In January I got an email from mature catering student Stephen Jarvis at Rotherham College telling me that cooking was better than his previous job as a builder and I ought to try its newly revamped Wharncliffe training restaurant.
I looked it up online and found it was in Percy Street.
“That’s where I once went to the sexual dysfunction clinic – quite an appropriate address,” I said.
My wife looked at me thoughtfully.
“For a story,” I added hurriedly.
The menu looked interesting but we went in a snowstorm to find it closed for a staff function.
Normally I wouldn’t have bothered to try again but something intrigued me about a place that could offer mushroom and sage tortellini as a starter.
You won’t find too many of those in Rotherham.
And if the cooking could inspire a man from a building site it was succeeding where Jamie Oliver had failed.
This time the weather was sunny as we passed the forlorn, empty premises of Jamie’s Ministry of Food in All Saints’ Square, closed last year.
Rotherham hasn’t really taken his healthy eating credo to heart.
The college recently spent £1 million on the Wharncliffe and its kitchen which stands looking sleek and modern on the apex of Percy and Wharncliffe Streets. When we called the new premises had been open for just eight weeks.
The restaurant itself is big, seating around 80, open most of the day for breakfast, lunch – soup, salad or a sandwich – or from an a la carte menu which also serves for the early evening.
Prices are keen: £3 for a soup, £4 or £6, depending on size, for starters such as crispy duck salad, salmon with dill, vegetable roulade and that tortellini. Main course specials are £7 and desserts from £3.
It was busy but that didn’t stop us being seized upon by waiters, looking smart in their black uniforms with green ties or scarves, as we walked through the door.
A training restaurant can put on more waiting staff than a commercial enterprise – after all they’re learning – but we did get rather a lot of visits to our tables, sometimes two at once.
One keen young chap asked if everything was all right before we’d had a bite to eat.
They are, according to lecturer Alison Lomax, who heads up front of house, briefed on what the dishes entail. It doesn’t necessarily stay in!
When my wife asked after the fish special waiter Kyle assured her it was cod baked in the oven. Right, that’s not pan-fried, then. And how? “In a red oil,” or that’s what it seemed he said.
We expected cod with chorizo and got cod in a herbed veloute sauce.
Apart from the erroneous menu description it was Kyle who stood out for sheer enthusiasm and this was the job for him. Some were already thinking of switching courses – to plumbing.
The soup, served not with the promised roll but a couple of pieces of very pleasant home baked bread, was butternut squash.
This is often either too thick or too thin but had the right consistency, good balance in seasoning and not over sweet.
The tortellini were very creditable indeed. The pasta wasn’t bad at all although the kitchen might have been braver with the sage but this was a pleasant dish, moistened with a beurre blanc sauce.
The cod was well judged and flavoursome while I had the meat special.
Not looking too closely at the menu I thought I was eating breast of lamb stuffed with vegetables but checking later it turned out to be braised shoulder.
Whatever, this was very tasty, again well judged and tender, with a tomato and olive jus.
It was perched on a slightly soggy potato rosti and served with wilted greens and only semi cooked salsify but was well worth the money.
So were the desserts. Lime and blueberry cheesecake was fine but what stood out was an individual Queen of Puddings, seldom seen on restaurant menus but which deserves reviving.
There was a soft meringue topping over a spongy layer with stewed apple. It would have been good as it was but the kitchen had decided to gild the lily. So I got ice cream, Chantilly cream, a topping of spun sugar and a little bit of chocolate work. Well, why not?
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meal and all credit to the kitchen, supervised that day by tutors Phil Callus and John Cusworth.
Rotherham people obviously appreciate its worth. The Wharncliffe is listed at 28 out of 191 local restaurants.
Alison hopes that in the long run the restaurant will open all the time, rather than just in term so it won’t be closed for staff functions as it was on our first visit.
Customers need to know when it’s open.
We paid £24 for food, £4.70 for two glasses of wine and £2.20 for coffees, a bargain total of £31.30. If Jamie ever comes back to town he should try here.
There is a tendency to be generous with students but I have judged this on a commercial basis so the service rating suffers.
And wouldn’t it be just perfect to tell you that Stephen, the ex-builder who tipped me off, had helped to cook our meal?
He hadn’t. He was prepping for the next session.
Wharncliffe Restaurant, Percy Street, Rotherham S65 1ED. Tel: 01709 722 76701709 722 767. Open Mon, Tues and Fri 7.30am-4pm, Wed and Thurs until 8pm. Disabled access and toilets. Vegetarian meals. Credit cards. Street parking. Web: www.thewharncliffe.co.uk