FOOD REVIEW: A shedload of charm is paying off

The Rhubarb Shed manager Tony Dunn, with pie chips and peas. The cafe is in Manor Lane.
The Rhubarb Shed manager Tony Dunn, with pie chips and peas. The cafe is in Manor Lane.
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IT was that font of all knowledge – the bloke in a pub – who first told me about the new pay-what-you-feel-for-your-meal pie night at The Rhubarb Shed.

“Or as I like to call it,” he noted, “pay nowt for your meal.”

He was joking. I think.

There is no way anyone with tastebuds should want to leave this little eatery at Manor Lodge without offering some token of appreciation for their three-course feed. It’s a delight.

The young staff are enthusiastic, the atmosphere is snug, and the grub is good. Not even the fact the toilets are an outdoor corrugated cabin down the end of an unlit path can spoil things. Much. More of which shortly.

For now, head chef Tony Dunn – formerly of The Maynard in Grindleford – came up with the unusual pricing policy as a way of expanding the cafe’s opening hours, while developing the skills of his apprentices.

The place – nestled in the centre of Manor Lodge’s mediaeval park, just off Manor Lane – has been open during the day for three years. Visitors will already know it does terrific sandwiches and soups with ingredients largely sourced from the onsite farm.

Now, the bistro pie night, which started at the beginning of February and runs every Thursday, is a way of seeing if customers will come on an evening too. They should.

Things are by no means perfect. Those toilets aren’t especially inviting (though there are plans to install indoor ones by the end of the year), and what appears to be the occasional ping of a microwave in the open kitchen is offputting.

And, yet, when you’re in this ancient little stone building – all low ceilings, mismatched furniture and nothing so modern as a window – and there’s a kid offering to pour your bring-your-own booze, you can’t help feel charmed.

The way it all works is simple: there’s a blackboard with a choice of four or five starters, four or five pies (and sides), and four or five desserts. You pick what you want, and, at the end, you pay what you want.

To begin, the soup – butternut and ginger on our visit – is lovely, so thick and bold you could almost eat it using a knife and fork. The mini Yorkshire puddings with sausages, meanwhile, are decent too, the fluffy batter mix and meat enlivened by a sharp Henderson’s gravy. The pies are impressive. The chicken and chorizo in paprika gravy combines mediaeval England and modern European, zippy with flavour but reassuringly solid. The steak and kidney has a peppercorn sauce that is perhaps a little runny but which hums with honesty.

Bizarrely, perhaps, the real highlights are the sides. Mash, thick chips and minted peas could be served in any five star restaurant and not be out of place; while the natural sweetness of the carrots has been teased out so well, one could almost be eating candy.

Which brings us to puddings. The chocolate brownie was thick and fudgy while white chocolate mouse with shortbread was served in a teacup and tasted as pretty as it looked.

How much did we pay? That would be telling but Tom reckons customers so far have been plenty generous.

They have every reason to be.