THERE’S just one little bit of grit in the oyster when it comes to eating posh. The price.
Don’t get me wrong. You’re not just paying for the ingredients but the skill with which they are cooked, the atmosphere and service and all the overheads which go with restaurants. It’s just that it can be expensive.
There are ways round this. I have long pointed to the bargains found trying posh nosh at lunch. But what happens with a restaurant like Rafters, one of Sheffield’s best, which doesn’t do lunch?
Rafters, on Oakbrook Road, has a splendid three-course menu at £36 before wine or coffee.
Since the beginning of the year it has offered a weekday £25-a-head two-course meal, from selected dishes on the main menu, with a glass of wine thrown in. Oh and canapés to start and complimentary breads.
And if, after two beautifully executed courses, you’re feeling flush and, as I did, ask restaurant manager Jamie Fulwood what it would cost for a sweet, he’ll say another fiver.
Hang on, the maths doesn’t add up: that’s £30 and I’ve ordered off the £36 menu with a glass of wine and those extras as well. What’s to stop everyone doing that? It’s the big menu by the back door.
I quiz chef-patron Marcus Lane on the economics the next day.
“If people want a dessert they can for £5. We are known as a special occasion place and we are but we want to use this offer to showcase our food and for people to bring their families (children can eat here half price). The core of our business is done at weekends,” he says.
The offer is working. All but two tables were full on our Monday night and all but two were eating from the £25 menu. And, as far as I could tell, we weren’t getting a slimmed down version of the main event.
Rafters has been spruced up a little since our last visit. We noticed new curtains and the table mats, always a talking point, look like leather 45s. It’s proper Sheffield cutlery and linen napkins, whatever price you pay.
First to arrive are little nibbles, a salmon tempura and goats cheese with a salsa. Then come the breads – we pick ham and mustard and black pudding – which are lovely. Pastry chef Tom Mehta is responsible for the sweet crumb and crisp glazed crust.
My starter is terrific, flavoursome duck rillettes in one of those little Kilner jars chef love so much. With a nod to duck a l’orange it is topped with a mandarin segment. There are pickles and a miniature brioche – like orange and cranberry loaf with a marmalade glaze.
There is as much attention to detail with our other starter, a slice of feta and roast pepper terrine, with soused cucumber, sun-blushed tomatoes and a pestoey vinaigrette, looking like a piece of modern art. The cheese has a keen tang.
If there was going to be any price-consciousness it would be on the mains but I can’t find any with my lamb. It’s sliced loin, perhaps a little less pink than I asked for but tender and bursting with flavour, served with a crunchy croquette of shredded shoulder meat, a contrast not only in texture but taste.
Marcus, who cooks with Paul Richardson, flexes his Heston Blumenthal muscles by serving up a little bit of garlic foam. I can’t think that it adds much to the dish, unlike the intense jus which accompanies the meat in gratifying amounts.
My wife’s salmon is so large she can’t finish, and tastier, strangely, than that served up as a tempura. It’s good quality fish with none of that metallic tang you can get. The skin is crisp, the flesh moist and there’s lots of extra interest with little spears of asparagus, braised samphire and sauce gribiche (think egg mayonnaise with capers).
There are vegetables plated with the mains but, whatever menu you order, you get a big dish of veg on the side. Like many chefs, if Marcus had his way, they wouldn’t be there but he supplies them “because of the way Rafters has been over the years, people expect it.”
Rafters has been there since 1994 and Marcus took over in 2001, having already been in the kitchen.
The meal was lovely. What makes Rafters stand out is not just the quality of the food but the consistency.
A couple of minor points. The £25 menu ought to be online and ladies really ought to be served first at the table.
We paid, with good coffee and sinful, chocolatey petit fours, £57. I paid more for a load of junk in a chain eaterie.
220 Oakbrook Road, Nether Green, Sheffield S11 7ED
Tel: 0114 230 4819.
Open Monday and Wednesday to Saturday nights. Upstairs restaurant: no disabled access or toilets. House wine £15.50. BYO Monday only (£3 corkage). Credit cards. Quiet music. Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):