Cafe fare lacks oomph to lift tired shoppers.
The people around us have a certain look about them.
It’s that Meadowhall look.
A combination of relief, exhaustion and a fear they are going to have to go back out into the mall and do the hard yards all over again.
It’s only shopping but it can be hard work and I did hear a couple using the ‘C’ word (Christmas) as they discussed presents for ‘our Jack’ while sipping lattes in Marks and Spencer’s Café Revive.
Let’s hear no more of that until December please.
We arrive at the downstairs cafe - there’s one upstairs too - on a Sunday lunchtime and the place – light, modern and open plan with unfortunately a ripped seat or two – is buzzing.
We study the menu and the specials and go to order. There’s a hint of Julie Walters’ ‘Two Soups’ about the way the lovely lady at the till has to go all the way into the kitchen to see if there are soups left - and then has to do it all again a minute later to enquire about steak and ale pie.
There was soup but no pie – not the best of results as it turned out.
I chose the butternut squash soup and Joe went for chicken, mushroom and rice. Both looked fine, mine a lovely golden colour with two bread rolls that looked like they had come from a packet in the bread department and were soft and tasty.
The soups were a disappointment. The butternut squash one was, at best, warm rather than hot and was subtle to the point of being bland.
Butternut squash IS subtle to the point of being bland. It needs help with seasoning and a little kick of spice or herbs or Hendo’s or something.
The chicken and mushroom was better, did not have that tinned gloop feel of most mushroom-based soups, had chunks of chicken and mushroom but again lacked any discernable oomph.
Salt and pepper improved things but weren’t really the answer.
To flesh out our starters we shared a hot-smoked salmon, new potato and spinach salad with a Thousand Island style dressing – lots of spinach, cherry tomatoes and plenty of nicely-cooked new potatoes and crescents of cucumber with the seeds and centre cut out, leaving the skin and a small amount of flesh. Apparently this de-seeding is sometimes done to avoid any accumulation of liquid. It looks odd and kills the cool in cucumber.
There wasn’t a huge amount of salmon either.
What there was had a mild smokiness but was slightly chewy and seemed a bit over cooked.
Not what you’d expect from a store that specialises in offering food that little bit better than available elsewhere.
For his main course Joe had chicken and leek pie that had a good short crust and a rich sauce with lots of meat and veg.
Good pie, no problem there.
The ‘vegetable medley’ he had was at extra cost but was fresh, nicely cooked and with a hint of mint to help the peas, beans and broccolli along. His mashed potato was fine and full bodied but, like any mash, needed some decent gravy to bring out its comforting best. The little pot of gravy was just about enough in volume but we both tried it and couldn’t make out what it tasted of.
We had several attempts and then realised that it actually tasted of nothing much. That’s not good for a gravy.
My pasta, cauliflower and kale bake comes with a creamy, cheesy green sauce which is good without being exceptional. The crumb top should probably have been crisp and crunchy but wasn’t. The cauliflower and kale were tasty and not overcooked.
It’s mostly decent enough but decent isn’t really what you expect at M&S.
The cake, however, was.
I had a three-tier Victoria sponge that is light but with substance, has plenty of jam and buttercream and wouldn’t have offended Mary Berry. I also pinched a sliver of the coffee and walnut cake that had fallen off the stand. Naughty, but very nice indeed. Both are very sweet but that’s fine, it’s cake, it’s meant to be sweet.
Joe had a pain au raisin pastry which tastes like a pain au raisin pastry from a packet from Marks and Spencer. Fine but nothing special.
Having positioned its food hall offering at the top end of the market it’s disappointing that the cafeteria food isn’t up to that much.
Penny Thorpe of Grayling PR in Birmingham - they deal with press inquiries for M&S (no direct contact with staff allowed) - answered my questions on sourcing, food preparation and cooking, the lack of taste in the soup and whether the food in the cafe is the food from the shop:
“The cafeteria showcases products from the food hall. All products have a recipe unique to M&S. The chicken and leek pie is one of our food hall favourites, made by an artisan pie manufacturer (she couldn’t say what that meant) and cooked to order on site.
“The Victoria sponge is made to the same recipe as the one available in the shop. Salads are made fresh daily and dressed to order. All pastries are baked in the store every day.
“We try to make sure that the taste and health aspects of the soups are balanced. We offer salt and pepper to our customers.”
For three courses each, coffees and a shared salad our bill came to £37.45
Star ratings out of five:
* Marks and Spencer, The Arcade, Meadowhall, Sheffield, S9 1EH, Tel: 0114 256 8188
* Cafe opening hours Monday to Friday: 8.30am - 8.30pm. Saturday: 8.30am - 7.30pm Sunday: 9.30am - 4.30pm
* Category: Cafe