National food critics have descended on Sheffield, but does it need them?
From Mother’s Pride to Scandi-Japanese tasting menus, the rise and rise of our local dining scene
By Jack Dulhanty
The last time a restaurant in Sheffield won a Michelin star, I had just been born. The Old Vicarage was, and still is, a classic fine dining restaurant. Set in a Victorian country house surrounded by lush woodland, it serves a menu of British luxury: scallops, caviar, roast fillets of beef.
When it lost the accolade in 2015 — after a respectable 17 years — veteran Sheffield Star critic Martin Dawes said it was likely “the victim of changing fashions.” The time of white tablecloths, splashy interiors and chefs in tall hats had come to an end.
As if to prove his point, Sheffield’s latest Michelin hopeful, Jöro, opened a year later not on a country estate but in an upcycled shipping container on Kelham Island. No tablecloths to be seen, string quartets replaced by West Coast rap, chefs wearing trainers, t-shirts and jeans.
One lunchtime there, an arriving couple are asked for their coats and dispense with them so efficiently you’d think they had been practising at home. They ask to be sat near the open kitchen, which looks out on to the dining room. It’s another quirk of du jour fine dining: chefs smiling like celebrities, some even wave to guests, as they plate up the Scandi-Japanese tasting menu.
Dawes isn’t into tasting menus, where the head chef decides what diners eat over multiple courses. “I’m old-fashioned,” he says. “I like to see what I want to eat on the night.” When he started on the Star’s restaurant column in 1987, that choice wasn’t particularly inviting. In general, what was on offer skewed basic: “I went to one place, Franco's, where the garlic bread was a slice of Mother's Pride with a bit of garlic rubbed over it."
Bit by bit, things improved. The number of Indian and Italian restaurants, opened by migrants who had moved to work in the steel plants, grew. A few restaurants like the Old Vicarage began to crop up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but Sheffield still lagged behind other regional cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. “It felt like: if there's a trend happening nationally, it will always happen in Sheffield last,” says Dawes.
Nowadays, many think that hasn’t been such a bad thing. Yes, it meant the city had an anaemic presence in food guides for a few years, but Sheffield’s isolation from national influences — its lack of national and international brands like Hawksmoor, Dishoom and Tattu — has meant it has built a food scene that truly reflects the city’s demographics and desires. And that, in its own roundabout way, has garnered national attention. Lots, of late; a cluster of four national reviews in as many months, all glowing.
Thom Hetherington — CEO of Northern Restaurant and Bar, an annual conference celebrating gastronomy in the North of England — actually did a marine biology degree. That goes some way in helping me understand why he thinks Sheffield is sort of like Madagascar. The island peeled off Africa some 150 million years ago, it was still attached to India then, but it eventually snapped off and let India go and form the Himalayas. Anyway, Madagascar was marooned and alone, and so were all the restaura– I mean, species on it.
Long story short: they took an evolutionary path of their own. The plants and animals of Madagascar are endemic to the island, they exist nowhere else. Sheffield, on the other hand, wasn’t separated from other comparable cities not by miles of ocean, but by terrible rail links and hills. So while the cities up and down the M62 were filling with the same national chains, Sheffielders had to do it themselves. The result was restaurants endemic to Sheffield. “It's normally something that's absolutely unique and exclusive to Sheffield,” says Hetherington.
This created a richer tapestry of independents. Travel through most major cities and you’ll see the same reel of cookiecutter restaurants. I’m not trying to suggest Sheffield is completely devoid of all of these — I could get shipwrecked on a desert island and still expect to see a Pizza Express. But the city’s dearth of what you might call “higher band” chains (restaurants like Hawksmoor, the hugely popular steakhouse), that make formidable competitors to even the best independents, mean that Sheffield is more open to small-scale operators who are focused on quality rather than mere market domination.
These restaurants are often small and serve their local neighbourhoods, and they stick to the fringes, away from the steep rents of the city centre. “A lot of exciting stuff in Sheffield isn't in the city centre, there’s been a bit of a doughnut effect,” says James O’Hara.
O’Hara is one of those Sheffielders who did it himself. He opened his first bar, The Great Gatsby, on Division Street over a decade ago, and since then has opened four more. It’s a story of a few operators taking the plunge with something different, and showing the demand is there: “I think a few people do a few good things and ensure that it's achievable,” explains O’Hara. “And then once a few people do it, that creates a culture of: well, maybe I can do this too.”
The consensus is that Sheffield just did this later, slower and more organically. Those independents hired people who then spun off to open their own ventures: Jack Wakelin and Joe Cribley, who both worked for O’Hara, went on to open modish neighbourhood bistro Bench (reviewed in the FT) and casual Mexican street food spot Piña respectively.
The other consensus, however, is that Sheffield is too quiet about the dining culture it has created. “We are not very good at shouting about ourselves,” says O’Hara. While that has allowed the city to carry on doing its own thing, it has kept it hidden from the map, like a culinary Skull Island. “It can be a little bit insular, it can be a kind of: we’ll just do our own thing and get on with it.”
Dawes thinks this insularity has bred an inferiority complex when it comes to food, as if the city were still bound by old perceptions: "Sheffield has a reputation, not altogether accurate, of being a £10 belly-full place,” he says. “In other words, what people want is quantity over quality, which is not quite the case now."
I’m sat at a table for four beside Jöro’s pass, where chefs make their final touches beneath glowing heat lamps. I’m the only one at the table apart from a gold Maneki-neko — a beckoning cat — opposite me. The drinks menu is presented on a tablet with a chipped corner that I’m putting down to drunken mishandling. I order a negroni and try to earwig a nearby table but they’re all too far away, so instead I watch an intensely focused pastry chef touch up a brown butter cake.
Jöro is an informal restaurant. It’s important to Jöro that you know that. The music is loud, the atmosphere, expectations and implications undefined — “who cares? Relax!” It says, teeth slightly gritted. If you ask me, this is where the new wave fine dining places falter. It’s the classic dilemma of having your Michelin-level cake and casually eating it.
Which is to say: it’s difficult, as a restaurant, to serve food that you know deserves a certain reverence, irreverently. You want customers to be relaxed, by God, you want West Coast rap. But you also want to offer an experience and communicate serious passion, not just serve food. And it’s difficult, as a diner, to kick back and relax while also remaining ready to nod sagely as the sommelier explains how water shortages in 16th century Japan have informed your drinks pairing. It creates a tension that only really subsides, funnily enough, when you’re eating.
Snacks arrive first: an almost imperceptibly small croustade (a tart) filled with Lincolnshire Poacher cheese. It tastes more of cheese than anything I have ever eaten has tasted of cheese. I know there are onions there — my eyes tell me so. Little decorative alliums are scattered on top. But my taste buds, submerged as they are in Poacher, barely notice.
Then, a cuboid of hashbrown dotted with smoked trout mousse and decorated with gooseberry and herbs. There’s also bread, shaped like a doorknob and suffused with marmite and treacle, which just cancel each other out, and served warm beside a perfect, umami disk of miso butter.
Inside, Jöro is small but well-spaced out. You wouldn’t have to worry about someone like me eavesdropping on your conversation. The walls are grey and punctuated with artwork, the ceiling low and the room moodily lit.
Nothing would be more tedious than a blow-by-blow breakdown of each of the ten courses that comprise the menu at Jöro. Instead, some highlights: Chawanmushi; silky, Japanese savoury custard steeped in truffle dashi, a kind of stock, and hiding sweet, nubby cubes of apple and florets of cauliflower.
Hogget: a piece of lamb cut from the saddle, roasted then barbecued, the layer of fat on top a butter-soft blanket, the meat rosy. Served with a bracing raita spiked with wasabi and scattered with crisp, fermented wild garlic leaves. A flat bread on the side is blistered and blackened on the bottom and brushed with lamb fat on top.
Finally, asparagus with sunflower satay: charred and toothsome and nutty. The satay — an Indonesian dipping sauce normally made with peanuts but here made with sunflower seeds — is tear-jerkingly good. Later, Luke French, Jöro’s chef and owner, tells me it was his way of eliminating peanuts from the menu, making it more allergy friendly. I haven’t got a peanut allergy, but that satay made me glad someone has.
Seeing that a city has a restaurant like Jöro assures you the broader dining scene is healthy. The apparent tastemakers of UK dining — national food critics — agree. Virtually every national newspaper positively reviewing a restaurant in Sheffield certainly can’t do any harm, but how much good can it do?
Depends on who you ask. Long-time hospitality cheerleaders like Hetherington see these jolts of serendipity as something to seize and build on. “Maybe it was a fluke, but we've had four critics in a short period of time, that to me feels like a little burst of momentum that you can really do something with.”
Others are more cynical. Adam Coghlan, the editor of the popular food site Eater London, sees the national critics as entertainment journalists whose work has no real bearing on a restaurant or city’s popularity. “It's not really journalism, it's just bland service provision, column writing, really,” he said.
It’s in contrast to the US, where food critics cover individual cities rather than an entire country, so it’s more likely their readers will act on a recommendation. Whereas, in the UK, it’s not like a Guardian reader in Kent is going to drive to Manchester because Jay Rayner had some good sushi there.
That has left national food critics unburdened by any sense of civic duty. Most of their readers aren’t actually going to visit the places they review, so the focus instead shifts to writing something people will just enjoy reading, not necessarily find useful. “It's more about the writer than the restaurant or the food they're writing about,” says Coghlan.
By these metrics, the national reviews do little more than validate what Sheffield already knew by putting it down in ink. But, for a city overlooked for so long, maybe that’s enough. To quote Dawes: "I used to tell people when I did a review, it didn't really matter what I said about the place. The most important thing about a review is to say: this place is here." Maybe now, people will see the places here, and the scene will bloom. Or they won't, and it will still bloom. Whichever way you slice it, the only way is up.