I RECALL a few years ago that chef Richard Smith got a bit of a kicking from some London critic who had been to review his then flagship (now deceased) restaurant, Thyme, in Crosspool. There were the usual clichés – yawn – about being Northern, the Full Monty, Sheffield steel and, the killer punch, Sheffield Portions.
The point being that the food being served up was not London portions, dainty little bits of food which left you hungry, but plates which left you feeling stuffed. Well, you don’t have to eat it all, advice my wife and I should have taken after a bit of a blowout at Thyme once when we had eaten so much we had to find a friendly wall to hold us up when we left.
Smithy was a bit perplexed by the criticism. Sheffield folk liked Value For Money and that meant big potions, he said. I told him not to bother and he didn’t.
I’m thinking all this after failing to finish my Saturday lunch pork belly with mash (£15) at Thyme Café, the sprog of Thyme, in Broomhill. Mr Smith shares the running and ownership of this restaurant with the self-effacing Adrian Cooling, who always left it to his partner to handle the publicity.
Perhaps it’s my age but I don’t eat as much these days. Or it really is a big portion. Whenever I see pork belly on the menu I am drawn to it like a moth to the flame and must have reviewed dozens of them. While Thyme Café never seems to get into the guides, this pork belly is up there with the best of them: a satisfyingly brittle and generous shard of crackling, exceptionally tender and flavoursome meat, silky cum crunchy grain mustard mash, sweet roast carrots, a slice of black pudding, good cider gravy and, the only jarring note, severely undercooked green beans. I’d hoped by now this fad for super-crunchy veg was over.
In the end I was defeated but not substantially. It was then I’d noticed that a girl at the next table had taken delivery of a cheeseburger with trimmings the size of the Isle of Wight while her friends were eating chicken Caesar salads, although they were almost of Mam Tor proportions. She got halfway through it then, wisely you might think, swapped it for a friend’s salad.
My wife was having chicken (£16), a whole chicken breast rubbed with the Arab spice mix za’atar, stuffed with an olivey mix, served with couscous, fried breadcrumbed cubes of feta (note to try this at home), red pepper, roast courgette, butternut squash, almonds and mint. You might think this enough but the kitchen thought it was ‘a bit dry’ said the restaurant manager, announcing it would also be swerved with dollops of hummus and tzatziki. I tasted the chicken and it was good.
I was surprised she finished it and then had room for a pudding. I didn’t. But they gave me a spoon. It was a quietly superb almond tart (£6) with an excellent pastry case, warm, slightly sticky almond filling and topped with apricot compote, or as the menu would have it, tea-infused apricots. It was a paragon of puddings which would not have been out of place at the old Thyme. I’m just sorry I was too stuffed to think of taking a picture of it.
I complimented the kitchen on the tart and got a friendly wave from the larder chef responsible. The bill for food was £37. When I was reviewing I had a special rating for VFM. This would have got five.