A READER writes: “I would like to know your thoughts on serving food on breadboards in restaurants. They wobble when you cut your food.
“If you have a steak all the juices run into the wood. The same happens with vinegar if you order battered fish.”
And Kath Hammond also hates dessert on a slate. “Try asking for runny cream to go with it.”
I’m partially with you there, Kath. I’ve eaten off various bits of house over the years: wooden boards, slates and tiles. I’m half expecting to be served up roly poly in a piece of galvanised guttering next.
If Kath wants to avoid this she might be advised to stay away from the new Vault mini restaurant below the Dronfield Arms on Chesterfield Road, Dronfield, as our breads were served on a slate, along with a scallops starter.
But she’d miss out. This dinky subterranean place is worth a visit.
It’s in the cellar of what used to be The Sidings, a pub closed in ignominy then revamped, serving up a good selection of real ales.
This space has been remodelled since the days when chef Robert Eggo ran it. There is a red tiled floors, black walls and gilt mirrors to give a sense of space, and a large new staircase which runs upstairs to the bar.
It can’t hold more than 26, with a curious table with banquette seating at one end for eight in place of the bar.
It’s run by chef Paul Widdowson, a Dronfield lad, and his wife Michelle, whose parents had the now deceased Yellow Lion at Apperknowle for years.
At 38, Granville (now Sheffield) and Buxton College-trained Paul has cooked up and down the country at high end establishments: the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair, Oak Room in Piccadilly, Fischers, Numsmere Hall in Cheshire and Holbeck Ghyll in the Lakes, so he knows his way around a Michelin kitchen. This is his first restaurant.
His style, toned down for Dronfield, is Modern British with steaks. If you want foams there’s a very good espresso one on the tiramisu.
Michelle, despite being not around to greet us (she was serving in the bar), has a most engaging front of house personality, one the best we’ve encountered.
They open from Thursdays to Saturday evenings (and Saturday lunch) because of difficulties with babysitting but plan Sunday lunches when their daughter turns one next month.
There are a variety of menus, including an early bird 5-7pm (although timings can be flexible), which seemed to have attracted the other diners.
We tackled the dinner menu to see what he could do.
After decent homemade breads with butter and oil (on that slate) I had a very refreshing cream of watercress soup with goat’s cheese and herb gnocchi, the two main flavours contrasting beautifuuly.
My wife went for the top whack starter, at £7, of seared scallops, chargrilled mortadella, roasted Jerusalem artichokes, pancetta crisps with, a new one on us, tempura of pickled samphire.
She loved it but Kath would have asked for a plate: the ingredients were laid out in a line on a slate, garnished with pureed artichoke.
It was packed with flavour, sweetness from the shellfish and artichokes, and a mixture of saltiness and crunch from the meats and samphire.
Other starters were a mozzarella and courgette salad, Amaretto cured salmon and duck confit.
The main section is a bit odd, only four choices, two of them fish (which is Paul’s favourite ingredient), plus four steaks.
There was no chance of my roast rump of Derbyshire lamb (£18) coming on a slate for the intense Madeira jus would have been lost. It was safely in a bowl.
It came looking like a culinary version of The Shard. The base was a slice of fondant potato, followed by wilted greens (with that delicious iron tang), then slices of meat (just a little past the promised pink) and topped by parsnip crisps.
It was encircled with a ring of pureed parsnip and an outer guard of cubed Vichy carrots and glazed baby onion.
My wife’s baked cod (£17.50) was bursting with just as much flavour and variety: a generous fillet, accurately cooked, with a crisp skin, and served with tasty Dublin Bay prawns along with peas a la Francaise (cooked with lettuce in butter) on a galette potato with red wine reduction. Spot on.
Nice cooking, with every reason to expect the same for the sea bream with crab tortellini (off on our night) and the plum tomato with smoked aubergine risotto. Steaks range from an £18 10oz sirloin to a £24 8oz fillet matured for 28 days.
Sweets are pretty good, too. A rhubarb granita topped a poached rhubarb (slightly undercooked for me) which shared space in the glass with a slightly stiff vanilla panna cotta (£4.50).
Classier was a tiramisu with mascarpone ice cream and that espresso foam in a martini glass (£5).
Vault’s food is just a little too ritzy for the place to be called a bistro, and the venue perhaps a little too small to be a full-blown restaurant but if you’re an in-betweeny sort of diner, it’ll do.
Wines look reasonable – they start from £11.95 – but if you only want a glass you have to settle for a mini bottle from the pub.
Tables are decorated with a single rose in little pots made by Michelle’s mum. Nice.
We paid £56.50 for food and another £10 for wines and coffee.
The Dawes Verdict
Dronfield Arms (entry through pub), 91 Chesterfield Road, Dronfield S18 2XE.
Tel: 01246 508 994.
Open Thursday-Saturday night and Saturday lunch. Credit cards. No disabled toilet but disabled access from rear (Mill Lane). Music. Car park in Mill Lane.
Web: www. www.vault-restaurant.co.uk