ONE of the hazards of restaurant reviewing is to hit a drop night. For those unfamiliar with catering trade slang it means an evening when there are few, if any, people in.
For a food critic it means he and his partner have the place all to themselves for the evening.
It’s a bit like going to a party and finding the other guests have not turned up.
It can happen in the best of places: for us in a local Michelin-starred restaurant and there was that drop lunch last year on the Scottish coast in another equally starry establishment.
There are all sorts of reasons, people cancel, the city has gone away on holiday or there’s something unmissable on the telly but you can’t escape the feeling, unkind though it is, that everyone else is in on a secret you don’t know about. Actually, it was the Olympics.
There is, though, one inescapable rule. At some point during the evening the owner/chef/waitress invariably says “You should have been in here last night, we were full to bursting.”
And indeed, during our Saturday drop night at the new Little Mesters bistro at Kelham Island Museum our waitress remarked that they had been busy on the night before.
In the meantime, the poor critic is working overtime. He’s not only got his tastebuds busy calculating the number of stars he’s going to give the food, he’s feverishly peopling the place in his imagination to estimate the atmosphere.
And on drop nights he can’t furtively scribble notes on his knee as he can in a busy restaurant since his table is, inevitably, the centre of attention.
I remember the place where we were heavily outnumbered by waiting staff who stood to attention around the room and eavesdropped on every word.
Nothing like that happened at Little Mesters. Our waitress was discreet but she wasn’t letting on until halfway through our meal that, because of a cancellation, we were to be the only diners.
The restaurant, with its tiled floor and whitewashed brick walls hung with black and white photos of Firth Brown in its heyday, is a comfortable space. Tables are roomy with white cloths and Oneida cutlery.
The café, now with its weekend bistro, has been leased to Nicola Wright and David Briggs, who also run outside caterers Food By Firefly, with a brief to raise its profile. No, I didn’t know the museum had a café, either, or a bistro.
It doesn’t help that the museum is closed on two of the potentially busiest days of the week, Friday and Saturday, yet the café is open week-round. But that’s Sheffield for you.
Things have yet to bed in fully at Little Mesters – there was no lemon or ice for my wife’s G&T – as we went in the eaterie’s early days (I was stopped in the street and recommended to it).
The menu changes monthly and costs £18.95 for two courses, £24.95 for three, with four choices at each stage.
You can also order a plate of nibbles as appetisers for £3.50 each. We shared one and enjoyed a mini Yorkshire pudding with caramelised onions and really good cheese straws, root vegetable crisps, olives as well as commendable focaccia.
A crab, salmon and dill terrine, wrapped in salmon, was a pleasant beginning. It came with a piece of confit lemon. “I could have done with that lemon in my gin,” my wife said.
My soup, celeriac and pear, had gentle, soothing flavours but the rather too toasted almond garnish introduced the odd harsh note. There was also pigeon with beetroot salad and a tian of red and yellow tomatoes for veggies.
I enjoyed my main, roasted chump of lamb, the best dish of the night, very tender and served pink, on a bed of mash, with a robust minted redcurrant sauce. But why did chef James Wright (no relation to Nicola) have to send out broccoli that was going brown before cooking?
My wife’s main course was not quite up to the mark. A curried cod fillet on top of a crab risotto looked and tasted a bit of a modge.
The pork fillet with a black pudding stuffing has received approval (from my informant) and the fourth offer was a root vegetable salad with chilli.
Our waitress, for some reason, wanted to offer us a jug of tap water despite the fact that we’d already ordered a bottle of fizzy. At her fourth time of asking I gave up and said yes.
Sweets are an extra £6 and we felt this was too high a price for what was on offer. A peppermint panna cotta didn’t really deliver (too much like a blancmange) while some of the fruit in the apple and apricot crumble was still on the raw side.
Despite these teething troubles Little Mesters is an engaging place and with the snags ironed out Nicola and David should have another bouncing little bistro to add to the city’s growing collection.
We paid £53.40 for food and had a couple of glasses of wine. I can’t tell you how much they were because they hadn’t been programmed into the till so we were charged £2.75 a pop. A bargain!
The Dawes Verdict
Kelham Island Museum, Alma Street, Sheffield, S3 8RY.
Tel: 0114 275 6244.
Café open all week, bistro Friday and Saturday. House wine £15. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilet. Ample parking.