WHEN an interesting new restaurant opens it normally take me less than 18 months to get around to sizing it up. Not so with Buca.
For much of that time the casual observer would not have known it was there, hiding behind closed shutters on the corner of Abbeydale and Chippinghouse Roads, Sheffield. It took months for a sign to go up.
If you sense a certain reluctance to do business you could be right. For half the week it is closed, opening only from Thursdays through the weekend.
Whenever we rang they were always full or had a private party and we couldn’t commit ourselves several weeks ahead.
Once we nearly got in but they didn’t have the bookings list to hand and never called back.
Others have more successful, many of them customers at Bragazzi’s, that amiable raffish little deli next door but one serving superior sarnies and good coffee. You’ll know it – there’s a Vespa scooter in the window.
Buca, which means ‘mouthful’ in Italian, is the son of Bragazzi’s, or as my wife quite rightly observes, Buca grown up. For once the shutters are off and the door is opened you realise you can’t judge from appearances.
Inside it is pleasantly spacious with a wooden floor, a wall stripped back to the bricks, commodious and decently spaced wooden tables (just seven or eight) and chairs with old treacle tins as vases.
It could be a bohemian café in a London suburb instead of Abbeydale Road.
Buca is the project of the eponymous Matt at Bragazzi’s and his business partner and chef Tim Lindley. Oddly, despite his ancestry, Matt looks and sounds as English as pork pie. It is Tim who has a touch of the continental about him.
They promise, so the website declares, Southern European peasant cooking.
Cheap then? Not quite. Some time ago I looked at the menu and saw that the most expensive main was grilled whole mackerel at £15.50, a quid more than the rib eye steak. And even though it came with pepperoncino, pak choi and spuds, I wondered what sort of Southern European peasant could afford that.
It was a very, very big mackerel, said Tim after our meal, giving me to understand it was more than a mouthful.
Anyway, it was off the menu when we got there, much to Tim’s relief as he had trouble fitting it under his grill.
It’s a shortish bistroey menu at present although by next month it will expand – as will the opening times. There may be a certain cachet in being a restaurant difficult to get in but that’s not going to make their fortunes.
The shutters will go and there will be more tables, under a pergola at the back.
We began well with escabeche of red mullet (£6.50), the fillet marinated in white wine, wine vinegar, star anise, juniper and saffron, to give it a complex, delicate taste. It was served up on a mound of posh leaves and almonds, very Spanish.
Nothing tricksy was done to my dish, a chunk of classy Osakan tuna served up sashimi-style, barely seared on one side only, with strips of pickled cucumber and toasted pumpkin seeds.
Tim prefers the simple style of cooking, letting excellent ingredients speak for themselves. That, however, does not preclude ministering to them tenderly before cooking.
Take my wife’s main course salmon (£16), cured in vodka and fresh beetroot juice, which gave it not only colour but sweetness, before cooking. This came with crayfish tails and potatoes. Other vegetables were extra.
Since this would bring the total cost of the dish to £19 we thought it a bit much so she had some of the ample watercress from my duck confit, a reasonable tenner.
The duck was very decently cooked, although a slightly crisper skin would have been nicer. Hazelnuts were mixed with the watercress. I paid another £3 for potatoes.
Sweets are a choice of two for a fiver and are very well done. If you want the cheeseboard Matt, who serves, pops into the deli to get it.
We had a lovely, densely textured vanilla New York cheesecake and an excellent pastry tartlet with a crisp apple filling.
Our bill for food was £50.50, a touch pricy, but we had thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed evening.
We liked little touches such as the way Matt talks you through the menu and the ‘wine list’ which is a small collection of bottles set out on a table, each with a brown label with the price around its neck. We chose a perky Sicilian Grillo for £11.
Coffees, of course, are excellent.
Buca, 220 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, S7 1FL.
Telephone: 0114 255 1425 or 07830 104 219.
Currently open Thur-Sat from 6.30pm but from next month 9am-midnight and Sundays 10am-7pm. Vegetarian dishes. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilet. Licensed. Music. Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):