IF TONCO, a bijou little eaterie tucked away shyly behind the stone lions in embryonic Dyson Place, Sheffield, sounds vaguely Mediterranean (Greek or Italian, perhaps?) you might be surprised to find that it takes its name from a long-forgotten sarsaparilla drink brewed in Barnsley.
Once you have managed to open the stiff front door, which obviously spent a previous life as muscle improving gym equipment, you find an industrial looking restaurant. Bare concrete walls, old school chairs, tables made from bicycle frames and a bar-cum-open kitchen give a deliberately unfinished look.
Tonco is the first tenant of Martin Flowers’ retail and apartments redevelopment of an old garage, chapel and wasteland behind Sharrowvale Road.
The exact location has fooled some but just tootle up the alleyway between the wet fish shop and the Mediterranean restaurant. This makes it off-off Ecclesall Road.
The place is run by rhyming couple Joe and Flo (Shrewsbury and Russell) who specialise in the currently fashionable small plates (think Anglo tapas) with a very eclectic menu. Someone asked me what the theme was and I said Very Modern Modern British. Quirky might be a better description. Which started by pinching the name from an old pop bottle.
Quirkiness has its charms but can irritate if it doesn’t work. Flo’s cooking, which juxtaposes unexpected flavours and ingredients, makes sure it does.
Slivers of celeriac are topped with a confit egg and run through with crispy pangritata, the Italian ‘poor man’s parmesan’ of fried garlicky breadcrumbs flavoured with thyme (£7). It doesn’t look much but the runny yolk binds vegetable and crumbs together for comfort food appeal.
The fashion for fermenting is seen in the fermented kohlrabi, another root, combined with wild sea bass, lightly cured, or ceviched, in the fermenting liquid (£7). It leaves a satisfying tang in the mouth and quite a bit of heat from a fiery paprika sauce.
We could have had oh-so-trendy cavolo nero salad with hemp seed and sesame or bigger plates of braised beef shoulder with homemade orecchiette pasta but, instead, settled for a delicious and generous plate of Italian meats: coppa, lomo and finocchiona (£7).
On my next visit I will get my teeth into bigger dishes such as the beef or stone bass with burnt leek, mussels and elderflower emulsion but instead shared a dessert from the list unforgivably headed Pud-Pud. There was nothing twee, though, about the tart, a quince take on Bakewell with spectacular pastrywork.
The baking is first class here: try the soft, moist, spongy bread which almost converted me to sourdough with a vividly grassy Greek oil – just pressed by a friend of Joe’s, naturally.
They don’t have an espresso machine so you have to settle for cafetiere, which comes in a homely mug.
Tonco may be achingly trendy but, with the dishes we had at least, it works. What I liked was the excellence of the ingredients and the care with which they are used. So be like Joe: go with Flo.