UNTIL a couple of months ago you could walk into 154 London Road and get a slice of apple pie and a cuppa, all for free, provided you promised to chat with your neighbour.
It housed the Sharrow Pie Experiment, one of those projects which sound airy-fairy to old cynics like me but to others meant an off-the-wall way of tackling crime and promoting social inclusion.
Eventually the pie, or the lease, ran out and today it is Tassili, very probably Sheffield’s first full-blown Algerian restaurant (if you don’t count the La Perle patisserie on The Wicker).
The nearest thing to pie on Tassili’s menu is the bourek, a filo pastry parcel containing mashed potato, olives and other goodies. I suggested to my wife she start with that.
“Does that mean I have go around and talk to people?” she asked, slightly alarmed. She relaxed on one of the two long, cushioned divans which run along either wall of the restaurant, underneath a tented ceiling. Beneath it, on the walls, are hung lots of brightly coloured rugs.
It’s not the first restaurant in Sheffield to have had a ‘Sheik of Araby’ ceiling but it did remind me of a desert tent I once stayed in when an old Arab tribesman offered me three camels for the lady I was with. We suspected he was joking. He meant five camels.
Tassili – it’s named after a desert region in the far south of Algeria – opened at the beginning of August and when you ring to book manager Adel Bouguerra will tell you that they don’t sell alcohol.
More than that they don’t even allow it in the place so don’t try Bring Your Own.
After our meal I asked him whether this might not be a commercial disadvantage on cut-throat London Road. We all know Muslims shouldn’t drink but that doesn’t stop waiters in Indian restaurants swooping down on your table like Stuka bombers to sell you another pint of lager.
He’s had customers query it. “We like to present our restaurant as a healthy one, where you can just have a night without alcohol. It’s like a detox with mint tea,” he said.
Tassili calls itself a Saharan restaurant, meaning that swathe of North Africa bounded by the Mediterranean sea, so there are tajines, couscous dishes and grills, but we found it a little odd that one of the specials our night was moussaka, which is Greek, so borders are obviously fluid.
With no booze they give you free water in lovely pottery jars but my wife had spotted the non-alcoholic fruit cocktails so we had one each, Idjassa (£2.95), pear and kiwi fruit with apple juice, and pineapple juice with coconut milk (£3.50). Lovely. Our detox was starting already.
One thing you need to know about Algerian cooking, at least on the strength of a visit to Tassili, is that flavours are less vibrant than with, say, Moroccan food. “They use too much turmeric,” said chef Mohammed Merabat later, who spent 10 years at the Moroccan-run Mediterranean restaurant.
He operates from a semi-open kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
There aren’t that many starters. The bourek was a quietly flavoured dish as was my bowl of gentle, soothing Chorba, or lamb, soup (both £3.95), quite meaty (there were pieces of lamb in it), thickened with ground wheat with a background of chilli and coriander.
You get free home made bread, olives and oil to begin with, and more with your meals. We enjoyed the crisp crust, dusted with onion seeds, and the moist, spongy crumb.
Just then a couple of hoodies mooched by and glanced idly in, no doubt hankering after a slice of peaceable pie.
My wife had the fish tagine (£11.95). We couldn’t quite catch the name of the fish but it was a little overcooked. There were plenty of vegetables and the broth was quite spicy.
I had the special couscous (£11.95), which featured a chunk of lamb on the bone, some good chicken and a couple of merguez sausages on a bed of couscous. Again flavours were muted. Most came from the sausage and I longed for a little more oomph from the tomato and chickpea sauce served with it.
At some point in an evening we inspect the toilets. They’re a long way down a corridor and I have to report a ‘first’ in the gents: there’s a tube of hair gel if your quiff needs perking up.
If neither couscous or tagines appeal there is also a selection of charcoal grilled skewers and whole grilled sea bass.
Desserts are well worth saving a little space for. A lemon tart (£4.50) was accomplished and you can get a selection of Algerian sweets, nutty and crumbly, for £3.95, best washed down with a pot of mint tea, advises the menu (£3 for two, although Adel gave us that for free). Coffee is also available.
Adel is a pleasant host. He came here to study (something to do with oil technology) and drifted into restaurants, at one time running Old Trafford’s Platinum Suite.
We liked our meal (it just did enough to rate four stars) but would urge a little bit more spiciness with some of the dishes, and I don’t necessarily mean heat.
We paid just under £40 for food, another fiver or so for drinks.
The Dawes Verdict
154 London Road, Sheffield S2 4LT.
Tel: 0114 258 3775.
Open all week 5-11pm.
Vegetarian dishes. Gluten-free by arrangement.
Credit cards. Music. Takeaways. Street parking.
Disabled access and toilets.