna since 2002. Previously she and husband Vincente had Pepito on London Road so they have been feeding Sheffield for at least 20 years.

 Illness means Vincente, from Italy, now takes a back seat so Venezeulan-born Nancy is at the helm. The menu is what you might expect but those in the know go for the ribs. There would be trouble if the dish were taken off the menu. The glory is in the barbecue sauce but Nancy wisely refuses to give away the recipe she has been cooking since 1987. “You can’t just throw it together, it takes time,” she says.

 The Bella Napoli had its five minutes of fame a couple of years ago when TV chef Gino D’Acampo arrived to film a spoof item that he was really born in Sheffield and had learned to cook at the ‘numero uno’ ristorante from Nancy.

 Of her customers, a mix of young and old, some of whom have followed her from Pepito, she says: “I don’t think they worry about the price but many stick to what they like.” (Me, for one, when it comes to the ribs!).

 She enjoys feeding people. “I have to see the dishes come back to the kitchen clean. I always check!”

 SIGNATURE DISH: Those ribs

 Web: http://www.bellanapolisheffield.com

 
DAVID and PAULINE BALDWIN, Baldwin’s Omega, Psalter Lane

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Pauline and David Baldwin

 LONG before the days of the star chef it was the Maitre D who held sway in hotels and restaurants, for front of house skills are as important as the cooking. But those come in different flavours! Boss David Baldwin, otherwise known as Mr B, is bluff, gruff and wickedly funny with a personality the size of Yorkshire. Behind the scenes it’s his wife Pauline who looks after the logistics of running Sheffield’s premier banqueting venue.

 Sadly, after almost 40 years, the place they have run since 1980, is due to close next year but they will leave behind them a legacy of first class entertainment and service, from office parties and works dinners to top-notch lunches. They didn’t get where they have today without observing that fine old Yorkshire precept: Value For Money. Refusing to cut corners, the quality of food is always high.

 It may seem a touch old fashioned with the loaves of home baked bread diners cut themselves at the table (and take away afterwards) and the roast joints carved tableside but the Baldwin’s has been a beacon of Sheffield catering, acting as a sort of unofficial ‘catering college’ for a succession of chefs and waiters.

 Mr B observes that for a long time high-end diners had a snobbish attitude to local restaurants. “It pained them to eat here so they got the kind of restaurants they deserved.” Now they do eat in their home city “and so there is a better choice.”

 For him, the best thing about the hospitality business has been “the most wonderful group of acquaintances and pals” he has gained.

 SIGNATURE DISHES: Fresh fish on the blackboard menu, breads and roasts

Web: www.baldwinsomega.com

 

 

How to upset the French

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Jay Rayner upset the French with his review

THE French don’t like it up them, as Corporal Jones might say, when an Englishman criticises their food and drink. As The Guardian’s Jay Rayner has found after his coruscating review of his £500 meal at the three Michelin star Le Cinq at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris.

 He complained of an unappetising gel globe, looking like ‘Barbie sized breast implant,’ under-cooked pigeon so raw that a few volts could have brought it back to life, served with acidic Japanese pear and a canapé involving ‘the blunt acidity of the sort that polishes up dull brass coins.’

 The reaction has been predictable. Rayner was accused of setting out to make fun of the French. His criticism was worthless because he was British. And so on. But even allowing for a little writer’s hyperbole (and reviews wouldn’t be entertaining without it) it was clear from his accompanying photos that something had gone badly wrong.

 Compared with the restaurant’s own pictures Rayner’s food didn’t look anything like them. And when you pay that amount of money at a high class restaurant you expect every dish should be served the same way as the head chef has decreed.

 I, too, have upset the French. But it wasn’t their food: it was their wine. Back in the Eighties I took part in the ritual of the first tastings in Sheffield each November of Beaujolais Nouveau. To make the main edition I drank it icy cold in cellars across town from 7am in the morning. I arrived at the office slightly paf, as the French say.

 To be honest it was never really any good. After all, this was very young wine which hadn’t settled. But it was fun, some years were better than others, and I went along with the hype. Then one year it wasn’t very good at all. In fact it was horrible. And I said so in print.

 My cutting was faxed back to France by a local Frenchman and, zut alors, the merde hit the fan. There was a letter in The Star from the French Chamber of Trade, or whatever. The stink finally died down and so did the fashion for Beaujolais Nouveau. Some years later I discussed the episode with that self same Frenchman who has snitched me up to his countrymen. He grinned. “You were right,” he said.

 I do seem to upset the French. I was less than enthusiastic about one bistro but when the owner hit back he was unwilling or unable to defend the food. Instead he accused me of racism as I had used the word ‘froggy’ in my review – and this was in the days before political correctness ran rampant. I was merely describing the mutual miscomprehension between les rosbifs and the froggies. So imagine my surprise when, a year or so later, he revamped and renamed his restaurant . . . Froggies!

 The Italians are very touchy, too. I thought I was being affectionate when I described a local restaurant owner as ‘meatball shaped’ but he was furious. “You can criticise my food but not me,” he fumed.

 It was worse when I thundered about my meal in a North Debyshire Italian restaurant. It was awful. My abiding memory is of the fat congealing in globules on the back of the spoon in my minestone soup.

 There was hell to pay. The restaurant (which eventually took me to the Press Council and lost) wanted another review by someone who was not called Martin Dawes. And if not “We invite Mr Dawes to come again, announced, and see what good food really is. Then we will take great pleasure in throwing him out.”

 I didn’t take them up on the offer.

 

 

 

Normal service will be resumed . . .

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The Half Marathon kept up interest in the blog

I have been proper poorly. Don’t ask for details but it hit me like a bolt from the blue. I lost the will to eat although not my sense of taste. Life is bleak when you’re ill, even bleaker without food.

It wasn’t just me that suffered. So did the blog. Without regular posts to maintain interest and the curating, adding links to encourage traffic from other sites – The Star, Facebook, Twitter and Sheffield Forum – the number of hits dwindled. Until there was a big spike: suddenly everybody wanted to read the post on the demise of a certain iconic burger bar headlined: Yankees, No Longer Doodle Dandy. And they had almost all come via Facebook.

In fact this post had far more ‘hits’ than when it originally appeared. But why?

It was my wife who came up with the answer. The interest coincided with the Sheffield Marathon when thousands of runners pounded down Ecclesall Road and past Yankees where they saw the ‘For Let’ signs. Now because almost everyone in Sheffield has been there at least once in their life it is not just another burger bar (although that is what it became). So they went home, clicked on to its Facebook page and there was a link to my obituary of the place. So my grateful thanks to the Sheffield Marathon!

Not all posts are read when you most expect: some have a slow burn and it can be a year before they take off.

I’m on the mend but am not completely out of the woods so reviews are going to be thin on the ground. If I had not been struck down I would have trumpeted the fact that the site has now exceeded 50,000 ‘views’ in just over two years but I shan’t tempt fate!

Normal service will be resumed but not just yet. And if you missed the Yankees story it’s here http://wp.me/p5wFIX-Oo

 

A meal with eel appeal

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Smoked eel with blood orange

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.

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Artichokes any way you want!

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.

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The BeerEngine’s bar

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

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John Parsons and Tom Harrington in the Beer Engine kitchen

* John’s adventures in offal http://wp.me/p5wFIX-2Q and here’s what happens to the humble sausage roll when it gets the Parsons’ treatment http://wp.me/p5wFIX-dh

Yankees – no longer Doodle Dandy

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Yankees closed just before Christmas

IT only slowly dawned on me that Yankees, the burger place on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, had closed down just before Christmas, after 37 years. That’s pretty good going in a business where the average life expectancy is three years. But many will be sad to see it go.

A sign on the door said they were closed for refurbishment but that’s the one thing you don’t do on the run up to Christmas! Now there’s a sign saying the place is for let. 

I’d eaten there professionally and off duty over the years but hadn’t been in for quite some time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Tempted in by a new pulled pork and smoked ribs menu I found a table only to be told it wasn’t on that night – despite the banners on the railings outside promising otherwise. So, as I had a review to do, I upped and left.

Despite its age Yankees wasn’t the first American style burger restaurant in Sheffield. That honour went to Uncle Sam’s, further up the road towards town, opened by Ron Barton on July 4, 1971. It was quite a sensation at the time but it wasn’t until the other end of the decade that brothers Peter and Michael Freeman opened Yankees on the corner with Thompson Road in May, 1979.

Uncle Sam’s, still alive and kicking,  was the one with the overhead railway, Yankee’s the place with that cheeky poster of that girl tennis player with the bare bum. Both could tell tales of families where the parents had first eaten there as students and brought their own kids back.

I have no idea why Yankees closed but there is a lot of competition about these days. Chances are if a new place opens it’s either burgers or pizza, which is pretty depressing if you like your food and want a choice.

But Yankees helped to blaze a trail. Surprising as it might seem now, back then burgers, unless you had that uniquely British pattie at a Wimpy Bar, were rare. What Uncle Sam’s and Yankees were offering were bigger, tastier and (so it seemed) more American. It was no accident both were on Ecclesall Road, the city’s most upmarket street.

Then – don ‘t laugh – we called Ecclesall Road the ‘Bond Street of the North’ because there were so many boutiques. Now they have become takeaways and restaurants so, again, the two places were ahead of the curve.

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That poster – it was Uncle Sam’s with the overhead railway

Dinner with Santa

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Crabby Scotch egg at the Rising Sun

The candle is flickering on the table at the Rising Sun, Nether Green. The weatherman has warned of snow. And over the speakers comes Hark The Angels. Bliss. Hang on a minute! Isn’t it the first day of spring? Abbeydale Brewery’s Moonshine bitter must be pretty strong to lose me nine months . . .

Don’t blame the beer, blame Spotify. Restaurant manager Faith Nicholson dived behind the bar to select another track but the sound system seemed to go along all evening with Wizzard in wishing it could be Christmas every day. It raised a smile.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Moonshine, the Abbeydale’s flagship beer, but I’ve never been to the Rising Sun, the brewery tap. It had a makeover last year and the moment you walk into the big, comfy bar with its gleaming row of a dozen hand pumps you think ‘nice place, nice people, nice beer.’ Or as Google puts it: ‘Convivial boozer run by a local microbrewery.’

Along with the makeover went a revamp of the food, which I gather hadn’t risen much above the level of snacks. But when some patrons looked at the newly minted menu they spluttered into their beer. “Rabbit croquettes?” shrieked one as if they were the mark of Satan. “It’s situated in the middle of Nether Green, not the middle of Baslow,” he complained on TripAdvisor. Pie and peas or bangers and mash yes but was it all becoming a bit too gastro?

While some were protesting ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ others were moaning that eaters were taking tables from drinkers. Diners were unhappy sitting next to dogs licking their rear ends. The Rising Sun is dog friendly but there are limits.

There seems to have been a happy compromise. The pub had an unloved Tap Room which, with a help of some pots of Farrow & Ball pigeon blue, has been turned into the prosaically named 42-cover Dining Room where dogs do not go. There’s a new menu which caters for all and we had been invited as guests to try it out.

It looked pretty good to us. There’s fish and chips, pie, sausage and burgers but, whisper it softly, there’s also turbot: posh fish at a not so posh £15.95. The Rising Sun does well for fish as there’s also stonebass, that lurker of wrecks, with Lyonnaise potatoes, as well cod with an olive and bean cassoulet for starters.

I began with a spiced crab Scotch egg (£6.50) which I think is a dish from Galton Blakiston of Michelin-starred Morston Hall in Norfolk (good food, sniffy service) which I loved, the yolk runny, plenty of crabmeat, the chilli slowly arriving on the palate. My wife had a special, a lively salad of crisp squid, crayfish, loads of peashoots and most of the other things listed on the menu.

My main was braised beef cheek (£12.95), this decade’s cheffy answer to braised lamb shank. It could have been hotter but it was smashing: tasty, tender and juicy on a slick of a horseradish mash with little aniseedy notes which may have come from ‘textures of shallots.’ Now when I see that word on the menu I want to reach for a rolling pin to give the chef a good whacking, if only to stop the kitchen ‘anointing’ its salads or ‘enhancing’ sauces in future.

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The Rising Sun’s turbot

But that would be unkind to joint head chef Ashley Bagshaw and chef de partie Rose Heggie because the cooking is light and bright. That turbot, from Mann’s of Sharrow Vale, wasn’t a big piece (it’s a luxury fish) but it was precisely cooked with lots of flavour and served on a bed of lettuce, peas, bacon and mushrooms, very French.

Service from Faith, who started 15 years ago as glass collector at the brewery’s other pub, the Devonshire Cat, was pleasant and swift although probably not as speedy as that day in May, 1891, when 50 members of the Engineers Volunteers marched up to Ranmoor Church on parade and rematerialised in the yard of the Rising Sun, where pints were handed through a window. Then landlord John Guest Taylor was fined £2 for serving out of hours. I wonder what those Tommy Atkins’ would have thought of rabbit croquettes?

They’d have liked the desserts. Co-head chef Luke Hanson  has built up a reputation for them. A whisky flavoured chocolate truffle with raspberry sorbet packed a high-octane cocoa punch while I was entranced by the firm, sponge-textured ‘custard cake’ in my rhubarb and custard ensemble. Both cost £5.95.

So there you have it. Good beer, good food (and more good wines promised when the wine list is updated by Starmore Boss of Sharrow Vale), good service and a good atmosphere. Not too sure about the music, though. We left shortly after the sound system played Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

“I’ll have to make a play list,” said Faith.

Rising Sun: 471 Fulwood Road, Sheffield S10 3QA. Tel: 0114 230 3855. Web www.risingsunsheffield.co.uk

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Rhubarb and custard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time it’s true: Mr B bows out

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Pauline and David Baldwin

BALDWIN’S  Omega, Sheffield’s iconic banqueting suite and lunchtime venue, is to close next summer. After almost 40 years at the helm, colourful boss David Baldwin and his wife Pauline are calling it a day.

They have sold the site, which already has planning permission for around 40 homes, to a local builder.

“We can no longer do things to the standard we wish. Pauline didn’t want us to close but what made it easier in the end is that the figures don’t add up,” said David, known universally as Mr B or the Big ‘Un. “Since 2008 turnover has consistently gone down and we are not going to let standards slip.”

The business will close in July next year but expect there to be a series of parties and tearful farewells along the way.

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The hacienda style banqueting suite

While lunches do well, as do weekend events, trade dips in the week. That has been the tipping point. Pauline said: “It’s not just about money, it’s a change in social attitudes. You don’t have all-male dinners any more. There are more women in the workplace and men can’t stay out drinking. They can’t use the excuse of going out when they have to look after the children.”

The standard of cooking here has always been higher than one would expect for the price and the couple are not prepared to cut corners. On top of that David has recovered from a long bout of illness.

They took over the hacienda-style building in 1980, after it had been closed for two years. It was built by Sheffield Refreshment Houses in the Sixties as a would-be rival to high end London establishments. They brought with them customers from their two previous ventures, the Angler’s Rest at Bamford and the Hillsborough Suite at Sheffield Wednesday, then leased from the Mansfield Brewery.

David, a publican’s son, ex-communist and former ship’s steward known for his colourful language, became an important figure in the hospitality industry. The Omega has been a sort of unofficial college, with many of its chefs finding top jobs elsewhere.

He is larger than life, a man with a kitchenful of contacts and a superb raconteur with anecdotes about the rich and famous, not shy of risqué stories. But while he can be hospitality itself he takes no prisoners. Customers love to tell of the time he was summoned from the kitchen by a woman in the Rib Room restaurant who complained she had found pellets in her pheasant. “What did you expect it had died of, a fucking heart attack?” he roared.

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The Rib Room at the Omega

As Pauline said, the hospitality industry has been hit by a cultural change. There is now a generation which does not naturally go out to eat to celebrate. At a recent New Year’s Eve restaurant dinner with friends the party telephoned their children to see where they were: without exception they were all at friends’ houses.

In the early years the Omega, now rechristened Baldwin’s Omega, thrived on works clubs and company dinners and when that petered out ‘morphed’, as Pauline puts it, into the present pattern of lunches and parties. They used to slip in events like salmon and strawberries or Caribbean evenings to fill odd free dates then found these became a mainstay.

The news of the sale and closure has leaked out gradually. Staff – there are about ten full time with the rest students – were told first “so they knew more than the customers.”

Over the years there have been persistent rumours that the Omega was to be sold (some of which Mr B now confesses he had started himself to generate publicity) and they have grown since planning permission was granted.  The Omega’s website still says: “Just a note to clarify the TRUE facts about plans for the future of Baldwin’s Omega. Pauline & I are not planning to leave for some considerable time and are taking bookings for 2016, 2017, 2018 & beyond. We already have a very busy forward diary.”

The couple said they wanted to give customers plenty of warning and be able to honour present bookings.

So what do they plan to do after next year, retire to Spain where they have a property? “No, I’m a Sheffield lad. It was bad enough moving to Dore,” David said.

*NEWS of the closure comes less than a year after the demise of another equally long-lived top Sheffield restaurant, Greenhead House. You can read that story here http://wp.me/p5wFIX-sQ

And here’s a taste of the food on a previous visit http://wp.me/p5wFIX-5O

http://www.baldwinsomega.com

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Houses will be built on the car park