MUCH store is set by the annual appearance of the Which? Good Food Guide – a tome of dubious reliability, but which can make a restaurant’s reputation.
The latest edition holds few surprises for Sheffield diners, but the sole new entry for Derbyshire caught our eye.
The Red Lion at Stonedge is just a short drive from Sheffield on the edge of the Peak District, adjoining the swanky new Peak Edge hotel.
It’s had its ups and downs over the years, but the name of the chef jumps out of the page – Carl Riley – last encountered at Richard Smith’s Catch in Crosspool.
The GFG explains: “The low-ceilinged, darkly painted warren of rooms is rather gloomy by day, but the thing is, the chef can cook.”
That had been our experience too, so we’re eager to rediscover the Red Lion and see whether the foodies’ bible has it right.
Carl, now 26, has been at the Red Lion since January (his fiancée is the hotel wedding co-ordinator) and things have changed since he arrived.
For a start, trade has doubled. And no doubt will continue to improve.
Carl makes no secret of the fact that he’s out to secure at least two coveted AA stars and his campaign is well on track.
Local, seasonal food is his raw material and he knows exactly what he wants. He has revived the polytunnel in the grounds of the hotel, ensuring a plentiful supply of fresh herbs and vegetables.
“I just love the fact that I can go down there and get a bunch of parsley or some lettuces,” he says. “We’re planning to cultivate a plot at the bottom of the field next.”
Other suppliers include ‘Will the Rabbit Man of Ashover’, who’s handy with a gun.
Carl has built up a ten-strong kitchen team who understand his core values: “Presentation’s important, but you can’t forget about getting the flavour into the dish.”
He has clearly won the respect of the management team; duty manager James Robinson says: “Carl is never off the ball and things are constantly improving here.”
Redecoration is under way to lighten the rooms; the bar will get a new look in January and a kitchen refurb is on the cards for 2014.
Carl’s first menu was simplified. But he’s just introduced a new one, designed to attract the attention of the guides – along with a daytime ‘market menu’ offering two courses for £12.95 or three for £14.95.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” says Carl. “It’s been a hell of a challenge, but it’s good seeing everything grow. I don’t think there are any other places that are progressing like this – and being in the Good Food Guide means we’re getting there.”
We arrive at the pub in optimistic mood, but things get off to a disappointing start.
We’re guided past a lavishly stocked fresh bread station en route to our table, but it seems that’s only for those who choose to pay for it.
“Wrong!” says Carl, when we catch up with him. All diners get complimentary bread and olives, as long as the waiters remember to serve it – and there is the fly in the ointment. Service is haphazard and it lets down the standard of the food.
Actually, the food wasn’t perfect either on this occasion, but it later transpired we’d picked Carl’s night off for our visit. Another glitch that he needs to iron out.
We start with soup of the day: tomato, with a good tang, but ruined by being only lukewarm.
My asparagus is no hotter, which is a shame because the flavours and presentation clearly bear Carl’s hallmark. The spears are up-ended like a vase of flowers in a pot containing poached egg and hollandaise sauce, surrounded by parmesan and herb breadcrumbs.
If we’d been asked whether everything was okay, we’d have told them – another black mark for service.
Meaty pork sausages with creamy mash and onion gravy are good, though two slabs of black pudding are disappointingly bland.
But reputation is redeemed by my pork chop – Gloucestershire Old Spot – with deliciously caramelised pieces of cinnamon baked apple, roasted new potatoes and sage fritters: a stem fried to crisp aromatic heaven in tempura batter. Creamy peppercorn sauce adds the finishing touch.
My companion finishes his meal with a decent sticky toffee pudding, while I have Illy coffee, and we leave slightly disappointed.
However, Carl rings the following day and invites us back to sample his new menu – introduced this week.
The step-change in standard, both of menu and of cooking, is obvious and we’ll be returning for more!
Of the dishes we tried, my favourite was rabbit rillettes: a sublime combination of shredded meat, seasoning, fragrant sage and thyme, with butternut squash purée, fondant potato and a cappucino sauce that worked amazingly well.
My companion favoured trio of lamb: roast shank, crisp ‘feuille de brick’ parcels, a tagine of shoulder and grilled breast.
There’s also a mouthwatering array of desserts including deconstructed sticky toffee pudding – dates, toffee sauce, clotted cream, sponge and a slick of raw mix – very good.
Verdict: Top notch food, well deserving of its GFG accolade – as long a Carl’s in charge.
Open: 12noon - 9pm daily, until 9.30pm Fri - Sat. Red Lion, Darley Road, Stonedge, Chesterfield S45 0LW (01246) 566142 www.redlionpubandbistro.com