THERE’S something magical about the city at night – and not just the obvious landmarks. Hidden nooks, normally overlooked, can take on a mystical quality after dark.
The restored 19th-century Butcher Works is one of these. By day a bustling courtyard surrounded by artisan workshops, at night there’s an eerie beauty about the silent square with its arched windows, rustic cobbles and moonlit chimney.
And no doubt it will be discovered by an increasing number of visitors following the launch of the Fusion Organic Bistro – a regular Thursday and Friday night event at the award-winning café of the same name.
Fusion opened three years ago, specialising in organic, artisan food and serving as a catering arm for the independent Freeman College.
Since then it has built up an impressive reputation, being nominated three years running as the city’s best café and twice winning the Eat Sheffield Award. It has also won national recognition for its breakfasts and lunch.
But until now Fusion has never opened during the evenings – and that’s frustrating for the chefs, as well as for eager customers.
Executive chef and manager is Melvin Jarman, a man whose Steiner background makes him perfect for this unique challenge. His head chef is Jonathan Cummings, who approaches the job from the opposite angle.
For a start, he knows all about vocational study: when we first met him, some 17 years ago, he had just abandoned a successful career in civil engineering to follow his dream of becoming a chef.
For months he had been working by day on projects including the Northern General Hospital and moonlighting in the kitchens of Tankersley Manor as he learned the intricacies of his chosen art.
He put that knowledge to good use when he opened Café Jacques in London Road, doing everything himself, from cooking to front of house.
After that he became a full-time dad, worked his way around the city’s Italian restaurants and finally found himself on the doorstep of Fusion two days before it opened.
Destiny beckoned when Melvin’s chosen chef failed to show up and Jonathan was called in to help.
“We bonded very quickly,” he recalls. “We’re from very different backgrounds but we have a similar vision – and the connection with the college sealed it.”
Over the last three years they have given more than 40 students a grounding in practical catering and several have gone on to work in the industry.
But it is only now that the staff are able to explore their own creative skills by extending the menu of salads, sandwiches and snacks to a full bistro service.
The change has been made possible by a refurbishment last autumn, which not only expanded the dining area but also made room for a full professional kitchen.
Service has speeded up and lunchtime queues are no longer a problem. But the integrity of the building remains, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and exposed brick walls.
The students have made their mark in the shape of fittings such as copper lamps and coat pegs, pewter cruet sets and a wall-mounted magazine rack; their work is showcased around the room.
“The original café was designed for selling soup and sandwiches, so this refurb has made a big difference,” says Jonathan.
“The lunch trade is our bread and butter but this is what we’ve always wanted to do. We’re still finding our feet but we’ve had a really positive reaction.”
We have booked a table on one of the coldest nights of the year but inside the bistro a warm welcome awaits.
Students are not around in the evenings and service is slow at first but we’re soon enjoying a glass of wine (it’s bring your own, corkage a one-off £1.50 per person).
The menu is concise: a choice of three dishes per course, with two courses for £20 or three for £26. I’m surprised to find no meat on offer (only poultry or game) but this is a bistro that uses only what’s local and available.
I’m soon drooling over the prospect of goats cheese soufflé-filled beetroot with a rocket and pine nut salad. But sadly, this is a dish that works better on paper: the hollowed-out beet is too thick and, as I cut it, raw soufflé spills on to the plate. It’s also served on slices of beet which is just too much of a good thing.
However, pan-fried pigeon breast wins my companion’s approval, nicely complemented by roast shallots and a smoked bacon-spiked coleslaw.
My main course is better: wild halibut with a silky fennel and celeriac purée, roast shallots, musky oyster mushrooms and a delicious beurre blanc.
No complaints about the flavours but it all looked very beige; a few carrots or swedes would have lifted it – and they’re both local and seasonal.
Seared duck breast is deliciously moist, served with ginger-sautéed chard, roast onion tart and an inspired Yorkshire rhubarb sauce.
On to desserts: a beautifully sharp lemon tart, served with vodka lemon curd, strawberry coulis and cream. And honey ice cream with pieces of caramelised pear and a sprinkling of cashews and pecans – a great combination of textures.
lVerdict: A worthy addition to the city-centre night scene. A promising start with even better to come as confidence increases.
lOpen: Bistro nights Thurs and Fri, 6-10pm
Fusion Organic Bistro, Butcher Works, 74 Arundel Street, Sheffield. (0114) 252 5974. www.fusioncafe.co.uk