A HOTEL that has been taken over by a former Blades star has shaken off its fusty old image, discovers Lesley Draper.
HOW many times have we been told not to judge a book by its cover? The same, it seems, applies to restaurants…
The Manor House Hotel may sound like a fusty place that’s past its sell-by date – indeed, that was exactly the case last time we visited, about 15 years ago.
Let’s just say times have changed. And so has the Manor.
It had been on our ‘to do’ list for ages – since it was taken over by former Sheffield United star Kevin Gage and his business partner Stephen Geary three years ago, in fact. But memories of a tired dining room and acres of dusty chintz put us off.
The 16th-century, grade II-listed building in Dronfield High Street certainly looks its age from the outside. But walk through the doors and a pleasant surprise awaits.
Exposed stone walls remain a feature but the building has been transformed into an 11-bedroom boutique hotel with a stylish, contemporary feel.
We’re greeted by friendly staff, a convivial buzz and an impression that this is a popular place.
Fast forward half an hour and we discover part of the reason – when musicians Simon Peat and Joel White arrive for their regular jazz night at the Manor. But it’s certainly not all about the music.
When Gage and Geary took over, they envisaged a thriving bar that did food and had a few bedrooms to let. However, they reckoned without the influence of head chef Sam Parnell and the popularity of his food.
He set up a tapas menu which quickly won approval. And as its popularity grew, so did his workload.
First he persuaded twin brother Oli to join him in the kitchen and now, with demand continuing to increase, they have also enlisted the help of experienced chef Ryan McHugo.
Having worked all over the world, he is now settling into his new role at the Manor House, bringing his own contribution to the team and enabling them to further develop their offer.
The result is a new menu which has expanded to include more main meals alongside the popular tapas.
“We wondered how it would work at first because when Oli and I finish we go home, have a beer and talk about ideas for the menu – we never switch off,” says Sam.
“But it’s worked really well. Ryan has brought in different techniques and ideas and it’s allowed us to branch out a bit.”
The other member of the core team is manager Danielle Hodge, who oversees front-of-house in a manner that’s friendly but professional. And how.
Black-clad waiters provide textbook service, keeping the customers happy and operations running smoothly.
“We thrive on our service,” says Danielle. “I don’t think anyone realised at first how much the business would be focused towards the restaurant.”
The Manor House is now enjoying even greater popularity, with a new programme of events to complement the new menu including Wednesday steak night, Thursday wine offer, Sunday lunches and, of course, Tuesday jazz.
We’re pleased to have stumbled upon this unexpected free concert and settle down to enjoy the evening.
Tables are bare wood, like the floor, set against a backdrop that combines exposed stonework with modernist artwork; black and white with accents of red.
Drinks include a range of lagers and beers, but no real ales yet because the cellar is too small. The wine list, however, is excellent, with a broad choice that includes eight house wines, all at £12.95.
The new menu features a range of tapas that double as starters and side dishes; there’s also a choice of eight main courses, plus specials. In addition to the à la carte, there’s a midweek set menu at £16.95 for three courses.
I start with salt and pepper squid: lightly battered, nicely seasoned and not the least bit rubbery (as is all too often the case). It comes with a wedge of lime, home-made chilli jam and a salad of lamb’s ear lettuce and fiery red chilli slices – disappointing only because it lacked the promised coriander.
Rustic meatballs get the thumbs up from my companion: a mix of pork and beef with a hint of smoky spice, in a tangy tomato sauce – delicious but again without the expected coriander; maybe they’ve run out.
Main course risotto is hard to fault. Arborio rice retains just the right amount of bite, cooked to buttery perfection with sliced wild mushrooms and finished with peppery rocket, parmesan shavings and a drizzle of musky truffle oil.
Simple, but equally accomplished is the roast supreme of chicken: beautifully moist and carved on to a thick wedge of dauphinois leeks and potatoes. This wonderfully savoury concoction is matched with black pudding wontons – little twists of crisp filo pastry with enough spicy filling to offer some contrast – and a mushroom veloute. There’s also a side dish of seasonal veg: green beans, broccoli and mangetout.
My companion manfully obliges by sampling dessert and is rewarded with a near-perfect pear and berry crumble.
“Our search for a proper crumble has finally ended… in Dronfield,” he beams, munching contentedly on sweet-sharp pear and blackberries with a buttery oat crumble topping and proper custard.
We finish our meal with excellent coffee and home-made shortbread biscuits. Delicious! And there’s more: the bill is accompanied by complimentary samples of the chef’s peppermints and fudge.
* Verdict: A surprisingly good discovery. Accomplished cooking and a great atmosphere, especially on jazz night!
* Open: 7am-9pm Mon-Fri; 8am-9pm Sat; 8am-4pm Sun
* Manor House Hotel, High Street, Dronfield S18 1PY (01246) 412119 www.manor-househotel.co.uk