OPENING a restaurant is a bit like cycling downhill blindfold without brakes. You know you are probably going to fall off but are going to give it a dammed good try and hope you don’t get too badly bruised.
It’s like that with restaurants. Since the lifespan of your average eaterie is five years or less a lot of chefs and owners end up financially in the deep fat frier.
But hope springs eternal in the cheffy breast – thank goodness or I’d be out of a job – and here’s one of the latest, which shows every sign of being a success.
It is James Barrett’s first venture as chef-patron, the confidently named Barrett’s on Hutcliffe Wood Road, Sheffield.
It’s not on the main drag and he’s in the premises of another place which failed to last the pace, Ranulph’s, and no further than you can throw a fondant potato from Grayson’s, which failed to survive a year.
But James, aged 33, whose cooking credits include London’s Atlantic Bar and Grill, various hotels and, closer to home, the Plough at Hathersage, Cricket Inn at Totley, where he was head chef, Druid at Birchover, Staindrop Lodge and Fischers of Baslow, reckons he’s not out on a limb.
“The road outside has three rush hours a day. The traffic stands still and people have time to see where we are,” he says.
James has titivated up the bijou premises with a mushroom and cream décor, gilt mirrors, cheffy pictures and, perched on a shelf, a nude female torso.
There’s space for six tables upstairs and a room downstairs has been turned into another, though windowless, dining area.
He’s done a lot of the work himself on a budget: the paint was left over from a previous flat.
Barrett’s ticks my boxes. I love bistros. I love neighbourhood restaurants. I love BYO (there’s not even a corkage charge). I love good cooking. And I love it when the chef gets his apostrophes in the right place.
James, who opened just 11 days after his wife Katie gave birth to their second child, a daughter, and is in the process of moving house, betrays no sense of exhaustion in his cooking.
He offers two courses for £15.95 or three for £18.95 in the week with an a la carte only at weekends which touches £30, although BYO makes it an attractive option.
Cooking is confident, relaxed, with precise flavours and little confusion on the plate. And it’s all made in the kitchen except the ice cream, he claims.
There was soup or garlic mushrooms on rosemary and rock salt bread for starters but we went for the crispy griddled asparagus with poached egg and parmesan (don’t you just hate slimy boiled asparagus?) and a decently flavoured confit of duck pressed into a terrine, both served on slates.
It came with lightly pickled vegetables, thin slivers of radish, carrot and shards of onion – a novelty when I first started doing this job over 20 years ago – and slices of home made, sweet tasting griddled wholemeal bread.
Main courses come in bowls. A cube of sticky pork belly was tender and melting, the sweetness provided by a ginger and orange glaze. There was no crackling but the skin had been scored and was approaching crunchiness.
It was served with wilted spinach, ginger glazed carrots, a lovely fondant potato and a very intense Madeira jus.
My wife had the wild mushroom risotto, firm, just on the right side of chalkiness, and extra interest and texture was added with a scattering of seeds.
Other mains were braised beef, tiger prawn and crab linguine, and chicken, squid,chorizo and chick pea casserole.
Desserts are a bit limited, compared to the a la carte menu: an apple tart, rhubarb and praline fool, chocolate brownies and cheeseboard.
The tart was very finely sliced Bramley apple on a crisp flaky pastry disc, pleasant but quiet in flavour, while the fool was the only dish which failed to pass muster. The best had not been coaxed from the fruit and a home made cantucci biscuit was less than convincing.
That said (and could we mention the music can be a little overpowering?) this was a very relaxed evening helped along by expert service from young waitress Katy and decent coffee.
James, who has help from chef de partie Charles Cutts most nights, is doing most things right. Let’s just hope that Hutcliffe Wood latches on to the enterprise on its doorstep.
We paid £44.20 – pretty good value for the money.
2 Hutcliffe Wood Road, Sheffield S8 0EX.
Tel: 0114 249 1055.
Open Mon-Sat 11.30am-5pm and Wed-Sat until 9.30pm (last orders). Sunday lunch first Sunday of every month (from this Sunday). Vegetarian dishes (gluten-free by arrangement). Disabled access but downstairs toilets. Credit cards. Music. BYO. Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):