One thing that puts people off posh restaurants is that they can be a little superior.
There was the place where one diner, a bluff sort of cove, asked for bitter as a pre-dinner drink. “Bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?” was the snooty reply.
Despite meals costing £50 a whack they don’t do snooty at Greenhead House but they do do fun.
Neil and Anne Allen are coming up to 30 years at their Chapeltown restaurant in December but the years haven’t dulled their impish sense of humour. The food is excellent but isn’t served with that inflated reverence you sometimes see. On every table is a brightly coloured bucket and spade with daisies and a windmill. A butter hedgehog stares at us unblinkingly with peppercorn eyes.
During the meal I pop upstairs to the gents and, yes, it’s still there, a copy of the Beano annual (2013 edition) and a bagatelle. In the corner, underneath the soft loo roll, is a vintage packet of Izal paper, the Made in Sheffield sort which slides off you.
Thirty years is a long time in the restaurant game. Neil, after working at the Savoy and Francis Coulson’s Sharrow Bay, was 25 when he and Anne turned the 17th century cottage into a bijou restaurant.
The cooking, country house style combined with French overtones, opened up new vistas for a Sheffield public. Seating around 30 (your money doesn’t buy that invisible ingredient in posh restaurants, personal space), people then said it was easier to get your child into Eton than book a table at weekends at Greenhead House.
It’s a lovely evening so we first sit out in the garden, next to the chimney pot with a sweep’s brush sticking up, with drinks and ‘snacks,’ says one of our charming waitresses, of tiny éclairs filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese. It’s a short menu, with a choice of four dishes at each stage, priced according to the main course. Both are £47.95 and it’s all in, including coffee and petit fours. It follows the almost defunct country house style with an intermediate course.
My starter is straight out of the Eighties, crab a la King (although the chicken version goes back to 1890), in a cream sauce with Cognac glazed under the grill. Tastes are vivid and it is brought up to date with roast red pepper crostini.
There is also a citrus cocktail or pork spare ribs with quince paste but my wife chooses the Gorgonzola mousse, despite not particularly liking the cheese. She likes this. “It hasn’t got that harshness it normally has,” she enthuses.
The centrepiece is a square of mousse, cheesy with unusual Gallic modesty, topped with a whirl of Parma ham and accompanied by panzanella, Italian bread and tomato salad. It’s light and lovely.
So are our intermediate course choices, sparklingly sharp rhubarb sorbet and a salmon and chervil mousse, as generously portioned as a starter. It is so good we could both eat it all evening.
The dining room has no music but is lively in a French way. Sepulchral atmospheres are not often witnessed at Greenhead, certainly not with Anne in charge. She pitches the tone just right and staff follow.
A noisy table of eight is having its main course. “Pink lamb?” calls one waitress. “I’ve got a pinker one,” says her friend.
The lamb is glorious. Three tender pieces of loin, with sweet, soft fat, are served with a tiny tartlet with the softest of pastry containing a slice of artichoke. The intense red wine sauce is textured with finely cut shallots.
You go elsewhere for Picasso-style plate design but my wife’s lemon sole fillets are a study in yellow. The fillets have a tempura-light thyme batter and sit on a chalky scallop and saffron risotto, summer on a plate.
Neil (Andrew Capper is sous chef) hasn’t succumbed to the cheffy trend of plating dishes with the minimum of reluctant vegetables. There’s a copper pan with a panache of snap peas, broad beans, new potatoes and carrots.
My wife, hearing my Beano tales, returns from the Ladies with no fun to report. “You ought to have a Bunty or a Jackie annual,” she suggests to Anne later.
It doesn’t matter which dessert you pick, or the cheese, because they’ll invite you to have another afterwards, at no extra charge.
We have a compote of warm cherries spiked with Kirsch served in puff pastry with chocolate ice cream on top, the difference in temperatures delighting the tongue, and strawberries with crisp shortbread.
In the lounge for coffee and madeleines, we reflect a meal doesn’t come cheap. With pre-dinner drinks and a glass of wine it is £118.
But if you’ve got a special occasion and want it to be gradely, there’s no safer bet.