Feast among friends

Cafe des Amis owners Lena Mussa (left) and Zahra Othman, with manager Steve Blyth.
Cafe des Amis owners Lena Mussa (left) and Zahra Othman, with manager Steve Blyth.

INTEREST has been mounting in the Meersbrook area over the past few weeks as a new cafe started to take shape in some premises that have had a rather shady past.

It was most recently a short-lived food store but the home of Cafe des Amis once played host to a massage parlour (and we’re not talking about a relaxing spa here).

However, the ladies of the night have long ago moved on and in their place are two formidable women who have worked a lovely transformation of the place.

Particularly eye-catching are the colourful handmade lampshades and lanterns, including two made from gourds, that have been imported from Turkey. My friend Kate joked that if the cafe didn’t work out, they could start a lighting showroom.

They really give the place an exotic, Middle Eastern feel, which is added to by elaborate hookah pipes dotted around the place. You can smoke various flavoured shisha mixes outside but no-one had given it a try by the time I visited.

Some of the walls have been taken back to brick and the seating is a mixture of dining chairs and more comfy leather bucket-style chairs.

Cafe des Amis is a joint venture between two friends who met as neighbours after they left their home countries and settled in Sheffield about eight years ago. Lena Mussa came from Palestine and Zahra Othman is from Istanbul in Turkey.

Zahra had a little experience in the Istanbul hotel industry but this is a new venture for Lena, who said: “We didn’t know anything; we didn’t just start from scratch, it was under scratch!”

She said that they work well as business partners as both are determined and ambitious and push each other to succeed. Both have children and Lena, who used to be a pharmacist, is also studying law at university in London.

Just about all the food is fresh and made on the premises. Lena grows the zatar, a Palestinian variety of thyme, that she uses in some dishes in her garden from a plant she brought with her.

The menu says Turkish and French cuisine but really it is a mixture of Turkish and Middle Eastern. Some dishes are familiar but possibly the names are slightly different.

There is also a range of sandwiches and freshly-made burgers and Middle Eastern-style wraps and the cafe is open for breakfast, offering mainly pastries and omelettes.

There’s a reasonable choice for vegetarians but nothing for fish lovers at the moment, although Lena and Zahra are open to suggestions for menu ideas.

When we arrived on a Friday evening, the place was pleasantly busy and at the beginning of our visit the staff were a little distracted but service did pick up quickly with profuse apologies for us having to hunt down menus and say we wanted to order.

This place does not sell alcohol and friends who rang ahead to check were told they could not bring their own. The only cocktails on the menu are fruit juice mixes.

Friend Linda and I went for mint tea with fresh mint leaves (£1.80/£2 small or large) and mango and orange juice (£2.30).

We were intrigued by the safaih dishes on the specials part of the menu and decided to try a couple as starters, then go for lamb couscous and steak with oozy rice.

However, neither main course was on offer (the steak may disappear altogether), so we decided to create our own mezze of little dishes.

You can have three safaih for £10 (they are £3.50 each), so we went for three plus a portion of foul (£2), metabel baba ganog £2), taboola (£3) and vegetable samosas (60p each).

We’d joined up with my friends Phil and Kate by this time and they did something similar, so we were soon surrounded by plates of fantastic-looking food, so much we couldn’t tackle it all. You get salad and flatbread with safaihs too.

Some of the flavours, particularly bitter ones, are new to many western palates including mine, but that makes them fascinating.

Opinion was split on the safaih manaquesh, which is crushed dried thyme with sesame mixed with olive oil and spread on naan bread. It tastes good but the gritty texture put Linda off a bit. I didn’t mind it so much.

The Aries, which is pitta bread stuffed with mincemeat mixed with tomato, onion, olive oil and spices, was interesting but the flavour wasn’t strong enough to linger in the memory long.

The safaih cheese was the winner, with feta cheese and herbs encased in a thick, soft, bready pastry. It was really delicious and moreish.

The foul was equally fair. This dish, which I’ve also seen called foul or ful medames, is Egyptian broad beans with olive oil, lemon, garlic and tahini and the tastes are lovely, fresh and aromatic.

Similarly, the taboola (I think of it as tabbouleh), was a garden fresh salad of bulgar wheat, parsley, tomatoes, lettuce, spring onion and mint dressed with lemon juice and olive. Fabulous.

But I thought the star of the show was the metabel baba ganog (baba ghanoush is another name), which was a heavenly dip made from smoky aubergine pureed with tahini paste, lemon, garlic and olive oil.

We couldn’t face pudding, even good-looking baklava, or we could have had cake or ice cream.

Our bill was a ridiculously cheap £26.

Verdict: Safaih so good! Go and find yourself among welcoming new amis.

Opening times: every day from about 7.30am to 10pm at present.

Cafe des Amis, 97-99 Chesterfield Road, Sheffield. 0114 258 0142.