A couple of months after writing up the mixed experience I had at Sheffield’s The Wig and Pen in January, an email arrived in my inbox from the restaurant’s director, Marc Sheldon. He said he was very disappointed to read that the meal wasn’t up to their usual standards and he’d like to invite me (and my wife) back to try their new tasting menu, in the hope we’d have the experience that we should’ve had first time round.
It was a gracious email and we were happy to accept the offer, particularly as the restaurant had shown quite a bit of potential on our first visit.
While I’ll be my usual honest self in this review, it’s worth bearing in mind that obviously we were known to the house beforehand and the only thing we paid for was the tip.
It’s amazing what light can do for a dining room. On my first visit to The Wig and Pen I was reminded of a dodgy Scream bar I had the mispleasure of drinking in on a London theatre break about six years ago. It was corrosively dingy and the cheapest pint was that piss water they call Carling at £3.30 a pop. For a lad who’d lived in Salford his whole life and was at university in Newcastle, that price was a big kick in the balls in 2006.*
After drinking a couple of fart pints, it got even worse. My bank rang me up to say a cheque I’d written for my landlord had just bounced and I was liable for some sort of fine. You can imagine it wasn’t exactly an experience I wanted to be reminded of.
But The Wig and Pen didn’t remind me of it this time, with the early evening sun still pouring in through the windows and our table better lit. It was much smarter than I’d given it credit for and more comfortable too. Not a looker by any stretch, but it already had the meal off to a better start.
This continued into the bread and olives, a far more generous and accomplished platter, which featured decent stabs at white and granary bread. Both were perhaps a touch doughy but the taste was good, each with that indelible quality you get from fresh, home-made bread.
The meal started properly with a consommé of lobster, ginger and carrot, smartly presented with the liquid poured at the table. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants that have over-cooked lobster, so I was impressed by how sweet and tender this little morsel was. Unfortunately, the consommé was far too bitter for me (my wife didn’t mind it) and I felt it spoilt what would otherwise have been a very good dish.
Because of that issue, I was a little nervous about the next course, an extremely modern textures of carrot with coconut sorbet, which frankly sounded disgusting and way beyond the capabilities of the kitchen. As it turned out, it was easily the dish of the night and one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a long while.
It was just beautifully balanced; the different flavours and textures of pickled and pressed carrot deftly held together by the bizarre and inspired sorbet. It even worked with the puzzling La Carré Sud Merlot wine match, which I didn’t think stood a chance at first taste, but grew into a winning combination the more I ate and drank.
The ingredients weren’t up to the right standard, but there were definitely some Michelin qualities about this dish.
Next was the first hot course, mackerel with apple and bone marrow. The restaurant wasn’t aware of this, but my mother-in-law and her partner were also in the room that evening and were working their way through the tasting menu as well. They raved about this one, but while I enjoyed it, I just felt there was something missing. The skin wasn’t crispy enough and it needed a touch more salt.
An extra dish was thrown in at this stage: smoked duck egg with baby leaf spinach, black trompettes, chive yoghurt and almond. I loved the presentation, with the duck egg encased in a dome of smoke (didn’t get a pic of that – sorry!), and I thought the dish worked really well, helped along by the gorgeous trompette mushrooms and spinach. The only issue with this was the inconsistency between mine and my wife’s plates. Her bright orange yolk was more attractive than mine and runnier, and I felt a little jealous!
It was back to the usual tasting menu from there on in and for the main course we were treated to chicken served in a jasmine consommé with some small vegetables. It was a basic, pared-down roast dinner sort of a dish but it was a nice change of pace and I thought it was delicious.
I have nothing much to say about the rhubarb jelly and parfait that followed, a reasonably forgettable dish that cleansed the pallet and offered little more.** However, the final pudding, a white chocolate parfait with toasted pine nuts and lemon sauce, was excellent. Like the food critic in Ratatouille, on the first bite I was catapulted back to my childhood, reliving the joy I used to experience the times when I made and ate lemon crunch flan. The flavour combinations were exactly the same – perfect and timeless.
My wife seemed to like her dessert even more. A bread base with honey, pear and orange sorbet was a little bitter for me, but she thought it was absolutely brilliant. She told the waiter it’s one of the best puddings she’s ever had, and she wasn’t kidding.
Service was about as good as you could hope for and on the whole, it was a top meal, definitely at the high end of the spectrum for the £50 a head price point. Actually, I think that’s a bit of a bargain for a six-course taster with matching wines.
You can of course think “well, obviously you’re going to say that – you didn’t pay for it and you were given special treatment”, and that’s fair enough. All I can say is that my anonymous in-laws had a similar experience and they paid in full. Already they’re planning to go back to try the next taster menu when the seasons change.
I think there’s probably still an element of The Wig and Pen being overly ambitious with its food, and this was shown by the odd mistake and inconsistency during the meal. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the restaurant is finally finding its feet and starting to realise some of the promise I glimpsed a few months back.
Marc was anxious to get our feedback on the meal as you’d expect, but he – and all of the staff – seemed to be doing the same with the rest of the diners as well. I think it’s clear that the management here really care about the quality of their offering and are keen to listen to people’s opinions in an effort to be as good as they can be.
As long as they continue to respond to their customers in such a positive way and can build on what’s now looking like some fairly sturdy foundations, I believe The Wig and Pen could definitely be a restaurant to watch.
Dining Room: 2/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*How depressing is it when I spend £3.30 on a pint now, I barely bat an eyelid?
**My in-laws dismissed the rhubarb dish as “jelly and ice cream” and couldn’t understand the point of it on the menu.
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.