A dark back yard in the drizzling rain off a busy Sheffield street is not the most exotic location for cooking paella. But then the city has had few chefs as exotic as Omar Allibhoy, even if he’s only here on a temporary basis.
On March 16 the photogenic young Spaniard, dark-eyed, dark-haired and bearded, opens the fifth branch of his Tapas Revolution mini-chain in Meadowhall, so we can stuff ourselves silly with pulpa a la Gallega and pimientos de Padron without troubling easyJet.
You’d think Omar, from Madrid, would have it in for Sheffield. Five years ago he and his pal rode their scooters from Liverpool on the west coast to the east, cooking tapas for anyone they met on the way. They stopped at a Sheffield Travelodge overnight and had one of the bikes nicked. But at least he got to Grimsby before Sacha Baron Cohen!
To promote the new enterprise, still being built as I write, Omar had taken over Matthew Holdsworth’s tiny Bhaji Shop bistro on Chesterfield Road for the night to host a pop-up restaurant for local foodies and bloggers. There are tapas but the highlight of the night is the paella.
Omar needs a metre-wide paella pan and the Bhaji’s kitchen was much too small so he camped out under an awning in the back yard. The weather is less than Spanish. I nip out to take a look and he emerges from a cloud of steam as the dish cooks fragrantly. He might be worth a mint by now but, while he’s brought a team of chefs to help him, he’s still in charge of the paella. It’s his particular passion.
When it arrives it is an intensely, savoury, smoky, complex dish heady with the smell and taste of saffron and paprika, with chicken (but no rabbit), artichokes, three types of beans and rice which is still firm yet yielding to the tooth. It’s quite the best I have ever had.
Omar got a leg up in life working for the world’s most famous chef, Farran Adria, and the world’s sweariest, Gordon Ramsay, who dubbed him the restaurant version of Antonio Banderas. That was worth a few PR and newspaper headlines (and it’s on the cover of his recipe book) but he does display an engaging enthusiasm.
While all his outlets are in mega shopping outlets I observe it is unusual for Sheffield to get a trendy chain restaurant so soon. Usually all the big names go to Shrewsbury before Sheffield. The city can’t even sustain a Loch Fyne, which has just closed. He winces slightly at the word ‘chain,’ as if someone has just knocked over a dish of his albondigas, and stresses everything except the bread will be made on site: no microwaves, no heat-and-eat, no freezers. “It doesn’t feel like a chain to us; it’s a very personal project.” OK, whatever the Spanish is for autonomous link in a chain, it’s that!
Of course, any food which you get for free will taste wonderful but, that aside, it was very, very good indeed. We weren’t fed any old patatas bravas – in fact we didn’t get that at all – and for me the starriest dishes were the chorizo a la sidra (lovely sweet and spicy Asturian sausages roasted in cider), pulpo a la Gallega (soft steamed octopus with sliced potato in paprika) and some intensely cumin-flavoured meatballs.
And, of course, there was excellent Iberico ham, Manchego cheese, marinated anchovies and much more, washed down with Sangria, Spanish beer and wine.
Omar is on a mission to introduce the city to what he calls real tapas. He mutters that Britain has seen ‘the dark side of Spanish food.’ But we’re not such principiantes (beginners) in the tapas department. Back in the Nineties that excellent chef Michael Morgan introduced them at his Mediterranean restaurant in Hunter’s Bar.
One more thing. At the same time as Omar opens Tapas Revolution there will be a churroseria, a kiosk selling that famous Spanish snack, next door. Can’t wait.
More details at http://www.tapasrevolution.com The book, Tapas Revolution, is published by Ebury Press at £20.