What could you produce given £10, an unfamiliar kitchen and an hour to cook as many British contemporary dishes as possible?
No, not the latest reality TV show but a job interview for the city’s newest restaurant. And former army chef Garry Dodd rose to the challenge in magnificent style.
His menu of calves’ liver, bangers and mash, steak and shepherd’s pie was enough to impress his potential bosses and land him the post of head chef at Moo La La, which opened last month at the West One plaza.
In fact, Garry is a dab hand at creating top-notch food on a shoestring: “In the army we were catering for up to10,000 in the barracks, cooking three meals a day for as little as £1.45 per head. We had to do some miraculous stuff!”
Moo La La is in a different league altogether. Owners Lisa Levick and Matt Mosley have come up with a concept that’s based on local produce – and Garry takes pride in sourcing top quality ingredients.
So vegetables and fruit come from Castle Market, bread from the Bakewell Pudding Shop and meat from Crawshaws: “Because he was the only butcher who could name the individual farms.”
Beers are local too – from Bradfield and Kelham Island breweries – and there’s a decent wine list with around 20 bottles. House red is a quaffable Italian merlot at £12.95 per bottle.
If the concept works, the team plans to open other branches, all specialising in the best produce they can find in the surrounding area.
Lisa and Matt come from a chain restaurant background: they met while working at the Old Orleans in Valley Centertainment. The new venture is backed by both their partners and Garry’s appointment brings a new dimension.
On leaving the army he worked at the fledgling Meadowhall, first as head chef of Spiro’s, then Mama Amalfi and finally taking control of central production. That led to agency work all over the country until he returned to Sheffield to run the kitchen at Vodka Revolution, where his wife still works.
Fresh food is his speciality, so the prospect of launching a new restaurant was exactly the challenge he was looking for – the fact that it was only yards from his previous workplace was a complete coincidence.
Moo La La occupies the West One site recently vacated by Indian restaurant Dosanj. Changes have been purely cosmetic but the difference is astonishing.
Instead of black paint and a gloomy interior, the new restaurant is bright and fresh, in neutral grey with vivid green accents and a polished wooden floor: “It reflects the town-meets-country theme,” says Lisa.
An open kitchen and a long bar frame the space occupied by a mix of dark wood tables and comfy leatherette sofas. With the first-floor space as well, there is room for around 100 covers.
Garry has been given a free hand with the menu, which is heavyweight in every respect: an unwieldy two feet in length and designed to generate some winter cheer.
But it’s due to change with the clocks next week, to include lighter, more spring-like dishes, featuring fresh, local food with a quirky twist.
He is experimenting with salmon poached in Henderson’s Relish and warm coleslaw bound with lemon and butter sauce. But for now it’s good, hearty comfort food, presented in rustic style. We start with chicken liver parfait and a vegetarian tartlet.
The chicken liver has a great musky flavour, cooked with mushrooms, onion and herbs. But it’s not a parfait, which should be silky smooth – it’s lumpy and unprocessed, more like rillettes. It comes with chunky artisan toast and sweet, home-made onion marmalade.
Asparagus, goat’s cheese and spring onion tartlet is good. The subtle cheese and asparagus filling works well with a crumbly shortcrust pastry and dressed salad. But it’s very substantial for a starter.
At least, it looks big until my main course arrives: a gargantuan ham hock which had been first poached in cola (the acidity tenderises the meat) and then slowly roasted.
The result is a feast so meltingly soft that it just falls from the bone in delicious, meaty hunks. But this is a Desperate Dan-size portion, accompanied by rough mash and sliced carrots; I hate to waste food but it’s impossible to do it justice.
Hunter’s Chicken would have been a triumph: the breast is tender and moist thanks to a cheddar cheese stuffing and a wrapping of smoked bacon. But ‘our very own BBQ sauce’ is just sweetened, thickened vinegar: “It completely ruined the meal,” grimaces my companion.
He makes up for it with a trio of desserts (enough for two): mini portions of a decent, sharp lemon tart; an unusual but delicious cinnamon bread and butter pudding and white chocolate cheesecake with a Crunchie base and a drizzled dark chocolate topping.
We finish our meal with coffee. Dinner for two, excluding wine and service, is £57.60.
lVerdict: A great concept that delivers what it promises: a bit of the local countryside right on our doorstep.
lOpen: Daily from noon-10pm (10.30pm Thurs, 11pm Fri-Sat).
Moo La La, Unit 12, The Plaza, West One, Sheffield. (0114) 276 2762, www.moo-lala.co.uk