Not many people know this, but James O’Hara is a man with a passion… Not for club nights, or bars, or Tramlines, or any of the other things for which he’s known, but for food.
And that passion has helped to shape the latest incarnation of his bar, The Great Gatsby, and its new first-floor cocktail lounge, Daisy’s.
The Gatsby, in Division Street, has evolved since it first opened four years ago as a pop-up bar.
Taken to heart by the young movers and shakers of Sheffield, it quickly became established, and developed a reputation as a hip place to be – whether it was cocktails or live music you were after.
Food was on offer, but it wasn’t a priority: “When we opened this place our immediate concern was about the bar rather than the food,” admits Jim.
That’s not surprising. He became side-tracked part-way through a biology degree, first making his name as a DJ and the man behind Threads club night.
It’s about creating an atmosphere so people can enjoy themselves...James O’Hara, owner
Then he co-founded the Tramlines festival and, surfing on its success, opened his first bar, the Bowery.
The Gatsby followed a couple of years later and his latest venture is Picture House Social, which opened in Abbeydale last year.
"I guess my interests have developed as I’ve grown older… But it’s still about creating an atmosphere and encouraging people to enjoy themselves.”
Food has always been a passion, he says, and he loves to cook at home.
The menu at the Gatsby was initially run by the Milestone group, going on to offer a range of pies, burgers and bar snacks: “For a long time we just did what we thought people would want.”
Then a research trip to London and a lot of Mexican meals persuaded Jim to try something different. The result was Gatsby’s own Shy Boy Cantina – named after an infamous South American gangster – with a range of Mexican-inspired dishes designed to complement the drinks offer.
And that has further evolved as part of the new make-over.
The Gatsby closed for three weeks last month as decorators moved in to transform the space. Gone is the shabby chic image, to be replaced by an altogether smarter, more quirky style.
The bar is tiled, with parquet flooring; walls are charcoal, so are ceilings – with framed pictures on both – and murals of fish bones, or maybe sideways trees. Whatever, it’s fresh, it’s fun and it works.
The food offer has followed a similar pattern. While the designers were busy with the building, James was redeveloping the menu in partnership with his two chefs, Marek Sedlar and Ant Ockerse.
“It’s informed by the food I like to eat,” he says. “Influences include Korean, Moroccan, Peruvian and Thai. I hate the word ‘fusion’ but that’s the way it’s gone.”
So there’s tacos and burritos, a range of ‘small plates’ and half-a-dozen ‘large plates’ too, for those in search of something more substantial.
The new approach is clearly working – food sales have doubled since they reopened at the end of April.
Daisy’s, unveiled a couple of weeks later, is also proving a hit. Modelled on table-service-only cocktail bars in other cities, it has been pretty much fully booked since night one.
We’re here for food, not drink, so we choose a high, copper-topped table in a corner of the bar.
It’s not a huge menu and it’s certainly not of the three-course variety, so we’ve brought along a couple of younger companions to expand the selection.
We bypass tacos and ‘small plates’ – think fries, nachos and Thai-tanic chicken wings.
My companions obey orders to sample as broad a range as possible, choosing burrito, quesadilla and the Gatsby’s chicken mole. (That’s to rhyme with olé, not a small burrowing mammal.) Good – that leaves the ceviche for me!
The mole is great: strips of tender chicken breast in a distinctive, sticky sauce of chocolate, chilli and peanut butter. It comes with red rice, garnished with watercress, pomegranate seeds and a couple of chicken skin crisps.
Only complaint is that the ‘large plate’ description is misleading: not enough for a main meal, I’m told.
Burrito, on the other hand, is a proper plateful. A fat tortilla is rolled around a generous filling of moist chicken, smoky chipotle jalapenos, red rice, black beans and cheese. It comes with nachos, pico salad and sour cream.
Chorizo and roast pepper quesadilla also passes muster. A chunky tortilla is folded over a spicy filling of peppers, onions and sliced and diced chorizo, drizzled with sour cream and tomatoes: “It’s got a good kick but not overpowering”... Which is more than can be said for Shy Boy’s home made sauce!
My ceviche is prepared fresh to order – but it lives up to expectations.
Slivers of raw coley are marinaded in lime juice, acquiring a texture that’s almost prawn-like in the process. They’re piled on a moulded tower of chopped avocado, red onion, tomato and chilli, with fresh coriander and pomegranate seeds: a wonderful fresh mix of flavours and colours.
We finish with Sheffield-made Yee Kwan ice creams and coffee. Supper for four is £40.20 excluding drinks and service.
* The Great Gatsby, Division Street, Sheffield (0114) 276 3939 www.thegatsbybar.co.uk