All down to a doughnut!

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Peking Duck with a smoked duck and cherry salad

FOR once we got it right. After three years judging a heat in Whirlow Hall Farm Trust’s annual Sheff’s Kitchen contest, the city’s answer to MasterChef, top chef Cary Brown and I voted the same way as the diners who packed into the farm’s little cafe on a hot and sultry night. And, just like them, by a single point.

For us it all came down to a doughnut. But we’ll get to that later.

It’s always fun judging this contest. As someone who used to scoff food for a living it’s nice to be able to do it for charity, in this case for the city’s disadvantaged children who get a taste of country life down on the farm.

Two chefs battle it out to provide a three course meal on a chosen theme to 40 or so diners, knowing that one of them has got to lose. They’re giving up their time running busy kitchens so in my book they deserve a round of applause before they start.

So does Cary. Still in his chef’s whites, he whizzed in from cooking at a local grandee’s wedding. Where? Cary was a little unsure. He got there by satnav. It turned out it was Bawtry.

As for me, I strolled in after scrumping the farm’s solitary medlar tree in the car park.

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Coronation crab cocktail

The chefs on the menu were Leslie Buddington, the man in charge at the award-winning Brocco boutique hotel since it opened, up against social enterprise Blend Kitchen’s head honcho Chis Hanson on Pinstone Street.

The theme for the night was East Meets West Fusion Food which gave the chefs carte blanche to do anything they wanted. And they pretty much did. Although it’s for fun, as judges we take it seriously. After all, we’re the chaps who last year were both blown away by a course we rated dish of the night but still gave the prize to the other chef!

Very seriously for Cary. He can get very technical on a single mouthful, analysing it ingredient by ingredient. This is a man who would give a round of beans on toast the third degree. As for me, I ask deep questions such as “Do I like it?”

We kicked off with Leslie’s miso glazed cod in a ‘pea and ham’ soup, where the pea was replaced by the very oriental edamame, versus Chris’s Coronation crab, a sort of crustacean arancini or bon bon. We had different scores but not by much.

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Miso-glazed cod

For the main course it was Chris’s impressive rump of lamb, with a touch of tandoori, up against Leslie’s beautifully judged orientally flavoured duck breast partnered with a refreshing duck and cherry salad. Chris had married his dish with ‘pommes Anna’ and mustard seed, really a sort of hot pot as the spuds topped more lamb, this time shank. Difficult to separate the two.

So it all came down to dessert. Would it be Chris’s very rich cardamom-spiked mousse (and Cary is a chocoholic) or Leslie’s Sichuan pepper parfait with a mandarin doughnut and salted caramel popcorn?

That chocolate was good and the cardamom came through but was it more ganache than mousse? We expected spiciness from the pepper but what we got was a delicate perfumed flavour. Very nice. Too bad about the over salty popcorn but, hey, that little doughnut is a goer.

And so, by a single point, not more than a mouthful, it was the doughnut wot won it! Well, sort of . .

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Judges and chefs: From the left, me, Cary, Chris and Leslie

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Peaky’s Vito plays a blinder!

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Long service: Boss Vito Ciaraolo

SOME restaurants are like people you’ve lost touch with. You know where they are, you like them but, somehow, you never get round to saying hello again. And so it was with us  and Vito’s on South Road, Walkey.

“We’re off there tonight,” says my wife in the greengrocers as she pays the bill. “Used to be Pepe’s, run by Pepe Scime,” I add, picking up the bags.

“And before that Roy’s Bistro,” says a woman behind us. “It had a chandelier in the hall.” Gosh, she’s got a good culinary memory. It was one of Sheffield’s earliest restaurants of note. In fact between them Roy, Pepe and Vito have forged some gastro history at this little restaurant at the corner with Industry Street.

Roy’s I never went to (although I did its successor, the Four Lanes at Hillsborough). Pepe’s was my introduction to Italian food, lively, boisterous, exciting, and, well, 100pc Pepe, until he sold up in 1993 to his chef and business partner, Vito Ciaraolo. He’s been there 26 years, longer than both his predecessors put together. And it has gone decidedly upmarket.

“Minty,” says one of my friends, studying the menu before we go. With antipasti such as fried ravioli with with rocket and stracchino for £10.90 or main course lamb with prunes for fivepence shy of 20 quid it is easy to push the barca out here.

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Lobster ravioli

If you want to create an impression order the beef, usually Fassone from Piedmont or Chianina from Tuscany. Fillet with gorgonzola is £25.95. A bigger splash? The specials board offers Chianina fillet at £90 for two.

You can tread more carefully. Cheaper dishes are available. They even do pizzas although these are classier than most, perhaps topped with ndjua (Calabrian salami paste) or black truffle – Vito makes regular appearances in The Star with his latest fungal acquisition.

He’s even appeared on the telly, as the menu reminds you. He was an extra in the first episode of Peaky Blinders. There’s a picture of him. Very mafiosi.

We’re on the town with food blogger and Italophile Craig Harris and his wife Marie and it’s their first visit.

So Vito’s is going-on posh yet its owner hasn’t completely shaken off the old Sheffield-Italian image: ceiling and walls are still partly Artex and a whopper of a pepper mill is still produced at the table.

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The specials board

There’s nothing Sheffield-Italian about the food. It’s authentic. One mouthful of Marie’s spaghetti carbonara (£7.20), done the proper way with guanciale, eggs and pecorino and absolutely no cream thank you very much took her back on holiday in Minori – springy pasta, creamy sauce.

Even something as simple as my Sicilian starter, grilled aubergine with marinated anchovies and olives (£9.95), shone brightly. The aubergine took on a meaty texture, the white anchovies were first class and so were the olives.

Just a few highlights: Craig’s agnello alle prugne, lamb with prunes, sounded as if the spicing had been recently unloaded off an Arab dhow,  ginger, saffron, cinnamon, garlic, almond, olive oil and honey.  The meat was ultra-tender, the flavour exquisite.

My main course lobster ravioli (£14.95) was heavenly, an eggy pasta surrounding a very generous filling with prawns which tasted really luxorious. Vito freely admits he buys these in directly from Italy. This prompted a round table discussion on the merits of doing so.

My wife’s merluzzo Fiorentina (£18.95), firm, tasty cod in a spinach, cream and almond sauce, also bore the hallmarks of this restaurant’s kitchen: accurate, precise, unfussy cooking, letting first class ingredients take centre stage. That’s always the intention but it’s not always the case, is it?

Vito, who reminds me it was 17 years since I was last there, writing a review, at the same time as his wife was giving birth to his daughter, operates the kitchen midweek and is front of house at weekends.

Originally the arrangement was to buy half the business and the rest over four years. The deal went belly up and he needed to find the money quickly. “Somehow we managed.”

He hadn’t intended to stay more than a couple of years. Now, aged 56 and originally from Potenza, he’s been there almost half his life. Business is good but “it’s gone down with Brexit. People don’t want to spend.”

But some obviously do otherwise that chianina wouldn’t have been on the specials board.

To sum up, the atmosphere was warm, the service expertly pleasant and the food was great. The kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong. The bill? Well, we splashed out that Saturday evening. You’ll have gathered we liked it.

And I bet you saw the headline coming halfway through this piece . . . Peaky’s Vito plays a blinder!

Vito’s is at 284 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 233 3574. Web: http://www.vitos.org.uk
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Eating calamari on the Costa del Donny

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Great squid at Clam & Cork

THEY all rave on TripAdvisor about the calamari at the Clam & Cork on Doncaster’s Fish Market. “Soft and delicate,” wrote one diner. “To die for,” said another. Even grizzled Guardian food critic Jay Rayner approved of them in their salt and pepper batter although he quibbled slightly that all the membrane hadn’t been removed.

So, of course, we had to order some.

It’s quite right. They are as tender as a baby’s bum and as delicate in quite a fiery coating. They are very simply done: The rings are kept moist then dunked to order in a bowl of seasoned flour before being deep-fried. And the membrane certainly wasn’t evident. They were perched on a chipotle mayonnaise. Very spicy, very nice for £7.50.

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Prawn cocktail in a glass!

I’m not sure if the Guardian tried the oysters, Irish from Carlingford Lough. I had four (£1.50 each), well presented on plenty of ice with lots of lemon and an excellent shallot vinegar. They were sweet and briny. They would have been even better if the chef hadn’t doused them under the tap after shucking to remove any stray splinters of shell. That lost their exquisite natural juices.

The little stall, with not more than 18 seats on three sides round the kitchen and a few tables outside, opened last year. I read Rayner’s enthusiastic review a little later and wondered whether it had anything to do with the broadly similar Med at the Market which we visited in 2013, feasting on Catalan fish stew and fish kebabs. It hasn’t and that is now closed.

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Monkfish on tamarind coleslaw

The Clam & Cork has been praised for its friendliness and informality and good food, as well as being an unexpected outpost of culinary excellence on what we must call the Costa Del Donny.

We went on a Wednesday, not the busiest day of the week for most of the stalls are closed (try Tuesday, Friday and Saturday) and some of the ones that would have been open were not as their owners were attending the funeral of a popular market butcher. There was loud clapping as his hearse, a coach and horses, went by during our meal.

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Irish oysters from Carlingford Lough

The eaterie, squeezed in between two shellfish stalls and a fish stall proper, has a short, simple menu of small and large plates. The former listed calamari, fried monkfish, Pil Pil prawns, scallops with lime and coriander and prawn cocktail, the latter cod and chips, monkfish burger, coconut fish curry, pan roasted salmon and sea bass with a crab salad and brown crab mayonnaise. No sign of a clam, though.

Along with two generous glasses of pinot grigio we ordered two more small plates to follow. The monkfish (£7.50) was a generous portion and came in a similar batter to the calamari, this time on a coleslaw spiked with tamarind.

 

The prawn cocktail (£7.50) was nicely stocked and was served, purists will be pleased to see, in a large wine glass. It was also trendy. The traditional Marie Rose sauce had been dumped for pink grapefruit and avocado. I wasn’t offered any but was told it was good!

The bill with wine for a relaxed and pleasant lunch was £39.50 and I can quite see why the Clam and Cork is number one in Doncaster on TripAdvisor. You can’t reserve seats so choose your moment to go, perhaps for an early or late lunch. The place stays open until 4pm.

For those seeking a wider range and more inventiveness with fish then Mann’s fish bar closer to home at Sheffield’s Kommune Food Hall takes some beating. But that, as yet, hasn’t had a visit from Jay Rayner.

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Not many seats but the food is good

Two soups . . . and bare naked porcelain

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Main course lamb in my ‘lighter lunch’

THE soup sounded good, crab and fish. Possibly, I guessed, including coley, the cheapest fish as a special dish of the day in one of North Derbyshire’s priciest restaurants. One of my dining companions ordered the same.

“Two soups and please don’t spill it,” I joked. Our waitress at the Peacock Hotel, Rowsley, looked blank.

“It’s a very funny comedy sketch by Julie Walters as a doddery old  waitress.” She was English but we could see her asking herself : “Julie who?” Sometimes one feels very old. “Catch it on YouTube,” said my companion.

The soup, with no little fishy bits so more a bisque really, was superb, tasting overwhelmingly of crab and expertly seasoned. If you licked a freshly boiled crab shell this would be it – briny, tangy, crabby. The waitress didn’t spill a drop.

And it came with stuff to play with – tiny crisp croutons, a bowl of grated Patmesan and another of rouille. Lovely.

But then it ought to be. The head chef Dan Smith has been here since 2007, the kitchen has three AA rosettes and a three course ‘lighter lunch’ is heavy on the wallet at £24.25. If you want coffee it’s a hefty £5.15 more (with tiny chocolate) so it’s wiser to go for filter rather than espresso.

We are no strangers to the Peacock. When I reviewed for the Sheffield Star, mindful it would be out of most of my readers’ price bracket, I reserved it as an extra-special Sunday lunch: cheaper, not French or Modern British but bigger portions (the then hotel manager used to give the head chef a day off and do it himself).

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Crab and fish soup

I used the Peacock as a place to cheer myself up, choosing a wintry Sunday for a slap-up lunch and afternoon with the papers by a roaring fire, basking in the contentment that I would be fully refunded. I could manage that every four years or so. I last wrote about it here in 2015.

The Peacock, owned by Lord and Lady Manners, is part of the Haddon Hall estate, where they live. It’s a lovely old building, originally an 17th century manor house and a hotel since 1830.

In the dining room it is always fun to hunt the mice, tiny little creatures carved into table legs and chairs from the studio of ‘Mousey’ Thompson.

It’s a lighter lunch at a discount on a la carte prices because main course portions (but not starters or desserts) are half-sized. This does leave a lot of bare naked porcelain on view and lonely looking food. I know chefs these days like big half empty plates but as a diner I can never see the attraction. It’s rubbing it in: “Hey, ho, you’re not getting a lot!”

I had the slow-cooked lamb shoulder and if there was not muchof it, it was exceedingly good.  The roundel of meat, no more than two or three mouthfuls and dwarfed by the potato,  was soft and melting, the flavour deep and lustrous.

It occurred to me that one does not eat with relish in places like this because that implies eating heartily. I don’t think the Peacock does gutsy. Instead, one takes tiny mouthfuls and eats slowly, savouring the moment even more than usual.

The lamb came with a quenelle of olive oil mash, not seasoned enough for my liking, two skinned and roasted cherry tomatoes, a knob of goats curd inside a sheath of courgette and a lively slick of basil puree, acting as the sauce. Hoping no one was looking, I wiped my plate clean with some good bread. At least you get generous supplies of that.

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My fellow diner added a flower from his sweet so mine wouldn’t look so lost!

Two of us had Manchester tart. An old classic, it has somehow passed me by down the years and I don’t recall having it before. Think Bakewell Tart (not the Pudding) with coconut on top. I loved it.

Normally I would recount what my wife ate and give my opinion because I would have had a forkful or two (unlike some reviewers who merely ask for a verdict). Given the size of the mains it seemed invidious to do so. But she thoroughly enjoyed her chicken liver parfait and summer vegetable risotto. Like me, she had the tart. One of our guests ducked that “because it’s from the wrong side of the Pennines.”

This is fine, considered cooking with some well-judged flavours and a delight to eat.

They don’t rush you here. In fact, I was almost at the kitchen door before I found someone to give me the bill.

Those winter Sunday lunches always used to put me in a good mood and so did this summer Tuesday lunch. And, I wonder, did our waitress ever look up Two Soups on YouTube?

*The Peacock is in the middle of the village. Tel 01629 733 518. Web: http://www.thepeacockatrowsley.com

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What’s for lunch? The Peacock’s front door

 

 

 

 

 

Sheffield fishcake sighted in Lincs!

IT MAY come as a shock but to some people the very thought of Yorkshire is exotic. That’s if you come from Lincolnshire.

We are at Mantle’s weirdly named Underground fish and chip restaurant, in truth a cellar, in Horncastle where I notice Yorkshire fishcake is on the menu. I wonder if it could be anything like a Sheffield one, a layer of fish sandwiched between two slices of potato , battered and fried?

Or, as they say, batter, tatter, fish, tatter, batter.

It is. Mantle’s, run by the Koslow family, has been selling it since last year. It seems to have caught on with the locals. Mr K, pictured below, must sell three or four a day. I ask if they went to Sheffield and got the idea there or if city customers told them about it?

After all, I have heard there are several outposts in Lincolnshire where you can find this delicacy. I’d be grateful if readers can point me to more.

Neither. Mrs K said she came up with the idea by herself. I am not entirely sure I buy that! But why call it a Yorkshire fishcake and not a Lincoln one?

“Lincolnshire doesn’t sound very special. Yorkshire does.”

So she was telling me Yorkshire sounds exotic? “Yes.”

We like Mantle’s for its quirkiness. It has proper fishknives – not made in Sheffield but you can’t have everything – because that’s tradition, she said. And note the pair of scissors at each table to snip open the sachets of sauce, tomato and tartare, rather than wrestle with them.

There is haddock, cod, plaice and ‘rock’ on offer, the latter presumably being whatever is available, usually dogfish.

It’s haddock in my fishcake which has a very crispy batter. I enjoy it as we do our cod, chips and mushy peas. The food here is pleasant although perhaps not in the super league occupied by the likes of Whitby’s Magpie or Sheffield’s own Market Chippy.

But if you find yourself in Lincs pining for a Sheffield fishcake you’ll know where to come. Mantle’s just need to rename their version.

Mantle’s is at 19 St. Lawrence Street, Horncastle

Jossals – a Rasen to be cheerful

YOU can’t miss Jossals, with its two red, blue, green and yellow Lincolnshire county flags blowing in the damp May air, just across Queen Street from the Whoops A Daisies children’s clothing shop.

Some people know the little market town of Market Rasen for horse racing; we know it for steak and ale pies, properly topped and bottomed with firm, short pastry, haddock in a crisp beer batter and dreamy, creamy mashed potato with today’s special, homemade Cornish pasty, or three Lincolnshire sausages in an onion gravy.

Jossals has been feeding the good people of Market Rasen for 30 years, most of them from the present site, the town’s former post office. It has been feeding us for six as we make our once a year trip to holiday in Lincolnshire.

Jossals is not flash or modern but resolutely retro in a Best of British kind of way. Here are proper pies, home baked ham, fish and chips, sausage and mash (with Yorkshire puddings), a very Anglo chicken curry like my father used to make at the Tower transport cafe, Biggleswade (famed the length of the A1) and a mirrorful of puddings.

Yes, you read that right. A whole nursery of old school puds is listed in white on the cafe mirrors. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin – and if this litany doesn’t take you back to childhood, nothing will.

Chocolate, syrup or ginger sponge, rhubarb and ginger crumble, sherry trifle, apple and pear pie, lemon and meringue pie and Cake of the Day, chocolate.

Every time I visit reinforces my belief that despite Britain’s cafes and restaurants’ seemingly relentless downward spiral with menus full of pizzas and burgers you can still find, if you look hard enough, classic British cooking.

For Sheffield readers old enough to remember this place recalls Tuckwoods – the waitresses are in black pinnies – with just a touch of Butler’s Dining Rooms.

On our lunchtime visit the clientele was elderly. “Fifty shades of grey. I bet there’s no one here without a pension,” murmured my wife.

Well, they know their food. It is simply done so well. My sausages, from a local butchet, are saged up to the hilt with peppery undertones, the mash is so good it would make a meal on its own, the puddings are decent and made in the kitchen, the onion gravy is silky with flour and if the peas are frozen I reckon a spoonful of sugar had made them sweeter than most.

I go for the rice pudding, really creamy with more than a hint of of vanilla and a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle.

In 2017 the owners, a quartet comprising Sally Graham, Jo Parson and Nick (the head chef) and Maxine Guymer, put the càfe on the market. But they weren’t rushing to sell: they want a buyer who will continue the Jossals tradition. Let’s hope they do but not just yet!

Jossals is at 7 Queen Street, Market Rasen.

Birdhouse trills a happy tune

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Bao Buns with pork belly

WE might eat first with our eyes but sometimes we taste what we think we see. So, hands up, this veteran foodie has just confused pickled onion for chilli.

Chef Kevin Buccieri has brought us his Thai green ice cream to try and first I get flavours of lemongrass followed by chilli coming through the cold. It’s a little unsettling but intriguing. I wonder how he does it. Is the chilli infused or is it these little flecks of red, I ask? No, that’s pickled red onion, he says. I taste again and now I know the pickle flavour comes through. Doh!

It works. Brilliantly. Kevin thinks this dish should be a starter or certainly a palate cleanser (palate confuser, more like!) but diners prefer it at the end, like we had.

We have been invited to eat as guests at the Birdhouse, the tea emporium run by mother and daughter Julie and Rebecca English in a former workshop in  the charmingly named Alsop Fields on Sidney Street, Sheffield. They recently hired Kevin, ex-Rutland Arms No 2, to up the food offer from pies.

The menu, his first, is a pot pourri of small plates or tapas, mostly with an oriental slant at around a fiver each. And they often come with a chilli riff.

The chilli sidles up almost as an afterthought with the slices of crunchy stir-fried lotus root. It comes at you full gallop with the Puy lentil curry, firm and toothsome. But it is instantly addictive, particularly since it is on a contrasting bed of crispy kale. My wife loves it and she is a woman who has shunned kale all her life.

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Chef Kevin Buccieri

We’ve been here before to buy tea but not lingered. There’s a sunny courtyard we now look down on from our upstairs table in one of two first floor rooms, all beams and brick, seating around 50. From the windows across the room you can see the Porter Brook filter its way through the city’s industrial backside.

Sidney Street is a little out of the way and apart from an A-board and a slightly outdated menu pinned to the front wall – there’s not even a menu or picture of a dish on the website as I write – so Kevin’s food is being hidden under the proverbial bushel.

Seek it out, if only for the pork belly filled steamed bao buns. I’d half expected a chopped filling  but the pork is in whole strips of tender hoisin-flavoured meat, a lovely contrast to the spongy, airy bun. There are two for £8.50 but the dish could easily be reduced to one to keep the fiver price point.

I first encountered Kevin, or his food, at the Rutland pub, just a stone’s throw away on Brown Street, where I had praised head chef Richard Storer (aka Chef Rico) for a stunning fennel ice cream with cucumber jelly. He sportingly gave all the credit to Kevin.

Kevin, in return, acknowledges his culinary debt to Rico. He’d left college after training as a joiner but found that without experience he wasn’t wanted so took to pot washing. After the usual round of pubs and restaurants, without much ambition, he found himself beached up at the Rutland “where I truly found my passion.” A light bulb had been switched on. He stayed for over four years before striking out on his own.

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Curried lentils, crispy kale

Now the Rutland is an odd place, a scruffy, some may say eccentric-looking boozer, with an inventive, experimental kitchen which daily faces the heartbreak of sending out the pub’s best-seller, the Slutty Rutty, a massive chip breadcake, to those who should eat better.

For this reason you will not find chips on Kevin’s evening menu (it is available from 6pm). “The nearest I come to chips is the patatas bravas,” he says. Ah, we didn’t try those. But we did seem to have everything else. Dishes kept arriving (remember, we were being treated) and we were in danger of becoming Monty Python’s explosive Mister Creosote.

We loved the delicate goats cheese arancini balls winking like eyes with little ‘pupils’ of yellow pepper puree and the crunchy cubes of tofu (served with silky avocado) in a sauce of teriyaki, wasabi and golden syrup (rather than honey, to please the vegans). Since tofu is all texture and no taste it needs these companions.

There were big, generous slices of home cured salmon with paper-thin beetroot as well as seasonal asparagus served the classic way, with poached egg, hollandaise and truffle oil.

Despite his surname – great grandparents came over from Naples and he grew up in Darnall and Birley – Kevin cannot speak Italian nor cares that much for Italian food. But he does do a celeriac ‘tagliatelle’ with pesto. See if you can guess what the sauce is. A clue: apart from the pesto the dish only has one ingredient.

Writing all this I realise just how much we ate so my tastebuds can be excused over the Thai ice cream (I ought to mention we also tried an Earl Grey ice with gin and vanilla sauce but don’t ask me for a considered opinion – I was flavoured out)!

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Delicate goats cheese arancini

My tastebuds were very much in action at the start of the meal with the arrival of home made bread with tzatziki. Sourdough, I silently groaned, for local bakeries all seem to make the same rubbery, damp bread. This was none of that and it was close crumbed instead of holey. Kevin was disappointed with the lack of air pockets but not us. If we want holes we’ll eat focaccia.

This menu is very much an opening salvo. Kevin, a one man kitchen, has high hopes of doing more fish, probably pickled, possibly a ceviche. And a duck dish with a chocolate nod to Sat Bains’ Nottingham restaurant may appear when he’s happy with it.

Sheffield’s food scene is currently the liveliest I’ve seen it. Strip away the seemingly endless burgers and pizzas and there are plenty of fresh ideas and talent.  The Birdhouse adds to the mix. Just don’t ask for chips or Italy’s most famous export. Kevin might sound Italian but “I hate making pizzas,” he says.

You would be in the dog house at the Birdhouse!

Birdhouse is at Alsop Fields, Sidney Street, Sheffield S1 4RG. Tel: 0114 327 3695. Web: http://www.birdhouseteacompany.com

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The Birdhouse. Our table is in the top window

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