Jamon, ham on! I’m pigging out

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Omar Allibhoy looks good in a hat


I WALK into Tapas Revolution at Meadowhall and someone gives me a Spanish straw hat to wear. I hesitate. In these Politically Correct days I might be accused of cultural appropriation or some such codswallop. Besides, such hats tend to make me look like Pedro the donkey troubler. I try it on. It does.

One man the hat suits right down to the ground is Omar Allibhoy, chef-patron and originator of this small but simply scrumptious chain of tapas bars. He’s the right nationality and he’s got the looks – a touch of a young, bearded Paul McCartney.

We are here to celebrate his Tapas Revolution’s (shouldn’t that be Revolución?) second anniversary at Meadowhall, the launch of a new menu and, in the words of a Press release, “a beautiful, al-fresco style terrace usually found in Las Ramblas in Barcelona . . . bringing an authentic feel of Spain to the heart of Sheffield.”

Well shake my maracas. To me it looks like a bit of wooden trellis with some plastic hanging plants. “Rustic timber,” says the hyperbolic Press release. To Omar it is the answer to a senor’s prayers. It seems people have mistaken the bar for the public seating, wandered straight through the restaurant and, worse, gone out the other end.


Now I could no more walk through here without wanting to eat the entire menu than turn down a free holiday in Madrid. For this place serves the tastiest food in Meadowhall.

I know you’ll be thinking here’s a blogger with a free meal inside him but just listen to Omar explain how he puts the juiciness into his range of sangrias. As his barmen can’t reach out and pluck an orange from a tree every time they make a jug of Spain’s national drink ”the fruit is cooked and matured for two weeks to extract all the essence.”

I try a carafe of tradicional (£16 for 75cl) made with red wine, pineapple, orange, strawberry and Heaven knows what else) and you feel you are drinking sunshine or, at least, the essence of Spain.

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Crispy calamari

The tapas start coming and with the Jamon Iberico de belota Montenevado, dry aged for at least two years from acorn-fed pigs I feel I am eating essence of pig. So thinly carved you can almost see through it, it is salty, tangy and exquisitely porky. It is ham to die for, or at least the pigs did.

Omar passes by and I enthuse about his ham. His eyes light up as he tells me to look out for something even better. “We have found ham from North East Spain where the free range pigs are fed on chestnuts. They can’t call it organic because, being free range, they don’t know what else the pigs eat.”


The Spanish version of cheese on toast

Almost all the tapas are first class but I‘ll mention just a couple in detail. If you thought cheese on toast was just cheese on toast then you’ve never had Pan Mallorquin. This is grilled bread spread with fiery chorizo paste topped with melted, gutsy Manchego cheese dribbled with honey. It makes the prospect of Welsh rarebit as enticing as a wet Sunday in Pontypridd.

The croquetas, deep-fried balls of chorizo and Bechamel, oozed flavour while I loved the lemony, honeyed chicken wings (Alitas de pollo a la miel y limón) and, a star turn, Chorizo a la sidra (spiced Asturian sausage roasted in cider).

Omar keeps a close eye on Meadowhall, as he does all his seven restaurants, visiting them regularly. He is still passionate and enthusiastic about his food, insisting on the best ingredients and it shows on every plate.

I plan to be back but they won’t make me wear that hat.


The décor at Tapas Revolution

The heart-stopping rise of King Cone


Lawrence Wosskow takes a lick

IT didn’t take more than a few minutes to like Lawrence Wosskow. That was par for the course. He got onwards and upwards by people liking him.

He was the chap who made a profit on some land in Central America and invested it in the then infant Café Rouge because he hit it off with the owner. He used the profits from that to buy an ice cream company in The Peak, whose owner took a shine to him, and struck up a friendship with Eddie Healey, the billionaire owner of Sheffield’s giant Meadowhall shopping complex, when he sold products there.

Money flowed in and he founded Out of Town Restaurants, the biggest UK restaurant chain then . . . but let’s go back to the beginning. If the former Silverdale pupil’s story is the ‘Local Boy Makes Good’ variety there is also a touch of Greek Tragedy.

I’d been a bit sceptical before meeting him at the old Hanrahan’s bar in 1992 as, glass of orange juice and straw in hand, he told me he’d bought Bradwell’s ice cream, a much loved but very local ice cream company.

Some months earlier I’d run a story saying Noel Bradwell, third generation owner of Bradwell’s Ice Cream, wanted to retire and needed a buyer. Lawrence, back in Sheffield from London because his wife Julie wanted their first child to be born here, and was looking to find a business.

He at first bid for the ski slope but missed out by a few thousand pounds. He must have been thanking his lucky stars in the years after that.

He told me his mother had shown him the cutting on Bradwell’s and suggested he buy it. Journalists like to feel they are involved and that much was true. But his mum also lived next door to Noel and he would have known anyway! What clinched a good story was he was going to use the popular Last of the Summer Wine TV character Norah Batty as his company logo.

Media-savvy Lawrence never intended that but he was good copy, as we say in the trade. I was to write about him and his ventures, on and off, over the next few decades.

Now he’s telling his own story in his self-published autobiography Little Chef, The Heart of the Deal. He was a young tearaway at school (a teacher wrote in his report that if he took as much interest in his lessons as with girls he would be a genius). He still finished up with 2 A-levels and 10 O-levels.

He was a genius at business. He became Marks & Spencer’s youngest-ever buyer at 24, took over or founded a series of successful companies and was, as he admits, “running at 100mph” when stress led to a near fatal heart attack after watching England crash out of the World Cup to Portugal in Germany in 2006.

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My Profile magazine interview in 1999

He was on the brink of reviving the ailing Little Chef, an out-of-date empire of roadside cafes. Told to take it easy and quit business for up to three years the big plans fizzled out. Little Chef collapsed. After his brush with the Grim Reaper Lawrence moved his family to the United States, leaving his businesses and power of attorney in the hands of a childhood friend, James Burdall, who fleeced him of several millions (figures vary) and caused the collapse of his business empire.

The first I heard was when, not long after I’d retired I got a telephone call from him while I was driving to a holiday in Suffolk. I contacted my old office to put them on the scent.

Most people who are very rich have not made their money nicely. Lawrence Wosskow doesn’t fit that mould. He says he is able to ‘mirror’ the people he is with. Perhaps that is what worked with me.

I kept on writing about him although some stories were left to The Star’s business desk. To jazz up my copy I had dubbed Lawrence King Cone until I got a phone call asking me to stop because schoolfriends were teasing his son Toby. Regretfully I agreed. His family is everything. He claims it cost him £25,000 to replace the branding which featured his daughter Hannah, then aged two, because by the time she got to six she, too, was being called names at school.

He has had time for retrospection. Lawrence suggests that he suffered from inherited anxiety which he suppressed with an adrenaline rush from his business interests. He didn’t leave things to others. Before buying Little Chef he personally visited 220 out of its 234 outlets in 60 days.

There are some good stories in the book. He paid £250,000 for the Loseley ice cream brand and stock then discovered the stock was worth £300,000 so he’d bought it for nothing. He turned around another failing ice cream company, in North Wales, which so infuriated the former owner (whom Lawrence still sportingly employed) that he sabotaged the refrigeration unit. With half a ton of melting ice cream it was a race against time to find alternative storage. The ex-boss spent time in the cooler.

Another who did, Burdall, the friend who shafted him, was sent to prison for four years in March 2014 for swindling him out of £1.2m (although in his book Lawrence reckons it was nearer £3m, with the collapse of his companies). Bradwell’s was only saved with an injection of his own cash. “What hurt most . . . was the fact that Burdall transferred £20,000 the day he took over the chequebook, the very day I left for the United States. What a complete an utter scumbag,” he writes.

Later parts of the book chronicle the partying and high-profile friends he has made since, from Sir Elton John to Sir Richard Branson. He has done a lot for charity. Despite the name dropping he comes across as a genuinely decent, perhaps a bit too trusting bloke. After several years he and Julie, his teenaged sweetheart since 17, left the USA for tax reasons and now live in the Bahamas.

These days Lawrence (who, unfortunately, has written the book in American English) is a property developer. Sadly Meadowhall, now in different hands, turfed out his businesses through non-payment of rent during the Burdall saga. There are still not too many nice guys in business.

Little Chef: The Heart of the Deal is available on Amazon. Profits from the book will go to the Elton John Aids Foundation and Dreamflight.


Not too sexy for my wrap

Mahesh Raikar at the Meadowhall Wrapchic

Mahesh Raikar thinks burritos are beautiful

Most of us seeing the relentless march of Indian restaurants down every British High Street would not have thought there was a gap left in the market, even to squeeze a samosa through.

But Mahesh Raikar did.

“Indian food is seen as evening food, which you sit down to eat, but there was no alternative to a sit down lunchtime curry,” he tells me at the opening of his 12th Wrapchic outlet at Meadowhall on Monday. Since The No 1 British lunchtime choice is a sandwich, eaten at the desk or on the hoof, a curry poses logistical problems.

Now M&S do a very decent chicken tikka sandwich but try stuffing a portion of rogan josh between two slices of multiseeded and you’ll come a cropper sooner than you can say Taj Mahal. But what about a wrap to replace the bread?

You’d have thought Mahesh, aged 42, from Mumbai, would have plumped for a chapatti but no. “There are issues with a chapatti : it is not so malleable and there is not much taste,” he adds. As for nan bread, there would be too much of it and it would swamp the filling.

So Mahesh, who had always liked Mexican food since running a outlet in the food hall of a Western-style entertainments complex in Mumbai, settled on a tortilla. Stick a curry inside one with rice, beans, sauce, coleslaw and chutney and you have yourself a burrito.

Or a “beautiful burrito” he murmurs, as if uttering the name of a loved one. Which he is. His website says Wrapchic’s mission is to be “the most loved burrito company in the world.”

His business life has taken him from Bombay (Mumbai’s colonial name) to Brum, where his wife Vrushali studied for her MA in architecture while he took up the reins again of a career with the Compass catering group. He rose up through the company like a soufflé but was already planning to go it alone.

He founded the first outlet in Birmingham four years ago and the concept has rapidly spread. He wasn’t stopping in Meadowhall long for by Thursday he was opening another in Dubai. And he has his sights on the USA.

The six meat and two vegetarian fillings are cooked at a central kitchen in Solihull and shipped out to be reheated. You start one end of the counter and a succession of servers fill the tortilla before it is rolled and wrapped. “We can do it in 90 seconds, rather less if it’s a regular,” says Mahesh as he orders for me.

I’ve got one of the favourites, Chicken Mughlai, chicken tikka with tikka sauce, turtle beans, white rice, coleslaw, sour cream and a mild salsa. I pass on the offer to add guacamole after raising my eyebrows at the coleslaw. But this is, sort of, fusion food.

The name Wrapchic is an Indian in-joke, meaning sexy, but I feel anything but sexy eating my burrito at a table. You need to be a teenager to be at ease eating a wrap.

But it is a tasty and lively lunch and pretty healthy: food is grilled rather than fried. On second thoughts, I’d rather have had chutney than sour cream but I liked it. My regular burrito would have cost £5.70 but it was on the house. As I sit down to eat I ask which is his favourite option. “Mutton Madrasi, with 30 spices and cooked in the sauce for hours,” he says. He’s in burrito heaven.

Wrapchic is on the ground floor in the Oasis. Visit www.wrapchic.co.uk

serving up a Wrapchic burrito

Serving up a burrito






Hola! It takes two to tapas


Carving the Iberico ham at Tapas Revolution

“Hola!” said a waiter with a smile as bright as the Costa Bravan sun. You get a lot of holas at Tapas Revolution, the new eaterie which sells tapas not on some Mediterranean shoreline but in the Meadowhall shopping centre’s Oasis food hall.

So what’s new? After all, we’ve had places which serve tapas like La Tasca and there’s Made in Sheffield El Toro in Broomhill while we in this city are not entirely wet behind the ears in the chorizo department (some of us can even pronounce it correctly) since Michael Morgan was pioneering them at the old Mediterranean restaurant back in the Nineties.

“Hola!” said sexy Spanish chef Omar Allibhoy, who opened it recently as the latest of his mini-chain. What’s new is that his is the Spanish take on Spanish tapas and is as authentico as it gets. It’s not some Anglo-Saxon culinary grab with a ‘never mind the pimientos what about the profits?’ attitude. He didn’t quite say it that way but you knew what he meant.

A month or so he ran a one-night-only tapas place on Chesterfield Road to give local foodies a taste of things to come and I was there. He must have liked what I wrote because I got invited to Meadowhall to review it with a free meal ticket. So this review comes from a man who got two glasses of wine, eight tapas, two coffees and a packet of churros on the house. Now you can take the following with a pinch of paprika if you wish.

But even if I’d paid £5.75 for the Torreznos con mojo dulce, or crispy pork belly in a sweet and spicy sauce I’d be raving about it. The pork has been cooked long and low and slow then cubed so it looks like a version of that stripy Bassett’s Liquorice Allsort, in different shades of brown. So you get the soft and slithery fat followed by a slight resistance on the tongue of sweet, juicy meat. The Chinese do a similar dish, named after Chairman Mao, with different spices, but they don’t do the same sauce. For a minute I think someone has poured on the chocolate sauce which goes with the churros. This is sweet and really good. It’s made from honey, paprika and a few other spices and, I guess, the cooking juices. And isn’t there a hint of cinnamon? There is. That’s the Arab influence in Spanish cooking.

But you don’t want a bite by bite account of my meal so let’s say “Hola!” to the lovely Claudia, as Spanish as they get (with an American accent), who is the branch manager. In fact, all her staff are Spanish or Spanish-speaking (including a local student who is using the job to improve her language skills). That’s important. The chefs have not had to learn Spanish cooking, they were born to it.

So, I ask Claudia, how are we British taking to tapas? She gives me the kind of look a Spaniard gives when the Galacticos miss an open goal. “English people struggle with (the concept of) tapas. They say ‘This is mine, that is yours.’ They don’t really share. And they struggle to order octopus . . .”

If it’s any help this writer is only too happy to share his abondigas (meatballs) and had already sampled the octopus on pop-up night. Believe me, it’s no struggle. And we already knew it takes two to tapas (or more).

What they do like at Meadowhall is the patatas bravas (£3.95), not overloaded with tomato sauce, by the way, which come with a fierce kick and the pan con tomate (£2.95), tomatoey garlic bread. Omar had been at pains to point out the bread was the only thing they didn’t make themselves and his cheffy concern over a point a big corporation might have glossed over made me believe him when he says everything else is cooked on site.

The restaurant is built around a bar and is open to the Oasis roof so if you get the right table you can watch the action and the chefs carving the hams.

The Great Sheffield Shopping Public also love the calamari fritos (£5.50), light, tender and crispy with a good sprinkling of paprika and as good as any I’ve tasted. There was paella (£4.95), perhaps not quite as exciting as that cooked by Omar himself the other week in a Sheffield back yard in the rain but then I ate it just as it had been made with added atmosphere. I reminded myself how good are the ham croquettes (£4.75), oozing Bechamel sauce from their interiors, enjoyed a special of cod loin on sweet peppers (£6.25) and had a plate of hams and chorizo (£7.50). The chorizo is terrific.

Not all cooking in big shopping centres has to be burgers or second rate. So would I go back if I had to open my wallet? Certainly: there are plenty of tempting offers like a £20 set menu for two.

We left content, munching some churros from Omar’s churroseria opposite, as some more people were arriving. “Hola!” said a waiter.

The Oasis, Meadowhall. No booking, just walk in. Web: http://www.tapasrevolution.com


Tapas Revolution at Meadowhall’s Oasis

A passion for paella


Omar gets all steamed up over his paella

A dark back yard in the drizzling rain off a busy Sheffield street is not the most exotic location for cooking paella. But then the city has had few chefs as exotic as Omar Allibhoy, even if he’s only here on a temporary basis.

On March 16 the photogenic young Spaniard, dark-eyed, dark-haired and bearded, opens the fifth branch of his Tapas Revolution mini-chain in Meadowhall, so we can stuff ourselves silly with pulpa a la Gallega and pimientos de Padron without troubling easyJet.

You’d think Omar, from Madrid, would have it in for Sheffield. Five years ago he and his pal rode their scooters from Liverpool on the west coast to the east, cooking tapas for anyone they met on the way. They stopped at a Sheffield Travelodge overnight and had one of the bikes nicked. But at least he got to Grimsby before Sacha Baron Cohen!

To promote the new enterprise, still being built as I write, Omar had taken over Matthew Holdsworth’s tiny Bhaji Shop bistro on Chesterfield Road for the night to host a pop-up restaurant for local foodies and bloggers. There are tapas but the highlight of the night is the paella.

Omar needs a metre-wide paella pan and the Bhaji’s kitchen was much too small so he camped out under an awning in the back yard. The weather is less than Spanish. I nip out to take a look and he emerges from a cloud of steam as the dish cooks fragrantly. He might be worth a mint by now but, while he’s brought a team of chefs to help him, he’s still in charge of the paella. It’s his particular passion.

When it arrives it is an intensely, savoury, smoky, complex dish heady with the smell and taste of saffron and paprika, with chicken (but no rabbit), artichokes, three types of beans and rice which is still firm yet yielding to the tooth. It’s quite the best I have ever had.

Omar got a leg up in life working for the world’s most famous chef, Farran Adria, and the world’s sweariest, Gordon Ramsay, who dubbed him the restaurant version of Antonio Banderas. That was worth a few PR and newspaper headlines (and it’s on the cover of his recipe book) but he does display an engaging enthusiasm.

While all his outlets are in mega shopping outlets I observe it is unusual for Sheffield to get a trendy chain restaurant so soon. Usually all the big names go to Shrewsbury before Sheffield. The city can’t even sustain a Loch Fyne, which has just closed. He winces slightly at the word ‘chain,’ as if someone has just knocked over a dish of his albondigas, and stresses everything except the bread will be made on site: no microwaves, no heat-and-eat, no freezers. “It doesn’t feel like a chain to us; it’s a very personal project.” OK, whatever the Spanish is for autonomous link in a chain, it’s that!

Of course, any food which you get for free will taste wonderful but, that aside, it was very, very good indeed. We weren’t fed any old patatas bravas – in fact we didn’t get that at all – and for me the starriest dishes were the chorizo a la sidra (lovely sweet and spicy Asturian sausages roasted in cider), pulpo a la Gallega (soft steamed octopus with sliced potato in paprika) and some intensely cumin-flavoured meatballs.

And, of course, there was excellent Iberico ham, Manchego cheese, marinated anchovies and much more, washed down with Sangria, Spanish beer and wine.

Omar is on a mission to introduce the city to what he calls real tapas. He mutters that Britain  has seen ‘the dark side of Spanish food.’ But we’re not such principiantes (beginners) in the tapas department. Back in the Nineties that excellent chef Michael Morgan introduced them at his Mediterranean restaurant in Hunter’s Bar.

One more thing. At the same time as Omar opens Tapas Revolution there will be a churroseria, a kiosk selling that famous Spanish snack, next door. Can’t wait.

More details at http://www.tapasrevolution.com The book, Tapas Revolution, is published by Ebury Press at £20.


Steamed octopus and potatoes