Just a tweak and a prayer in the old Mission Hall

It looks good at night

BEFORE Covid struck there was a hit play in the West End called The Play That Goes Wrong, in which Murphy’s Law rules supreme. Actors miscue, scenery falls down, things explode. It’s a real hoot.

It happens in the hospitality business too. Welcome to The Meal That Goes Wrong.

In this case it has happened early on in a restaurant’s life when things have still to be tweaked, staff to settle into routines and systems work the way installers promised

So although things went wrong on our night at the new Cornerstone restaurant in buzzing Dyson Place, just off Sharrowvale Road, I still thoroughly recommend it. Because by the time you go they will have tweaked big time.

You very certainly will be charmed by the 100-cover eaterie on two floors in the former Mission Hall, which had been empty and dark for years until developer Martin Flowers came along.

Those ‘tram seats’ are a little hard

A building where the congregation once raised the roof in praise to God has had it raised yet again (and the floor lowered) to make enough space for tables on two levels.

And they probably won’t keep you waiting for an hour for food, bar bread and olives, and then arrive with your main course because the electronic ordering system has pinged your starters into Kingdom Come.

And, hopefully, the food won’t be tepid because it has waited on the pass too long under lights fitted too high up to keep things warm.

Nor, fingers crossed, will the fire alarm go off for five minutes because the barbecue in the kitchen is sending flames sky high.

This was the sort of night, to be honest, I would have given my right arm for when reviewing professionally because the story really writes itself. People, being what they are, like a touch of calamity. And it was my job to tell it how it was.

Well, I am a blogger now who pays his own way (unless where stated) and this is not one of those anodyne blogs, you’ve seen them, where Everything Is Simply Wonderful.

Folks, that’s not how life works.

Cornerstone is the project of brothers Richard and Michael Massarella, third generation members of the well-known catering family which runs a cafe empire across the North. It was grandfather Ronnie who started it off, building upon an icecream business developed by his own grandfather who emigrated from Italy over 150 years ago.

So they are not rookies in the business.

I’d booked for four of us online and a few days before the meal the agency sends a breezy email checking we are still going. Good idea to stop the no-shows. Then it suggests clicking a link to check the menu on the restaurant website. Bad idea. It’s not on there.

“We are still tweaking the website,” says Richard when we find our table, handing out flimsy paper menus because they are seeing what works and what doesn’t before they commit themselves to laminate.

Lamb kofta and flatbread

The place is open all day and Massarellas don’t need any lessons on providing café dishes. Where the brothers have raised the eyebrows of older members of the family is angling the afternoon and dinner menu to World Food.

So while it nods at their Italian origins with pasta and chicken Milanese it goes progressively East with halloumi, harissa, falafel, kofta,Korean chicken and even a Vietnamese dish, cocking a cheeky snook at the Vietnamese restaurant across the block.

The building itself features bare brick walls with big chapel windows on one side looking onto the table-filled forecourt with heaters. Banquette seating runs round the walls while down the centre is a wooden arrangement which looks and feels, according to the ladies of the party, like old tram seats: fair enough for a five minute journey, not comfortable enough for a two hour meal.

A new metal staircase leads a low raftered first floor where, incidentally, three of the four unisex toilets are.

We order padron peppers with chorizo, sesame prawns with a dip and watermelon with whipped goats cheese but they never come. Our waitress has typed them into a tablet but they disappear into the ether.

We nibble at decent olives and bread (with no plates) and wait for them to arrive. And wait. Suddenly the alarm goes off just after a burst of flames in the partly open kitchen. Our pal Craig thinks it’s his peppers being barbecued.

View through the pass

There is a conclave of staff clustered at the controls for seemingly five minutes and a cheer goes up when it is finally turned off. I notice Richard leads a round of applause and he gets five stars for chutzpah. I like him.

When our mains arrive we vaccilate. The waitress says she will re-order our starters and they go back to the pass. But we worry we will get the same dishes back later and scrap the starters and recall the mains.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady in possession of a fish does not want it with bones. Or if it is, the menu should say. My wife’s Vietnamese monkfish was served not as a fillet, nor as a steak, but completely on the bone. It was heavily spiced but the heat made up for the food being barely warm.

My lamb koftas were pleasant enough, served on a flatbread with labneh ( strained yoghurt) with rather too much coleslaw.

Craig was quids in, raving enthusiastically about his flatiron steak which, tweaking the menu himself, he had served with a broad bean, pea and feta salad, swapped from another dish. It, too, was lukewarm.

To be fair they offered us free desserts but we declined, perhaps a bad move as I have been told they are good. So Richard scrapped the alcohol bill. We liked him even more. Our bill was just over £70.

And Cornerstone had lots right: a relaxed, interesting menu, pleasant staff who kept to their stations so you weren’t being asked the same questions by different people, and a good atmosphere.

It’s not always right on the night, particularly when a reviewer is there. Murphy’s Law again. If things can go wrong, they will.

However, the runes are good for Cornerstone. I’ll go back. A tweak and a prayer should get them there.

The courtyard at Cornerstone

An idea Flowers at Dyson Place

Martin Flowers: Dyson Place is his Lego set

THIS IS developer Martin Flowers, the man behind that new lively little square of shops, flats and restaurants which is Dyson Place, not far off Ecclesall Road, Sheffield.

On a sunny weekday morning the place is vibrant as people stroll in to buy a coffee, stop for lunch, get their hair cut, shop for vegetables or seek a little therapy in the tweely-named but correctly apostrophied Artisans’ Yard around the back.

Martin, aged 63, with no thought of retiring, sips his double expresso outside Tonco, his first tenant, and tells how he had to battle with planners to get his concept off the drawing board.

He’s a tactful man so we’ll brush over the original Town Hall veto of no shops. “Think how boring it would have been,” he says.

It would. The square is overlooked by 14 triple-glazed two-bedroomed apartments with ample balconies from which to survey the scene below. All but one are rented. That is occupied by him and his wife Wendy so living above the shop helps them keep a benign eye on things.

Shops and flats: a lively enclave off Sharrowvale

“I’d never done anything like this before so I had no idea how it would turn out. It has raised the standards in Sheffield. It’s even got decent toilets,” he says. His previous schemes were residential.

Right from the start, when he heard the site was coming up for sale on the death of Ron Wetherall, owner of garage firm Champion & Emmett, he knew he wanted a mixture of residential and commercial. The problem was getting the planners to see that. They just wanted flats.

He also wanted good restaurants. He likes his food. “I find Sheffield a frustrating city . . . I get tired of having to go out of Sheffield to eat decent food.”

The idea for Dyson Place, named after the cigarette stub of a lane between Mann’s fishmongers and the Mediterranean restaurant on Sharrowvale Road, first emerged in April 2013 but it wasn’t until just before Christmas 2019 that it received its first tenant, restaurant Tonco.

He met would-be restaurateurs Joe Shrewsbury and Flo Russell, who were then also considering another location in the city, on site. “It was an article of faith,” he says as the young couple were looking for their first bricks and mortar business. He’s been proved correct. Joe has no doubts he made the right decision. ” It’s really busy here. The city centre is dead.”

The other hospitality outlets are Vietnamese restaurant Nam Song, vegan coffee and cakery Olive & Joy, and from late summer a new Italian-style restaurant, Cornerstone, in what was the old Mission Hall.

Nam Song on Dyson Place

Ironically, this was the one place planners did originally approve for a restaurant. The origins of the hall, built in 1905, are something of a mystery, as is its location, someone’s back yard.

If the original occupants raised the roof with their singing, Martin and his engineers have done it again literally. The roof was raised over a foot in the renovation.

The restaurant offer is going to stop there. ” I want Dyson Place to be somewhere people can kill time, look around the shops, while waiting to meet someone,” he says.

The Mission Hall

Other businesses include Inco Interiors, furniture and furnishings; men’s hairdressers Rapscallions in a former lock-up once used to store Christmas trees, and Unit 6, currently fronted by Doncaster-based greengrocers K.D.Davis & Sons.

The fruit and vegetables bring a splash of colour to the square. ” It’s a different culture to Doncaster ( where the firm has a big stall on the market). People don’t start buying until much later,” says Andrew Davis. His grandfather started the business in 1938. He is third generation, his sons are the fourth.

Greengrocer Andrew Davis at Dyson Place

Behind the aubergines and grapes is an area for a mix of micro-businesses, a sort of posh flea market.

Martin finishes his coffee and leads me into Artisans’ Yard, housing skin clinic Arubia, acupuncture and lifestyle practice Life & Lemons and handmade children’s clothes makers Bear & Babe.

This area was originally meant to be the beer yard for the Mission Hall project but developed “organically,” his favourite word.

Dyson Place has had a spin- off effect on the local area. “It’s brought increased footfall on a Sunday from people attracted to the place,” says Marvin, who runs nearby curios emporium Trove.

Dyson Place is the latest sector of an area of Sheffield which has seen its fortunes transformed in the last half century. Ecclesall Road started things with its shops and boutiques, earning it the sobriquet ‘Bond Street of the North,’ before going over to restaurants and micropubs.

Then it was the turn of Sharrowvale and Hickmott Roads, cheaper rents attracting a variety of independent shops, as off-Ecclesall Road. Dyson Place leads off Sharrowvale so in reality it is off-off Ecclesall Road.

It is only with great reluctance that he agrees to be photographed and then when I threaten to take his back view. “Even worse!” he protests.

Developers are often categorised as greedy but you sense Martin has a heart. Consuming food and drink bought off the premises in the square is banned except for fish and chips from local chippie Two Steps “as we love them,” says a notice board.

Dyson Place: fish and chip friendly

It also appeals to the little boy in him. ” This to me is a game of Lego – taking bricks and reshaping them.”

* web: http://www.dysonplace.co.uk

Tonco: so trendy but tasty

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Quincewell tart – lovely pastry

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.

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Celeriac, confit yolk, pangritata

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.

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Tonco – Hidden away in the corner

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.

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Sea bass ceviche, fermented kohlrabi

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.

Website: http://www.tonco.co.uk

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Joe and Flo at Tonco. Picture by @zoegenders