The Wig & Pen has entered a new era – and is already the place to see and be seen. Lesley Draper reports...

WIG & PEN   Head chef Simon Ayres at the Wig & Pen, Sheffield.     28 January 2010
WIG & PEN Head chef Simon Ayres at the Wig & Pen, Sheffield. 28 January 2010

TAKE a team with a reputation for culinary flair, add one of the most striking buildings in town and you have a sure-fire recipe for success.

Yes, Wig & Pen by the Milestone is up and running – and is already the place to see and be seen. A launch event at the end of January sold out overnight as Sheffield’s cognoscenti jostled for tickets to the social event of the year so far.

But those expecting a repeat of the award-winning Kelham Island formula will be in for a surprise.

This may be the Milestone – but not as we know it. This is the grown-up, more assured, more sophisticated version and it’s quite simply outstanding.

The explanation, claims co-owner Matt Bigland, is at least partly because the same description might be applied to head chef Simon Ayres.

Simon – who starred alongside Matt and business partner Marc Sheldon in Channel4 series Ramsay’s Best Restaurant – has grown both in confidence and ambition as a result of the experience. And he’s determined that the Wig & Pen will gain the recognition it deserves.

“We want to get two rosettes, at least, this year. That’s the goal,” he says.

“I’ve been at the Milestone for a long time and I wanted something I could get my claws into. This place has an exciting feel; it could be absolutely massive.”

Simon is clearly throwing himself into the new project – where the kitchen is three times the size of that at the Milestone.

His team has spent the last few weeks testing out menus and dishes and practising their lunchtime specials: a choice of seven gastro dishes, all guaranteed to be cooked and served within 15 minutes.

“I’ve got seven chefs and everybody works together. If anyone slows down, all the guys go in to help.

“Timing is just as important as quality and consistency here. If people know they can order their food and have it in 15 minutes, they’ll come back again.”

The lads certainly have their finger on the pulse of city centre life: they also offer a pre-theatre menu between 5-7pm (two courses for £12 or three for £15), with the option to go back after the show for dessert.

The building itself has changed little since its creator, Malcolm Schooling, was forced to pull out three months ago.

It is just over two years since the original Wig & Pen was doubled in size and extended backwards into listed buildings overlooking historic Paradise Square.

This Georgian plum in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter was ripe for the picking – and the Milestone lads are the ideal harvesters, having outgrown their original premises following the recent tide of publicity.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” says Matt. “There’s nothing else in the city centre to compare.

“Four years ago I had 20 grand on my credit card… I never thought the Milestone would take off like this.”

New lighting, a chic pale green colour scheme and wooden furniture give the place a gastro-pub feel but it’s not a copy of the original Milestone.

“We want this to be more sophisticated – the destination in the city centre – with classy, modern British food.”

The regularly-changing menu has the distinctive Milestone touch but presentation and service take it to another level.

It’s concise: five starters, seven mains and six desserts, plus side dishes that the well-trained staff sell up at every opportunity.

The wine list is eclectic and largely exclusive. House wines start at £13.50 for a bottle of Spanish red or white (£3.20 per glass) but there’s also a range of half-bottles which are proving surprisingly popular.

“I think people are more in tune with matching drinks to their food these days,” says Matt.

But the Wig & Pen is a pub, too, so there’s also a good range of beers and cocktails. We order a pint of Wentworth Imperial and a light, refreshing watermelon cooler.

Bread and olives are extra, so we turn them down on principle. Starters arrive promptly.

Smoked ham and truffle terrine is good, if a tad over-salted. It comes with crusty apricot bread and butter.

Pigeon breast is a first for me (something to do with the scraggy specimens that pounce every time I walk up Fargate) but it’s surprisingly good. Delicate in flavour and nicely moist, it is carved on to soused winter vegetables – a kind of crunchy carrot and turnip salsa, dressed in vinaigrette.

But the presentation is something else: a dainty work of art framed in swirls of oil, infused with raspberry and salsify and crowned with a quail’s egg. (Or is it a pigeon’s? I’d rather not know.)

Main courses range from £14 to £19.50. Lamb rump is beautifully succulent, a chervil and pistachio crust adding both flavour and texture. It comes with turned new potatoes, bittersweet mushrooms and broad beans. A side order of market greens is served in a miniature saucepan, on a slate that the previous owners clipped their menus to.

My slow roast belly pork is again exquisitely presented: two pieces, set on twin pillows of creamed potato, topped with baby carrots and leeks and anointed with thick, plummy tamarind and raisin sauce.

It’s tempting to look for fault when the great Gordon Ramsay has pronounced his esteem but this is classy cooking. My only complaint is a curl of crackling, too leathery to get my teeth round.

Even I can’t resist dessert and carrot and walnut fondant, topped with carrot Anglaise sauce, is worth every calorie. An unusual blend of flavours, scented with cinnamon, it works beautifully.

Rhubarb and custard mousse is every bit as experimental: a shortbread biscuit with pistachio praline; sour rhubarb jelly with just a hint of Pernod – a perfect palate cleanser; and the promised mousse to complete the trio.

We finish our meal with excellent coffee. Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £56.50.

lVerdict: another Milestone for the Kelham Island team. Recognition from the culinary guides must surely follow.

lOpen: 12-4pm for lunch, 5-10pm for dinner.

lWig & Pen by the Milestone, 44 Campo Lane, Sheffield (0114) 272 2150