GO on, test me. I can tell you what was on Jean-Paul Strappazzon’s menu in 2005...
Boeuf Bourguignon, thyme-roasted chicken, duck a l’orange and crepes with banana flambé. Oh, and a steak.
And 2008? The same. And today? That’s right, the same.
This reviewer can get a little sniffy about menus preserved in aspic but Jean-Paul has an excuse. “My customers would kill me if I took them off.”
Listen, I’d kill just to know how he does that wonderful tarte tatin which splendidly rounded off my meal the other night. Instead of the usual sad, half-caramelised slices of apple this was a beautiful cushion of almost frothy fruit bursting with flavour on a thin, crisp pastry base.
If you found Ceres down some French back street after a trip across the Channel you’d come back excited about this lovely little bistro you’d discovered. Save your journey. This one’s right here, on Sharrowvale Road.
Ceres is in transition. For a start they’ve dropped the ‘café’ bit from the name, although it still is, and are calling it the Ceres French Bistro (or they will when the signwriter arrives) because, as Jean-Paul says, there is nothing to tell the passer-by there is French cooking inside.
Well, the A-board outside often proclaims, proudly, ‘French chef’ and anyone who has ever eaten any of its pastrywork, or taken home one of Ceres’ famous onion tarts, will be left in no doubt.
And word’s got about.
They’ve also had a paint job. Gone are the bright yellow walls which made you think you were eating inside a giant jug of custard.
Colours are now a more sedate white and grey with the odd Alpine skiing photograph, for monsieur is from Chammonix.
The cooking is far from grey. He and Caroline took over the place 11 years ago as a café and deli, although the latter side soon died off in the face of supermarket competition. The highly popular bistro is on three nights a week and the city council insists last orders are at 7.30pm.
The good news is that eating here doesn’t cost a bras or a jambe and you can bring your own wine.
With no more than 30 covers on two floors it’s a bit of a squeeze. Our table for two was squashed between a wall and the chimney breast.
Service was from a slightly manic young lad who had still to come to grips with culinary terms or their spelling. He offered “mussels a la marinara” as a starter special, which we guessed to be moules mariniere.
They were superb, without a hint of cream (which chefs seem to want to add to this French classic) but with reduced gloriously garlicky juices. We noticed it later written on the bill as “muscles £4.50.”
My carrot soup was thick with a subtle ginger flavouring, creeping up on your tastebuds to provide a gentle heat.
I had the roast chicken at a bargain £8. The meat, a leg and piece of breast, was lip smackingly good, as if the bird had just been plucked squawking from the farmyard. It tasted of the very essence of chicken, which is not always what you get.
It came with sauté potatoes and roast carrots and parsnip with a demi-glace gravy, gloopy but in a good way.
My wife felt beefy. The boeuf bourguignon (£9.50) only comes on the menu when nights draw in. The meat has been marinated and it tastes almost gamey, every bit as good as the same dish wolfed down in Burgundy. This is accompanied by a nice heap of creamy mash.
The great thing about Ceres is that the kitchen – the second chef here is Louis Catalano –produces wonderfully tasting food without any airs and graces.
If you want elegant plate design go elsewhere. Here simple, humble ingredients get transformed.
I’ve told you about the tarte tatin (£3.20). It comes with cream. “Is there an alternative?” I asked our waiter. “Without cream,” he said.
Our other sweet was a classic crème brulée (£3.80) and by that I mean it came in a shallow dish with the cream at a delicate wobble with a definite vanilla taste under a thin, brittle layer of caramelised sugar. Perfect.
Now some may say that this menu is a cliché and in one sense it is. But it is so beautifully done that you don’t mind at all.
You certainly don’t mind the price, a bargain £33.50 (with corkage).
I said Ceres was in transition. So is the menu. The blackboard favourites will migrate to a written one leaving space for the specials of the day because I suspect that even Jean-Paul gets a little bored cooking duck a l’orange for a decade and wants to branch out.
So if you’re a regular your favourite dish will still be there and there is no chance of murder taking place: not of the chef and certainly not of the food.
390 Sharrowvale Road, Hunters Bar, Sheffield S11 8ZP.
Tel: 0114 267 9090.
Open Mon-Sat from 9.15am-4.30pm. Bistro nights Thur-Sat, last orders 7.30pm. Music: none but the kitchen plays Fleetwood Mac. BYO (corkage £1.50). Outside toilet (not disabled). Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):