He’s been in the catering business most of his life and has a passion for fine food and drink coursing through his veins, so Otto Damahi’s simple piece of advice for fellow restaurant owners is worth listening to.
Put it all in, or get out.
“I love this game,” Otto, who runs eponymous eatery Otto’s with his wife Theresa on Sharrow Vale Road, admits.
“The way I see it is, if you want a restaurant then it’s either in your blood, or it’s not. Either you love it or you don’t. If you just want to sit and pretend to be a boss and not get involved, in the kitchen or at the front or anywhere, then don’t do it.
“If you want to do it, you have to be all in; 100 per cent. I make it my mission to know what every single customer is having on their plate and be involved all the way, from the kitchen to the table.
“I never stop, but that’s the way I am. And I love it.”
We’re giving real people real food. We love food, love wine and love seeing people enjoy themselves. That’s the real dining experience
He’s not kidding. Otto’s words may be a nice sound bite but as we relax in this cosy, charming corner of Casablanca tucked away off one of the Steel City’s busiest streets, they come to life.
Theresa, a former teacher, and Otto greet us at the door like old friends, as if they’ve known us since the late 1980s when they first met in France.
As we arrive, a party before us is leaving and Otto shakes the hand of two young children as warmly as he shakes mine. Even a cold-calling energy salesman gets a warm greeting and a moment of Otto’s time. As he gives his spiel over our shoulders, we survey our surroundings; Otto’s is a two-storey haunt; the lower an L-shaped restaurant and above, a function room with space for 60 guests.
An extensive menu on the tables is complemented by a charming chalkboard of specials, and the table already has olives ready for us. A promising start.
Any fears about my starter, garlic chicken, being too overpowering were dispelled in the first bite, the flavour blending into the meat perfectly. The feta cheese and olive spring rolls received a similar thumbs-up verdict, in between mouthfuls.
Natalie’s main, a spicy fish and seafood tagine, first arrived on the specials board in 2015 and hasn’t left since, such has been its popularity.
“We can’t get rid of it,” chuckles Otto. We’re not surprised. The lid comes off to reveal a mist of aroma and flavour, and the tagine itself boasts a cast of seafood characters that would make The Little Mermaid envious.
We notice that customers can bring their own wine, with a £3 corkage charge. But there’s no need; the recommended Moroccan wine is superb.
Then there was the steak. Simply sensational, cooked to perfection. Of course, Otto already knows.
“I decide the menu but I get all the staff to taste it,” he reveals. “They taste all the food and the desserts, and tell me what they think. They’re honest, too, and we work together to get it right.
“We work like a family. We’re lucky to have lovely people here. I always think when you go to a restaurant, the attitude of the staff and how they behave is a reflection of the management.
“So, we have to be honest. It’s a trust relationship - the customers trust us to give them a good product, and we trust them to let us know what they think of it.”
By now, the restaurant’s resident pianist is playing and the soft sounds echo through the place. Trade, for a Friday night, is steady and, Theresa tells us, a little quiet for a Friday night. Still, it’s a far cry from the early days after Otto moved to Sheffield.
“I thought it was about time Sheffield had a Moroccan restaurant,” he says.
“Every other major city in England had one. But it was a bit of a struggle in the beginning, because people didn’t understand what Moroccan food was about.
“They thought it would be a curry house or something like that.
“Eventually we got people who’d been travelling and knew what the food was about, and it snowballed from there. We did take it over at the worst possible time, though; we signed the papers and the next day, the recession hit! So it could only get better from there, really. Luckily it has.”
Otto and Theresa have also done a fine job blending Moroccan tradition with modern tastes, eventually in a hipster area like Sharrow Vale. Natalie was amazed to be told her ginger cheesecake was gluten free, and apparently diners have been known to phone in advance to reserve a slice.
My lemon tart was a refreshing end to a superb night. Otto’s no stranger to the catering industry, having been in the business since he was 18, and sold his half share in the nearby Mediterranean restaurant to concentrate on this venture. Along with Theresa, they’re doing a fine job.
“Sharrow Vale has decent people who like to come and enjoy their evening. I prefer this area away from the city or Ecclesall Road, because we’re giving real people real food,” Otto says as we bid him farewell.
“In certain areas, at chain restaurants, you don’t get real people and you don’t get real food.
“Theresa and I love food, love wine and love seeing people enjoying themselves, that’s the experience of dining really. It’s been great fun, and I love Sheffield too. It’s home for me now.”