AFTER more than a decade of inspiration, development and sheer hard graft, imagine opening a letter that gives you just weeks to pack up your life and move on.
Such was the case for Caroline and Jean-Paul Strappazzon, who had built up café Ceres in Sharrow Vale Road from next to nothing over the last 12 years.
“It was a bit of a shock,” admits Caroline, recalling the letter from their landlord. “Especially as we’d just spent quite a lot of money on decorating.”
There was no alternative but to pack up their belongings, find new premises and start all over again.
But the old adage about ill winds holds true, it seems. For, just weeks after shifting their business 250 yards up the road, the move appears to be a change for the better.
“It’s very early days, but it’s going amazingly well. We’re quite overwhelmed by the response,” says Caroline. “Let’s just say we’re not missing the old place.”
Ceres (they dropped the ‘café’ a while back) now occupies the spot overlooking Hunters Bar roundabout that was previously home to Blue Fin then, fleetingly, Mini Bar and Dunn’s River.
The couple had wanted to expand their operation, serve alcohol and open in the evenings, but were not permitted to do so. The blow from their landlord gave them the push they needed – and availability of the nearby premises gave them the opportunity to make the move.
The new-look Ceres finally opened its doors last month – and has been packed almost every night since.
Caroline and Jean-Paul met in the French Alps where he was a chef and she a chalet cook. They came to the UK after their first son was born, to be closer to Caroline’s family, and opened the original café in 2000.
“Our objective was to offer our customers good honest food at a good honest price. It seemed that the UK was swamped by pub chains, American pizza restaurants and over-priced up-market eateries, What we really wanted was to bring just a little taste of France and its eating culture to Sheffield.”
That ethos has remained in spite of the larger premises. In fact the couple have gone out of their way to keep things the same, with one or two notable exceptions – including the new indoor toilets!
Their priority was to find somewhere as close as possible to the established site, so regular customers could continue to use it.
Then they set about recreating the feel, installing panelling just like the original and painting it soft grey and white, with a fresh, new cerulean blue to brighten up the look.
Staff were roped in to help with cleaning and redecoration and former chef Lee Middleton rejoined the team.
For the time being, the menu remains identical to the one it replaces, though more dishes will be introduced over the next few weeks.
They are also planning to add some specialities from Jean-Paul’s Alpine home, including a range of sharing dishes: raclette (melted cheese), pierrade (hot-stone cooking) and tartiflette. But for now it’s a case of ‘watch this space.’
Ceres opens daily for brunch, with everything from croissants to a traditional English fry-up. Snacks and main courses are available throughout the day, alongside a mouthwatering array of freshly-baked cakes and desserts.
The move means the bistro can also open at night, which it does four nights a week.
It also means wines and beers are now on offer, including a traditional pot Lyonnais: a choice of house red, white or rosé, all from the Languedoc region, at £4.95 for 250ml or £8.95 for 460ml.
Diners can take advantage of BYO on Wednesdays and Thursdays as a nod to tradition (corkage £1.50). But staff don’t appear to have grasped the new regime yet.
Caroline isn’t around on the evening of our visit but we’re directed to a nearby off-licence – no-one mentions that we could buy a bottle on the premises.
Once again, service is the biggest fault we can find. What is it with Sheffield front-of-house staff?
A jug of water is supplied promptly, but we wait ages for our order to be taken even after my companion’s return with the wine.
We eventually begin our meal with a shared platter of hors d’oeuvres: cured meats, sweet olives, hummus with a citrus tang and distinctive Comté cheese made from unpasteurised cow’s milk.
There’s also hard boiled egg, carrot julienne, dressed salad leaves with slices of red onion, cucumber and tomato, and chunks of crusty warm baguette.
We’re in the French mood by now.
Roast thyme chicken is beautifully tender, served with sautéed potatoes and gravy. Pan-fried salmon comes with creamy leek sauce and a lemon wedge.
Both meals are accompanied by roast carrots, parsnips, green beans and buttered new potatoes. It’s simple, tasty food that’s well cooked and a delight to eat.
Pastries are Jean-Pierre’s forte, so we both give in to indulgence.
My slice of tarte tatin combines soft caramelised apple with the thinnest of pastry, while lemon tartelette is a crisp, fluted case of short pastry with sharp, creamy filling. Beautiful.
We finish our meal with excellent americano from local specialists Cafeology. Three-course dinner for two, excluding corkage and service, is £34.90.
l Verdict: A little taste of France in the heart of Sheffield - bigger already, and the promise of better to come.
Open: Mon-Sat 9am-4.30pm; Wed until 10pm; Thur-Sat 10.30pm; Sun 10am-3.30pm
Ceres, 85 Junction Road, Hunter’s Bar, Sheffield (0114) 267 9090 www.cafeceres.com