LUKE Hanson flashes me a wide grin. “We’re just two big kids messing about. We enjoy having a laugh.”
By ‘we’ he means himself and best mate Ashley Bagshaw, soon to re-open Silversmiths as head chef, who run pop-up restaurant Airoma, named after a dish that has not yet been set before the public palate, in the Loft Bar at Kelham Island, Sheffield.
It’s their third outing and Luke, from the British Oak, Mosborough has e-mailed offering me a free ticket for favour of review, and a discount for whoever tags along. I bring a mate, ex-pub landlord, Masterchef contestant (floored by a fish) and food blogger Craig Harris, so the lads were getting two bloggers for the price of almost one.
When we get over the shock of being charged £8 for a pint and a half of Kelham Island’s Easy Rider (the brewery is bang next door so those beer miles which upped the price must have been via Newcastle) we settle at one of three tables. There are 30 guests.
Tickets are £45 so I joke that we could have done Joro for lunch at that price. What we are about to get turns out to be thoroughly entertaining.
It’s a sort of tasting menu in a series of small plates, some more serious than others, featuring world classics. We begin close to home with Bacon Butty, a teeny-weeny yeasty white loaf with a brown sauce butter and crunchy little bits of salty bacon, the sort of thing you might get as an amuse in a posh restaurant.
We move on (when the beer runs out we stick to water) to what is to my mind the night’s star dish. Instead of a menu there’s a screen and flashed up is “Bubble & Tweet: roast chicken dinner crocket, crispy cabbage.”
For crocket read croquette, chefs never could spell. I love it. Encased within the breadcrumbed exterior is a complete mini meal: roast chicken, vegetables and stuffing, all precisely flavoured. It sits on the now fashionable crispy cabbage and, carefully balanced on the croquette, is a wafer-thin crispy shard of chicken skin, which everybody knows is the best thing about a Sunday roast.
Not sure how they did the skin (was it dehydrated first?) but it was impressive.
Next we go all oriental with hot and sour flavours from a langoustine gyoza (Japanese dumpling) coupled with a Thai marshmallow, except that something’s missing. I stop a passing waitress and report I am a gyoza-free zone. It turns out that several other diners are in the same boat.
It’s quickly remedied and yes, there was langoustine, but the dish was hot, hot, hot, the marshmallow only providing light relief. Craig detected Szechuan pepper, and then some more.
“It tasted well when we made it but the flavours kept on giving,” said Luke later.
My tastebuds soon got some comfort from what looked like a Fab ice lolly from the Sixties, complete with sprinkles. This was the girly rival to the boys’ Zoom, linked to the Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds series. I never knew Lady Penelope put gin in her lollies. Great fun.
During a break I ask why they are doing this. Do they have their own place in mind? Not if Ashley’s going curtain-up on Silversmiths Mark 3 (or is it 4?).
Turns out they feel mildly constrained by working to order, worrying about meeting profit margins and getting the knock-back from owners on ideas they like. There are times all chefs will feel like gastronomic Pythons and say ‘Now for something completely different.’
“With this, we can do whatever we want and, hopefully, build up a bit of a reputation,” Luke says.
The lads have spent time working together, chiefly at the Rising Sun, Fulwood, and Chequers at Froggatt Edge, and developing the pop-up took about two years. Hardest part was finding the venue and Airoma was the first ‘do’ at this new function room.
Next up was the dish which came closest to the croquette for me, a roundel of oh-so-soft and melting beef contrasting with some home made corned beef. “We used beef cheek for the corned beef and the shin was braised for nine hours in black treacle,” said Ashley, a chef who is all curls and tattoos.
The dish had what I thought was a second outing for the brown sauce seen in the opening dish, in the form of a jel, but it turned out to be greatly reduced Henderson’s Relish. That brown sauce was actually good old HP!
There were a couple of home made potato crisps as garnish, so good they can always go into business making them if restaurants pall.
There was more, notably a very well-judged piece of parkin and some fun bourbon biscuits with a parmesan shortbread.
So if I had paid the full whack, was it worth it? Certainly. Not everything worked completely but enough for me. I reckon you can always tell when a kitchen is having fun. Some dishes may never be seen again, others will be ideas still in the making.
Just like that airoma which, I gather, was to be a take on Aero. Hasn’t made it yet but it did spawn a pop-up.
*Luke and Ashley will next be messing about and having a laugh with Airoma at the Loft Bar on November 28. Book on https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/airomaonce-upon-a-time-tickets-75578576557?aff=ebdssbdestsearch
*You can read what Craig thought of it here