So fings ain’t wot they used t’be, Dave?

napoleons

The restaurant at Napoleons on Ecclesall Road

BIGGEST news this week was that Dave Allen was closing Napoleons casino and restaurant on Ecclesall Road this Sunday after 42 years. Since he already has another at Owlerton (plus a dog track and restaurant) and four other casinos in Yorkshire and London that might have been it: sad but a business decision.

But what set the greyhound among the pigeons was his parting shot: “Time moves on and Ecclesall Road is not what it used to be.” Coming from one of Yorkshire’s wealthiest men and certainly its wealthiest pigeon fancier (you can currently buy a DVD online for £9.99 entitled Dave Allen: The Living Legend filmed with a trip around his loft), it seemed a dismissal of one of Sheffield’s liveliest arteries.

He cited the imminent closure of Baldwin’s Omega, which would affect trade, as patrons would no longer be following on their entertainment at his tables. However, while the banqueting trade is certainly not what it used to be, the main reason David and Pauline Baldwin are selling is because of retirement and the chance of a nest egg.

It would have been handy to know what David Easton Dey Allen meant by that remark. But, typical Dave, he’d said his piece, in a statement released on his website, and was not taking calls from journalists.

The Star ran with the story on Wednesday and I bought the weekly Sheffield Telegraph the following day, which splashed it all over the front page. But I cannot have been the only one disappointed to find this was simply a repeat of the daily’s story with just two quotes, one from an existing trader and one yet to open. No background, no analysis: a chance missed.

Dave-Allen-chairman-Sheffield-Wednesday[1]

Dave Allen

I mention it on this blog for Dave, who heads A&S Leisure, is pretty good on the food front. I am not a gambling man but on the one occasion I have eaten at the Ecclesall Road casino I was impressed by the quality and value. The same goes for the Panorama restaurant at Owlerton although my review which included an obvious joke about eating expired dogs met with a furious response. It might have been a bad joke, it was also bad timing. Co-incidentally a leading Chinese restaurant had put out a Press statement dispelling a rumour it was serving up greyhound stir-fry.

Coupled with the news that Ecclesall Road was closing came details that a 500-seater banqueting suite was planned for Owlerton (presumably hoping to pick up the Baldwin’s business) and another casino, bar and restaurant opening in Manchester. With such big expenditure planned it made sound business sense to axe Eccy Road, a prime redevelopment site.

So why the swipe at Ecclesall Road in general?

It can hardly have escaped Dave’s notice that the road is considerably different than from when he opened in the Seventies. Then it was dubbed Sheffield’s Golden Mile and the ‘Bond Street of the North’ on account of the swanky, pricy boutiques: Alicia Kite, Paces, Posh, Elizabeth’s, Robert Brady and hairdressers such as Andrew Hook’s La Coupe. There were just three pubs and precious few restaurants beyond the Ashoka and Ron Barton’s Uncle Sam’s.

Since then the number of pubs, bars and restaurants has multiplied beyond measure. Ecclesall Road is busier, and  livelier and while trade might be difficult the ‘offer’ to consumers is wider and more comprehensive than it ever was.

In fact, to nick a phrase from Dave’s own casino business, Ecclesall Road is still a place “where a great night is always on the cards.”

Advertisements

My Sloe food project


SO you’ve strained all the gin off your sloe berries and those bottles look a beautiful colour. But what are you going to do with all those leftover berries? Get the worms drunk?

It’s notoriously difficult to squeeze the last vestiges of gin from hard blackthorn but the alcohol is still in there. And as the watchword of this blog is Waste Not, Want Not, they are crying out to be put to more good use. As it’s Christmas, why not sloe gin truffles?

There is a small problem of getting the pulp off the small hard stones but I used a Mouli and got satisfying amounts of berry pulp through. You only need 75g for this recipe so freeze the rest for when you have time to make a boozy jam, jelly or chutney in the new year.

This recipe makes around 15 good sized truffles.

You will need:

25g butter
75ml double (heavy) cream
200g good quality chocolate, broken
75g sloe berry pulp
2 tbsp sloe gin
cocoa powder

Slowly melt the butter and cream together in a pan, stirring slowly. Let it just come to the boil for a minute then remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, bits at a time, and stir until melted in. You may need to return the pan to the heat from time to time, still stirring. When all the chocolate is melted, thoroughly stir in the pulp and a little bit of your sloe gin.

Pour onto a Swiss roll tin, let it set then put in the fridge to firm up for a couple of hours. Then sprinkle the cocoa onto a plate and on your hands and scrape up spoonfuls of chocolate mixture and roll into balls. Cover with cocoa powder and put into little paper cases. The truffles soften quite quickly so you may have to put the tray back in the fridge halfway through for the mix to firm up.

Keep them in the fridge. They should last for a week if you’re planning ahead. They taste very good with a glass of sloe gin but be warned, they are very rich. It goes without saying you can use any other fruit you have used to infuse your gin or vodka.

Bacon, eggs and fried banana

P1060529 fried bananas with Sunday breakfast 03-09-2017 11-06-37.JPG
IT’S time for Sunday breakfast, a Full English. Let’s see, bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, grilled (or fried) tomato, baked beans, fried potatoes, fried bread and fried oatcake. But there’s something missing, isn’t there? Can’t guess? Where’s the fried banana?

I have eaten at countless hotels and greasy spoons but I have never, ever seen bacon, eggs and fried banana on the menu. At Chez Dawes I – my wife thinks I’m nuts – have it as a special treat and when the bananas in the fruit bowl are just right, ripe but not going to brown mush.

Bacon and banana is a marriage made in heaven. You get a jolt of caramelised sweetness against the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, as well as a contrast in textures. Add in a shelled soft boiled egg (another little peccadillo of mine) and the oozing yellow yolk sends things up a gear.

This liking for fried banana comes from my early teens when, out with my parents, I ordered chicken Maryland from the menu because I had never had it before. Fried breadcrumbed chicken arrived with fried banana (they should have been fritters but I remember them naked) and I suppose I was hooked. But only gently.

I indulge spasmodically. I don’t have them every week. And it’s not as if when you’re staying over at someone’s house for Sunday breakfast you can say in an offhand kind of way “Could you add a banana to the frying pan?”

I had bacon, eggs and fried banana for breakfast this morning (as you can see) and enjoyed it so much I want to share it.

And shelled soft boiled eggs? You can’t get them breakfasting out, can you? Fried, poached, scrambled or soft boiled with toast soldiers, yes. But there’s a special pleasure, my father taught me, in deftly shelling a soft boiled egg and slipping it wobbling onto your plate. Preferably eaten with a fried banana.

Pip! Pip! It’s Lindy’s Jam Session

IMG_0187

Faye (right) watches Beulah crack almond kernels as Lindy preps

“HOW many pips have you got in your lemon?” asked Lindy Wildsmith, cookery tutor and author of umpteen books on kitchencraft. Now there’s a novelty. “Five,” said Faye, who was partnering me that day in the demonstration kitchen at Welbeck Abbey’s School of Artisan Food.

“That’s enough,” said Lindy, the woman who wrote Preserves and Sunny Days & Easy Living. It’s the pectin in them, you see. You need it to set your jams and jellies. We didn’t mean to be smug but the people at the next workstation only had two pips.

You join me at the school’s Best of British Summer Preserves & Pickles course, to which I was invited as a guest. Regular readers know I’m an enthusiastic pickler and preserver but there’s always more to learn. There was. As pips are so important but lemons are so unpredictable you can keep surplus pips in your freezer ready for when a citrus lets you down.

This is my second time at Welbeck. The first was in 2009 shortly after the school had opened and I was writing a magazine article about it. I knew it was a stately home, once belonging to the Dukes of Portland, but the title had died out. I was to meet the school’s guiding light, a lady called Alison, but unfortunately had not done my homework.

First we had a cuppa in the farm shop café before she took me for a spin in her battered car around the 400 acre estate. It looks a small posh village. Imposing buildings once used as garages and carpenters shops now housed the school, a brewery, bakery, dairy, cheesemaker and much else. It was only as the car climbed a rise and the magnificent Abbey rose into view and Alison said “That’s home” that it dawned on me she was the chatelaine of Welbeck itself.

IMG_0197 Birthday girl Kate stirs her pot 28-07-2017 11-48-45 28-07-2017 11-48-45 28-07-2017 11-48-45

Birthday girl Kate (left) stirs her pot

She was Alison Swan Parente, wife of current owner William Parente, grandson of the seventh and last Duke of Portland. I was being chauffeured by a member of the aristocracy, albeit with her coronet knocked off.

There were seven women and three men on the course. Faye, the youngest, a teacher from Chapeltown, had won her place in a competition at this year’s Sheffield Food Festival. Paul, from London, and Jonathan from Nottingham, were serious foodies. Kate had been given the place as a 50th birthday present by her friends so three of them decided to join her. Likewise Audrey and Caroline, who were sisters. Some had made jams and jellies before, others were chutney chumps.

IMG_0204 Preserving sisters Audrey and Caroline 28-07-2017 13-25-33

Preserving sisters Audrey and Caroline

We had a whole day to make apricot and Amaretto jam, redcurrant and apple jelly, sweet chilli tomato jam, raspberry cordial and spiced beetroot and marjoram chutney – and take them home to our admiring families.

“It’s addictive. You won’t be able to walk past a market stall laden with fruit and vegetables and not wonder what you can do with them,” Lindy said breezily. “It’s not rocket science but certainly very rewarding.” Too true.

A little later she addressed the elephant in the room. You can’t get away from it but jams, jellies and chutneys contain an awful lot of sugar and that contains an awful lot of empty calories. “Sugar is public enemy number one. It’s taken over from salt. You see some people walking around with Coca Cola bottles in their hands – they are living on the edge. But you won’t get that trouble from home made preserves,” she said.

I tried not to think of that day’s story on page four of The Times which said that sugar made men (but not women) depressed. It sounded like junk science but even so I will be spreading that apricot and Amaretto jam (which smells and tastes heavenly) a little more thinly. I don’t want to live on the edge and be depressed.

I liked Lindy’s style. She was patient and thorough and fussed around us like a mother hen as we roasted (the beetroot), simmered, boiled, stirred, zested, strained and funnelled up a whole store cupboard of preserves. Everything tasted good. “I’m going to have that raspberry cordial with some gin tonight,” said Faye wickedly.

Lindy taught me the upside down spoon test for a set jelly. I do the wrinkle test: put some jam or jelly on a cold plate, leave it in the fridge for five minutes, and if it wrinkles when you push your finger through it’s ready. Lindy scoops some up in a spoon, puts it back in the fridge and turns the spoon upside down five minutes later. If it doesn’t fall off you’re on.

P1060478

Jonathan (left) and Paul busy chopping

Some of the students were so keen this was the second or third course. The school runs 15 different courses in baking and breadmaking, 13 in butchery (there’s still time to get on the goat butchery course on October 29, no need to bring your own goat), six in cheesemaking and well over a dozen others from pies and chocolates to foraging and ice cream.

Patience is a virtue in preserving. You can’t rush things. It took Faye and I three attempts before the apricots set. The smell when Lindy dropped in a slug of Amaretto! I don’t mean to be smug (again) but that redcurrant and apple jelly set the first time. And we’d forgotten the pips.

*The School of Artisan Food is at Lower Motor Yard, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire S80 3LR. For details visit www.schoolofartisanfood.org or call 01909 532 171.

IMG_0205

The author pots up

 

A little of what you fancies . . .

P1060302 scones and fancies at Flying Childers 05-07-2017 17-21-16

Scones and fancies at the Flying Childers

I’M raising a cup of Darjeeling in the finest Wedgwood china during afternoon tea at Chatsworth, in honour of a horse called Flying Childers. In fact, we’re in the restaurant named after this 18th Century stallion once owned by the second Duke of Devonshire.

With six wins out of six the Duke wouldn’t sell him for his weight in gold. No matter that three of those wins were walkovers, the old boy (the horse, not the duke) went on to sire a champion called Spanking Roger.

And spanking, as in spankingly good, is how I’d describe the twelfth duke’s Wedgwood Afternoon Tea which costs £35 a head. Why, you could almost buy a Wedgwood china sugar bowl for that money. An extra tenner gets you a glass of champagne.

Our table top can hardly be seen for pretty, delicate Wedgwood in bright patterns and colours. There are plates, teapots, cup and saucers, a sugar bowl, milk jug, tea strainer bowls, gold coloured Wedgwood cutlery – a cake knife, fork and spoon – with a Wedgwood china dish to rest them in.  Only the sugar cubes aren’t Wedgwood. “When it arrived we were terrified of breaking anything,” says café manager Meire Heard. So are we and I nearly succeed when my tea cup tips over.

The new menu was launched in March and has been a hit. Chatsworth has invited my wife and I as guests to see just how good it is. The restaurant is in a glazed arcade which runs the length of one side of the old stable block and the first thing you notice is a painting of the eponymous horse.

Walking to our table we pass a party of Japanese women enjoying their scones and jam. The way the Flying Childers does it, this English tea ceremony is almost as complex as their own.

P1060297

Coronation Chicken was our favourite sandwich

First you are asked to choose your champagne (if you’re having it) and then the tea. Don’t look for PG Tips or builders’ tea. And it’s loose. A teabag at the Flying Childers would be a scandal. There is Earl Grey but as my wife is already wearing Earl Grey and cucumber perfume she doesn’t want to be mistaken for a tea pot so opts for  full-bodied Ceylon while I have fragrant Darjeeling. “My grandmother told me to always put the milk in first so it wouldn’t crack the china,” says my wife. I’m thinking of my mother who would always crook her little finger whenever she had a naice cup of tea in a naice place to match but this is 2017 so I don’t.

The Wedgwood Afternoon Tea is treated like a three course meal (cheaper versions are available). First comes some ‘gin and tonic’ cured salmon, cut thickly, with a citrusy crème fraiche, salted cucumber and rye croutons. It sparkles as much as our champagne.

This is followed by a plate of sandwiches and tartlets: Coronation Chicken, egg mayonnaise and cress and ham and chutney sandwiches in white and brown bread, and two beautifully done miniature pastries: a goat’s cheese, pine nut and red onion tart in a red (beetroot juice?) embossed pastry case which crumbles as you touch it and a more robust but still excellent pesto and vegetable quiche.

P1060298 goats cheese tart 05-07-2017 16-59-13

Goats cheese tart: so tiny but big in flavour

It’s the pastry work at Chatsworth which always has me purring in admiration. There is more in evidence in the third course, the scones, cakes and fancies. The scones, cherry and sultana, are tiny but light and moist. The fancies are terrific: A Black Forest ‘gateau’ is hardly that although it comes with a couple of drunken boozy cherries in a box of the crispest pastry. There’s also a zippy lime and rhubarb shortbread cheesecake, well-scented Earl Grey panna cotta and little kiwi fruit tarts.

The only thing we’re wary of is the macaroons because we fear a sugar rush but, at the risk of sounding like a Two Ronnies’ sketch, I’m glad to see Chatsworth insists on two Os in macaroon and not this new affectation for calling them macarons.

P1060308 Flying Childers interior 05-07-2017 17-48-54

The Flying Childers restaurant

If all this seems like indulgence you’d be right. The menu wickedly urges you to ‘indulge yourself’ several times. But even gastronomic hedonism has to come to an end.  After a relaxed hour there are just crumbs on our plates (but not many) and a lonely macaroon, while the glasses of Laurent-Perrier champagne have been drained. It is expensive but you are paying for first class service, elegant surroundings and some wonderful patisserie work.

Plus a memory or two. For us it’s already up there with afternoon tea at The Ritz, cucumber sandwiches, harpist and all.

# Wedgwood Afternoon Tea costs £35, with champagne it’s £45. You can book online at www.chatsworth.org or drop in. Teas are served between 2 and 4pm.

P1060307 Flying Childerss painting 05-07-2017 17-46-47

This painting of Flying Childers is at the restaurant entrance

Still not a proper job?

1481191273[1]

Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
thumbnail_AlNWD[1]

You guys want meanies? No problem

1124_content_original[1]

Cartoon courtesy of Comic Kingdom


It is National Waiters Day on 16 May but I assume that covers both sexes. In honour of the day here are a few memorable experiences provided by those who wait on.

THE waitress scuttled crablike to our table, arms outstretched as she put down my plate of lamb shank as gingerly as possible. Then she shot back with relief. “Whatever is the matter?” I asked. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said. This was a girl in completely the wrong job.

If she treated the food with disgust, what was the customer to think? Unlike the veggie waitress I got chatting to in a lovely fish and chip café in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “All I can eat here are peas and the occasional chip,” she said brightly.

I do seem to have trouble with lamb shank, a favourite of bistros in the Nineties, cooked long and slow and low until the meat is falling off the bone. At least, that’s the theory. In another Sheffield restaurant when I cut into mine it was decidedly raw. Naturally I complained, pointing out to the waitress the blood in the centre.

“No it’s not, it’s a trick of the light,” she claimed. The meal did not proceed sastisfactorily. Shortly afterwards the place was sold to a very good chef I was friendly with. “Those ovens, they couldn’t get up to cooking temperature,” he confided. Which explained my undercooked shank.

I have had waiting staff do a runner on me. Once was in France when my wife was served up langoustines, one of which was so rotten and off you could see it black with pus. I summoned the waitress, a slip of a girl, but did not quite have the right French words. “Cette langoustine est tres, tres, tres mort!” She fled to the kitchen where Monsieur le chef was called out. He shrugged. We bridled. But there were complimentary glasses of Grand Marnier to follow.

In a smart enoteca in the middle of Rome the whole waiting staff suddenly decamped to the kitchen in an instant, understandable because a gunman wearing a large red bandana over his face and toting a big black pistol suddenly came through the door. He wanted our wallets but he was not having mine. I played the English and stupid cards.

Waiting staff are supposed to be part of the hospitality industry but you would never know it at one hotel in the middle of Bakewell, now under different ownership. We walked in to dine past reception, down a corridor and into the restaurant passing at least half a dozen staff all of whom passed us silently avoiding eye contact. What a welcome by part of the hospitality industry!

So did the single waitress working overtime in the crowded dining room, avoiding our gaze until I coughed pointedly. She found us a table and gave us our menus, without a word. What a pity we ordered dishes she had neglected to mention were off the menu.

Waitresses – and it does seem to be mostly women and girls who wait at table – have done this a lot to me during my reviewing career. I took it as part of my job to review the front of house staff as much as the kitchen because they are the face of the restaurant. And good service can make up for defects in the kitchen.

Part of a waiter’s or waitress’s job is to know the menu and, ideally, to have eaten it so they are knowledgeable. I always asked some damn fool or idle question to see if they were up to the mark and had been listening when the chef explained it to them.

One chef I knew was so keen on his chicken three ways (roasted, poached and moussed) that he had rung me up to tell me in the hope of a paragraph in the paper. I obliged, then went to taste it. How did the chef do his chicken? I asked the girl. She paused then blagged, “He’ll do it any way you want.” Well, full marks for chutzpah.

I have had food slopped all over my jacket by inattentive waiting staff and my wife nearly had her foot speared by a knife dropped by an elderly waiter.

Of course, I have only given you the bad bits because they are the most entertaining. I have had excellent service over the years and it is always a pleasure to see it well done, so that you almost don’t notice it, rather than overdone.

You know the sort of thing – being asked what you want to drink before your bum hits the seat, asked to decide on the wine before you’ve chosen the food and zooming up to the table to inquire if all is well with the meal after you’ve just had the first mouthful.

I always hate, and this is a generational thing, my wife and I being referred to as ‘You Guys.’ One of us isn’t.  It is an awful Americanism. And being told ‘No Problem’ about almost anything.

Sometimes there is a language problem with so many Europeans in British restaurants and hotels these days. But the biggest one we ever had was with an American waitress working over here. She asked if we wanted any Meanies. We looked blank. She had several attempts before it clicked. She meant mayonnaise!

We’ll end with an accolade, to the long-gone Italian ristorante I reviewed in the Eighties when my tie (who wears one now?) dropped into the tomato sauce. It was whisked away, cleaned, dried and presented to me clean, fresh, pressed and dry at the end of the meal, free of charge. I still have no idea how they did it.