Review: Checking in to stand out hotel food
When Dave Robinson took over as general manager of Aston Hall Hotel in July last year, he asked the team of chefs what they wanted.
“All but one said we want an AA rosette to our name”, said Dave.
“I said I didn’t want that, I just wanted good quality food, I don’t want the hassle of rosettes, my words were.”
In November the hotel’s Bamford restaurant, headed up by chef Craig Simpson, was awarded its first AA rosette - and become one of just a handful of venues in Sheffield to hold the plaudit - credited to a team approach.
Single stars recognise venues which stand out in their area, serving food with care, skill, and locally sourced produce.
Dave laughed: “It bit me on the bum on November 2 when the inspector said you are so good we are giving you an award - I did rather have egg on my face!”
After a hectic holiday period, the hotel heads are hoping word will spread and more local residents, rather than just guests, will be following in the footsteps of the culinary judges.
Dave added: “We are getting more awareness where guests are understanding of what we are and what we do so it is just now starting to happen.”
Craig added: “Compared to where we were a year ago, our Friday and Saturday nights were our quietest then. Monday to Thursday it is busy and we have been getting more customers on a weekend, which has all really come about in the last six to seven months.”
Arriving at the hotel, the grand entrance gives you the sense that it has a long history. And in fact it was built in 1772 - with it said that Lord Byron chose the spot to embark on an affair with the wife of his best friend.
Today the audience, and interior decor, is more corporate, althought I suppose you never know if a poet is hiding away in one of the rooms.
Many of the guests are repeat visitors, which is presumably a factor in why the whole menu changes each month, with five new starters, mains and desserts each time.
“People might think it is a small menu but when you see the work that goes into it, sourcing all the produce locally and consulting everyone on it...”said Dave.
“What I like about Craig is he involves the full team - with a new menu we sit down and have a full tasting, then make adjustments, it is a full team effort.”
We arrived extremely early, both for our booking and by anybody’s standards, before 6pm on a Monday so it is no surprise we were the only ones in the dining room at first.
A waiter had given us time to peruse the modern British leaning menu while ordering drinks in the bar next door, and that was more bustling.
Service was friendly, but slightly hit and miss as when asked the first waiter couldn’t recommend any dishes as he hadn’t yet tried them - perhaps he was new.
Things improved when another charming and chatty man - Dave, as it turned out - arrived with the complimentary bread rolls, all freshly made on site. They were warm, crisp on the outside and soft in, one topped with crunchy poppy seeds and another tasty tomato.
I wasn’t wowed by the starter of belly pork (£5.95), braised rather than roasted. The meat was tender and tasty, but there was an absence of stick-in-your-teeth, naughty crackling and fat for me. It came with a constrasting apple compote and a satsifyingly dense parnsip scone. His peppered venison carpaccio (£6.95) looked stunning, with pink curls of the meat served just rare enough. There was a refreshing dressing of lemon and honey, with walnuts pepping up a watercress salad.
Delicious, but rather light was the verdict of the (still hungry) other half.
Things, and prices, looked up for main courses.
My paupiette of plaice was one of the dishes which jumped out on the menu, containing ‘mussel popcorn’ and ‘buttered salsify.’ Intriguing.
The popcorn turned out to be tiny morsels of soft shellfish encased in a light batter. They provided texture alongside a heady combination of flaky, moist fish, crushed potatoes with the zing of lemon and saltiness of capers bringing it together. Salsify - a root vegetable - is said to taste like oyster, and was an interesting addition. All in all it was the finest fish dish I’ve eaten in months, and at £14.95 I would go back for it.
He’d opted for the sous vide duck breast - slices of juicy red meat, with a pungent saag aloo and crunchy onion bhajis in another striking use of texture and flavour. Portion sizes are well thought out, so dessert was no problem. A pineapple ring filled with spiced dried fruit was boozy thanks to rum and raisin ice cream with sticky amaretto syrup,and reminded me in turn of an exotic holiday, then a mince pie. He quickly finished a delicate lemon and blueberry creme brulee with tiny shortbread stars.
Both came with very fine sugarwork toppings and cost £4.95. Our total bill, with drinks, was £78.70.
Aston chefs will now be aiming for a second rosette - and with some tweaks the odds look decent.
Aston Hall Hotel, Worksop Road, Aston, Sheffield
Tel: 0114 287 2309