Skilled artisans at work...

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AS conventional wisdom would have it, the restaurant industry was enjoying its days of wine and song before the economy collapsed, leaving chefs weeping over empty tables and counting their meagre takings.

Of course, things haven’t really turned out that way.

This recession seems to be a curious thing – pop into a reputable restaurant of an evening and you’re more than likely to find it busy and bustling.

Either people are still prepared to splash out on a decent meal or the restaurateurs have some canny tricks up their sleeve to snare the punters.

Crosspool’s Artisan appears to be firmly in the latter camp.

The jewel in the crown of owner Richard Smith’s Sheffield food empire – which encompasses the Cricket Inn at Totley, Relish on Ecclesall Road and even the Rose Garden Cafe in Graves Park – Artisan has long held the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being one of the city’s most expensive eateries.

And yet here we are on a Thursday evening and the place is packed.

The secret is Artisan’s new five-10-five menu, where starters, mains and desserts are priced accordingly, except on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

You don’t even have to pay for marked-up drinks, either, thanks to the ‘bring your own booze’ policy, with no corkage charge.

This all means you can enjoy the Artisan experience – with Michelin Bib Gourmand quality food, no less – for a comfortable £20 a head.

The menu changes daily and is a reasonable approximation of the restaurant’s a la carte fare.

And, unlike some other establishments, they don’t try and manoeuvre you into boosting the bill by ordering sides.

Once we’d cracked open the first of our supermarket tipples (a 2008 vintage for £3.99) we were presented with a slate of tasty canapés, gratis.

These included hunks of rock salt, rosemary and garlic focaccia, and granary and treacle loaf, along with a dip blending together balsamic vinegar, olive oil, thyme, chilli and Parmesan cheese.

Our starters followed soon afterwards – a smooth chicken liver parfait, almost resembling Neapolitan ice cream and served with pleasingly hot brioche, and a generous serving of potted duck, accompanied by a tangy chutney.

All evening, the service was unhurried, each of the courses taking just the right amount of time to arrive and at no point did we feel we were being thrust towards the door.

We sampled a meaty selection of mains. The slow cooked belly pork was soft and crispy in all the right places, resting on tender, sliced boulangere potatoes, which had a crispy, golden crust.

Also on the pig-heavy plate was a pork fritter – like a Scotch egg thick with shredded meat – and a strand of crackling as hard as an ice pick.

The chicken cordon bleu was similarly successful, a tender breast wrapped in bacon with a sticky, sweet onion jam and a subtle mustard sauce, although the thyme roasted potatoes were teetering on the edge of being burnt.

With prices this accommodating, it would seem churlish to skip dessert.

The warm chocolate brownie with thick chocolate sauce and vanilla-laced Creme chantilly was an indulgent treat, while the rich, moist sticky toffee pudding was served in manageable scoops, rather than the usual dense slab.

We left feeling like we’d had the full Artisan experience, rather than a cut-price, bargain version.

Afterwards assistant manager Jamie Stewart was pleased to report they’ve not had a bad word yet about the five-10-five menu.

“All our customers think it’s really good value for money and great for what you get.

“You’re paying £20 for a three course meal and getting pretty good quality food,” he said.

by Richard Blackledge