Thanks for the calamari, Kam

IMG_1705 Perfect calamari 28-09-2018 19-25-17

Calamari reminded me of Malta

PROUST got it right with that Madeleine, didn’t he? Food is not only the stuff on your plate. A chef can devise layers of texture and flavour with a dish but sometimes, just sometimes, there is another layer of which he has no inkling: the diner’s memory.

For Proust it was a cake. For me the other night at Richard Smith’s Cricket Inn at Totley, it was two perfect rings of calamari. With one bite I was back in a seafront bar in Malta the year the Icelandic volcano blew its top.

In that bar, not far from where the famous Maltese Falcon yacht was anchored, I ate a dish of lightly battered squid, the coating so crisp, the flesh so tender, almost ethereal, that it blotted out years of chewing rubber. It was heaven on a plate. If only all calamari could be half as good!

I’ve not experienced it again until those two rings cooked up by sous chef Kam Bajorek, which he had partnered with a crouton of mashed avocado and baby octopus. They had, my wife enthused, the texture of silk.

We’d been invited as guests to a chef head to head night where each of the pub’s chefs draws a course out of a hat and cooks something up to a theme, tonight Round the World. Each diner marks his own menu card and the winner was the chef with the highest score.


Apple strudel

It’s a chance for the kitchen to show it can do more than fish and chips or burgers, the more usual orders in the dining room next door. We were in the room once used as a morgue for fatalities when digging the Totley Tunnel.

Despite my raptures for Kam’s calamari it didn’t get my highest marks. That went to executive chef Oli Parnell’s stonebass en papilotte, the eventual winner. This was an exceeding clever dish in which a portion of fish was tightly bound by ultra-thin layers of potato and pan fried. The flavour of the fish penetrated the spud and completely hid its origins, the outer layers at least.

It turns out Richard had suggested this one to Oli as it was a dish he had cooked himself 20 years before at his previous restaurant Smith’s of Sheffield, one he had taken from New York based French chef Daniel Boulud.


Winning dish – Stonebass en papilotte

Richard, who was also competing, scuppered his own chances of winning with that tip for he produced a slate of intricate cheese-based goodies, a medley of custards, candied walnuts, fruit crisps, poached pear – and cheese.

There was much to like here. I had my first taste of Brazilian fejoda cooked up by head chef Sam Parnell (he and Oli are twin brothers), a gutsy pork, sausage and beans stew, and enjoyed the light, crisp pastry of an apple strudel from another sous chef Pav.

“Just a nice, fun night,” Richard said later. Certainly – and for me a taste of the unexpected. Thanks for the invite and thanks for the calamari, Kam.

The Cricket Inn, Penny Lane, Totley, Sheffield. Tel 0114 236 5256. Web:

IMG_1718 Cheesey delights at the Cricket 28-09-2018 21-22-03

Cheesey delights at the Cricket



A gherkin in my gusset

IMG_0919 Cricket Inn burger 23-03-2018 13-43-42

Tall story: The Cricket Inn’s posh burger

BURGERS, bloody burgers, was my attitude when restaurant reviewing for a living so I seldom ordered them. There were three good reasons: They were boring, ubiquitous and it was extremely unlikely the chef had ‘lovingly hand crafted’ them as I once saw written on a menu.

Instead he got them ready-made from the butcher and it would have been a miracle if he gave the man a recipe and another miracle if the butcher kept to it. The buns, of course, would have come from the baker, the tomato sauce from Heinz and the pickles from the cash & carry so what on earth was there to review? The pictures on the walls and the overhead model railway, that’s what.

Now those days are over and I can relax a bit. We are lunching at Richard Smith’s Cricket Inn at Totley and while the set menu looks tempting my wife wants fish and chips. I once wrote that for a top chef Smithy probably sells more of this dish than anything and anyone else. But my eye was caught by the burger, what must be the second most popular pub order.

I didn’t feel too guilty as it looked as if someone had sat down and thought about this dish and the Cricket wasn’t going to bowl me a googly. The pattie comprised three cuts of beef, short rib, brisket and chuck, all of which carry a lot of flavour. “Home minced,” it said on the menu just to let you know they had made it themselves. It was sandwiched between a bought-in bun, but a superior one, a brioche from the Welbeck Bakery.

It had all the trimmings, melted Swiss cheese, a gherkin, Thornbridge Beer BBQ sauce, tomato salsa and what was described as purple sauerkraut but tasted no more than sliced purple cabbage. The brioche was good. The dish, with skin-on skinny fries, was £12.

I liked it. I particularly enjoyed the pattie, about 6oz, which tasted really beefy and was coarsely minced so there was plenty to get your teeth into and a lovely burst of mouthfeel. It was well seasoned and I fancied there was a hint of cumin, although that could have been from the curried lentils which unaccountably came with my wife’s fish and chips.

For another £2 I had an extra trimming: pickled onion rings. Not pickled onions cut into rings and battered but lightly pickled rings of onion battered. Nice but they needed to be a tad stronger pickled for me.

While my wife had her food on a plate I got mine on one of those trendy slates, set in a board. It could have been worse: a shovel or a flat cap. Burgers are not the easiest thing to eat. They disintegrate like a bomb full of shrapnel and a board is not big enough to catch the fall-out. This burger towered up higher than it was wide. And the inevitable happened. I got bits in my lap.

The front of house sympathised but said the kitchen claimed it was all about presentation. I’ll remember that next time I retrieve a shard of flying gherkin from the gusset region.

Cricket Inn, Penny Lane, Totley, Sheffield S17 3AZ. Tel: 0114 236 5256. Web:

IMG_0923 Cricket Inn, Totley 23-03-2018 14-13-09

The Cricket Inn on Penny Lane, Totley

Pigging out with Smithy

P1060166 pork belly at Thyme Cafe 06-05-2017 14-44-57

Pork belly at Thyme Cafe

I RECALL a few years ago that chef Richard Smith got a bit of a kicking from some London critic who had been to review his then flagship (now deceased) restaurant, Thyme, in Crosspool. There were the usual clichés – yawn – about being Northern, the Full Monty, Sheffield steel and, the killer punch, Sheffield Portions.

 The point being that the food being served up was not London portions, dainty little bits of food which left you hungry, but plates which left you feeling stuffed. Well, you don’t have to eat it all, advice my wife and I should have taken after a bit of a blowout at Thyme once when we had eaten so much we had to find a friendly wall to hold us up when we left.

 Smithy was a bit perplexed by the criticism. Sheffield folk liked Value For Money and that meant big potions, he said. I told him not to bother and he didn’t.

 I’m thinking all this after failing to finish my Saturday lunch pork belly with mash (£15) at Thyme Café, the sprog of Thyme, in Broomhill. Mr Smith shares the running and ownership of this restaurant with the self-effacing Adrian Cooling, who always left it to his partner to handle the publicity.

 Perhaps it’s my age but I don’t eat as much these days. Or it really is a big portion. Whenever I see pork belly on the menu I am drawn to it like a moth to the flame and must have reviewed dozens of them. While Thyme Café never seems to get into the guides, this pork belly is up there with the best of them: a satisfyingly brittle and generous shard of crackling, exceptionally tender and flavoursome meat, silky cum crunchy grain mustard mash, sweet roast carrots, a slice of black pudding, good cider gravy and, the only jarring note, severely undercooked green beans. I’d hoped by now this fad for super-crunchy veg was over.

 In the end I was defeated but not substantially. It was then I’d noticed that a girl at the next table had taken delivery of a cheeseburger with trimmings the size of the Isle of Wight while her friends were eating chicken Caesar salads, although they were almost of Mam Tor proportions. She got halfway through it then, wisely you might think, swapped it for a friend’s salad.

 My wife was having chicken (£16), a whole chicken breast rubbed with the Arab spice mix za’atar, stuffed with an olivey mix, served with couscous, fried breadcrumbed cubes of feta (note to try this at home), red pepper, roast courgette, butternut squash, almonds and mint. You might think this enough but the kitchen thought it was ‘a bit dry’ said the restaurant manager, announcing it would also be swerved with dollops of hummus and tzatziki. I tasted the chicken and it was good.

 I was surprised she finished it and then had room for a pudding. I didn’t. But they gave me a spoon. It was a quietly superb almond tart (£6) with an excellent pastry case, warm, slightly sticky almond filling and topped with apricot compote, or as the menu would have it, tea-infused apricots. It was a paragon of puddings which would not have been out of place at the old Thyme. I’m just sorry I was too stuffed to think of taking a picture of it.

 I complimented the kitchen on the tart and got a friendly wave from the larder chef responsible. The bill for food was £37. When I was reviewing I had a special rating for VFM. This would have got five.


The answer was a Limon


The Beauchief Hotel

It really is the end of an era. The auction recently of the contents of Sheffield’s Beauchief Hotel, the once fashionable city watering hole which had as many comebacks as Frank Sinatra, left no one in doubt that its days were finally over.

Already a planning application has gone into the city council from owners Sheafbank Investments to turn the building into apartments and build more homes on the car park. An ageing building and changing times have put paid to a once thriving business.

In the Eighties and Nineties the Beauchief on Abbeydale Road South was one of the places to eat, drink and be seen: either in the restaurant or the bar. This was a time when there really wasn’t as much choice in Sheffield as there is now. But part of the glamour came from the French family Limon who spent 17 years at the helm: general manager Michel and his wife Edwige.

These were what I like to call the Tournedos Rossini years. The classic dish was on the menu. The head chef was Adrian Machin, who inspired a number of lads who became head chefs in their own right. And in summer the Limons added a Gallic touch by installing a Petanque terrain in the grounds.

The family arrived in 1979 and left in 1997 when Michel was asked to become general manager of owners Whitbread’s London conference and banqueting centre, a prestigious job.

The Beauchief was originally the Abbeydale Station Hotel, serving the LMS station of the same name which opened in 1870, closing in 1961.

Whitbread never got anyone as charismatic as Michel in the following years. I recall visiting the place several times to report on a new boss promising great times ahead. The hotel’s fortunes waned and the place was sold on.

In 2010 Christian Kent, who had worked in the kitchens as a 16-year-old commis before going on Claridges, the Savoy and returning to Sheffield to open the Blue Room, took over, promising some London glitz. It was not to be. It folded.

Nothing daunted, Sheffield-based Brewkitchen, a joint enterprise by local restaurateur Richard Smith and Jim Harrison of Thornbridge Brewery, moved in on All Fools Day 2012. Charlie Curran was the first head chef (later to run Peppercorn, now sold, just down the road), followed by Jack Baker. The place was rebranded under his name but the axe fell last year.

With hindsight, the bid to restore the hotel’s fortunes may have always been a losing battle. Fashions and passions chop and change in the hospitality industry and so it was with the Beauchief. It was of its time and place and shone for a decade or two through a particular set of circumstances. And one of the answers was a Limon.

On a roll at the Druid

Druid chorizo and black pudding sausage roll

Druid chorizo and black pudding sausage roll

After almost a year head chef John Parsons is still not entirely sure what his market is at the picturesque Druid Inn, Birchover, in the remoter reaches of North Derbyshire. There’s a camping and caravan site just up the road so does he cook the campers fish and chips or should he cater for the foodies?

The 200-year-old pub was a fashionable watering hole run by the charismatic and wonderfully named Brian Bunce in the Eighties, boasting a 100-plus item backboard menu and a woodland mural around the walls of a dining room. If you had a sports car, a sports jacket and a sporty girlfriend, you made sure you were seen here.

This century has seen the Druid in the guides as a foodie destination with, successively, Richard Smith, the Thompson brothers and Wayne Rodgers at the helm.

John is no slacker himself in the kitchen. He took Kitchen on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, into the guides and has built up his own loyal circle of admirers who have followed him around his many restaurants. For them the Druid offers fancy, thoughtful food as well as burger and chips.

I’d count myself as a foodie so I started with John’s sausage roll.

It’s not your average sausage roll. Inside the ultra crispy pastry, speckled with sesame, is not only sausage meat but tiny cubes of black pudding and chorizo. It sits on a quite spectacular slick of sticky tomato sauce, the house ketchup being reduced down with chorizo. The garnish is crispy sage. Not bad for a fiver and an object lesson in how to send a humble dish dizzyingly upmarket.

Meanwhile my wife was splashing out twice as much for a couple of soft seared scallops partnered, oddly, by a toasted crab and ham sandwich. It works!

I’d ordered a Parsons’ menu regular, cassoulet with Toulouse sausage but the waitress came back saying the butcher had let them down and not delivered any pork belly. That would have put paid to John’s signature dish, Dixie’s Three Little Pigs – a trio of cheek, belly and fillet. It’s named after his daughter.

The pork in the cassoulet was replaced by shoulder of lamb, in a chunk, to partner the duck leg and sausage. But when it came the liquor had been all but absorbed by the breadcrumb topping and was too dry. By the time I found the waitress my wife was halfway through her asparagus and broccoli risotto.

The Black Dog of gloom descended on my shoulders as she finished her main before I had been re-served mine. This time it had perhaps too much liquor but the kitchen obviously wasn’t taking chances. I ate it rather grumpily. To be fair, I’d conceded it was a pretty good cassoulet the time I finished.

We had hoped to share John’s trademark Paris-Brest, a cream-filled choux pastry ring, but despite it being chalked up on the board would not be ready for half an hour. We made do with a very, very runny chocolate and salted caramel tart, which I couldn’t help thinking ought to have been set.

So win some and lose some at the Druid, where the décor has been stripped down to its pubby essentials but the bar area looks a little scuffed. It could do with a lick of paint and some TLC.

Seared scallops with crab and ham toastie

Seared scallops with crab and ham toastie

Too posh for BYO?

Is this your bottle or the restaurant's?

Is this your bottle or the restaurant’s?

Imagine if you could go to a posh restaurant with your own decent bottle of wine and be greeted with a big smile instead of being shown the door? It might not happen now but it did in Sheffield once. Nearly all the top restaurants ran BYO and no one turned a hair.

Well, the trade press did as it was so unusual. Hotel and Caterer ran a story on it. Of course there were caveats: it only applied weekdays, not weekends, and you were expected to pay corkage.

It started in the mid-Nineties when Wayne Bosworth and his brother Jamie ran Rafters on Oakbrook Road to get bums on seats. Unlike other top restaurants Rafters opened on Mondays, not the most popular day of the week, closed Tuesday and re-opened on Wednesday. Monday opening (and BYO) was partly to compensate for not opening Tuesday, the day their beloved Blades often had a midweek home game at Bramall Lane!

With Rafters doing it, Wayne’s mate Cary Brown, then at Carriages (now Peppercorn) on Abbeydale Road South, felt he had to follow suit. Richard Smith, running what was then Smith’s of Sheffield, later Thyme, at Crosspool, wasn’t best pleased either but he did it. You could even take a bottle midweek to super-posh Greenhead House, as I recall.

The practice went on for a decade or so and then fizzled out, although you can still bring a bottle to Marco@Milano on Archer Road in the week. But I think the city’s upmarket venues are missing an opportunity. You can also BYO at No Name in Crookes, otherwise you’ll be thirsty.

The reason BYO is popular with diners is the heavy mark up on wines in restaurants, at least 250 per cent. We don’t normally volunteer to pay three or four times the price for a product we can get in the shops, so why with restaurants?

With some, of course, that is where they make the money rather than the food, or at least Heston Blumenthal claims. And the better places do have wines you can’t buy easily. I don’t object to a corkage charge, provided it is reasonable, because that pays for the glasses, the cleaning and the disposing of the empties.

But if you are keen on the right wine with food how easy is it to choose a bottle when two people are eating on opposite sides of the menu: red or white meat, heavily spiced or not? How often do you see half bottles on offer?

I used to run a regular feature on the Sheffield Star’s food pages listing the BYO places available and the corkage charge. Apart from the upmarket restaurants, the others listed were little bistros, Asian, Italian and Chinese.

For the restaurant BYO saves tying money up in stock. For the diner it means not having to fork out £15 for a bottle of house you know only cost the restaurant a fiver, if that. To a large extent it’s wine snobbery, the insistence that certain bottles go better with certain kinds of food, which keeps a wine list going.

Well of course that’s right but there are precious few occasions where the wrong wine will spoil the food, although the wrong food can spoil the wine! If I go to a restaurant it’s the food which is my first choice. If I’m going for the wine I’ll pick a wine bar. That’s what the Italians do with enotecas: great choice of wine, simple platters of cheeses and meats to go with them. Now how about that over here?

Incidentally, you can hardly complain about the wine if you BYO but I did once. I bought a bottle in France and took it to Rafters in Bosworth brothers days. It was awful – the wine not the food. So I bought a bottle from the restaurant!