Rafters, 220 Oakbrook Rd, Sheffield, S11 7ED – Visit Now
When it comes to fine dining in the North, Sheffield rarely gets a look in, regularly skipped over in favour of its more media-savvy neighbours in the Lake District and Manchester. There’s no reason why this should be the case. The city is surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside and its fast-growing economy has it primed to become a leading destination for high quality dining.
In this respect, local boys Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers are ahead of the curve. The impressively-young duo bought Rafters from its owner, Marcus Lane (who took over from the much-loved founders, the Bosworth brothers), back in 2014, and set about establishing it as the Steel City’s first truly forward-thinking fine-dining restaurant, winning countless awards along the way. It’s actually some way out of the city centre, a ten minute taxi ride to the quiet leafy suburb of Nether Green, so if you’re looking for that hidden gem – and let’s be honest, nothing beats that smug feeling of introducing someone to their new favourite eating place – then that’s one box ticked already.
The restaurant itself is a small relaxed room, up in the rafters of a renovated warehouse, all exposed brickwork, muted greys and clean lines. It doesn’t have the pomp and circumstance of some of the UK’s more well-known high-end establishments but feels more like going round an old friend’s for a particularly lavish dinner party, complete with toe-tapping jazz soundtrack.
This is luxury on a microscopic level, featuring a hot creamy yolk that bursts at the gentlest touch. Wear a bib
We opt for the full experience: an eight-course tasting menu, with matched wines. Front-of-house Alistair (Sheffield’s first certified sommelier, no less) introduces each wine with an engrossing description of the flavours and the reasons behind the pairing. These mini-sermons are straightforward enough for the rank amateur but detailed enough to satisfy any wine buff.
The event begins with a couple of ‘savoury snacks’. Don’t be fooled by the deceivingly casual name, they’re anything but. First, a delicate Gruyère cheese and tapioca pastry, holding whipped goats curd and smoked eel, topped with an easily-airborne dusting of chive and leek powder. It’s an ambitious morsel, pleasingly intricate with an other-worldly range of textures and flavours. The other ‘snack’ is a pint-sized quail’s egg, breadcrumbed and resting on a mound of truffle mayonnaise. This is luxury on a microscopic level, featuring a hot creamy yolk that bursts at the gentlest touch. Wear a bib.
Whipped Stilton is the first course proper, paired with a Hattenheimer Riesling Kabinett 2010. Blue cheese is whipped up with crème fraîche and matched with pear, walnut and celery. The sweetness of the Riesling counterbalances the saltiness, making for a light, breezy opener.
It’s a cliché to claim a restaurant can be judged by its bread, but the black treacle bread is almost worth making the trip for alone. We’re told the recipe was developed and perfected over a three month period, and it’s clear why. The malty, crunchy crust yields to a robust but soft centre, the whole thing exploding with dark syrupy flavours. Keeping in mind there are another half a dozen courses to go we reluctantly refuse another serving.
Up next, torched mackerel. Never the most glamorous fish, it may seem an unusual inclusion but this is where head chef Tom’s skills come to the fore. Cubed cucumber and dill cleverly bring out the tender meatiness of this oily fish, ultimately producing one of the standout dishes of the evening.
Each course is served on a stunning array of plates and bowls, along with authentic ‘Sheffield steel’ cutlery
The fourth course is a Jerusalem artichoke risotto, matched with a nutty 2013 Felton Road Chardonnay. The rice is dense and ringed with a dark meaty stock, speckled with hazelnuts and topped with a crispy chicken wing. While not the most eye-catching course, it works well, and functions as a useful bridge to the more substantial dishes.
First of these is the wild bass, a thick slab of fresh fish topped with a magnificently crispy skin, sat on thick whole leeks, and with a mussel thrown in for good measure. Hell, why not. It’s a stunning dish, helped in no small part by the beautiful serving plate. Indeed, each course is served on a stunning array of plates and bowls – subtle details like these, along with cute touches such as the authentic ‘Sheffield steel’ cutlery, are the kind you find in the country’s best restaurants, and explains why Rafters is Sheffield’s only entry in the 2017 Good Food Guide. As for the fish? Spectacular. Fresh, cooked perfectly and with enough ingredients to wow, but not to overwhelm. Considering head chef Tom is just 25 years old, the confidence of the cooking is staggering.
It’s a credit to Sheffield, and food lovers of the North should make it a priority visit
The second hearty serving is the duo of pork, and this also introduces the first red wine of the evening, a La Sizeranne Hermitage 1999 that’s so aromatic it’s almost a shame to drink it. This course is an attractive array of pink, whites and yellows, and I’d wager the best pork dish you’ll ever see. It tastes as good as it looks, with hints of chickory and apple tamed by the caramelised cabbaged and hot celeriac. The two cuts are loin and pork belly, both rich yet light – a world away from greasy pub grub offerings.
Desserts introduce an almost comical sense of playfulness. The pre-dessert is a cartoon-pink blood orange sorbet, involving blood orange segments, foam and sherbet. As well as tasting delightful, it washes away the heaviness of the preceding courses and revitalises the palate.
The rhubarb and custard inspires a similar sense of childlike delight, bringing back memories of sweet shops and old-fashioned boiled sweets. Even better, it features a hot duck egg custard squirted from a custard dispenser by our server, who looks to enjoy it every bit as much as we do.
The final dish is an iced banoffee parfait, a delightful sculpture involving peanut butter and grated chocolate. It’s a triumph, a perfect end to an exceptional meal.
Of course, Rafters isn’t the kind of place you stop by for a quick bite to eat. It’s an experience that requires an entire evening, taking in elements of theatre and ideas and cooking techniques up there with Simon Rogan. It’s a credit to Sheffield, and food lovers of the North should make it a priority visit. And as for the dogged question of a Michelin star? Judging on tonight’s performance, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.