Most chefs embarking on a change of direction would look for a fresh start, but not Cary Brown…
His latest venture, the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley, is the scene of an earlier triumph: he helped to launch it as a dining pub back in 2009.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The place rose to be hailed as Eat Sheffield’s restaurant of the year, then lost its way.
But now the Dev is back, with a fresh start as a traditional local serving decent food. And it’s looking good.
The move marks a new beginning for Cary too. The one-time enfant terrible of Sheffield’s food scene has mellowed into an affable landlord who wants nothing more than to be one of the locals – or so he claims.
“I’m 50 years old now. I don’t want to compete with anybody else, I just want to bring this place back to where it should be,” he says.
I just want to bring this place back to where it should be’Cary Brown, Chef Landlord
Gone is his trademark bleach blond hair. And he may be running a pub, but the new Cary Brown doesn’t drink or smoke. Nor does he have a wealthy backer: this is his first solo business venture, supported only by partner Shelley Chilton.
Cary got his first job at Claridges; at 20, he became head chef at the old Charnwood in Sheffield, then set up Carriages in Abbeydale Road South.
That was followed by a string of other restaurants including highly-acclaimed Slammers at Hunters Bar and The Limes in Barnsley. He also acted as a consultant for projects including the Devonshire Arms.
More recently, a spell at the community-run Royal Oak in Millthorpe whetted his appetite for the traditional pub and when he was offered the chance to take over the Dev, he grabbed it.
Cary and Shelley moved in last month, making their home upstairs and running the pub along with five letting bedrooms.
“It’s a gorgeous place in a beautiful setting with some fantastic people. And it’s a pub first and foremost,” he says.
That means the accent is on drinks – with decent food – but anyone expecting fine dining will be disappointed.
House rules say you can’t book (unless it’s a large party) and there are no tabs. You just turn up, sit where you like, check out the blackboard menus, then order – and pay – at the bar.
In practice it means touring the pub playing hunt-the-blackboard, then shelling out for each course – and drink – as you want it. It may be how they did things in a traditional local, but a tab would make things so much easier.
The menu bears the distinctive Cary Brown hallmark: a ‘shellfish counter’ with ice-filled trough allows diners to pick their own lobster (£12 for a half). Fish is delivered daily from Brixham, Devon.
A ‘captain’s table’ is coming soon, with a set price seafood menu for parties of eight to ten: “For a bit of fun.”
The main blackboard, above the bar, offers staples such as steak and chips, or bangers and mash, while a third lists snacks, nibbles and ‘man-wiches’: salt beef on sourdough and toasted cheese rarebit.
There are no starters – this is a pub – so we order pots of green olives and honey-roasted peanuts, almonds and cashews (from £2).
Everything’s freshly cooked to order and those who choose a seat in the former dining room can watch Cary at work through the open hatch.
The Devonshire Arms was built in the mid-1800s as a Chatsworth Estate farmhouse, hence its name. The old fireplaces, sash windows and chunky floorboards remain, but these days it’s an inviting open-plan space, with neutral decor and comfy furnishings.
My companion for the evening is Niki Baker, former head of Eat Sheffield, and she seems impressed with the new, more relaxed Dev.
She likes the fish too. Cary’s signature dish for as long as we can remember has been monkfish with chilli jam – and he’s still serving it, as part of the Captain’s Catch Platter (£18).
Three chunks of meaty fish are breadcrumbed and served in an open kilner jar, lined up on a board alongside a tankard of huge shell-on king prawns and an enamel mug of battered soft shell crabs.
He hasn’t lost his touch and the monkfish is superb: firm-fleshed, crisp-fried and deliciously enhanced by the sweet, spicy chilli jam.
The king prawns too are cooked to perfection: succulent and served simply with wedges of lemon. But the jury’s out on the crab.
It’s supposed to be a delicacy, snatched from the sea after shedding its shell, but this lacks both texture and flavour, other than greasy batter. Nor do I like balancing my meal in pots on a board – give me a plate any day (even in a pub)!
Steak, ale and Hendo’s pie (£12) is delicious. There’s nothing fancy about it, served with a pot of mushy peas and a jug of gravy, but it’s crammed with slow-cooked steak and topped by a good, sticky suet crust.
A basket of chunky chips (£3) is fried in dripping to tasty, crisp-skinned perfection.
For those who can be bothered to return to the bar and order/pay again, there’s a choice of two or three desserts, all at £5, as well as coffee.
We share a blueberry and lemon cheesecake, beautifully light, with ice cream and fresh raspberries, followed by americanos with fudge.
Dinner for two is... oh, I’ve lost count.
* Devonshire Arms, Lightwood Lane, Middle Handley S21 5 RN. The Dev Middle Handley, Facebook