Drew steps up to the plate as he maintains his absent boss’s understated gutsy flavours
Timing is not only critical for soufflés in restaurants; you want to time your visit when the head chef is there.But he or she needs a night off, when things are left to the second in command, the sous chef, and sometimes to the grace of God.
Now a wise head chef ensures his number two is a competent Mini Me who will cook as they would. After all, it’s their head on the block if things go wrong.
And they can.
I once reviewed a place celebrating with bells and whistles its award as pub of the year and was baffled to be served pheasant so dried up it might have come from the Kalahari. The main man was off.
Then there was the sous chef in Rotherham who didn’t realise you had to scale red mullet. I got a horridly crunchy mouthful and the place a bad review.
But it doesn’t have to be a disaster story. Tonight we are at Fancie on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, the latest venture by Cupcake Queen Amanda Perry, a shrewd young woman who has built an empire out of what my mother called fairy cakes.
This rambling building, a former bridal shop, is now a laid-back eaterie with bakery attached. White painted and raw brick walls, wooden floors and casually parked ice cream fridges, give it the scruffy-chic feel of a warehouse.
The serving staff tend to be young and pretty and by and large the customers, often female, try to live up to their image.
Ms Perry has cleverly hired head chef John Parsons to deliver relaxed, gutsy and flavourful brasserie cum bistro food in the style which earned his former restaurant Kitchen the Best Value for Money in Britain award in the 2012 Good Food Guide.
Equally cleverly, John has acquired Drew Snaith as his sous chef. Drew, a former catering student at Sheffield College, was working in a supermarket when he saw Kitchen opening nearby on Ecclesall Road and asked for a job. There wasn’t one.
Undaunted, Drew pestered him for three months until “I gave in and found he was amazing,” recalls John. He is. Since then Drew has packed in some impressive Michelin-starred experience, 18 months at Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc and a spell with Steve Smith at Bolton Abbey. He is still only 19.
We visited on a Wednesday, a quiet night, so John took the evening off leaving Drew in charge but his influence in the kitchen. This is one head chef who doesn’t have to worry.
Fancie sells light meals during the day and runs a Supper Club at nights, with two courses for £15, three for £20, as well as theme nights, everything from offal to raw food, and Italian nibbles to sushi.
We made a great start with really fresh, pink and tender home-cured salt beef and John’s trademark sauce gribiche (chopped egg, cornichons and capers in a mayonnaisey dressing) and a light, tomato risotto with pesto, centred around warm goats cheese.
Not unnaturally, John is currently reprising some of his old classics, including his signature dish, Dixie’s three little pigs, named in honour of his daughter. He was reported to have gone incandescent when a local chef ‘filched’ it for a TV show.
This dish plays on textures as well as taste, contrasting two roundels of loin with a cube of meltingly tender pork belly and a portion of braised pig’s cheek, which has a slightly crumbly feel. It’s rounded off with black pudding and an apple sauce.
The Parsons kitchen is a meaty kitchen – there was also seared onglet with beef cheek – but can do fish astutely, as in my wife’s salmon, given an oriental lift with a miso glaze and bok choi.
What she described as ‘army issue sauce’ turned out to be avocado and better than it looked.
Desserts were simple but good: a proper lemon posset, tangy and gently set, and a delicately salted chocolate tart, the top a soft ganache, the biscuity base just a touch too hard, with semi-frozen berries, a sort of granita in the making.
The food had been excellent in a non-showy, understated way.
Service is enthusiastic although it could do with fewer ‘good choices’ when there are only a couple and ‘awesomes’ when we say we like the food and more attention to the till.
Fancie has run into financial difficulty, perhaps not surprising when we got a bill for £42, considerably less than it should have been, so I sent it back.
It returned still short of the mark so I left the balance as a tip.
John says he wants the quality of a food to be a surprise for the surroundings.
I say keep an eye out for Drew Snaith.
The Dawes Verdict
(out of five)
FOOD * * * * * (5)
ATMOSPHERE * * * * (4)
SERVICE * * * (3)
VALUE * * * * (4)