When Alistair Myers and Chef Patron Tom Lawson took over Rafters three years ago, they started with a well-loved but fairly dowdy inheritance – everything was a shade of peach or orange, and the tables had glass covers on them. It wasn’t very chic. So, they spent a year tweaking the food, another year giving it a makeover in shades of grey, and this last year tweaking bits and pieces. Now, it’s ready.
The menu looks a bit imposing on first glance – you don’t tend to get many mosaics of rabbit around south Yorkshire, after all – but the sense of arty detachment is punctured by the pre-starter amuse-bouche. It’s a marshmallow cube, an inch by an inch by an inch, injected with pink grapefruit, lime, tonic water and Sir Robin of Loxley gin. It’s amazing. It lands with a complex wallop, then it dissolves and is gone. If you weren’t concentrating before, you are now.
Likewise, the next round of mini-nibbles, a breadcrumbed, soft-boiled quail’s egg with truffle mayo surrounded by straw, and a gruyere and tapioca cracker filled with whipped goat’s curd, smoked eel and pickled shallot and the ash of a cremated leek, bright white on a bed of black rocks, sounds terrifying. In practise, it’s a hoot.
There’s nothing to do but get in there with your hands, wolf the things down and appreciate Tom’s command of textures and flavour. It’s disarming, and it’s fun, and it’s funny too – not an embarrassing elbow-in- the-ribs kind of funny or a sly, underhand, exclusive kind of funny which makes you feel daft for not getting it. It reminds you that you’re here to enjoy yourself.
The mosaic of rabbit turns out to be a lot less intimidating than it sounded written down, the gelatinous meat formed into a terrine with a shard of air-dried loin meat sticking out of it like a lightning bolt. Again, it’s as much an exercise in brilliant textures as it is flavour, through the delicacy of the rabbit terrine is impressive on its own. Similarly, the black leg chicken, which comes in beautifully tender planks with blobs of pan-fried leg meat and vibrant cavolo nero cabbage, is top class.
Before dessert, there’s a goat’s cheese sorbet with a sheet of pickled beetroot on abedofgroundmacadamianuts,whichis less a mouthful of food than a rhetorical question – am I tart? Am I sweet? Am I squishy? Am I crunchy? – and all the more entertaining for it. Dessert proper is baked duck egg custard with a flat-out brilliant blackcurrant sorbet and tart little apple cubes, followed by an enjoyably punchy port and a cheese board of pedigree: Époisses, Colston Basset Stilton and Lancashire Bomb.
Despite the hop over the border to the Lancashire badlands, Rafters define themselves by their emphasis on the local. While their kind of localism isn’t the type to cartwheel around the room wearing a white rose cape and singing ‘Round Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At’, the details are there if you look for them. The wooden boxes which the pre-course nibbles arrive in are made in Sheffield. Turn over your cutlery and you’ll see it’s made by Carrs silversmiths. The bespoke ceramics come from Paul Mossman Pottery’s studio in Ridgeway, to the south of the city.
By cleaving tightly to their roots, they’ve built a quality base; by giving free rein to their particularly Yorkshire-ish sense of understated confidence and adventure, they’ve pushed themselves ahead of the crowd. Now, they really are ready.
What we expected:
A local bistro with high-grade gloss.
What we got:
Sheffield-centric adventurousness and a winningly goofy willingness to play with textures.
What we wish we’d tried:
The English plums with milk ice cream and brown butter crumble.
220 Oakbrook Road,
Sheffield S11 7ED
0114 230 4819