THE extent and diversity of the famous El Bulli experience has spawned a vogue for tasting menus.
Just about every chef worth his salt is offering diners a chance to marvel at the breadth of his skill with a gastronomic feast that fuels the mind as well as the body – and invariably empties the pockets.
But now there’s a tasting menu that’s accessible to everyone; a six-course ‘soirée gastronomique’ that will set diners back a mere £22.50.
The company behind this treat is Bistrot Pierre, a small regional group that has made its name on offering tasty, French-style food at eminently reasonable prices. And this twice-monthly gourmet fest is its best offer yet.
Regular readers of this column will be aware that chain restaurants are not my destination of choice. Most are carbon copy clones, lacking any individuality and too dependent on central kitchens.
Not so Bistrot Pierre.
The nine restaurants each have their own unique character – the Sheffield branch, in Ecclesall Road, is the only new-build model. It opened less than three years ago but has recently undergone a refurb to iron out a few design glitches.
Gone are the chandeliers, the dark wood and the slate tiles, to be replaced by wrought iron lanterns, natural oak and floorboards.
Restructuring and soundproofing has transformed the place, softening the feel and opening up the space to create a rustic French feel within the contemporary glass and wooden frame.
“The new build offered more opportunity, but the space wasn’t working for us,” says manager Nick Dunkley.
“Now we’ve got a space that we’re really happy with and we’ve hit our direction. We see ourselves as a neighbourhood restaurant with a downstairs bar that’s great for functions too.”
Nick, who has been with the company for 12 years, is passionate about his restaurant – and it shows, in efficiency and in service, the most impressive we’ve encountered in a long time.
“I employ on personality… you can train ability,” he says.
Training is clearly the key: the team has achieved a record 100% from the in-house mystery diner on each of three inspections this year.
It’s a close-knit team too, with barely any turnover in staff since the arrival of head chef Ian Rose 18 months ago.
The regular menus include prix fixes lunch, early bird and pre-theatre options as well as breakfast, à la carte and a variety of blackboard specials. There’s also a selection of snacks in the bar for those who just want a drink or coffee.
But we’re here for the soirée gastronomique, a set menu of six courses (different each time), served on the second and fourth Tuesdays every month.
First up is potage (soup to those who don’t know the lingo) – tonight’s is split pea and smoked ham.
It’s thin in texture, not really a bouillon or a consommé, but certainly not the thick, hearty affair us Brits would expect. However, it’s full of flavour, with a smoky tang and little sticks of ham in the bottom of the deep bowl.
There’s a wicker basket of French bread, with pats of butter. Would we like some more? (There’s that good service in practice.)
Next is the entrée, Spanish onion and Roquefort tart.
It’s simple, rustic fare: individual cases of thick shortcrust pastry, filled with gooey melted cheese and onions – a good combination that works well with a dressed rocket salad and smoked red pepper coulis.
The wine list offers a choice of around 30 bins, mainly but by no means all French, available by the carafe, half-bottle and glass as well as the bottle.
We order the house red (£13.95), a vdp from the D’Oc region. The label tells us it’s been created especially for Bistrot Pierre by a little co-operative in sunny south-east France. Alors! A proper ‘house’ wine.
And so to the plats du jour: a choice of duck or steak. We order one of each.
The duck breast is pan-fried to a perfect blushing pink, carved on the plate and served with a deliciously rich madeira and thyme jus.
The steak is a huge slab of chargrilled Scottish pasture-fed 21-day-aged rump, we’re told. Sounds impressive; shame the chef’s idea of ‘medium’ is only one step up from roadkill.
But the béarnaise sauce is good and it’s nicely presented with a board holding a mini skillet of roasted new potatoes and a bowl of carrots, peas, parsnips and leeks, scented with fresh thyme.
Next up is dessert: vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. We’re struggling by this time but we plough on manfully.
“This is the best bit,” our waiter assures us – and then admits: “It’s not eating the meal that’s the problem, it’s walking out afterwards!”
Well, the scoops of ice cream may be taster sized, but even the man has to admit defeat as we scrape the bowls clean.
The prospect of fromage after that lot is completely out of the question. But our accommodating waiter solves the problem: “Would you like me to wrap that up for you?” (I told you the service was good.)
We agree, gratefully, and finish our meal with excellent coffee and yummy chocolates. Then we stagger home with tomorrow’s lunch: a package of brie, tomme de Savoie and bleu d’Auvergne cheeses, half-a-dozen crackers, a little dish of red onion confiture and some sticks of celery.
All that for £22.50 each? Formidable!
lVerdict: A gastronomic feast that offers a little taste of France – six times over.
lOpen: 9.30am - 10.30pm daily (until 11pm Fri - Sat)
lBistrot Pierre, 835b-837 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield (0114) 267 8687