Sunday at Marco’s

Marco's of Sheffield - a glowering presence

Marco’s of Sheffield – a glowering presence

We’ve had Sunday lunch at Marco’s New York Italian on West Bar Green, Sheffield, but first three stories about Marco Pierre White, the celebrity chef who looks like a real bruiser with that squids ink tagliatelle of a hairdo.

The first is of the customer who ordered chips in one of his very posh restaurants. MPW muttered under his breath. Chips did not go with the dish but he cut the potatoes, cooked them and added £25 on the bill for his Michelin-starred time.

Then there was the chef who couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen until the fiery Marco took a knife and slit the seat of his chequered pants.

But my favourite is of the restaurant reviewer who in his early days wrote admiringly of his background of classical French cooking, pointing out that the Leeds-born chef had never been to France but knew a man who had.

The joke is in the back story. There was not one man but three who were his kitchen mentors: the dazzlingly talented French chefs Pierre Koffman, Raymond Blanc and Nico Ladenis.

By now, I’d guess, the equally dazzlingly talented Mr White has been to France and around the world, certainly to Italy and New York, and Australia, where he is very big on TV. He has even been to Sheffield although not until after his restaurant opened last April. It’s next door to the Hamilton by Hilton Hotel in a building I last visited with out of date motoring documents when it was a police headquarters.

You can’t miss it: there’s a picture outside of Marco glowering as if someone has just collapsed the soufflé.

Sheffield got quite excited when Marco’s, the third in the chain the chef fronts, opened up but cynical old foodies like me knew that while MPW may once have had three Michelin stars he had handed them all in and retired from the kitchen way back in 1999. But people like it when you sprinkle a little celebrity stardust.

So I didn’t bother then but the management recently made me an offer: I could eat there for Sunday lunch, bring some friends and it was all on Marco’s, free, gratis and for nothing, provided I wrote about it. It wasn’t just me but just about every other foodie who blogged and tweeted in Sheffield.
I just thought you should know so you can reach for the salt cellar if you think it’s needed.

We couldn’t make Tweeters’ Sunday so did the following one. Knowing that the great man was due to host a £60 a head dinner a few days later – there was an armchair he’d be sitting in to sign books and menus – I took the chance to sit in it first.

Marco’s does pizza, pasta, steaks and ribs, more or less like any other Sheffield Italian and as I’ve never been to New York can’t judge the American angle. In any case we had what was mostly a very British three course Sunday lunch at £16. Its PR spin is that “We’re an American-Italian restaurant and the notion of sharing good food with friends and family is a culture engrained in both of those countries.” And I thought we did that, too, in England.

The basic premise is that you can share each course and for starters we tucked into some excellent, very crabby crab cakes, gutsy chicken wings, punchy tomato bruschetta and a very good mackerel pate, among other things. The only complaint was there was not enough toast for the pate.

There was a choice of three meats and a vegetarian option for mains. There were four of us and we could have had one of each but decided on the beef and chicken, leaving the gammon and goats cheese tart for another time.

The beef drew most approval on account of its tastiness, slices blushing pink. The chicken came in portions and I liked the herb rub on the skin. Everyone loved the vegetables which included a rather good red cabbage although the duck fat roast potatoes tasted a little jaded. “It’s a bit like having a carvery at your table,” said one of the party.

We sampled all three desserts. Excellent rhubarb crumble had a fine layer of crunchiness with just the right heft of rhubarb. The ladies in the party had sticky toffee and sticky chocolate puddings, one either side of a board, and loved them.

People are used to going out into the country for Sunday lunch, certainly in the summer, so it may take a little time for the idea of coming into the city to catch on.

Marco’s is a big, comfortable place with seating for 110. Head chef John Cluckie who opened he restaurant has now moved up to development chef and Fenchman Flo Grou has taken his place. Our meal was cooked by sous chef Lee Crookes.

Then there’s Andrea Booker, the Sheffield girl come home as restaurant manager, who calls you ‘darling’ and looks after you smashing. We reckoned Marco’s scored very heavily for value for money as portions are more than generous. And for darlings. Oh yes, and you can get chips.

West Bar Green, Sheffield, S1 2DA. Tel: 0114 399 099. Web:

Marco's roast beef

Marco’s roast beef

Everything all right with your meal, sir?

Marco Pierre White - don't ask them

Marco Pierre White – don’t ask them

The waiter beams down at you and asks “Is everything OK?” Harmless enough, perhaps, but some people find it irritating. If you’re a restaurant reviewer it is often a loaded question. If you mutter ‘fine, thanks’ and lambast the meal in print later I reckon the restaurant has grounds for complaint: “Your chap said one thing and wrote another.” Personally, I always contrived to have my mouth full at the critical moment or let my wife answer. She’s her own person – up to a point!

I raise this because Marco Pierre White has banned his staff from asking customers if their meal is OK. That’s fine by me. I take it MPW never did a tour of the tables (he’s retired from cooking if not from owning restaurants) when he was in charge of the kitchen. Being asked the same question by the chef is a darned sight scarier for a reviewer.

When it happened and I had enjoyed the meal it was no problem. If I hadn’t made up my mind and needed to ‘think on’ it was more problematical. “Interesting,” was a word I often used, because it swings both ways, in a good and bad sense. If I hated it, I’d have to change the subject. Or hide.

I was once ‘clocked’ in a rather poor restaurant by the chef who did a ‘casual’ tour of the tables before getting to me. I could see over my wife’s shoulder that he was coming closer so went to the loo and stayed there rather a long time until I guessed chef had given up. The missus was cross, though.

I had got my own back for a time in our early days when we had had a very poor meal (in Barnsley) and paid with a cheque. The owner spotted the name on the cheque was not the same as the one I used to book and thought I was a conman. I had to own up as a restaurant reviewer (some would say they are the same thing) and when asked my verdict on the meal said I liked to digest matters.

So he turned to my wife, who had earlier sent her meal back to the kitchen. “That was the worst steak I have had in my life,” she said. No chance of asking him to pose for a picture after that! Have you seen those cartoons where a character shrinks to the size of a pea on a chequered floor? That was me. It felt like a very long walk out to the car where my wife and I had a sharp exchange of views. We subsequently drew up ground rules.

Some chefs have been so keen to get my opinion I have had them sit down at our table during dessert and quiz me over each mouthful. Give me a break!

British diners are notoriously anxious not to cause offence and no kitchen should take feedback via the waiters as seriously reliable. People say ‘lovely’ and never come again. Instead, look at the evidence on the plates. So ‘Is everything OK?’ becomes a social ritual. When you say it isn’t they are often so surprised they don’t know what to do.

Or they get very cross and Things Can Happen. When I objected to an island table in a quiet restaurant the staff decided to teach me a lesson and put me next to the kitchen door, kicking it open extra loudly every time they passed. It was wonderful to see their faces when I introduced myself later. It wasn’t a bad meal either.

Then there was that Bakewell restaurant playing extra loud pop music to a roomful of diners all over 50. When my wife asked politely if the volume could be turned down the manager spent the rest of the night making sarcastic comments.

So perhaps MPW is right. You’re not going to get an honest answer so why ask?