He opened his eponymous new brasserie earlier this month on the site of the erstwhile Ranulph’s bistro in Hutcliffe Wood Road, just a couple of doors down from short-lived Grayson’s.
With so much gloom on the neighbourhood restaurant front, Barrett’s chances of success might appear slim.
But he has spent the last couple of years advising other chefs how to make their businesses work – and he seems to know what he’s doing. In fact, not only has he set up one brasserie, he intends to add another four or five in due course.
James is nothing if not ambitious. He’s also supremely confident and with good reason.
Still only 33, he learned his skills 15 years ago at Michelin-starred Fischer’s in Baslow. Then he worked in restaurants from London to Dubai before giving others the benefit of his experience as a freelance consultant.
But his thoughts turned to home with the imminent arrival of his second child and, when he heard that Ranulph’s was about to become vacant, he snapped it up.
“It’s about providing what the customers want,” he says.
That means relaxed, quality, good value dining, with outside catering when required and fresh-baked bread for sale when he gets time.
“Each day the excitement grows. I’m enjoying it more and more, but it’s hard to be happy because there’s always more that can be done. I want to get the place humming morning, day and night.”
Top quality ingredients are key to his offer: local produce includes free-range eggs and Gloucester Old Spot pork from his next-door neighbour.
And James believes in doing things properly: “I had to specially order the bones to make lamb stock because the butcher said no-one else wanted them these days. You’ve got to respect your produce and you’ve got to do things right. There’s no cutting corners.”
The menu, which changes every four weeks, is modern British. There’s a mid-week table d’hôte at £18.95 for three courses and an à la carte for Fridays and Saturdays.
But here’s the clincher: it’s bring your own wine and there’s no corkage!
That means diners can enjoy a top notch meal, with all the trimmings and a decent bottle of wine, for no more than they’d pay in a bog-standard chain restaurant.
“I’m not planning to get a licence,” says James. “I like the idea that people can come here and pay a fair price for quality, seasonal produce and not get stung with the wine.”
The new brasserie is lighter and more contemporary than its predecessor, with a neutral colour scheme, polished floorboards and wooden furniture. At present gilt-framed mirrors are the only decoration, but paintings and sculptures by a local artist are planned.
In addition to the ground-floor dining room, there’s a French-style cave (it rhymes with ‘suave’) downstairs and al fresco tables will be added in the summer.
From our table in the corner (with notebook concealed under napkin), we watch wryly as James charms a pen-wielding diner at the next table. No anonymous independent review there then! But when he greets me by name as we pay our bill, it becomes obvious that this chef knows his stuff – right down to Googling the local food writers.
I digress. Our meal begins with a plate of assorted bread, oil and olives. An excellent start: the bread is delicious and complimentary appetisers are the mark of a good restaurant.
My starter of griddled English asparagus is spot on, with just the right amount of bite, topped with a soft poached egg and parmesan shavings.
My companion’s sautéed garlic mushrooms, served with toasted rosemary and rocksalt bread, are pronounced equally good – despite the fact that she commits the cardinal sin of requesting salt and pepper before even tasting the food.
Our waitress is clearly disapproving, but reappears with a dish of rock salt and the chef’s pepper grinder (neither of which is needed).
Service is friendly, if a little over-zealous. We’re asked at least half-a-dozen times, by two different waitresses, if our meal is all right. It certainly is.
There’s a choice of five main courses. My baked seatrout is sensational, its crisp, salty skin perfectly complemented by an almond butter sauce.
It comes with crushed new potatoes (Jersey Royals, no less) and broccoli spears. We share a side order of sweet, piquant carrots roasted in honey with thyme and ginger; an inspired combination.
My companion’s spring lamb cutlets are pink, juicy and meltingly tender. It’s a simple dish that depends on accurate cooking – and gets it.
Wilted spinach, a minted medley of peas and broad beans, and a meaty jus complete the dish.
Desserts read like a sweet-toothed fantasy: almond and white chocolate pannacotta with poached rhubarb and honeycomb; apple tart with elderflower and gooseberry ice cream and spiced butterscotch sauce…
In the interests of research we agree to share a sliver of chocolate tart. It’s sublime: rich and dark, with double chocolate ice cream and a drizzle of vanilla syrup.
We finish our meal with decent coffee. Dinner for two, excluding coffee and service, is £56.25.
lVerdict: Top notch food, skillfully cooked, at a price that becomes a bargain with BYO wine.
lOpen: Mon-Sat 11.30am-5pm (for brunch, lunch, tea) and dinner Wed-Sat 6-9.30pm; first Sunday in the month for Barrett’s Roasted Sunday lunch.
lBarrett’s, 2 Hutcliffe Wood Road, Sheffield (0114) 249 1055