Czech menu sits happily alongside burgers and steaks at city’s oldest inhabited building.
EXPERIENCE has taught me that when a journalist meets a licensee of an old pub the latter is guaranteed to spirit up a ghost. Spooks are good for headlines and great for business.
But I’ve never been shown a picture of one before, as Zuzana Barincova did for me on her mobile phone at the Old Queen’s Head, Pond Hill, Sheffield.
Snapped by a local team of ghostbusters, it could be a face in a lamp. Or an odd reflection.
Since the place, built around 1475, is said to be overrun by them (they like to warm their spectral bums by the fireplace while matier ones join your table) it might just be. But to be honest I was more interested in Zuzana’s dumplings.
You see Zuzana (pronounced Susanna) is from the Czech Republic and has run the pub, the city’s oldest continual inhabited domestic building, with partner Michal Lapal for the last six months. She’s recently introduced a Czech menu with the usual burgers and steaks.
Now I’ve only been to Prague once and didn’t get beyond the touristy areas but I remember the dumplings and the advertised speciality – roast pork hocks which came impaled with a steak knife.
We learned never to put our knives and forks down or the waiters would whisk away your plate whether or not you’d finished. It hardly stopped raining. We couldn’t get to our chosen restaurant because the highway had turned into a river.
There’s still enough of the original timber-framed building left to give the Old Queen’s Head, joined at the hip to the much younger Transport Interchange, some atmosphere with its low, beamed ceilings, flagged floors and not-so-medieval picture window overlooking Pond Hill but it does look better outside than in.
The Grade II* listed building, owned by Thwaites, got a refurbishment in March just after the couple arrived. She’s worked in the licensed trade in Britain for the last six years and before that back home.
It’s quite busy our evening and the most atmospheric part of the old pub is now the dining room. Here and there are little knots of people who look and sound as if they come from Mittel Europa. Zuzana says they get a lot of Czechs and Slovaks from all over the North at weekends who come for the food.
After a trial mini-menu with only a couple of choices the offering has now grown to two starters at £2.95, eight mains at £6.95 and two three desserts at £2.95, which means you can have a three- course Czech meal for just under £13 without the trouble of going to Prague.
We began with potato pancakes and traditional soup which the English waitress said was vegetable. That was a fair old stab at it but she was wrong: it was garlic, lots of it in a clear broth, enough to keep me safe from vampires for a fortnight. Czechs call it česnečka.
It was given variety by a lump of cheese in the middle, already melting. “Not a good choice for a first date, that, garlic and strings of cheese,” observed my wife.
She had the pancakes, like giant rosti really, just grated potato and flour. I thought I could taste onion but apparently not, my tastebuds had been overpowered by garlic.
Food from this part of the world tends to be plain and heavy, designed to keep the cold out. I remember the dumplings at the short-lived Polonium Polish restaurant in Sheffield, so heavy they could have sunk a battleship.
Not so Czech ones. Here they are light, airy and full of holes like a Central European focaccia, steamed then sliced like slices of bread.
They are neutral tasting, designed to soak up gravy and fill your tum. Mine came with the beef goulash but if you are hoping for something spicy like the Hungarian version you’ll be disappointed. The paprika is there but flavours are muted.
There was paprika, too, but lots more of it in my wife’s paprika chicken, decent pieces of meat in a creamy sauce with potato pasta. It reminded me of nursery food.
“But it’s very comforting all the same,” said my wife.
Other traditional dishes include roast sirloin in sour cream or roast pork with sauerkraut, both with dumplings, pork or chicken schnitzel, chicken with ham, peach and cheese and the solitary vegetarian dish, fried cheese with potatoes.
By now we were feeling pretty full so the food was doing its job. We finished with more pancakes, this time rather nice conventional ones with marmalade, and more dumplings, studded with fruit.
With a couple of halves of Lancaster Bomber – I didn’t ask if they did Czech beers but you’ll get them at the nearby Sheffield Tap – we paid £28.70.
It’s worth a call if only for the novelty value.
40 Pond Hill, Sheffield S1 2BG. Tel: 07983 559073. Open all week for food (best to book weekends). Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Street parking.
HE DAWES VERDICT (out of five)
FOOD * * * (3)
ATMOSPHERE * * * * (4)
SERVICE * * * (4)
VALUE * * * * (4)