Any food writer will tell you that if you want to put a kitchen through its paces order the soup. If it tastes as if it’s had a lot of loving care put into it, rather than a stock cube and a few veg, then the place is in good hands.
And save space for dessert and something with pastry because that is a second test for a good restaurant.
Now if this works for posh restaurants why shouldn’t it with cafes? In which case, Paul Simmonds’ 355 Club on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, passes with flying colours.
You might struggle to categorise this tiny place, no bigger than your auntie’s back parlour with just three tables, 14 chairs and three stools, and a giant portrait of a cow on one wall.
This section of town is mostly Asian and there’s a little sign in the window to indicate the meat in the spicy Mexican chicken or chicken tikka is halal. But it is also the only place in half a mile where you can get a bacon sandwich.
Then Friday to Sunday there’s a range of Caribbean dishes to testify to Paul’s West Indian roots.
Afternoon tea? We’ve heard that Paul is pretty nifty in the cakes department.
Paul, we find later, likes to say his place, with its mix of sandwiches and hot dishes, is first of all a typical English café. That’s the hot roast pork sandwich bit but there can’t be many like the 355. Perhaps his motto, “Diverse cuisine in a diverse country,” is more accurate. The customers are, black, white and Asian.
We take the table by the counter, under which is a box of onions and on top a little stack of cookery books including a Gary Rhodes and baking manual.
The advertised soup, potato and onion has run out, but from the kitchen Paul offers his Saturday Soup. It turns out that Saturday Soup, often whatever Paul dreams up, is locally famous.
It’s chicken with vegetables and has so much depth of flavour and complexity I ask later how he does it. Chicken pieces, legs and thighs mostly, are marinated in roast and ground fennel and coriander overnight then cooked off with garam masala into a gentle spicy broth.
The soup is £1. I can’t believe it. He explains it is that price because he has invited us to have it. “I like to try different ideas.”
There are just a couple of Caribbean dishes on sale, crispy chicken and lamb curry, but if his wife Denise hadn’t been having her birthday that Sunday there would have been much more, certainly baked cod, curried mackerel, deep-fried snapper (mind the bones) and saltfish and ackee.
As it is we do very nicely. For £3.50 each we have the chicken with jerk seasoning and a crispy skin and the curry, not too overpoweringly hot, served with the meat on the bone. Both come with a timbale of rice and peas. “I could eat this on its own,” says my wife.
Meanwhile I am impressed by the other accompaniments, a home made coleslaw and a bowl of mashed roast sweet potato, which tastes as if it has been spiced but isn’t – the natural sugars are doing the work.
Sweet and savoury also works a real treat with the fried dumplings (two for £1). Paul has added a little Demerara which not only sweetens the dough but caramelises beautifully in the crust when fried. You’d think they’d be greasy but they’re not.
The tiny 355 Club with its red door and single table teetering precariously on the sloping pavement outside – it’s there more to signal the place is open than to sit on – is proving to be quite a find.
We have a moist, springy Victoria sponge, with plenty of cream and jam, and an intense, dense Death by Chocolate, washed down with milky coffee. Baking is his current passion.
And there’s a final pleasant surprise: the bill for three courses and drinks is £15.60 and it has all been homemade.
Paul, aged 49, opened last year for Denise who serves but it seems to be his baby. He’s dreamed of his own place since the Firth Park Kentucky Fried Chicken hired him at 15.
“I think I love this café more than Denise does,” says Paul, who added Caribbean dishes almost as an afterthought. They are proving very popular and local traders take them home for tea.
Will he do well? He deserves to on quality and price. But he might want to square things with Denise.
We ask if he’s baked her a birthday cake. “Do you know, I didn’t think about it,” he confesses.