Restaurant Review: The Wig and Pen
Sheffield’s reputation as a culinary destination is a bit like Manchester’s: non-existent.
Barring the Michelin-starred Old Vicarage – far enough away from the city centre that my wife insists it’s not in Sheffield at all, and in need of a revisit from the Red Guide’s inspectors so they can demote it, according to my mother-in-law – there is little to put it on the gourmet map.
One place that looks to be trying to change that is The Wig and Pen on Copson Street, an offshoot of popular local The Milestone, which received a decent write-up from Jay Rayner in the Observer a couple of years back. Its menu and website are indicative of a restaurant with a lot of ambition and I’d been told plenty of positive things about going in. My expectations were high.
First impressions, however, weren’t exactly good. Cold and drab, our section of the dining room had all the charm of a student union bar post-freshers’ week; the view from the window, bare walls and dim-lighting making me feel as if we’d been seated in an unconverted loft.
£2.50 bought us three medium-sized slices of bread on a slate which we ate while perusing the menu. Bread is apparently made in-house but these slices were not particularly remarkable for being so, having the slightly chewy texture that crusty bread takes after being cut and left out for several hours. Only one of two promised butters arrived and it was fridge hard, making it impossible to spread without having to put a lot of effort into mashing it first.
Not a bad lot overall, but I’ve been to plenty of restaurants in the same price bracket which do much better bread for free.
For starters we both ordered sous vide quail breast, with boudin of leg and bacon popcorn. This was fine, but nothing special beyond the pretty plating. Flavours were a little one-note – or in the case of the popcorn, completely absent – and the breast and the boudin were both a bit dry. Given the food and the plate were both lukewarm, I’d imagine this was once a much better dish and someone simply allowed it to spoil by leaving it out on the side.
Alas, I could not come up with such an easy excuse for the wine, a Domaine de Gry-Sablon fleurie, which was the recommended accompaniment. A poor drink, perhaps a notch better than a Blossom Hill rosé, it matched the food about as well as it did my tastebuds.
The strongest part of the meal was undoubtedly the mains. There were a few issues with my beef rump, dauphinoise potato, wild mushroom tortellini, baby leeks and truffled jus – an overpowering amount of garlic, a knife ill-equipped to cut the meat, and pasta so thick it reminded me of a disastrous attempt to make Chinese pork dumplings at home – but it was decent enough on the whole. The beef itself had good flavour, as did the jus.
And the only problem with my wife’s loin of pork, confit belly, crispy squid and root vegetable stew dish was that I hadn’t ordered it myself. It was a wonderful dose of winter comforts, precisely cooked and perfectly balanced in both texture and flavour. I’d had some doubts about the squid, but its crispy batter made it a perfect foil for the moist pork. Michelin level it was not*; however, it was certainly a very accomplished dish – one I’d be happy to go back for.
Perhaps even better was the 2006 Izadi Reserva rioja we drank with the mains. It felt like great value at £12 for a half-bottle and was just a stonkingly good wine; complex, vibrant and bright.
Unfortunately, once the red was polished off, it went a bit downhill – at least for me. My dessert, a ‘celebration’ of apple that included a parfait, sorbet, jelly and a crisp, bordered on unpleasant. Not a single element managed to deliver the clean burst of apple flavour I was after. What I got instead was a watered-down, insipid mess, which had more in common from a taste perspective with Jolly Rancher sweets than the green fruit that was actually in it.
And I really wish I could remember the name of the recommended liqueur I drank, just so I can make sure I never have it again. When a drink makes you start thinking about Weil’s disease, you know it’s not good.
My wife fared better. There were no dairy-free options for her to have, so the waiter recommended she try the petits fours they offer for £2.50. I didn’t really taste these, but she described them as “nice”.
Our waiter was excellent and the bill of £90 did not seem unreasonable for what on balance was an OK meal, with a few highs and a few lows. My gut feeling is that there are far superior meals to be had at The Wig and Pen and perhaps we would’ve had a more consistently good experience had we not eaten at 5pm, when the kitchen was not yet in full-swing.
Nevertheless, I have to rate the place based on what they did rather than what they might have been able to do. And while I’m sure they can do better, I can’t say I’m too keen to go back and give them another shot.
Dining Room: 1.5/5
Overall score: 42/100 (OK)
Note: I returned to The Wig and Pen in April 2012 and had a much better experience. You can read that review here.
*A video on The Wig and Pen’s website suggests a Michelin star is one of their goals.