PROUST got it right with that Madeleine, didn’t he? Food is not only the stuff on your plate. A chef can devise layers of texture and flavour with a dish but sometimes, just sometimes, there is another layer of which he has no inkling: the diner’s memory.
For Proust it was a cake. For me the other night at Richard Smith’s Cricket Inn at Totley, it was two perfect rings of calamari. With one bite I was back in a seafront bar in Malta the year the Icelandic volcano blew its top.
In that bar, not far from where the famous Maltese Falcon yacht was anchored, I ate a dish of lightly battered squid, the coating so crisp, the flesh so tender, almost ethereal, that it blotted out years of chewing rubber. It was heaven on a plate. If only all calamari could be half as good!
I’ve not experienced it again until those two rings cooked up by sous chef Kam Bajorek, which he had partnered with a crouton of mashed avocado and baby octopus. They had, my wife enthused, the texture of silk.
We’d been invited as guests to a chef head to head night where each of the pub’s chefs draws a course out of a hat and cooks something up to a theme, tonight Round the World. Each diner marks his own menu card and the winner was the chef with the highest score.
It’s a chance for the kitchen to show it can do more than fish and chips or burgers, the more usual orders in the dining room next door. We were in the room once used as a morgue for fatalities when digging the Totley Tunnel.
Despite my raptures for Kam’s calamari it didn’t get my highest marks. That went to executive chef Oli Parnell’s stonebass en papilotte, the eventual winner. This was an exceeding clever dish in which a portion of fish was tightly bound by ultra-thin layers of potato and pan fried. The flavour of the fish penetrated the spud and completely hid its origins, the outer layers at least.
It turns out Richard had suggested this one to Oli as it was a dish he had cooked himself 20 years before at his previous restaurant Smith’s of Sheffield, one he had taken from New York based French chef Daniel Boulud.
Richard, who was also competing, scuppered his own chances of winning with that tip for he produced a slate of intricate cheese-based goodies, a medley of custards, candied walnuts, fruit crisps, poached pear – and cheese.
There was much to like here. I had my first taste of Brazilian fejoda cooked up by head chef Sam Parnell (he and Oli are twin brothers), a gutsy pork, sausage and beans stew, and enjoyed the light, crisp pastry of an apple strudel from another sous chef Pav.
“Just a nice, fun night,” Richard said later. Certainly – and for me a taste of the unexpected. Thanks for the invite and thanks for the calamari, Kam.
The Cricket Inn, Penny Lane, Totley, Sheffield. Tel 0114 236 5256. Web: http://www.cricketinn.co.uk