YOU have to be prepared to measure up as a restaurant critic. I once took a ruler to Pizza Express to check rumours pizzas had decreased in size (they hadn’t).
And only the other day I tore a sheet from my notebook to make a template of the smallest piece of main course sea bass we’d been served in almost a quarter century of reviewing.
It measured 3 ¼ by 2 ½ inches, hardly bigger than my business card.
“Size is not important. It is what the chef does with it that counts,” said my wife demurely across the table, for it was her dish.
And indeed, at the new Wig & Pen, taken over by the team from the Milestone gastro-pub at Kelham Island, the kitchen pairs it sparkily with white beans and a green pea and tarragon sauce for £16. Never mind that half the content of the “market vegetables” side dish is also peas.
Here are three things you need to know about the Wig & Pen. The previous business here went bust but all credit to Malcolm Schooling and his partners for not taking the perfectly legal easy way out – like some big names in this city – and starting up again as a new business after scuttling their debts.
New owners Matt Bigland and Mark Sheldon, still basking in the afterglow of their Gordon Ramsay telly experience at the Milestone, have moved in without having much to do, the place already extensively revamped.
They bring with them chefs Simon Ayres and James Wallis who have a reputation for creative snuffling in nature’s byways.
The second thing to know is that they’re saving on the lighting bill so take a torch at night.As at the Milestone, the lighting is murky. It comes to something when you have to get up from the table to examine the wine list under a nearby light bulb.
And the third thing to know is don’t believe them. Tempted by a dish of beef skirt, the pauper’s steak, a cut I’d not seen for years, on the website menu, I rang to book, asking if the menu was as stated.
Oh yes, I was told, although the fish might alter.
I should cocoa. The beef skirt had been changed to rump and, yes, that was cocoa in the sauce. Fair dos, rump is the better cut.
The best dining area is overlooking Paradise Square but we were given a wonky table in the anonymous Campo Lane side. Seeing the look of my wife’s face at its position by the door behind the bar the waiter said “Don’t worry, we don’t use that door.”
She ordered a langoustine and garlic crème fraiche pasta salad (£5.95) to begin with, supposing she’d find a big juicy crustacean lolling up against a pile of cold pasta. Instead she got a tangle of warm tagliatelle in a garlicky, creamy sauce with tiny bits of meat lurking within.
“A bit mean on the langoustine front,” she observed. She likes to twirl her pasta with the help of a spoon and I called for one the next time a waiter popped out of the door they didn’t use.
I’d gone surf n turf with steamed clams partnered with lamb sweetbreads and broad beans (£5.95). There were plenty of sweetbreads but tasted bland. The clams, though, were firm and sweet but the best thing was the shellfish broth at the bottom.
It was difficult to get at because there was no plate for the discarded shells and you can’t use a clam shell as a spoon like you can with mussels. I did, strangely, have a steak knife and fork but borrowed my wife’s spoon.
Lest this sound a series of grumps my main of beef rump with cocoa sauce, herb mash and tempura oyster (£15.50) was perfect in every way except that they’d forgotten the herbs in the mash.
This again was surf n turf and a nod to the old Nineteenth Century dish of beef with oysters. The meat was pink and excellently flavoured and the single, battered oyster was gorgeous. The chocolate enhanced sauce worked well.
We won’t harp on about the sea bass except to note that what there was was good, although my wife needed two vegetables to make up the quantity (she also had potatoes) which meant £21 for a nourishing main.
Desserts are well worth exploring. A carrot and walnut fondant with a white chocolate and carrot centre (£6) which I ordered for the sheer delight of having “carrot anglaise,” a sort of carroty custard, was lovely as was orange jelly and cardamom and honey blancmange (£5.50), a complex dish with lots of little extras.
We finished with excellent coffee, reflecting that our evening could have been a lot better but there’s no denying that when it hits the mark the food is well worth having.
The manager told us he was not charging us for one dessert as compensation because of the sea bass. “It slipped through the net,” he said.
It wouldn’t have had much difficulty, would it?
With the reduction we paid £55.45 for food ,£10.90 for two glasses of wine (I thoroughly recommend the Chilean house merlot) and £3.50 for coffees.
WIG & PEN
44 Campo Lane, Sheffield S1 2EG
Telephone: 0114 272 2150
Open Mon-Fri 12-4pm and 5-10pm, Sat 11am-4pm and 5-10pm, Sun 11am-4pm and 5-9pm. Credit cards. Parking and toilet.
My star ratings (out of five):