MARCUS Lane is a pretty remarkable man, not to mention a damn fine chef…
Most bosses returning to work after a bout of ill-health would relieve their stand-in of the crown and resume the top job. But Marcus has tucked in neatly beneath Rafters’ newly-appointed head chef Gareth Ducker – and he’s loving it.
The result is a winner all round, giving Gareth a vote of confidence, Marcus a fresh enthusiasm and customers a doubly good taste of fine cuisine.
Three months out of the kitchen has given Marcus a fresh perspective on the job and he’s bursting with new ideas.
He and Gareth are collaborating over menus, rediscovering the camaraderie of their early years together and drawing on inspiration from their experiences since.
Gareth spent time in London, where he helped to win a Michelin star for Philip Howard’s Kitchen W8, then moved on to Maiyango in Leicester, where he cooked for the Queen.
“He’s come back with different ideas, so he’s teaching me things too,” says Marcus.
“I’m really enjoying it because I’ve always done the hot section since I arrived here 12 years ago. It’s nice to step away from that and do breads and starters instead.”
With the pressure off, Marcus has also had time to source new local suppliers including Norton-based Moss Valley Fine Meats and milk from Our Cow Molly.
“When you visit these people and see their passion, it really adds something to the food you produce,” he says.
One of the first changes after Gareth’s return was the introduction of six-day opening, which is feasible now there are two experienced chefs to share the load.
Other innovations include a ‘trendy smoker’ which enables them to experiment with everything from duck and bacon to carrots and butter. The smoke is an infusion of hickory, oak and their secret ingredient – jasmine tea leaves.
Also new is the midweek menu, which offers two courses plus all the extras – and a glass of wine thrown in – for just £25.
We’ve come along to sample this deal, which sounds like brilliant value for one of the city’s most respected restaurants.
The place hasn’t changed much over the years. The beams which give it its name still fan out across the lofty ceiling and exposed brickwork adds to the rustic feel.
But a refurbishment programme is lifting the ambiance. White ceilings contrast with a gold feature wall and matching floor-to-ceiling curtains. Track lighting and suspended globes create a cosy intimacy, while beige cloths, leather mats and white roses add a touch of class to the tables.
A few more contemporary touches wouldn’t go amiss – I’d do away with the out-of-date awards and clunky chairs, for a start – but Marcus admits it’s a work in progress. Next on his list is a new carpet.
One thing that hasn’t changed at all is the quality of Rafters, starting with the service.
We’re greeted by the restaurant manager, who takes our drinks order and smoothly persuades us to try the ‘special’.
We might be on the £25 deal, but we’re treated with as much respect and courtesy as anyone on the £36.95 à la carte.
First up is bread: doughy, pungent and still warm. Marcus has clearly been enjoying himself – there are four to choose from! We go for black pudding, which works beautifully, and grain mustard with herbs.
There’s a good selection of house wines too – we go for a sauvignon blanc and a merlot – and a choice of three dishes for each course including meat, fish and vegetarian options.
Terrine of organic chicken, braised ham and smoked carrot is perfectly balanced, with just a hint of spice, and Henderson’s Relish dressing to add a tang.
I would have gone for the tian of white crab meat with home-smoked salmon but am persuaded instead to try the special, tian of crab with scallops.
It’s a good choice: crab, herbs, salty capers and a touch of lime are topped with succulent nuggets of soft flesh, a garnish of hair-fine rock chives and a cube of watermelon for a splash of colour.
Presentation is superb – it all looks as good as it tastes. Like the next course…
This being a quality restaurant, it’s a complimentary extra, two tiny scoops of watermelon and Campari sorbet, served in shot glasses which stand inside miniature bowls like upturned top hats. The sweet fruit and bitter liquor are exquisitely intense, combining to create a great palate cleanser.
Main course cod is good and meaty, pan-fried with a seed crust. The fish is perfectly judged and again the balance is spot on, with a medley of asparagus, leeks and capers, braised baby fennel, crushed new potatoes and lemon butter sauce.
My companion’s rump of Derbyshire lamb comes with a slick boulangère of sliced potatoes and braised shoulder.
Crisp-coated broad bean and parsley croquettes add contrasting texture and the dish is finished with a swirl of mint sauce and rich rosemary jus.
We could have had dessert instead of starter – summer pudding, strawberry and rosewater pannacotta or sticky toffee pudding – but we’re happy with our choice.
We finish our meal with decent americano coffee, a jug of hot milk and complimentary petit fours: mini battenburg, tiny meringues and ginger cake.
lVerdict: Skilful cooking, slick service, stunning presentation and superb value – especially the midweek menu.
lOpen: Mon-Sat 5.30-10.30pm
lRafters Restaurant, 220 Oakbrook Road, Sheffield (0114) 230 4819 www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk