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Sidney Street is a little out of the way and apart from an A-board and a slightly outdated menu pinned to the front wall – there’s not even a menu or picture of a dish on the website as I write – so Kevin’s food is being hidden under the proverbial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