The Mediterranean is not cool. Not in any regard. The outside is painted holiday brochure blue and immediately brings to mind a beach taverna. Yep, right there on Sharrow Vale Road. And in the depths of a miserable winter it’s a flash of a summer that feels a million years away.
We considered the wisdom of striking out. Sleet, ice, more sleet, fog and a forecast that would have made Sherpa Tenzing think twice, halfway across the Derbyshire moors we almost lost our bottle. I’m so glad we ploughed on. I’ve never read The Chronicles of Narnia but I get the impression that a wardrobe is walked through and a garden of unearthly delights reached. So it is here; as the door opens a magical world unfolds, and there’s a warmth that comes not just from the heating whacked up to Crete in August, but from owner Otto from Morocco who greets you in a way that makes you think you’ve met before.
Am I alone in believing that service is 50 per cent of the deal? No point having five-star food if it’s thrown at you or your waiter is glum. Or worse, sniffy. Here’s it’s warm, chatty but non-intrusive. A tonic. The genuine hello from Otto and his crew takes your mind off the décor. Unapologetically 80s, it’s all cheery beach prints on the walls, louvered blinds, coloured glassware and tea lights. Just as it would be on the beach at Naxos if Shirley Valentine was sat at the table.
Despite the foul night, the place is buzzing; diners include two very smartly dressed women who we strike up conversation with. They’re loyal customers, have been coming for the last 25 years and have never experienced a dip in standards. Otto later tells me that it’s David Blunkett’s favourite restaurant.
Fish in various forms arrives six days a week from Grimsby. It’s to be applauded that a seafood restaurant about as far from the coast as it’s possible to get can serve up box-fresh fish day after day. It comes to the plate barely touched; that is to say cooked properly – steamed, poached, flash-fried or grilled, with a bit of garnish and a lot of flavour.
The menu is short and to the point. Roast salmon with spinach and cream pesto sauce. Fish stew. Dorada with orange, lemon and herb salsa. Descriptions on the specials board are even more pithy. Halibut. Red mullet. Hake. No faffing. There are meat options too (poussin, duck breast) but not much choice for non-fishy veggies.
Fish soup is THE true test of a good fish restaurant. Any thinness in either flavour or consistency signals a lack of understanding and respect for the ingredients. No worries here. It blows your socks off. The flavour is eye-rollingly intense, as if an ocean’s been reduced down to a single bowl.
Sea bass arrives whole, simply steamed and perfect, the only accompaniment a few sliced potatoes, olives and lemon quarters. My co-diner, who has spent enough years in Greece to know the difference, pronounces it a triumph, the flesh falling away at the fork, the memory of long nights on her terrace in Kissamos last summer immediately recalled.
Monkfish tails are just that, fat, juicy with exactly the right amount of bite and garnished with a couple of thyme scattered spuds and a single langoustine the size of a small shoe. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed such simply cooked and presented, rustic food.
This is how confidently sat-back Otto is. He senses my interest in the food (nothing too obvious, he’s no idea he’s being reviewed) and invites me into the kitchen. How often does that happen? It’s a tiny, simple set-up run by a posse of smiling lads from Italy, Greece and Cyprus, some of whom have been here almost as long as the boss.
One of them seasons a lobster, chucks it on the flame, and seconds later it’s on a plate and on its way out. Another points to a bowl of dough rising quietly in a corner – they make their own bread every day and it’s the perfect fishy-juice mopping-up medium.
A table of 10 are enjoying a seemingly never-ending trail of tapas; boy do they look good; fillet of bream, pea and pepper tortilla, cod and pulse casserole, deep fried hake, stuffed baby aubergines...
Puddings are a bit of a pan-European affair with the likes of sticky toffee pudding, tarte tatin, poached pears and crème brulee. In the spirit of pretending we’re anywhere but on Sharrow Vale Road in January, we go for the baklava with yoghurt. I’ll be back – in what passes for summer – to see if it feels different. But the joy of being wrapped in a bit of the golden stuff mid-winter will sustain me until the nights start to draw out. The Mediterranean will feed you well and make you smile. What more do you want until it’s time to jump an Easyjet to Essouria?
The Mediterranean, 271 Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield S11 8ZF. 0114 266 1069, www.mediterraneansheffield.co.uk Open: Monday to Saturday, 12-2.30pm & 5.30-10pm. Closed Sunday. Two course meal for two with carafe of house wine cost £66.