Do you ever wonder ‘What happened next?’ when a chapter in the life of a restaurant ends? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.
When Cary Brown, former enfant terrible of the Sheffield restaurant scene, closed the doors of his ill-fated steak and fish London Club in Surrey Street for the last time in 2012 it was the latest in a series of eateries he had either owned or run: the Charnwood Hotel, Carriages, Browns, The Limes, the Mini Bar, Slammers, the Supper Club (and I may have missed out a few).
Then, strangely for a man who was never out of the newspapers and who inspired a generation of young chefs, silence.
A year and a bit later, beset by ill health, Marcus Lane decided to sell Rafters on Oakbrook Road, his culinary home for more than a decade. Quiet, modest, he was the man who told Michelin not to bother awarding him any more Bib Gourmands because he wanted to concentrate on the food, not the fripperies which ensure an entry. He’s the chef’s chef and got a gong from his peers for just that in the Eat Sheffield awards. But now he was taking it easy.
So it’s a lovely sunny Sunday in the Derbyshire village of Millthorpe, down the road from Owler Bar, and here’s Cary, pulling a pint of Seafarers Ale behind the bar of the Royal Oak, the little pub saved by villagers when there were plans to turn it into a house.
And who’s that in the kitchen, peeling the carrots and checking that the rib of beef in the poky little oven is progressing nicely? Why, it’s Marcus. He’s helping out his old mate, the pub’s landlord.
I think of two brilliant chefs in one tiny kitchen and wonder about the dynamics. Who’s in charge? “No one. We do whatever’s needed. Marcus doesn’t work for me, he works with me. The only time we fall out is over who’s going to have the ‘oyster’ of the chicken,” says Cary.
They make an odd couple but food in the pub is only part of the story. They do outside catering. The snug, which can seat 14 at a pinch, had been hired by a christening party. They are planning afternoon teas on the lawn.
“This is a community pub still used by drinkers so food will not take over,” says landlord Cary.
The Royal Oak only does food on Saturday and Sundays. On Saturday it’s whatever they feel like cooking – a Scotch egg, pizzette, pork scratchings – but it’s unlikely you’d get a three course meal out of it.
Sundays are traditional. “We cook the stuff we’d want to eat, a proper roast. You won’t find a water bath on these premises,” says Cary darkly. There is no starter, unless you count Marcus’s beautifully soft bread rolls, served in an upturned flowerpot, or choice of main. At £16.50 a head you share a big wooden platter piled with thick, pink slices of rib and hunks of chicken. Honestly, it was so good I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
The meats were very tasty and tender and the flavours were first class. Massive roast potatoes were golden and crunchy, soft inside. A pair of Yorkshire puddings towered upwards. There were little cubes of exquisite stuffing. Cary’s partner Shelley brought dishes of greens and cauliflower cheese. And there was a big jug of rich gravy.
It was the sort of meal you have dreams about on Saturday night but then are so often disappointed with the next day’s reality. This is probably the best traditional roast you’re ever going to eat. We followed it with very probably the best Bakewell tart, so light it could almost have floated in the air, and lemon posset (£5 each).
I ate as much as I could and took the rest home in a doggy bag. But I was ruined for the rest of the day.
Royal Oak, Cordwell Lane, Millthorpe, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 289 0870. https://www.facebook.com/royaloakmillthorpe/
(This meal was paid for)