There has been something of a quiet restaurant revolution going in Sheffield over the last decade. Though you might nowadays have to tuck in using something other than Sheffield’s finest cutlery – it being produced in somewhat lower quantities than it was in the hey day of Sheffield steel – there is a positive bloom of talented chefs in the city, putting some of Sheffield’s restaurants firmly on the map.
A case in point is Rafters Restaurant in the city’s suburb of Nethergreen. If you didn’t know it was there, you could quite easily miss it, located as it is up a narrow staircase on the first floor above a little parade of shops . You know where to find it now though.
It’s an intimate, stylish restaurant set under a marvellous vaulted roof with exposed beams (hence the name apparently) so it feels very light and airy. The restaurant staff, though utterly professional, are refreshingly down to earth and unpretentious – no-one looks down their nose if you ask for a jug of tap water here, though still and sparkling mineral water are of course available if you prefer it.
Chef Patron Marcus Lane has created quite a name for himself on the local restaurant scene and as we were to find out, quite rightly so. The main a la carte menu has a set price of £36.95 per person for three courses, but between Monday to Thursday there is also a special menu with fewer choices on it, but which offers two courses and a complimentary glass of wine for £25 per person, making it pretty good value. On Monday nights only, they also have a bring your own wine policy with a small corkage fee.
The whole experience oozed quality, from the little touches such as the delicious complimentary canapes of cod tempura and goat’s cheese tartlets, to the mouthwatering selection of fresh warm breads. We opted for the two course menu and started things off with king prawns with a mango salsa and a terrine of organic chicken, ham and leeks. Both were beautifully presented and tasted delicious. A little water melon sorbet arrived as a palate cleanser, another lovely little touch that brought with it a taste of Mediterranean summer days.
For main courses, we’d selected a Parmesan crusted roast cod with aubergine and chickpeas and roast duck breast with baby vegetables. The cod was a wonderful thick fillet, moist and flaking to the fork and perfectly seasoned to allow the delicate flavours to shine. The duck breast, just slightly pink in the middle was meltingly tender. Portions were generous and filling; if anything there was too much duck breast and we’d have happily forfeited half the meat for more vegetables, but if was truly the only niggle we could come up with on the night and that said, it was a very small niggle.
We finished off with rich dark coffee and petits fours and after adding a couple of additional glasses of wine, we’d had a thoroughly good meal in a restaurant with a very relaxed warm ambiance for a touch under £70. It was worth it and that’s not something you can often say with complete honesty after a restaurant meal.
There’s nothing like a steam train to evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era – all it takes is the toot of the whistle and a blast of steam to transport us back in time, when travel – or so we believe – was so much more decadent and enjoyable than it is now.
So, a few weeks ago, when we found ourselves coincidentally in Sussex in time to step into the world of Pullman dining on the Bluebell Railway’s Golden Arrow train, we jumped at the chance.
The Golden Arrow, with its recently refurbished Pullman cars ‘Christine’ and ‘Lilian’ and 1674 Restaurant Car, recreates the famous Golden Arrow luxury boat train of the 1920’s, which linked London and Paris. Originally a first class only service, this historic train was once one of the most glamorous and famous trains in the world.
What does one wear to dine in style on this Pullman service we wondered? Well, the dress code said smart casual, so thankfully no tiara was required and we plumped for our best summer finery. We were pleased to note that – with the exception of one or two folk who let the side down we thought with a sniff – most other guests had got into the spirit of it too, so the platform thronged with ladies in silk frocks and strappy sandals and men in their smart shirts and linen jackets. The service is run largely by volunteers who dress the part with natty uniforms and white gloves, recreating some of the glamour and service of yesteryear to make it an experience to remember.
After a quick drink in the station bar, we were grandly shown to our seats in the plush green splendour of Lilian carriage and with a toot of the whistle, we set off from Sheffield Park station. We were instantly transported back in time and everyone relaxed back in their seats, in a setting that for all the world looked as if it was waiting for an appearance from Margaret Rutherford in a classic Hitchcock murder mystery. Obviously, we weren’t going to get anywhere near Paris on this trip, but all we needed was a bit of imagination to get a taste of the past as we tootled up and down the restored section of the track on the Bluebell line.
It has to be said that the food and service on board was superb, light years away from anything we’ve ever experienced on a modern train… The menus change each month and we had a choice of three starters and four main courses, one of which is vegetarian but must be ordered in advance. There is a very reasonably priced wine list to chose from and to round things off, there are two pudding options followed by coffee.
It was silver service all the way and we got off to a scrumptious start with a roast red pepper soup and a pate, though we did have a few hairy moments when the train lurched just as soup was being ladled from the tureen into the bowl! Luckily, the waitress knew her stuff and still got most of it into the bowl, with the exception of a few small splashes, so disaster was averted. I wouldn’t fancy serving soup on a train though.
A succulent stuffed chicken breast and a roast vegetable crumble with a nutty crisp topping came with a lovely selection of perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and we polished off the lot. By now, it was pitch dark outside and had started to rain with a vengeance, which only served to add another dollop of dark intrigue to the evening.
By the time we’d finished puddings and coffee, we been on our ‘journey’ for a good three hours, and we were thoroughly steeped in a warm cloak of nostalgia. We stepped off the train under the shelter of large black umbrellas held up for us by the staff. It was the final touch of perfection to a very memorable evening.
Wasn’t the weather glorious on Saturday? The bright blue skies had us dashing out to enjoy the sunshine and on a whim, we headed off to the city of Lincoln for the day.
After puffing our way up the very appropriately named ‘Steep Hill’ we found ourselves just outside Lincoln Cathedral, in the midst of a bustling and very interesting little market which was positively oozing with artisan food products, from crusty bread and cheeses to smoked fish. It made a great start to our visit and after selecting a few products to enjoy later, we headed off for a pootle around the cathedral, which was glorious in the spring sunshine. Very nice indeed.
We’d heard about the Cheese Society in Lincoln and it was an opportunity too good to miss, so knowing they had a cafe too, we decided to treat ourselves to lunch there.
It’s only a tiny little place, part cheese deli and part cafe, but it was packed with people when we went in and there were more waiting on the comfy sofa and chairs near the deli.
A member of staff immediately came over to welcome us and explained that there were several diners currently in the middle of main courses or on puddings, so if we were happy to wait a while, it shouldn’t be too long until we could have a table. The menu looked fabulous, so we settled in to wait and took advantage of the time to pick a couple of cheeses that we’d buy on the way out.
After about 20 minutes, a table was ready for us and we quickly put in our orders. It’s the Cheese Society, so as you’d expect, the menu is somewhat biased towards it, but there are a few non cheese dishes, such as soups and sandwiches and on the specials board, there was a pan fried sea bass with risotto or a roast duck breast dish, but it was cheese we’d come for and cheese we ordered. The vegetarian tartiflette was absolutely delicious, with caramelised onions and sun-blush tomatoes adding a nice contrast to the potatoes smothered in rich cream and cheese. The macaroni cheese had a lovely crispy topping, which took it to a much higher level than simple comfort food and made it delicious. The simplest of our meals was a new potato bake with raclette cheese, but it also got the thumbs up and all three meals were polished off. We tried not to think about the saturated fat we were eating, deciding just to accept it and eat super healthily for the next couple of days (lentil and veg casserole here we come!)
Just as we were sipping our wonderfully aromatic coffees, I spotted someone come in and for an instant, thought it was someone I knew – you know the feeling, you can’t quite place them, but they are so familiar. It turned out to be none other than hollywood and TV actor Colin McFarlane and friends, who were promptly seated at the table next to us, which just proves you don’t have to dine in London to spot a celebrity!
All in all, a lovely day out, though I was almost turfed out of the car with my purchases on the way home. I’d bought some ‘Stinking Bishop’ cheese, which as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most gorgeous, earthy and flavour packed cheeses I’ve ever tasted. But boy, it doesn’t half pong.