FOR years Sheffield has cast envious glances up the M1, anxious to compete with the gastronomic pretensions of Yorkshire rival Leeds. But the latest challenge comes from an altogether different direction…
Just a few miles down the A617, in suburban Chesterfield, a new four-star hotel is knocking spots off anything that city hotels have on offer.
The Casa is a £20m development overlooking what locals know affectionately as the Tesco Roundabout.
This inauspicious location speaks for itself and the pod-like exterior does no more to entice one through the doors. But beyond the entrance of this curious new addition lies another world.
Okay, so there’s not much that can be done about the view, but who needs to look out of the window when there’s so much inside to feast the eyes upon?
It’s all very swish; very stylish; very urbane – quite unlike Chesterfield, in fact. (I’m allowed to say this, because I’ve lived there for 30 years.)
The hotel part has all the mod cons: air conditioning, huge beds, rainshowers and flatscreen TVs. There are also laptop safes and wi-fi for the technologically minded.
And there’s a gym, conference rooms, a banqueting hall and luxury suites complete with al fresco hot tubs.
But it’s the general ambience of the place that impresses: the Dali-esque grandfather clock melting at the top of the stairs; the artworks dotted around carpeted corridors; and the efficient-yet-friendly staff who give the impression that, actually, they do give a damn.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the Casa is not part of some great, faceless chain. It’s truly independent, built and nurtured by a local businessman – the one who’s eating just a few tables away, in fact.
It has to be admitted that Steve Perez is not just any businessman. He’s the inspired entrepreneur behind VK Vodka Kick and Global Brands and a champion rally driver to boot.
He lives on a farm just up the road at Walton and thereby hangs another tale – one of organic produce, free-range chickens, rare-breed cattle, pigs and sheep – and all intended for the delectation of diners at the Casa hotel.
Perez may be a hot-shot tycoon but he knows the hospitality business inside out: his Spanish father once ran the old Red Lion inn at Stanage. So another thing he has done is surround himself with staff who really know their stuff – like head chef Matt Rushton and sous Andrew Wilson.
Both have illustrious backgrounds, with a smattering of Michelin stars, and have run several of the area’s best restaurants between them.
Their new empire is the Cocina restaurant, with its open kitchen, and the more relaxed ground floor Barça bar.
Perez’ family influence is a key feature: ‘casa’ is Spanish for home, old monochrome family photos adorn the walls and the menu is seasoned with Spanish wines, Catalonian dishes and tapas.
This month Casa has been hosting a Spanish festival, starring chef Jesus Niño Manchado, who has experience of six different Michelin-starred restaurants in Barcelona and San Sebastian. However, Andrew is in charge of the kitchen on the night of our visit.
We order a bottle of house red – fruity Borsao Tinto Garnacha (£15 or £3.80 per glass) – and settle in the cocktail bar to peruse the menu.
There’s a good selection of tapas as well as starters and mains, pasta, salads and a ‘josper’: meat or fish cooked in a Barcelonian charcoal-fired oven.
We are ushered into the main restaurant via a maze of passages created by translucent curtains that screen off some tables. Ours overlooks the bright lights of the A61: “I never thought I’d be sitting in a posh restaurant gazing at Tesco,” observes my companion. It’s a shame we’re right next to the only other occupied table in our section.
Warm, fresh-baked bread gets dinner off to a good start and it’s a fair taste of things to come.
The menu recommends two tapas per starter so we share four between us. It’s a meal of contrasts in both flavour and texture: juicy button mushrooms stuffed with creamy Picos blue cheese; rustic bread rubbed bruschetta-style with tomato, garlic and olive oil; cold tortilla Española, chock-full of potato; and our favourite, albóndigas – good, firm meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, served in a dinky little cast iron casserole.
Presentation is a forte, with nicely executed dishes served on stylish wavy white china.
Main course casserole of pan-roasted chicken breast and chickpeas is a one-pot Spanish classic, spiced up with smoky chorizo and served with sliced potatoes sautéed in garlic and onion.
The specials feature wood pigeon, shot by the owner on his land, we’re told. But, living within a stone’s throw of the place, the thought of tucking into one of the daft birds that frequents our garden is enough to put us off.
I go for the twice-cooked belly pork which proves a succulent and delicious alternative, full of great, punchy flavour which is well complemented by French beans, crushed new potatoes and a rich smoked bacon jus.
Desserts sound tempting, the rhubarb and ginger pavlova unmissable. But there’s none left, so I make do with a double espresso and mini macaroon while the man tucks into an excellent apple, almond and blueberry tart.
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £51.50.
lVerdict: Top marks for food, service and ambience; well worth a ten-minute drive down the Dronfield bypass.
lOpen: 12-2pm and 6-10pm Mon-Sat; 12.30-3.30pm Sun.
lCasa Hotel, Lockoford Lane, Chesterfield S41 7JB (01246) 245999 www.casahotels.co.uk