Definitely not the same old poutine

P1060238 JOhn arsons' poutine 23-06-2017 15-12-18

John Parsons’ poutine at the Beer Engine

POUTINE sounds like a female follower of Russia’s President Putin but actually it’s a foodie fad which in my sheltered life I’d never come across until a year or two ago. It’s the Canadian version of cheesy chips, that student stand-by, although as I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties the most exciting thing to eat was a late night Wimpy. We never went exotic and put cheese on chips.

Back in 2015 I saw it on the blackboard at Jonty Cork’s eponymous little café on Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield, and asked what it was. He’d been taught it by a Canadian houseguest who was on a cheesemaking course at Welbeck School of Artisan Food.

The idea was to cook some chips, add cheese curds and bathe the lot with gravy. It is, apparently, a fast food dish which started life in Quebec, the mostly French speaking province of Canada. As I recall Jonty had a bit of a problem getting the right curds – apparently they have to be the same size as the chips – until he settled on a squidgy German mozzarella.

Well it was breakfast so I didn’t get to taste Jonty’s poutine although I saw it on other menus and, once, chalked on a wall. As I’m a bit of a food snob there never seemed to be a cheesy chips moment and then it seemed to fade from fashion.

But I’ve been going to the Beer Engine at the bottom of Cemetery Road quite a bit lately and noticed it on chef John Parsons’ menu. Still, I shunned it in favour of dishes like pig cheek ragu, dipped ox cheek sarni and crab and prawn rice rolls. Then, lunching with fellow foodie blogger and Masterchef contestant Craig Harris, we reckoned that if ever there was a cheesy chips moment it was then.

John makes no claims to it being authentic but says it is his Sheffield version. He didn’t use the word but I will, superior. It is listed as Sheffield Poutine: cheesy chips and ox liquor gravy with cinema cheese sauce. I had to ask what this last was and was told it squirts out of a bottle. See what I mean about a sheltered life? The chips were big and fat. The cheese sauce (curds are not the way with this dish) was a béchamel with cheese (I forget which), spiked with paprika, and the gravy the left-over liquor from the ox cheek. It was lovely with a glass of Neepsend Blonde.

“It’s been on the menu since I started. It’s a case of using up whatever is in the kitchen,” said John. It costs £4 and fills you up splendidly. There’s a veggie version but you’d miss the best element, the ox cheek liquor. So is it poutine a Quebecker would recognise? Probably not but I’d take this any day.

We had only one complaint: you needed a hunk of bread or a spoon, which we got. John was taking no criticism. “You do this” – and he mimed picking up the dish and drinking the gravy down – “particularly after a few pints!”

Check out the Beer Engine at http://www.beerenginesheffield.com and Craig’s excellent blog at http://www.craigscrockpot.wordpress.com

STOP PRESS: John Parsons has now left the Beer Engine (as from August) and is mulling over new plans. It is certainly still worth a visit, particularly for the Korean chicken wings.

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A meal with eel appeal

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Smoked eel with blood orange

THERE’S a special bond between chef and diner when you’ve eaten his brains and so there is between John Parsons and me. Not that I’ve eaten his but the sheep’s brains he cooked for one of his legendary offal* evenings. They were crisp on the outside and creamy inside, if you’re interested.

So the news that he had left his berth at the Druid Inn, Birchover, for the inner city Beer Engine on Sheffield’s Cemetery Road, tucked in just behind Waitrose, got me scurrying down to try his new menu.

I’m ashamed to say I had not recently visited the Beer Engine, run by Tom Harrington (who opened on April 2, 2015, a day late because he thought people might suspect an April Fool) but it’s a delightful little pub. There are three rooms, two with carpets, the main bar with a scrubbed wooden floor, and it feels very welcoming. When the sun is shining there’s a beer garden cum smoking area.“People say it’s got good vibes,” says Tom and he could be right.

There are no one armed bandits, pool tables, slot machines or a telly but there is a bookshelf or two if you’re stuck for something to do. I should imagine that’s still many people’s idea of a proper pub.

I first came across John’s cooking at the predominantly fishy Terrace at the Millstone, in Hathersage, then followed him to Food and Fine Wine on Ecclesall Road, Fancy and the Druid.

People have praised the Beer Engine tapas in the past but John and Tom have upped the ante somewhat with more complex ‘small plates’ which you can match with the beer, lager, cider or wines on offer. With John, a thoughtful chef, expect the dishes to vary between the interesting to the downright exciting. As is the smoked eel with blood orange (£6), a favourite when he’s doing food and wine tastings, but one I hadn’t previously encountered. It’s sensational.

P1060063 artichoke medley at Beer Engine 23-03-2017 16-11-14

Artichokes any way you want!

The eel, delightfully smoky and crispy at the edges, rests on a bed of firm, toothsome lentils. There’s a cylinder of salsify, a vegetable you don’t always encounter, and the dish is garnished with salsify crisps. The eel and orange is a match made in heaven because you’ve got smoke and sweetness mingled with earthiness on your palate. “I can only do it for two months a year when the oranges are in season,” he says.

You may have met Tom at the Sheaf View, Blake or Hilsborough Hotels. Prior to the Beer Engine he worked for Thornbridge Brewery. Way back when he helped out at the old Beer Engine in his youth. Now he has resumed a partnership with John they had at a restaurant they worked at in exclusive Cheshire. Finding that John was ‘resting’ he offered him a month’s mutual trial on Cemetery Road.

It looks like it’s paying off. Food sales are on the up. For me, the second dish was a toss up between pig’s cheek and black pudding with ham, cabbage and pork liquor or pollock and squid with celeriac, kale, buckwheat, lemon and squid ink (this is one of those menus which list every ingredient) but in the end I had neither. Instead, for a fiver, I had a dish which could be listed as artichoke anyway you want and some ways you’ve never thought of.

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The BeerEngine’s bar

The dish uses Jerusalem and globe artichokes, as a puree, roasted, crisps and as hearts, with the earthiness and sweetness riff replayed, this time with roast figs doing the honours. There was something labelled ‘tobacco’ which I didn’t quite register. It didn’t have the same knockout appeal as the eel but intrigued.

“I don’t want this to be my idea of a good pub but customers’ ideas,” explains Tom, who promises a series of beer and food tasting evenings. Mine, with a half of very decent Neepsend Blonde, was an impromptu mini lunch tasting.

“The menu won’t stay the same, it will keep changing,” says John. The motto in this kitchen is Everything fresh, cooked ‘til it’s gone. So get there before the Blood Orange season ends! For offal lovers, duck hearts are promised shortly.

The Beer Engine is at 17 Cemetery Road, Sheffield S11 8FJ. Tel 0114 272 1356. Web: http://www.beerenginesheffield.com Food served Mon – Thu 12–3pm and 5pm–8pm, Fri – Sat: 12pm–8pm, Sun: 12pm–5pm

P1060070 John Parsons and Tom Harrington in the Beer Engine kitchen 23-03-2017 16-24-18

John Parsons and Tom Harrington in the Beer Engine kitchen

* John’s adventures in offal http://wp.me/p5wFIX-2Q and here’s what happens to the humble sausage roll when it gets the Parsons’ treatment http://wp.me/p5wFIX-dh