SHAME, isn’t it, what’s happening to our Great British Boozers? They’re going down like ninepins.
Hit by the breathalyser, telly, smoking ban, changing social habits and rapacious pubcos (you can buy beer and spirits cheaper than the landlord of your local), they are falling empty, becoming private houses – or Indian restaurants.
But some people in Sheffield are not reading the script.
A handful of local businessmen are buying up ailing and failing pubs and giving them a new lease of life: the York, Broadfield, Cross Scythes and so on.
They’re succeeding – or hoping to – where the big boys have failed. So how are they going about it?
Well, don’t get too romantic. The old pub is not necessarily being recreated.
These businessmen know there are many customers who don’t want spit and sawdust but they still want individuality, not the themed decors and centrally written menus backed up by ‘heat and eat’ dishes.
And they want a bit of comfort, decent chairs, a few of those squidgy leather sofas (the pub chains haven’t got it all wrong), a well-stocked bar and proper food.
Pubs can still sell beer to customers who come by foot but not more than two pints’ worth if they’re behind the wheel.
But no-one ever got arrested for eating too much bangers and mash.
So, if a pub wants to make a mark, it reverses the trend the chains have adopted of de-skilling the kitchen and hires a decent chef.
Which is why we find ourselves at The Millhouses pub on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, which had gone dark for two years and has now reopened after finding a fairy godfather in Chris Windle of WL Leisure.
Chris, who recently turned the Pomona into the Ecclesall, is a man with a lot of hope and obviously a job lot of Farrow & Ball paint, or something similar, which decorates the fascia and the wood panelling inside.
There are two big rooms, one for drinkers without carpet (although menus go up on the tables) and another, carpeted room, for diners. “People seem to sort themselves out,” says landlady Carol Baines, whom we last saw some years ago doing a similar job reviving the fortunes of the Shepley Spitfire. She was taking no chances and shepherded us on to the carpet.
The head chef is Stuart Mackenzie, last seen at the West 10 wine bar and before that at Platillos, which he opened.
Stuart’s menu is a relaxed, easy-going offering which mixes traditional pub food and restaurant dishes. Starters include prawn cocktail and a soup, each for a fiver, or if you want to go upmarket a couple of scallops with cauliflower puree, black pudding and harrisa salad for £7.50.
I began with pressed confit of duck with orange, shaped oddly like those towers on top of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, with toasted brioche. I liked the flavours (although it could have done with a tad more orange) and the fact that the plate was scattered with little shards of crispy duck skin.
My wife’s curried chick pea and date salad, served warm, was a nice idea with gentle spicing and a minty yoghurt for relief.
Mains run from £9 to £11 unless you want the Moroccan lamb shank (£13) or monkfish with smoked bacon (£14). There was turkey and chipolatas (it was December when we ate), an aubergine bake and ‘roots and shoots’ vegetarian wellington, pork faggots and salmon cooked in a bag.
We had the last two.
The faggots (£9) were terrific, made of minced liver and heart (although not wrapped in a caul), gutsy, well seasoned with a hint of spiciness. They came with a pool of rich, thick gravy- but not enough – and ‘Jenga’ chips.
The salmon (£11), partnered with some crayfish, was again well handled, moist and succulent but needed to be a bit more generous on portion size. It came with salad but my wife also opted for a decent little dish of mixed vegetables (£3).
The bag had been opened in the kitchen. The point of ‘en papillote’ cooking is that the customer snips open the bag and inhales the aroma. Food excites all the senses, including the hooter.
The new pub has caused quite a bit of excitement in the area, helped by the fact that it welcomes children, unlike nearby opposition. There isn’t a kids’ menu as such but Stuart will do mini portions.
Desserts (all £5) need some development. With the run-up to the festive season there was what the menu described with a sigh “the obligatory Christmas puddings” and a banana mess, which sounded like a variation of Eton mess.
A sherry trifle, with angelica, was a winsome offering, but a little too much like the chocolate brownie sundae and praline cream. Its promised sugared pistachios had gone AWOL
I didn’t see any local beers (there was Doom Bar and Woodfordes, both £3 a pint) so hopefully this will be rectified.
There is a separate lunchtime menu.
We paid £46.05 for food and £11.35 for drinks and coffees.
A good start.
951 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7 2QD.
Tel: 0114 236 1103.
Open for food 12-9pm (Sun, including roasts until 5pm). House wine £12.90 (from £3.70 glass). Vegetarian food. Disabled access and toilets. Credit cards. Car park.
My star ratings (out of five):