A touch of Paris

Maison Mes Amis owner Marcella Kirk with chefs (L) Craig Skinner and (R) James Gaunt
Maison Mes Amis owner Marcella Kirk with chefs (L) Craig Skinner and (R) James Gaunt
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LAST time I went in the Prince of Wales on Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield, was the night Tony Benn was elected as the town’s MP. It was a dark and dingy place, full of factory workers, miners and reporters – how times have changed.

Some 30 years on, the pub has been transformed into a bar and restaurant that’s more Paris attic than Derbyshire boozer. The working men of 1984 would be horrified, but today’s Cestrefeldians love it.

Structurally, little has changed over the years. The bar remains the focal point, but these days it’s hand painted in pastel shades with pearl-centred flowers. The room is bright, with big windows and crystal chandeliers, and once-beer-stained walls now sparkle with diamanté-studded paper.

Maison Mes Amis is the creation of former air stewardess Marcella Kirk, a demure vision of French chic with easy charm, a friendly smile and softly curled hair the delicate pink of a Parisian poodle.

The place is French-themed, she insists, rather than attempting to be a French restaurant. But she has conjured up that distinctive je ne sais quois with ease – a style soaked up, one imagines, during the five years she lived on the other side of the Channel.

The important thing to Marcella is comfort: “I want to create a version of home,” she says.

Though clearly that doesn’t extend to dress: the three-inch heels, lacy tights and short skirts of the waitresses are very ooh-la-la but I’m glad I don’t have to work in them.

Her former coffee shop, just a few hundred yards down the road, was fashioned as a lounge, dining room and kitchen. Maison Mes Amis, which opened just before Christmas, is the same but with an added bar and outside courtyard.

The kitchen is partly open, giving customers a chance to watch and chat to the chefs at work.

Cooking duties are shared by Marcella’s original chef, James Gaunt (who trained at Hallam University and has worked at numerous local pubs), and newcomer Craig Skinner, former head chef at award-winning Rowley’s in Baslow.

“I’d been there for six years, so I was looking for a new challenge – and more time with my family,” he says.

“It took some getting used to, especially using an induction hob after gas, but it’s very laid back here and we all get on well together.”

Craig has taken charge of the menu while James specialises in pastry.

Food is modern British, not French, they say, though the daytime menu still has a distinctive French accent, with dishes including croissants, moules frites and their signature Croque Monsieur.

Marcella was keen to maintain service for her original customers, so all their regular favourites are still available, along with a new evening menu Wednesday to Saturday.

In addition to that, a Wednesday evening special offers two courses for £16 and a range of one-off events are in the pipeline.

The first of these is scheduled for Valentine’s Day when a ‘menu d’amore’ offers a whole night of romantic treats. Others include wine tasting, jazz and a French night complete with frogs’ legs and snails.

The bar serves a full range of wines, beers and spirits and is open to those in search of just a glass or two of wine – or a cup of coffee – as well as diners. It even has its own flaring cocktail waiter at weekends.

A plush settee in front of a roaring fire serves as a lounge bar and we settle here until our table is ready.

Our waitress brings a heart-shaped dish of balsamic and oil, with hunks of bread to dip. It’s not home made and is somewhat dry, but maybe I’m being picky.

Anyway, my starter makes up for it. Dainty triangles of blue cheese pannacotta are firm and creamy with a good hit of cheese, contrasting with the tangy sweetness of pickled pear slices. Dressed leaves with slivers of radish add a crisp finishing touch.

My companion is lured by potted smoked mackerel – a chance to enjoy it while we still can, she says. Horseradish crème fraîche adds just a hint of heat, with nutty granary toast and a salad garnish for texture.

She follows that with ox cheek, slow braised in a mixture of beer and black treacle. It’s rich, soft and exquisitely tender, with a delicious bitter-sweet tang. It’s paired with chive mash and French beans.

Chorizo-crusted cod is also good – not as spicy as I’d hoped, but a well-balanced match for the fish. It comes on a bed of haricot beans with basil pesto, a tastier and healthier alternative to chips!

We finish our meal with a classic lemon posset… and two spoons. It’s beautifully sharp and light, with a compôte of blackberries and blueberries and a disc of shortbread.

Then we relax and soak up the atmosphere with distinctly non-French americanos.

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £46.40.

Verdict: A touch of French class that’s a great new addition to the growing culinary portfolio of Chatsworth Road.

Open: Sun-Tue 10am-4pm; Wed-Sat 10am-9pm; plus private parties by arrangement

Maison Mes Amis, 19 Old Road, Chesterfield S40 2RE (01246) 768789 www.maison-mesamis.co.u