There may be quibbles, but in the face of a to-die-for braised ox cheek, Amanda Wragg is in a forgiving mood.
I first encountered the Cricket about seven years ago, when restaurateur Richard Smith appeared to be marching on Sheffield in a bid to take over the city. Together with millionaire brewer Jim Harrison of Bakewell’s Thornbridge Hall he created BrewKitchen, and they began to buy up sorry old boozers and bistros, breathing new life into them. Smith also ran a handful of high-end eateries, the mothership being ‘Smiths’ (now ‘Artisan’). Years go by; places come, go and change names, but the Cricket Inn stands strong and proud. But seven years is enough time for a place to go off and I’m keen to know if it’s survived the itch.
The pub hunkers by a low hill on the southernmost edge of the Peak District between Dore and Totley, Championship footballer territory, so it’s possible you’ll be cheek by jowl with WAGS with posh bags. On a filthy winter night they’re thin on the ground, but there are a number of high-maintenance shiny young people as well as proles like us. Also, and way past his bedtime, a shrieking toddler whose antics appear to be amusing his parents, but not me. One of my Cruella de Vil looks falls on stony ground as they beam at him indulgently. It’s 7.30pm, grown-up time; take your little darling home!
The sympathetic front of house gives me his “I know, I agree, but what can I do?” face. In any event, a pint of Jaipur makes everything alright, and a glance at the menu confirms that a) it looks like we’re in for a treat and b) its a good job we’ve come hungry.
Not much has changed inside. There’s still a tavern thing going on, with stone floors, chunky furniture, blackboards everywhere and those dark grey, drab, matt tongue and groove Farrow & Balled walls. It worked then and it works now. Open fires provide cheer, very welcome as the temperature outside plummets.
The menu gives new meaning to ‘rustic’, although some of the offerings have a welcome subtlety. There’s a good wedge of nostalgia too, with dishes like brisket, ox cheek and calves liver, and a fair smattering of European influence; roast chorizo with honey, chickpea samosas and Portuguese fish stew all appeal. Pub snacks include black pepper pork crackling and cheese and ham croquettes, but we go for mini scotch eggs (quail’s, and perfectly formed, sitting on a smear of mustard) and home smoked beef jerky, possibly the ugliest thing I’ve put in my mouth for some time, but strangely compelling. Moreish even, particularly when dunked in the black garlic aioli.
Back in the 60s I remember my mum boiling rolls of brisket for hours on the top of the stove. It tasted better than it looked, which isn’t saying much. Here it’s much more appealing (though still grey) and served with gorgeous little black pudding balls (‘fritters’) which fall apart at the fork. A clever addition is tiny squares of something intensely sharp, offsetting the blandness. Turns out it’s Henderson’s Relish jelly. Inspired! Welsh rarebit with sticky onion jam is unremarkable apart from the price. “Behold the six quid cheese on toast”, observes Alex, drily.
We’re enjoying ourselves (the toddler long gone) and the place is filling up. Smith and Co continue to crowd-please then. If you can populate a remote-ish pub on a vile Wednesday in January, you must be doing something right. But let’s not get carried away. The mains are disappointingly patchy. One dish is sublime, another kind of okay, the third so-so and the fourth downright baffling. Since when was it a good idea to deconstruct a burger? Here, you’ve got to build it yourself, all the component parts scattered on the board. So Nineties. The burger itself is good though, coarse ground and full of flavour. As it should be at £13. Haddock and leek fishcakes (with two poached eggs) are huge and a bit over-facing, and slightly under seasoned.
The steak and Thornbridge ale pie causes consternation all round. It arrives in a dish with three roast potatoes on the top. No pastry or suet crust. So not a pie at all then, but a bowl of stew with spuds. But it’s a good stew, the beef toothsomely tender, indicative of long, slow cooking, in gravy thick enough to stand your fork in.
But the seven-hour braised ox cheek is dish of the night by a Sheffield mile. Black as soot, it arrives in a big white bowl with bourguignon garnish and “pomme puree”. You just want to throw yourself into it and that’s just what happens. Sticky, sweet cheek, squishy, winey baby onions and creamy mash, it soars immediately onto my Last Supper list, more than justifying its £18 price tag.
Puds are patchy too; crème brulée is properly unctuous – and delicious. Yorkshire curd tart is fridge cold, rendering it tasteless, but the parkin sticky toffee pudding is pitch perfect. A quadruple bypass chocolate ‘trifle’ in a sundae glass comprises three inches of densely packed choc topped with two inches of whipped cream, a dish so impenetrable you can’t get to the bottom of it even if you wanted to.
There’s lots to like about the Cricket. Service is exemplary. The beer is great and the atmosphere (once the crèche has packed up) is relaxed and warmly enveloping. It’s hard to fathom how such outstanding dishes came out of the same kitchen as the frankly bad ones. And I’d like to think that in another seven years the Cricket won’t have gone the way of so many rural pubs – that is, shut.
The Cricket Inn, Penny Lane, Totley, Sheffield S17 3AZ. 0114 236 5256. www.cricketinn.co.uk