IT started out so well, at an independent eating place that’s been on our list for weeks. But, this being Monday, it was closed, so we headed instead for the newest addition to Sheffield’s restaurant scene.
Regular readers of this column will be aware that Valley Centertainment is the culinary lowland so far as I’m concerned: a theme park of fast food, generic menus and chain restaurants out to make a fast buck.
But the new Harvester is the first of its brand in the area (another is due to open at Meadowhall next month) and I’m told it’s popular elsewhere, so maybe this was the breath of fresh air we were looking for.
The smell of chip fat hit us as soon as we stepped out of the car – having done the requisite two circuits of the car park and competed with a small bus for the only available space.
To be fair, we were nowhere near our destination at the time, but it’s enough to put you off your dinner wherever you choose to eat it.
The Harvester is on the outskirts of the complex and it’s certainly an improvement on most of its neighbours. Glass walls give it a light and airy feel and staff are waiting to seat us as we arrive. Service here is good, no quibble about that.
The ‘harvest’ theme is echoed in everything from the furniture (comfy chairs upholstered in leafy fabric) to glass screens adorned with a grass motif and framed leaves and seedheads on the walls.
Tables are granite topped, the floor is cream tiled and efficient air-con ensures that the place oozes cool even on a humid evening.
The Harvester brand is at the healthier end of the fast food scale; billed as a ‘salad and grill’, it makes much of its ‘unlimited salad’ offer. No surprise, then, that the far side of the dining area is taken up by a stainless steel open kitchen and in front of it, in pride of place, a canopied salad bar.
We are shown to a table in the window – shame the only view is of other restaurants – and I put my notebook on the table.
I mention this because it’s a cardinal rule of serious food writers to keep the notebook out of sight (I hide mine under my napkin).
The exception to this rule is the Daily Telegraph’s Matthew Norman, whose breathtaking arrogance apparently qualifies him to imagine that he can flaunt his credentials and still get a true impression of the service that mere mortals might receive.
Anyway, on this occasion I break the rule because a) it’s a lot easier to write on a table and b) it’s the kind of place that no-one in their right mind would ever expect to find a food writer.
The menu features starters, an all-day earlybird selection and the main event: grill + sauce + side + salad. The idea is that you pick one from each column for the all-in price of your chosen meat or fish.
But here’s the rub: alongside each item is a calorie count.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great idea to warn diners about the potential damage to their waistline before it’s too late. But there’s nothing more guaranteed to put one off one’s rump steak and chips than a tag warning that it will add on 1,140 calories – plus another 400 if you fancy sauce and salad to go with it.
A bit of hasty mental arithmetic convinces me that I should revise my choice. We downgrade our usual bottle of house red to a pint of San Miguel (him) and a glass of Pennine spring water (me).
Melon doesn’t count as a test of the chef’s ability, so we opt for starters of soup and king prawns.
The soup is supposed to be tomato and basil (140kcal). It’s lukewarm, tastes like tinned tomato with green bits floating in it and I suspect the low calorie count is because the puddle in the bowl is only 2mm deep.
Spicy crackerjack king prawns are nicely presented in a bamboo basket but they’re more the size of scampi. There’s nothing very spicy about them, apart from the accompanying pot of bottled dip, and the breadcrumbed shells are hard enough to crack teeth on.
On to the main course… The place isn’t exactly bustling but we wait around 20 minutes; how long does it take to grill a burger and a piece of fish?
The Harvester Premium Burger, when it arrives, is limp, anaemic and ‘very average,’ according to my companion: “The chunky tomato salsa is the only thing that adds any flavour.”
My grilled sea bass fillets (360kcal) are fine, though I suspect they come frozen. Green beans are rubbery, ‘buttered new potatoes’ have apparently been baked rather than boiled, and the bland asparagus and cream cheese sauce certainly doesn’t merit the extra 100kcal.
Salads are freshly prepared throughout the day, we’re told. I’m not sure how much preparation goes into opening an industrial tin of sweetcorn, another of pineapple and chopping up a few cucumbers and iceberg lettuces, but that accounts for most of it.
More interesting items include dressed cauliflower and two kinds of pasta but it’s not enough to tempt me back for a second helping, even if it is ‘unlimited’.
There’s a Super Sundaes dessert menu – ranging from Sundae Best ice cream (260kcal) to Honeycomb Explosion, with toffee and chocolate sauces (770kcal) – but we’ve had more than enough.
A two-course meal for two, excluding drinks and service, is £26.76.
lVerdict: A healthy option for cinema-goers, but don’t expect fresh local produce.
lOpen: Daily from 8am for breakfast; restaurant 11am - 10pm
lThe Harvester, Valley Centertainment, Broughton Lane, Attercliffe, Sheffield (0114) 261 9836