YOU can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs… but you won’t get far without seasoning and oil as well. Equally, the essential ingredients for a good night out include ambience and service, as well as food.
The Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley (“Where?” I hear you ask) has won just about every local award going over the last couple of years, including Eat Sheffield’s Restaurant of the Year – which is quite a feat considering it sits well outside the city boundary, in a rural hamlet between Dronfield and Eckington.
There’s no question that the food has been top notch since head chef Lee Vintin arrived two years ago. And the setting is sublime: a stone-built village pub that’s all scrubbed wood, mismatched chairs and clean, contemporary lines. But it has to be said that service wasn’t great. Until now.
Enter Alistair Myers, a personable and experienced general manager who arrived from his long-time post at Rowley’s, Baslow, in time for New Year.
Alistair was looking for a fresh challenge and the Devonshire Arms, with its big reputation and even greater potential, was exactly what he had in mind.
Owners Gill and Glen Swift had firm views about what their customers should expect: “This is a pub,” they once said, “so don’t expect waitresses to pour your wine or deliver complimentary bread to the table.”
Alistair has other ideas. Top of his ‘to do’ list is staff training and the new regime is already under way, with Alistair leading by example.
“A restaurant is about the chef but here there’s someone doing front-of-house too. I’ve chosen this career because it’s what I want to do and that’s got to make a difference to the experience,” he says.
Chef Vintin agrees: “If customers aren’t happy, it doesn’t matter what awards you get. Customer service is key and Alistair is exactly what we need.”
The two men are working closely together, honing things that are right and improving anything that isn’t.
Innovations include the introduction of good Illy coffee and a range of local real ales; a new wine list is on the way. (Not before time: the current house wine is an extortionate £18.25.)
There are plans for subtle downlighting and soft music, staff uniforms, a new website and a programme of special events.
New on the food side is a lunchtime set menu – £13.95 for two courses or £17.95 for three – and sous chef Tom Lawson, who has also come from Rowley’s, the gastro-pub sibling to Michelin-starred Fischer’s Baslow Hall.
Vintin expects a lot of his young team; they make everything in-house, down to the bread for sandwiches.
But it’s a nurturing environment and they are all encouraged to experiment and come up with new menu ideas. The specials board can change a couple of times a day.
The team take pride in everything they send out, including the poshest free refreshments in town for the Wednesday-night quiz.
Forget sarnie and chips, on the evening of our visit they’re serving up garlic mushrooms, mini crayfish cocktails, shots of root veg soup with parsnip crisps and slivers of chicken liver parfait on toast.
But we’re here to sample the main menu… and the service.
It gets off to a good start as Alistair takes our coats and shows us to a table with a great view of the open kitchen. Then he delivers our drinks – lime and soda for me and a pint of Welbeck St Simon’s for him.
We both start on the specials; Pog Lane Farm chicken livers are meltingly soft, with buttery mashed potato, mini onion rings, and rich Henderson’s gravy that has a subtle hint of Madeira about it.
My companion has been lured by the black pudding, dreamed up by young Tom. Three rounds are each topped with soft goat’s cheese and served with a Jenga-style pile of skinny chips and a generous drizzle of sunblushed tomato purée. They’re gutsy flavours that somehow work together.
On to mains (and a pint of Bradfield Farmers Blonde). Seabass, another special, is simply but skilfully pan-fried to crisp-skinned perfection. It’s served with crab mash – an inspired combination that lifts boring spuds into a spotlight of their own – and a jug of creamy lemon and parsley sauce.
There’s a dish of veg (sugarsnaps, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and peas), all beautifully al dente.
My companion is pleasantly surprised by the depth of flavour in his pea and parmesan risotto from the main menu. Vivid green in colour, it’s a perfect balance between rice and sauce, finished with parmesan shavings and pea shoots.
I forego dessert but he’s tempted by Yorkshire parkin with treacle custard. I’m glad, because this is a taste I wouldn’t have missed!
The parkin’s good – moist, oaty, gingery – but it’s the custard that makes it a winner: a silky mix of cream, egg yolks, brown sugar and a touch of molasses that transports you instantly to sweet-toothed heaven.
We finish our meal with excellent coffee and petit fours. (My favourites are raspberry vinegar sticks of dark chocolate. Zing!)
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £39.70.
lVerdict: Hits the mark for food, ambience and service; it should put Middle Handley well and truly on the map.
lOpen: Tues-Thurs 12-9pm; Fri-Sat 12-10pm; Sun 12-6pm.
lDevonshire Arms, Lightwood Lane, Middle Handley (01246) 434 800 www.devonshirearmsmiddlehandley.com