Coming up to serve?

Perils of a restaurant critic: How cartoonist Vic Brough saw it for the Sheffield Star

Perils of a restaurant critic: How cartoonist Vic Brough saw it for the Sheffield Star

A bright young student at Sheffield Hallam University, where I give a couple of lectures a year on food journalism, asked me about my restaurant pet peeves. I didn’t stop talking for ten minutes, listing them all!

It’s not that I dislike eating out. I love it. Yet I so often get exasperated when things are not done properly, if at all. For don’t think restaurants are all about food: it’s service, service, service . . . and then the food, which is only part of your night out.

Of course, you often don’t really notice the service until it’s not there, a fact brought home to me in my early reviewing days by the Mystery Diner of the old Berni Inn steak chain. He’d seen my infant column and reckoned I needed a few tips.

We arranged to meet at the Berni Inn at Meadowhead. I was on time, he was late: deliberately so. “While you’ve been waiting ten things should have happened,” he said. I shook my head. “No, I’ve just waited.”

And then he listed the ’service points’ which Berni insisted on. Was I greeted, eye contact made (with a smile), shown a seat, offered the menu, asked if I wanted to order a drink (that was five!) and so on? I think there were several dozen more. I got the impression Berni was as interested in its service manual being followed as the quality of the steaks.

But it was right. Take the first, the greeting. We’ve all walked into restaurants and waited to be acknowledged and shown to a table. So often there is just an overworked little waitress trying not to make eye contact. Diners eye you out of curiosity as you wait. You feel uncomfortable but that disappears the moment you are acknowledged.

My wife and I once walked into a leading Derbyshire hotel, past reception, to the restaurant where we had booked without once being greeted by any of the five members of staff who passed us. That was where we met the overworked little waitress . . .

By contrast, another time I walked into a place in Crookes which was rammed with people but the manager at the back of the room heard the door open, caught my eye and called ‘With you in a minute, sir,’ and I felt acknowledged and happy to wait.

Subsequently, I mentally ticked off all these points when I reviewed a restaurant. It’s all commonsense really, hardly rocket science, but is so often ignored or forgotten. And it’s a question of balance. I really don’t want to be asked to order a drink before my bottom has touched the seat or if I’m enjoying the food before I’ve had a mouthful. But the former happens far too many times and you just know the boss has told them to increase the wet sales.

It was worst, though, in an Indian restaurant where up to five different waiters repeatedly asked if we wanted another drink. They were coming in like a squadron of Messerschmitt 109s.

Another thing I hate is being given the menu, make my choice and then told the dish is off. Or inquiring about the soup of the day and waiting while they ask the chef. Part of the waiting staff’s job is to know what’s on offer. I always had some menu query up my sleeve to see if the kitchen had talked staff through the dishes. It’s also a good idea to let them taste it.

At one restaurant the chef had rung tell me about his latest dish, chicken cooked three ways: the breast poached, the leg roasted and the rest made into a sausage (or something like that). I turned up to dine a few weeks later and asked our waitress in what ways the dish was cooked. She didn’t know but inspiration struck: “He’ll cook it any way you want!”

They say we make out judgements about other people within seconds of meeting them and so it is with restaurants. The first minute or so is crucial. If something rubs you the wrong way the night can be off to a rocky start (or at least it is with me!). But it’s also insurance. If things in the kitchen have gone a little haywire good service prompts us to make allowances. If the kitchen is on song it’s a double whammy in the restaurant’s favour.

All of these points are simply commonsense but it can be in as much short supply in the hospitality business as anywhere else.

One final thing: it may be a generational thing but music in restaurants is very often too loud or the wrong sort. At one time my wife and I used to play a game guessing when Nora Jones would come over the speakers, and how often. One Barnsley restaurant played orchestral versions of TV theme tunes all night, another the complete songbook of Abba. Very often it’s the wrong music for the place as youngish staff play the kind of stuff they like and bugger the customers. Actually, the worst for this is not a restaurant but Majestic Wine. Just a tip: research has shown people tend to order more expensive dishes to the sound of classical music.

Or, as one pub owner once told me, the best music is the stuff that’s played but the buzz in the room is so animated you can’t actually hear it unless you listen out.

Don’t wince at quince

Quinces, those golden apples of the sun

Quinces, those golden apples of the sun

Around this time of year I await the knock at the door with a little foreboding. It’ll be my neighbour Jill from across the road with a big bag of golden quinces from the tree in her back garden. She has far too many of them for her own use so she shares them with the street.

Now usually I wince over a quince. They are hard to cut and trouble to cook, then something always goes wrong. I’ve put quince in stews but not been impressed by the taste. I made some quince marmalade a few years back and am still eating it. Nigel Slater’s recipe for pickled quince doesn’t work for me. It’s the juniper.

That quince paste, or membrillo, I made the other year didn’t keep. It’s not just me. Some fruit I gave to a local chef which also came back as paste went mouldy before you could say Aphrodite. The classicists among you will know that in Greek mythology Paris gave her a quince, one of the ‘golden apples of the sun.’

Talking about quinces as gift I once gave a couple to a friend who was putting up the folk legend Peggy Seeger for a few hours before a performance. The aroma would perfume her room, I promised. It didn’t.

Still, I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and decided to get down to it. I hit upon a two-for-the-price-of-one recipe which promised me jelly and paste. For once, everything went well. I liked the recipe because it would give me the chance of using a bottle of rosewater I had bought previously on a whim. So first I made quince and rosewater jelly.

A stool and jellybag make a strainer.

A stool and jellybag make a strainer.

I had 1.6k of quinces and after washing off the fuzz cut them up. Don’t go though the top but the softer sides. I added the peel of a lemon but reserved the juice. In previous years they have taken up to two hours to soften, these were ready within 30 minutes and I squished them to pulp with a potato masher.

Next you strain the juice out through a boiled jelly bag into a bowl. I strung it from an upturned stool and left it for about four hours (overnight is best). Don’t squeeze or your jelly will be cloudy.

Pour the quince paste into a tin to set

Pour the quince paste into a tin to set

You measure the juice and for each 100ml you add 75g of sugar. Heat to boiling with the juice of the lemon until you reach setting point. I rely on the plate from the freezer wrinkle test. Everything was going too well: I had a set inside 10 minutes. I stirred in about half a teaspoon of rosewater and had enough for four 100ml jars. It’s gorgeous on toast and I shall have it with roast meats. It’s a winner, well worth the effort.

The next day I tackled the membrillo which was harder work. First I blitzed it in a processor then pressed it through a fine sieve. It took over 30 minutes. For each 100g of puree add 75g of sugar. My recipe didn’t mention lemon juice but I added it just the same. Bring gently to the boil and keep stirring, making sure the mixture doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pan or spit at you. It’s ready when ‘volcanoes’ appear on the surface and you can see the bottom of the pan when you draw a wooden spoon through it.

Pour into roasting tins lined with greaseproof paper and allow to set overnight. Mine is not as hard as shop-bought membrillo but still a little soft. It goes well with cheese, particularly Manchego, and apparently the Spanish also spread it on toast. Will it keep for Christmas? Fingers crossed. I’ll be freezing some as an

Little jars of quince and rosewater jelly

Little jars of quince and rosewater jelly

Slabs of membrillo, or quince paste, and jars of jelly

Slabs of membrillo, or quince paste, and jars of jelly

Pigging out under the lamplight

Pork shank in beer with dumplings

Pork shank in beer with dumplings

When two pigs heads destined for a Regather supper club featuring ‘forgotten cuts’ of meat appeared on Twitter, with David Cameron nowhere in sight, there were grunts of disapproval from some supporters more used to vegetarian and vegan meals.

Marie-Joelle West

Marie-Joelle West

But at the launch of the trading co-operative’s new season of weekly dinners founder and organiser Gareth Roberts was unapologetic. “Food is one part of our philosophy, which is to help and support local traders and enterprises, and that includes meat as well as vegetables.”

So we pigged out, so to speak, through all three courses cooked by the delightful Marie-Joelle West, the part-German, part-French Bavarian girl, latterly from Scotland, who also runs the Poppyseed supper club.

Piggy starters: pate, terrine and pickles

Piggy starters: pate, terrine and pickles

“I am rediscovering the cuisine of my childhood,” she told appreciative diners who had already wolfed down mixed starter plates of rustic pork liver pate, delicate jellied pig’s head, ham and parsley terrine, nuggets of gorgeous fudge-like crackling, sprightly pickled vegetables and a spinach soup which recalled the spring.

She’d followed up with pork shanks braised in pale ale from Regather’s own brewery, not just a Bavarian classic but loved throughout Central Europe, spicy red cabbage and herby bread dumplings. Most European dumplings will slow you down for the rest of the week but these were light, a dumpling lover’s dream.

The meal featured local products. So those dumplings were made of leftover bread from the Forge Bakehouse on Abbeydale Road, the vegetables grew up nearby and everything porky came from Moss Valley Fine Meats, whose owner Stephen Thompson, the only man in Britain with the Made in Sheffield mark for his award-winning sausages, sat next to me.

He could vouch for the provenance of Pinky and Perky (no, he wisely doesn’t give them names but numbers), two of the 2,000 pigs on 200 acres of the Sheffield family farm, now in its fourth generation.

His meat is served in top restaurants, cafes and businesses across the city by chefs who want to cook local. This accent on food from the locality, what the French call ‘terroir,’ is a recent phenomenon but has boosted trade. “None of this could have happened ten years ago. Now chefs fight over who is going to have the pigs’ cheeks,” he said.

Regather is staging a regular series of weekly Wednesday dinners which will also feature seasonal eating (veggie and vegan), a vegan only night christened Vegather and a beer club with snacks to nibble snacks while downing the co-operative’s own beers. Dates are listed below.

Pig man Stephen Thompson

Pig man Stephen Thompson

The night was attended by a lively group of around 30 or so people who had paid £25 a head to eat in the only dining room in Britain with a full-sized street lamp inside in full working order. The venue is an upstairs room in what was once a Little Mesters’ factory making horn handles. The street lamp had been outside for over a century and when it came to be replaced contractors Amey made a gift of it to Regather. It had to be winched in and only just avoids scraping the pitched ceiling.

The meal finished with firm and crumbly ‘farmers doughnuts’ fried in pig fat with an elderberry and apple compote as a custard. Pretty good. Marie-Joelle plans to follow up with meals devoted to forgotten cuts of venison and turkey, no doubt with a Bavarian flavour.

Regather is at 57-59 Club Garden Road, Sheffield S11 8BU. Tel: 07719 777 315 or 0114 273 1258

Supper club dates: Forgotten Cuts, Nov 11 and Dec 9
Eating Seasonally: Nov 18, Dec 16
Vegather: Nov 4, Dec 2
Beer Club: Oct 28, Nov 25

For more details visit or

For details of the Poppyseed supper club visit

Moss Valley is at Povey Farm, Lightwood Lane, NORTON, Sheffield S8 8BG. Tel: 0114 239 6904. Visit

Regather's Gareth Robers with the 100-year-old street lamp

Regather’s Gareth Roberts with the 100-year-old street lamp

A long time to get it right

Two Steps, in business since 1895

Two Steps, in business since 1895

It’s a Fish and Chips Friday so the plates are warming on a pan of simmering water, the kitchen table is laid with cutlery, bread and butter, vinegar, ketchup and tartare sauce and the neighbours’ cat is settling into the corner with an expectant look while I’ve nipped down to the chippie.

Not just any fish and chip shop. Readers who know I like my food seasoned with a good back story will hardly be surprised at my choice: Two Steps on Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield. There’s plenty of history in these premises, frying fish for 120 years, since James Bolton set up shop in 1895. This is very probably the oldest in the country on the same spot, certainly in Yorkshire.

If not history, then popular culture. Tony (Is This the Way to Amarillo?) Christie posed here for an album cover while the mostly forgotten Carol-Anne Showband sang about joining the queue to be near a girlfriend (was she serving?) in Two Steps. “In 1895 this old ship set sail/ Why go to France when you can go to Sharrow Vale?” Indeed.

But the main reason I’m queuing up for cod, haddock, one small portion of chips (in reality enough for three) and fluorescent green mushy peas is that the food is remarkably good. As one satisfied customer puts it on TripAdvisor, it’s a “simple chippy, no dodgy kebabs . . .” although current owner Leggy Kafetzis, being Cypriot, would have a legitimate excuse. “They’ve had a long time to get it right” notes another Trippie.

The menu is short: cod, haddock, Yorkshire fishcake, cod’s roe, rissole, chips, sausages, Pukka Pies and, a modest little speciality, the Two Steps’ pea fritter. I’m having the haddock because Sheffield, always a border city as far as Yorkshire is concerned, is on that boundary where the southern preference for slightly effete cod becomes the northern choice for much more manly haddock. And because Leggy once tipped me the wink that the haddock is invariably fresh.

Serving up

Serving up

Sometime the queue stretches out of the door and into the rain but tonight it’s short. “Any haddock in?” I ask the frier, a man in a pony tail, Leggy not being about. As the son of a chippie I know it’s better to order haddock when you arrive, rather than wait for it to be cooked. There are, four fillets.

If you’re a first-timer on recommendation the back wall opposite the counter will reassure you your tea is in safe hands. It is a newspaper hall of fame with cuttings from most of Fleet Street, including The Times and the Guardian, extolling Two Steps’ virtues. It gets its name from the two steps at the door.

I have my order wrapped, unsalted and unvinegared because I am not a lover of non-brewed condiment. I can do it back home with pickled onion vinegar. They do big portions here. Back home, unwrapped, my haddock lolls right across the dinner plate and hangs over. The batter is dry and crisp, the fish steamed inside to its full flavour. I have a bite of my wife’s creamier-looking cod: just as good.

Good chips don’t always have to be triple-cooked Jengas. Leave that to chefs.These are soft and limp but not at all greasy. We all like them, including the cat.

Two of us have eaten for just under a tenner. It’s plain, simple food honestly cooked but just as important the offering is consistently good. There’s nothing worse than looking forward to the chippie all day and being disappointed.

But as the man said, they’ve had a long time to get it right.

249 Sharrow Vale Road, Sharrow Vale, Sheffield S11 8ZE. Tel: 0114 266 5694

Haddock, chips and mushy peas

Haddock, chips and mushy peas

Probably the best sauce you’ve never heard of

From this, elderberries - plentiful and free

Elderberries – plentiful and free

Pontack sauce sounds like something made by North American Indians but in fact it’s English and made from elderberries, dating back at least 300 years. And popularised, perhaps even invented, by a Frenchman. It tastes very, very good.

In fact, it’s probably the best sauce you – and I – have never heard of.

The recipes I have consulted say, variously, that it must keep for seven years until fully matured or that it will last that length of time on the shelf. It’s only been bottled a few hours and this purple-brown brew, a sort of vegetarian Worcestershire Sauce, is so tempting it will not be given the chance!

Pam Corbin, of River Cottage fame, gives a recipe in her preserving book but I must have overlooked it and I’ve now mislaid my copy. I came across it online after wanting to do something with all those elderberries still on the bushes that didn’t mean jams, jellies or chutneys, of which I’ve more than enough. this: Pontack Sauce

Pontack Sauce

Elderberries are cooked slowly with cider vinegar, strained, boiled up with chopped shallots and spices, strained again and bottled. Now you could just skip to the end for the recipe or bear with me as this spiced elderberry ketchup gives us a taste of social and culinary history, which is what makes cooking and eating so much fun. Food always has a back story.

François-Auguste de Pontac is the Frenchman, who was active in the Seventeenth Century Bordeaux wine trade with London. After the Great Fire of 1666 there were lots of vacant plots in the capital and on one he opened a tavern, in Abchurch Lane, called the Enseigne de Pontac, from which to sell his wines As the sign was a portrait of his father Londoners knew it as Pontack’s Head (note the ‘k’ has been added).

Contemporaries described Pontac as good looking, wealthy and a good cook. It was a fashionable tavern: the likes of Daniel Defoe, John Locke and Jonathan Swift went there. Now whether he devised or simply popularised the recipe is not known but it was handed down through the family, said to have run the tavern for 200 years. While Mrs Beaton makes no mention of it, the recipe appeared in Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal in 1931.

Here’s a recipe. You need to be quick because the elderberry season is almost over.

1lb (450g) elderberries
2cups (500ml) cider vinegar
8oz (225g) finely chopped or grated shallots
Small piece of ginger, grated
4 allspice berries
4 cloves
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp nutmeg (or mace)
1 tsp salt

Wash the elderberries and de-stalk them. I used to use the tines of a fork but this breaks off too much stalk and nimble use of your fingers and thumb will be cleaner (although you’ll have stains)

Heat the oven to 120C. Put the berries in a casserole and cover with the vinegar, put on the lid, and cook for 4-6 hours. Some recipes will have you quickly boiling up in a saucepan instead but the long, slow cooking caramelises the fruit sugars and takes the harshness out of the vinegar

When cool, strain the juices through a sieve, pressing firmly. Discard the berries. Put into a pan with the shallots and other ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer, with the lid on, for about 10 minutes. Turn off, let cool and strain again and bottle. This will give you a thinnish liquid. You can reduce it to make it thicker or ‘blitz’ with the onion in a processor which will give you something resembling a brown sauce.

I was very tempted to add a little sugar but when I tasted the finished result I realised it isn’t needed. The sauce is spicy, acidic but in a good way, slightly fruity and with undertones of ginger (which some recipes omit) and pepper. It is like a less aggressive Lea & Perrins or Henderson’s Relish. It is recommended for game as well as offal such as liver and kidneys and I can see this pepping up my gravies and sauces in the coming months. I had enough for two small bottles.

Curiously, another sauce called Prince of Wales Ketchup, devised by Canadian Mrs Dalgairns, which appears in her Practice of Cookery (1829) also uses elderberries and similar spices, omits the shallots and replaces them with anchovies. On the way to Lea & Perrins?

You won’t find Pontack Sauce in the shops but the website* from which I have got some information sells three year aged bottles at £6.95 for 100ml bottles.

*The pontack website is now inoperative but still tweets @PontackSauce so if you want to buy a bottle rather than make it, try them.

**2016 UPDATE: My two bottles of Pontack have nicely progressed, still deep, rich and vibrant in taste. I have used the essence mainly to augment sauces but need to remember it’s there! This year I had difficulty finding enough elderberries and had to make do with 12oz. The result was more acidic than last year (perhaps I didn’t have the oven hot enough to drive off vinegary vapours) but I resisted the temptation to add sugar. I shall look forwards to the result of this vintage!

Going to the dogs

Rod's Dogs in Broomhill

Rod’s Dogs in Broomhill

I’d been drinking but as I sank my teeth into a late night bratwurst and stepped backwards from a Viennese sausage kiosk I was in heaven. Another step more and I really would have been. I hadn’t noticed the tracks and at that moment a tram rattled by, missing me by no more than the width of a bread bun.

For me it would certainly have been Goodnight Vienna.

I’m thinking of that moment now, on much safer territory, as I start eating a frankfurter from Rod’s Dogs ‘sandwicheria’ on Fulwood Road, Broomhill. I pass this place most Saturdays out shopping and have always meant to go in since it opened about a year ago. Now I have.

It’s already changed hands in that time (so Rod’s gone) and is now run by Chilean-born Jeannette Vilo, a very personable lady, and her son Pablo. They import their sausages fresh from Germany but the place is a take on an American diner.

I’ve been hooked on frankfurters (and bratwurst and currywurst) since I went to Vienna on a Press trip, armed with a copy of Graham Green’s Third Man. I read the book, rode the wooden Ferris wheel which features in the film, inhaled the smell of horse dung which pervades the Viennese summer and marvelled at the little kiosks, or wurstelstands, selling sausages on every street corner. I was fascinated by the spike which punches a hole in the roll in which to insert the sausage.

Sadly, the trip didn’t involve eating at one so I nipped out late at night on a one man sausage mission and nearly came a cropper. Interestingly, the Viennese call their sausages frankfurters. On a trip to Frankfurt I expected to see something similar but was disappointed.

Hot dogs are big in America – the term was coined over there – and are also very popular in South America, says Jeannette, bringing me my frankfurter with fries and soft drink, a £4.50 special. Down Latin America way they call them wieners.

Rod’s Dogs’ frankfurter is good in a quiet way, meaty and porky and juicy, but Jeannette later tells me, as restaurateurs have done so for the last 30 years, that I ordered the wrong thing. I should have gone for a Jumbo. I thought that was just a blown up frankfurter but apparently not. They also do beef filled frankfurters and bratwurst.

You can have all manner of toppings, German, American and South American-style, but my preference is for fried onions (which they don’t do, only onion rings), mustard and sauce. Jeannette tempted me into trying the homemade barbecue sauce, and I’m glad she did, because it’s like a very, very good, fruity brown sauce, rather like I make to Cary Brown’s recipe (see ).

Frankfurter at Rod's Dogs

Frankfurter at Rod’s Dogs

In fact, when she twigged who I was, I got to try all the sauces, from a perky pico de gallo through guacamole to a wicked jalapeno.

Sheffield is full of fast food joints, almost always dishing up food from the freezer or cash and carry but at Rod’s Dogs it is all their own work, apart from the chips, vegetarian sausages and bread from Roses. They make their own pulled pork, brisket and burgers and you’ve got to warm to a place which makes its own chicken nuggets for the kids, haven’t you?

If this is going to the dogs, give me more!

Jeannette seems proud of her little diner with its red booths and mirrored walls. I was delighted to learn she is the sister of city restaurateur Kito Valeria, currently at La Mama on Abbeydale Road, and that I would have met her when they opened the city’s first Latin American restaurant, La Parrillada, on Cumberland Street, almost 30 years ago.

The sauces available for your hot dog or burger

The sauces available for your hot dog or burger

“This may be fast food but it’s fresh food,” says Jeannette and I applaud her. I’ll be back to try a Jumbo and – mine was something of a fleeting visit – and to order some churros, which I’ve just noticed are on the menu.

Incidentally, if you are into German sausages and don’t fancy them out of a tin or jar, good as they can be, visit the little Austrian café Tiroler Stuberl in Water Street, Bakewell which has an excellent range imported from Austria. And anyone interested in going to Vienna to taste a street corner wurstel should get a copy of Sheffield author Duncan J D Smith’s guide to the city Only in Vienna, available on Amazon and from

Rod’s Dogs is at 267 Fulwood Road, Sheffield, S10 3BD. Tel: 0114 268 7865. Web:

STOP PRESS: Sadly Rod’s Dogs has now closed and gone to the great wurstelstand in the sky.

A wurstelstand in Vienna

A wurstelstand in Vienna