Lunch at Eten is one of those unexpected delights – like shucking your oyster and discovering a pearl.
Not that a café serving tasty food is surprising in itself, but you just don’t expect this quality of cuisine in such an understated environment.
I know all this because Eten is literally a stone’s throw from the Sheffield Telegraph office – and it has doubled as my interview room since it first opened last year.
I haven’t reviewed it before, partly because I was waiting for the promised bistro evenings to begin, but also because our reviews are generally carried out anonymously...
I considered the moustache and hat option, but figured they’d still recognise me. So I’m declaring my interest from the start, and assuring you that it will make no difference. Service at Eten is always carried out with a smile and the food is of universally good quality, regardless of who orders it.
The secret is the fact that this cafe is run by two qualified chefs and a former hotel inspector.
Head chef Lee Vintin has cooked in kitchens from London to Paris, feeding luminaries from Sir Elton John to the Beckhams.
He was head chef at the Walnut Club in Hathersage, Bosworth’s Bramall Lane and took the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley to success as Eat Sheffield’s 2011 restaurant of the year.
Co-owner Paul Gill is also a respected chef – pastries are his speciality – and his partner Geraldine Williams is an experienced hotel inspector.
The three have taken over the sprawling premises opposite Sheffield Cathedral and turned it into a pleasant café-cum-bistro with a comfortable lounge area at the back and a first-floor function room that plays host to a variety of meetings and events.
On the Wednesday evening of our visit there was a chess club in progress upstairs while book club members discussed The Great Gatsby in the back room.
Other activities range from regular yoga and therapy sessions to film nights, art exhibitions, gaming and scrapbooking workshops and, most recently, a secret gig featuring three local bands.
“It’s grown to become more and more of a community centre,” says Lee, clearly delighted with the fact.
“Eventually I envisage this being open seven days a week, from 7.30am, with lots of things going on.
“We wanted to be the kind of place that includes people; I think everyone should have a social conscience these days.”
That goes for the food as well as the building: Lee was diagnosed as coeliac shortly after Eten opened and he has developed a gluten-free range that encompasses much of the menu, without making a big issue of it.
He is first and foremost a chef, so taste comes first. But he has worked hard to create specialities like his GF scones that are said to be as good as the ‘real’ thing.
Vegan food is another speciality that he has worked hard to perfect – including special recipes for pie night and afternoon tea.
Eten (the name is old English for ‘to eat’) is a large, airy space that’s enlivened by a changing display of artwork on the walls. The current exhibition is by poster artist Martin Bedford.
In the evenings, the atmosphere is softened by tealights, flickering in vintage china cups.
In fact vintage china is a feature throughout the day, whether you’ve called in for a quick morning cuppa or a slap-up afternoon tea.
We’re here for one of the twice-weekly bistro nights – an occasion for which Paul (better known as Paulo) steps front-of-house.
The menu sounds as enticing as ever and, unlike those places where a special event is an excuse to hike the prices, good value is maintained too.
There’s a choice of four dishes per course. Two courses are £12.95 and a third just £3 extra.
That’s certainly not restaurant prices, but you’ll be surprised by the quality of the food.
Eten is licensed: there’s a decent choice of bottled beers, spirits and wines, including several by the glass.
We order glasses of Pinot Grigio (£3.20): light, crisp and nicely chilled.
I start with a salad of roasted sweet potatoes, fresh figs and crumbled goats cheese – a sublime balance of sweet and sour that’s pulled together with a wonderful dressing of balsamic-steeped sultanas.
My companion goes for a meaty terrine of Moss Valley ham hock, perked up with a hint of capers, gherkins and parsley. It comes with salad and a sweet, tangy red onion and apple marmalade.
Her main course is a top rump steak, cooked medium rare as recommended, with a pat of cheesy Yorkshire Blue butter – so large and so well chilled that it refuses to melt.
Crisp-cooked chips and a dressed side salad complete the feast: “Simple but delicious, like Parisian steak frites,” she decides.
My baked cod is another dish where simplicity allows quality ingredients to take centre stage.
It comes with silky creamed potato, nicely seasoned, and a fan of grilled courgettes with a rich tomato sauce.
And dessert is irresistible. Eten Mess (see what they did there?) is a suitably indulgent conclusion to the meal.
Traditional meringue and whipped cream are mixed with succulent fresh blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
Eten is open Mon - Sat, 10am - 5pm, Wed - Sat until 11pm (last orders 8pm). Other evenings by arrangement.
* Eten café & tearoom, 2-4 York Street, Sheffield S1 2ER telephone (0114) 2730 658 Eten cafe and tearoom
* See video interviews with the Eten chefs here: