THIS country may be obsessed with America, but Italy must be a close second, writes David Walsh
Brash, new, innovative - that’ll be some Yankee wickedness invading our shores.
Cool, continental sophistication is often thought to come from the heart of the former Roman empire.
Which probably explains why we get Italian coffee when it’s not grown there, Italian leather sofas and Italian fashion – but mostly Italian food.
My mum has an old guidebook from the late ’50s which urges visitors to Naples to try a local delicacy called “pizza”.
Over the last 30 years Italian cuisine has invaded every house in the land and a great many eateries.
But if you’ve had it once or twice for tea that week already, how special is an Italian meal out anyway?
On the other hand, French cuisine is as aloof as de Gaulle. Uncompromising, complicated, and as heedless of popularity as a waiter on the Champs Elysee, it is still the benchmark against which food is judged.
But why is it so unpopular? In Sheffield today there are just a handful of French restaurants – and three of them are Café Rouge.
Bistrot Pierre at Banner Cross is one.
General manager Nick Dunkley is well aware of our “absolute fixation” with Italian food. Naturally, he doesn’t share it.
He said: “Italian is casual. If we’re being honest, it takes a certain level of skill to do French cuisine – it’s more sophisticated dining.
“I think people are ready for change. They want something they can’t produce at home in 10 minutes.”
Perhaps he’s right because there are now nine BPs in the expanding chain. And the revolving door of taste means seventies French favourites beef bourguignon and coq au vin are now hip. They’re “flying out”, says Nick.
Inside the new building on Ecclesall Road the modern décor and wooden floors are complemented by a floor-to-ceiling window giving diners a delightfully elevated first floor view over busy Ecclesall Road.
It’s not the nice bit to be fair, and the tables and chairs set out on the grimy pavement every day are simply an ‘A’ board for the restaurant, especially in December.
But up there you are insulated from it all, and as I sat down on a grey Saturday and contemplated a three-course lunch for £11.95, something rather nice happened. It started to feel like a bit of an occasion.
Might as well have a starter, and how about some ‘aromatic, perfumed and elegant’ pinot blanc? Excellent. The bonhomie was well established by the time the food arrived.
This company aims to serve up quality provincial French food and sends its executive chef and others to the country to source the best grub.
But authenticity is ditched when it comes to service. A telling moment came when I turned to glimpse the blackboard bearing the specials – and a waiter materialised in an instant thinking I wanted assistance.
Then, rather than leave me to wander over for a proper view of it, he brought it to the table.
The gousse d’ail roti – whole roasted garlic bulb – with artisan bread was a culinary voyage of discovery. It took us a minute to realise the bulbs were so soft they could be spread like pate. There was enough garlic flavour left to give it taste, without that long lasting ‘zing’, and the bread had us commenting on its nutty flavour and exuberant texture.
The fricassee with my brioche et champignons was rich and heady and was savoured to the last blob. But my partner’s deep fried calamari with lemon and aioli was thought to have too thin batter and a honey and mustard dressing which clashed.
In contrast she reckoned her chicken supreme with creamed leaks was beautifully cooked, and the frites were just the right skinny but with a lovely rustic edge.
My quiche of sweet potato, caremelised onions, sage, gruyere and aioli was rich but somewhat understated and went well with the seasonal vegetables.
And the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier and chantilly cream which followed drilled deep into its cocoa foundations and hit paydirt.
Meanwhile, the creme brulee, was melting hearts. The caramel top, as brittle as a frozen pond, broke through to a velvety vanilla cream – and it was on the large side. So full marks.
Bistrot Pierre has a kids’ menu, which is still fully French but with plainer flavours. It also offers half portions from the grown ups’ menu for half price for the young and adventurous.
The lunch menu changes every two to three weeks and the evening menu changes with the seasons. It also offers six-course gastronomic evenings and ‘dine with wine’ events.
Fine French food with sparkling service. Could Bistrot Pierre teach the French something, peut etre?
BISTROT PIERRE: 837 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield; Tel: 0114 267 8687
* Breakfast: Saturday, 9.30am to 11.30am; Sunday, 9.30am to noon. Lunch: Monday to Saturday, noon to 3pm; Sunday, 12.30pm to 3.30pm. Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5.30pm to 10.30pm; Friday and Saturday, 5.30pm to 11pm; Sunday, 6pm to 10.30pm.
* Cards accepted
* Parking round the back
* My star ratings (out of five):