A main attraction

Showroom Bar,Paternoster Row, Head Chef Simon Ayres with Pastry Chef Lisa Curran
Showroom Bar,Paternoster Row, Head Chef Simon Ayres with Pastry Chef Lisa Curran

Lesley Draper pays a visit to the Showroom Bar and finds a work in progress that could one day become a blockbuster

THERE’S something surreal about tucking into a three-course meal in the foyer of the local cinema.

It’s not the bright pink ducting; nor the canteen-style chairs; not even the counter-cum-bar where preoccupied staff chat among themselves. No, the thing that stands out, amid all this, is the food.

The fact is that you’d expect dinner at the Showroom to be a burger-and-bun-type affair; a quick snack before the main attraction. But here we have home baked bread, freshly made soup, hand-raised pie, pan-fried fish and sticky toffee sponge. For serious foodies, the feature film can only take second billing.

The man responsible for this revelation is Simon Ayres, who celebrates his first anniversary at the Showroom this month with the launch of a new menu.

Simon is something of a star himself, having led the Milestone to victory as Gordon Ramsay’s best British restaurant in 2010 – and earning the sobriquet ‘the cage fighter in the kitchen’ from Ramsay in the process.

He moved on a year ago, in search of a new challenge, and found his destiny at the Showroom.

“This is more of a challenge than anywhere else I could’ve chosen: more than a two or three-star restaurant, because you have it all set up there,” he says.

“Here I have the challenge of developing all the trainees into really strong members of staff and I’ve got so many ideas to put into practice. This place could be amazing, but it’s going to take some time.”

Which explains the psychedelic ducting, the uncomfortable chairs and the poor service – but makes the food all the more impressive.

Simon has certainly made his mark since joining the team a year ago.

One of his first moves was to establish a roof garden on top of the Workstation creative business centre, growing fresh herbs and vegetables for the café-bar three floors below.

He has also upped the standard of cinema treats, creating hand-made sweets, fresh ice creams and savoury popcorn for sale at the kiosk for eager film-goers.

He has changed the menu, transforming it gradually from glorified snack food to a three-course treat for those who want it. There’s a range of own-brand chutneys and preserves to buy too.

His latest addition is new front-of-house manager Kate, who is drawing up a training plan for inexperienced staff.

Next on his list is the setting.

At present the dining area is used only for special occasions and theme nights. But he plans to bring it back into use, opening it on Fridays initially, as an informal bistro.

He is also keen to make more of the building’s heritage, stripping away modern fittings and furnishings and replacing them with a look that’s in keeping with 1930s style.

Meanwhile, his menu revolution continues. At first the board of trustees was reluctant to change it, but they have been won over by his enthusiasm – and the standard of cooking.

We go along before a night out at the Lyceum, though next time we might take advantage of the Showroom’s midweek Take Two deal: two film tickets, two main courses and a bottle of wine for just £33.

The emphasis is on fresh, local ingredients, with a choice of starters or light dishes, main courses and desserts. There’s also a blackboard of specials.

The bar offers a choice of three local beers plus the usual bottles, spirits and a limited wine list from £13.70 for house red or white (£3.70 per glass).

Our meal gets off an inauspicious start: a beautifully thick, well-seasoned mushroom soup is spoiled because it’s just not hot enough. It’s a shame because the crusty bread is also delicious.

My companion’s courgette and smoked paprika samosa is nicely spiced, though courgette is a curiously soft and bland ingredient. Ale and onion bhaji, though, offers a good contrast in texture and Henderson’s hummus shows a touch of flair though is disappointingly light on the relish.

Things move up a gear with the arrival of main courses.

Ox cheek bourguignon, from the specials board, is exquisitely tender with plenty of meaty punch. Ox cheek is fairly common these days, but Simon has been using them for years and is a master of the offal art.

He trims the meat and braises it slowly with venison bones to create a rich gravy, before deglazing with port. Creamy mash and wilted spinach add the finishing touches.

Pork fillet is another meat that can be tricky, often let down by over cooking. But not here.

The fillet is marinated in cep powder then cooked until it’s just done, leaving it pink, juicy and beautifully tasty, instead of dry and tough as old boots.

It’s complemented by a fricasée of wild mushrooms and earthy Jerusalem artichokes – sautéed until soft and then served in a creamy sauce – and pommes Anna: a crisp-coated wedge of thinly-sliced potatoes cooked in butter. Delicious.

We finish our meal with coffee and home made ice cream, the speciality of pastry chef Lisa Curran.

She creates a premium confection of pure cream and fruit – no gums, thickeners or corn starch. My favourite is ginger and rhubarb.

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £39.10.

* Verdict: A café-bar with star quality, though a little stage dressing would add to the attraction.

* Open: 10am-9pm Mon - Fri; 11am-9pm Sat, 12-4pm Sun

* The Showroom Café-Bar, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield (0114) 275 7727 Showroom Work Station