We’re having difficulty finding the place TripAdvisor currently rates the second best out of 203 in Doncaster. It’s on the market somewhere and we stop at a fish stall to ask.
“Come on I’ll take you,” says the fishmonger chummily and we shuttle past stalls selling crabs, cod and haddock and end up in a corner of what is called, a little ambitiously, the International Food Hall.
The Med at the Market doesn’t look the part, not a bit like the glamorous website which whetted our appetites, just a counter and collection of tables.
There’s no sign showing in our direction, no sign of the seafood for which it has been praised and no sign of life.
In fact, if we hadn’t been tipped the wink by a fellow foodie we would have thought this was another greasy spoon rather than one which serves up scallops with bacon and poached eggs for breakfast at £8.99 a pop.
Or offer seafood chowder and bifana, Portuguese-style pork, for lunch, washed down with a glass or bottle of wine.
Just when we think we’ve come on a bad day (actually Thursday is not the liveliest day anywhere on the market) owner James Wheeliker turns up. We’ve come early to stake out the place for later but he shows us the menu.
“If you know what you want I’ll go and buy it on the market,” he says obligingly, exactly what you might hear on some beach café fringing the Mediterranean.
We run our eyes down the list of dishes which includes meatballs, tapas, king prawns in chilli and lime, fish stews, seafood kebabs and chicken kebabs, as well as plenty of gourmet sandwiches, when James comes in with the clincher.
On Wednesday and Thursdays he’ll do two mains (but no scallops) and a bottle of wine for £20. He’s on.
We tour the markets for something to do. Even half-empty they make Sheffield’s decaying Sheaf Market look like a country cousin, a Local Shopper to a Sainsbury’s.
Doncaster claims its markets are among the busiest in the North (there are 10 separate markets on different days) and I’m drooling at the glistening monkfish, rosy red lobsters and crabs, let alone the sausages and steaks.
It has not yet had a state visit from Jamie Oliver or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall so it has had to make do with Antony Worrall Thompson (although they couldn’t spell his name right), who bought up a stall’s stock of hares and declared he wished there were more markets like Donny.
When we get back, the Med at the Market is still as quiet as off-season in Skeggy but James, aged 44, dressed in a smart black chef’s outfit, has reserved us a glass-topped table laid with cutlery, wine glasses and paper serviettes.
We’ve decided to do two courses and share a big plate of tapas (£12.49). It’s an assembly job but there’s plenty of good ham, olives, cheeses, stuffed peppers, white anchovies and some fine, springy ciabatta.
It’s from a former South Yorkshire bakery which decamped to Cornwall and drops off James part-baked supplies when the van comes north.
As he’s not got a lot to do he’s plenty of time to chat. He took over the café last November, having once worked for it, always wanting to cook. The previous owners have opened a restaurant in town.
“My mum was a waitress and when I told her what I wanted to do she must be the only mother who told her son to go down the mines!” he jokes.
Purely self-taught, he spent some time working and cooking in Spain which accounts for the Iberian influences on the menu which turn this little corner of the market in Costa del Donny.
I go for the Catalan fish stew, normally £10.99. It has a base of homemade tomato and pepper sauce with lobster stock and the contents will be whatever James can trawl on the fish stalls. My wife opts for the seafood kebabs (usually £9.95).
It turns out that his catch features sea bream, salmon and prawns.
The kebabs are excellent, particularly the prawns. Short of eating them on the beach fresh from the boat I can’t think of encountering, fresher livelier flavours. The two skewers come with a salad, pitta bread and aioli, very Mediterranean.
My soup is just as good, majoring on the bream. The broth is rich with musky undertones and there is plenty of fish although I don’t notice any prawns. There is more of the bread to mop up every drop.
James refills our glasses while we reflect on a simple yet tasty meal. Get this on the beach in Spain or Italy and you’d probably come home raving about it, but in Donny, even on a sunny day?
We finish with excellent coffees (£2 each). You can have one with brandy for £3.99.
With what James is offering, the Med at the Market should be heaving with customers all day but he needs to tell people what’s on offer a little more loudly. Some bunting, perhaps.
And I’m very tempted by those scallops and bacon . . .
Med at the Market
International Food Hall, Doncaster Market Place DN1 1DE. Tel: 07877 112 715. Open Tues-Sat 7am-5pm. Cash only. Licensed. Web: www.medatthemarket.co.uk