The ugly Bengali fruit that tastes divine

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Lamb Shatkora at the PrithiRaj

NOW you wouldn’t want to eat it raw but when cooked it makes food taste like the stuff they must serve up in Heaven. Your starter for ten if you can guess what it is.

It’s an ugly, pointy-looking fruit which is green and nobbly and looks a little like an oversized lime but is called a wild orange. It’s as sour as a Seville but has a touch of the grapefruit about it. But the taste belies its looks. If you knew this is the shatkora you must be from Bangladesh because that is where it grows.

I’ve never seen on in the flesh, so to speak, but I have tasted it three times in curries at the PrithRaj on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, and on each occasion my tastebuds have gasped with delight.

I reckon the shatkora is the Bengali answer to the truffle. Its flavour pervades and enhances a dish. In the curries at the PrithiRaj it has a polite sort of tang which sidles across your tastebuds, not harsh and rasping, with a touch of lemon or lime. And there’s an unexpected, momentary little burst of sweetness right at the end. Flavours are vivid. The sauces are rich and grainy and the meat tender, even when it’s lamb, because this is a curry which must be cooked for a long time to get the most out of the fruit.

Celebrity chef Rick Stein discovered it on his TV travels in India but when he got back to Cornwall to cook it had to make do with a grapefruit.BanglaLemon-5602[1]

Green and nobbly but don’t overlook the shatkora

I first came across it in 2012 when reviewing the newly opened restaurant, which had been revamped from the long-established Ayesha’s, for the Sheffield Star. I was bowled over. Dining there with friends earlier this year I ordered the lamb version again, wondering if it would be as good. It was. But because I was too busy talking I couldn’t give it my full attention. I resolved to come back again on a quieter evening.

This time I tried the chicken version with my companion, Colin Drury, who also reviewed restaurants on Saturdays during his time at The Star, for whom a curry isn’t a curry unless it’s a karai.

Now this isn’t the only place in Sheffield where you can get a shatkora – try other places run by Bengali rather than Kashmiri kitchens – but it is the only one cooked by head chef and joint owner Sobuj Miah. And, at £10.50, it is probably the most expensive. The menu at PrithiRaj (which means Beautiful Princess or whatever the waiter you ask decides) is as long as the River Ganges but you’ll find it on the specials.

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Chef Sobuj Miah

I’m told only the peel is used – the pulp is so bitter it usually get thrown away – but I understood Sobuj to say he used the whole fruit. Whatever, he only needs to use a little bit in each dish. It seems its popularity comes in fits and starts. “We’ve sold about 10 or 12 in recent weeks,” he told us.

Now PrithiRaj, which once had a waiter called Elvis, is an upmarket kind of place and the cooking is beautifully judged and easily on a par with any middle market Anglo venture. And like any chef, Sobuj likes to do the odd twiddle and twirl: As with the dainty spiced-up miniature samosa, whispy onion bhajis and little meat ‘lollipops’ we were treated to.

Look the ingredient up on the menu the next time you go out for an Indian ­– it’ll be on the specials and is not limited to meat, it also goes well with fish and other seafood – and you should find you’ll like it.

407 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PG. Web: http://www.prithirajrestaurant.com

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Foraging for “autumnal excrementa”

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Medlars. Remind you of anything?

I HADN’T been the first to spot the tree. Most of the fruit on the lower branches, right besides a footpath, had been stripped of fruit. But higher up there were still some I might get. I needed a long stick but there was an empty lager can discarded in the leaf litter. I took aim. Bull’s Eye! Two of them came tumbling down.

I’d noticed the medlar tree earlier in the year while foraging in a Sheffield park. Tiny brown fruit were on the branches but it was much too soon to pick them. They only ripen around November time. No wonder this was a medieval favourite in the days when fresh fruit all year round was impossibility.

Chaucer mentions them, and Shakespeare, not always kindly, and D H Lawrence, who had a thing about fundaments, wrote of “wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrementa … an exquisite odour of leave taking”.

But the medlar has long fallen out of favour. In part, it’s its looks. It has the appearance of a greeny brown crab apple split open at the bottom into five crinkly segments. It resembles for all the world what leads the French to call them cul de chien, dog’s arse. But don’t let that put you off.

The medlar is only edible when it is ripe, that is beginning to rot or blet, so I made a mental note to come back in late autumn. It was on the last day of November that I went in search of the tree.

 

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Inside the medlar – squidgy with pips

One or two of the medlars had already bletted. I squeezed one gently onto my tongue. The nearest thing it smells and tastes like is apple. A very soft, squidgy apple. And the texture is somewhere between a slightly fibrous pear and a ripe fig, although without the latter’s graininess. And it was sweet. I can honestly say it was the best I’ve eaten because it was the first I’ve eaten. I also got a mouthful of pips. There are five. Enthusiasts declare that medlars are a fruit you either love or hate. I quite like them.

I’ve only got eight or nine and have already eaten a couple. The rest will go into the cellar, in the dark, to ripen. You can make fruit cheese, jam or jelly with them although I haven’t got enough so they will be an occasional treat. This has been my most exotic forage of the year. I’m waiting for my cellar to be full of that exquisite odour.

Don’t trifle with this jelly!

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Jelly and ice cream the Rutland way

 

THERE’S always a moment of tension, isn’t there, when you rush to praise a dish to the head chef only to find it was made by someone else in his kitchen?

It happened to me the other day at the Rutland Arms on Brown Street, Sheffield, with a super little dessert of fennel ice cream and cucumber jelly (‘yes really,’ as it said on the blackboard menu). Coming after two classy small plates featuring octopus and duck croquettes I was bowled over by its refreshing qualities.

Unusual flavours of ice cream are not uncommon and as a lover of the aniseedy qualities of fennel I was pleased it came through clearly. As I always find the taste of cucumber elusive (it’s wasted on me in fancy gin and tonics) I was delighted it registered so brightly in the jelly. I fancy there might have been a bit of mint in it. The combination of the two was a delight.

To be fair to the Rutland’s head chef Richard Storer, or Chef Rico as he calls himself on Twitter, he didn’t turn a hair and was keen to give the credit to his assistant Kevin Buccieri. “We were all surprised how well it turned out. He’s excelled himself,” he said.

The Rutland is an enigma wrapped in a chip butty, which seems to be the most popular order, at least at lunchtimes. It’s not what you expect from a city boozer even if it is in the city’s Cultural Quarter. In other cities this inventive, clever, passionate cooking would have them queuing at the door. Here they ask chips. The Slutty Butty is popular here.

I visit it once a month to sample the food and meet old colleagues but I can’t wean them away from their butties even when I eat in front of them. They don’t know what they’re missing. Each small plate costs £4 or three for a tenner. For this you could have a burger but it won’t give your tastebuds such a treat.

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Looking sexy – the octopus

The octopus arrived as a brightly coloured tentacle lolling seductively across the plate on chopped up sections of a fellow limb. Octopus scores more for texture than flavour. This was slithery, firm and tender. The tastebuds were treated to three kinds zing: a lemon and caper butter, pickled chilli and XO sauce, a favourite with Rico. “If you see a dish with lots of foreign ingredients, it’s mine. If it looks like something that comes from a chef who does Modern British Cooking, it’s Kevin.”

The duck had been cooked like a confit and shredded into rillettes, combined with Hoisin sauce. Rico has been raiding the oriental supermarkets again.The meat was rolled into balls, given a crunchy coating and fried. They came on a salad, a nod to that classic staple of Chinese restaurants, crispy duck.

For a tenner, it was a pretty memorable lunchtime. And so was that cucumber jelly. Perfect. “Kevin was at Sat Bains’ (the Michelin-starred Nottingham restaurant) the other week. His brain has not quite recovered,” joked Rico. If that’s what it does to your cooking, I’d better book a table!

*86 Brown Street, Sheffield S1 2BS. Web: www.therutlandarmssheffield.co.uk

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Duck croquettes with Hoisin sauce

Still not a proper job?

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Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
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Yankees – no longer Doodle Dandy

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Yankees closed just before Christmas

IT only slowly dawned on me that Yankees, the burger place on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, had closed down just before Christmas, after 37 years. That’s pretty good going in a business where the average life expectancy is three years. But many will be sad to see it go.

A sign on the door said they were closed for refurbishment but that’s the one thing you don’t do on the run up to Christmas! Now there’s a sign saying the place is for let. 

I’d eaten there professionally and off duty over the years but hadn’t been in for quite some time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Tempted in by a new pulled pork and smoked ribs menu I found a table only to be told it wasn’t on that night – despite the banners on the railings outside promising otherwise. So, as I had a review to do, I upped and left.

Despite its age Yankees wasn’t the first American style burger restaurant in Sheffield. That honour went to Uncle Sam’s, further up the road towards town, opened by Ron Barton on July 4, 1971. It was quite a sensation at the time but it wasn’t until the other end of the decade that brothers Peter and Michael Freeman opened Yankees on the corner with Thompson Road in May, 1979.

Uncle Sam’s, still alive and kicking,  was the one with the overhead railway, Yankee’s the place with that cheeky poster of that girl tennis player with the bare bum. Both could tell tales of families where the parents had first eaten there as students and brought their own kids back.

I have no idea why Yankees closed but there is a lot of competition about these days. Chances are if a new place opens it’s either burgers or pizza, which is pretty depressing if you like your food and want a choice.

But Yankees helped to blaze a trail. Surprising as it might seem now, back then burgers, unless you had that uniquely British pattie at a Wimpy Bar, were rare. What Uncle Sam’s and Yankees were offering were bigger, tastier and (so it seemed) more American. It was no accident both were on Ecclesall Road, the city’s most upmarket street.

Then – don ‘t laugh – we called Ecclesall Road the ‘Bond Street of the North’ because there were so many boutiques. Now they have become takeaways and restaurants so, again, the two places were ahead of the curve.

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That poster – it was Uncle Sam’s with the overhead railway

Last rites for the Tom Dip?

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Bacon sandwich with Tom Dip

SOMETIMES things we eat are so inconsequential or taken for granted that when tastes change they slip unnoticed into the culinary waste bin of life. Then it is ages before anyone realises. I suspect that is likely to happen to Sheffield ‘s tomato dip – hardly a dish, certainly not a recipe, more a sort of breakfast afterthought.

 For a Tom Dip you take a bacon sandwich, baptise the underside of the top slice in a pot of bubbling tinned tomatoes on the stove and assemble your sandwich. That is it. Sometimes you can dispense with the sandwich. A slice of toast can be a tomato dip.

 It was once in every workmen’s cafe. It was so ubiquitous there was even a cafe called the Tomato Dip, with a bright red tomato on the fascia board, on Charles Street, below Arundel Gate. It is now called Wellies and Tom Dip is not on the menu.

 There are Sheffield people today who have never heard of it, just as they have never heard of polony, that sausage for which the city was once nationally famous. I asked around and got blank looks. But it is not yet last rites for the Tom Dip.

 You can find it at the Hard Hat Café on Duke Street, on the hot sandwich menu at £1.05, sandwiched between the fried egg and the chip buttie. No bacon is involved but this is how the dish was originally designed: for those who couldn’t afford bacon.

 You can also order it at Sarni’s, that cosy little café tucked away off the High Street in Aldine Court, guilty of severe apostrophe abuse but lovely all-day breakfasts, although Tom Dip is not advertised on the menu. Ask for it and the privilege costs an extra 20p so a tin of tomatoes must be the cafe’s heftiest earner!

 According to the chatty cook quite a few regulars order it. “If they’re dieting they just have it with toast,” she said, serving up a breadcake, the top half smeared in tomato, with a couple of slices of bacon. Some customers just like the juice, others the tomato lumps.

 I thought it might be a generational thing but Sarni’s also has a 14-year-old regular for the Tom Dip who has been eating it since she was four.

 So what does the dip have over a splodge of red sauce, particularly Heinz? Nowt. Unless it’s a Tom Dip a la Brian Turner, with olive oil, onions and garlic, it doesn’t cut the mustard, so to speak, with this eater (although Tom Dip lovers on the Sheffield Forum website point out the long simmering concentrates the tomato). But that really doesn’t matter.

 We are what we choose to eat. And every time you order Tom Dip you are making a quiet statement – I’m northern, I’m from Sheffield, this is what we do – and keeping a tradition alive. And please don’t tell anyone I’m originally from Norfolk!

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Sarni’s is tucked away in Aldine Court

 

Road to Rio (with a lot of coconut)

Mini picanha churrasco at Las Iguanas

Mini picanha churrasco for starters

So hello from Rio! It’s Carioca time. There’s a glass of caipirinha in my hand, Bahian coconut chicken on my plate and bossa nova on the sound system. Party on.

I wish.

Actually, apart from the location the rest is correct. I can’t quite run to the Copacabana so my road to Rio is a window table at Brazilian-themed restaurant Las Iguanas on a bright if breezy day at Sheffield’s West One. A girl sashays by outside in a coat not a bikini.

You won’t have missed the fact that there is an awful lot of sport, as well as coffee, in Brazil right now, what with the Olympics. You might have missed the fact that this is the Las Iguanas chain’s 25th anniversary. So that you don’t they’ve got a special menu on until the end of August.

Put on your loudest shirt, skimpiest skirt and don’t forget the flip-flops and have two courses and a drink for £17 (or three for £20) and be a carioca, a Brazilian party animal.

Now you could never accuse me and the missus of being party animals but we take the opportunity to pop in at lunchtime. We’re met by manager Hugo and it’s a bit quiet. “You should be at Meadowhall (the chain’s other outlet in Sheffield) so you can feel the vibe,” he says.

For a minute I think Hugo is going to ring the Meadowhall branch and check on the current vibe. We say we’ll imagine the vibe, if that’s all right by him, and yes some drinks would help. He brings a caipirinha for her and a Brazilian lager for me and we discover he’s Portuguese, from Porto, which we visited earlier this year. So we feel we’re halfway to Brazil in spirit.

Hugo says his name is pronounced without the ‘h’ and sometimes people think he’s saying “you go.” Luckily for him one customer didn’t. She married him.

Las Iguanos is a big place with over 130 covers and an impressive bar and the food’s not bad either. I kick off with a mini picanhana churrasco, which means pieces of very juicy rump steak on a skewer, with a spicy green molho a campanha salsa. She has dadinhos, cubes of fried cheese enlivened with a pot of chilli jami. Life is brighter with a dollop of chilli jam. And a caipirinha.

You could have the chance of tasting the same food in Rio itself because diners get the chance to enter a contest for a free trip to Brazil for two. Just to get you in the mood the tables have a handy Rio street map and some useful phrases, such as “como vai?” which means How are you? Very well, since you ask.

Coconut chicken at Las Iguanas

The coconut chicken is as vibrant as a Thai curry

There are six mains and we don’t go wrong with our choices. The coconut chicken with its chilli kick reminds me of a Thai curry with a gingery coconut sauce. I like the rice with spring onions and the shredded greens.

My wife’s got more coconut on her plate, making up a milder sauce to cover the peeled prawns and cubes of white fish. It comes with spring onion rice, sweet plantain, pico de gallo (a frisky salsa) and a little pot of coconut farofa. No I didn’t know what it was, either. Think crispy grains of coconut you sprinkle over your food like seasoning but with a crunch.

I hadn’t realised the Brazilians were nuts about coconuts. There are a bunch of them on display as decoration and I’ve got tembleque, a set coconut pudding for dessert. As a special treat for cariocas Las Iguanos also offers Brigadeiro, not normally on the menu. This is a runny, intensely chocolatey affair tasting, as my wife put it, “a bit like the bowl you used to lick out when your mum was making chocolate cake.”

I should point out the food and drinks were on Las Iguanas, the vibe was on Hugo. He’ll be taking charge of the Meadowhall restaurant from Monday.

Las Iguanas is at West One, Fitzwilliam Street, Sheffield S1 4JP. Tel: 0114 252 1010. Web: http://www.iguanas.co.uk

Hugo at the  Las Iguanos bar

Hugo at Las Iguanas’ bar