Tonco, Sheffield review: From successful pop-up to award-winning restaurant
It kept me relatively sane during lockdown; the planning, the prep, the cooking of an evening meal, giving structure to an otherwise featureless day. The daily ‘brisk walk’ didn’t keep the pounds away, but you can’t have everything. And now we’re facing more unsettlement; a cost of living crisis. Is it just me or is it starting to feel a lot like the 1970s?
There’s only one thing to do at a time like this; head for your neighbourhood caff.
Sharrow Vale isn’t my hood, but I was born up the road in Nether Edge and though I was taken as a toddler to live over the border in Derbyshire I feel a huge tug to Sheffield; it feels like coming home.
Sharrow was always a cool kind of place, even back in the day; I remember record shops, a recycling yard, great clothes and a good chippy. Today it’s a ‘foodie mile’, crammed with good looking cafes, whole food shops and restaurants.
Mann’s fish shop and Ralph Thicketts butchers have been there since I was a kid, and the hardware store where I would loiter for as long as they’d let me, breathing in the smell of bristle brushes, paraffin and dust. Still the best smell in the world. I’m glad to see that fabulous Sheffield artist Pete McKee now has his gallery and shop there too.
Google Maps tells me that Tonco is in a courtyard just off the main road – and here it is, tucked into the corner, all prettily lit up on a grim winter night, with boards enticing you in: ‘coffee, pastry, toast. Fresh fish, free range, locally sourced organic delicious sharing plates. Fabulous wine, cocktails and cold beer. Good vibes, hot tunes, bad jokes xxx.’
You know that moment you walk into a place and you have a feeling all’s going to be well? It’s slightly rickety and clattery with a long open kitchen, the counter piled high with plates and bread. At the bottom end where our table is, are racks of flour bags and sacks of rice. We don’t care, because our warm, smiley waiter Matt is already paying us attention, bringing wine and menus, telling us what’s what. It’s my very favourite sort of menu, the kind I’ve been known to quickly scan then order the lot. We’re slightly less maverick tonight, which turns out to be a good thing since portions are generous - five plates in and we’re struggling - so the Carlin pea ravioli with oyster mushrooms and kohlrabi will have to wait until next time. As it is we kick off with Jerusalem artichoke and cheese croquettes – they’re absolute darlings, beautifully crisp and light. The cheese is Beenleigh Blue, a delicately blue sheep’s milk cheese from Devon, with a lemony sweetness – it’s doing a great job here, with a spiky membrillo mayo cutting through the richness.
A warm celeriac salad arrives with leeks in a grebiche sauce – both beautifully seasoned, the celeriac with crunch and an olive oil emulsion, the leeks scattered with burnt powder – literally leek outer leaves cooked until ‘dark’, peeled, roasted some more then blitzed – looks like a soot fall, is slightly bitter and brilliant against the sweetness of the leeks.
January King cabbage is that vividly purple and green one and here it keeps both its colour and crunch, and with kipper butter (I know) and pickled mustard seed it’s deeply satisfying. None of these dishes is going to win a beauty competition but they’re surprisingly complex in terms of texture and flavour; clever stuff.
You’ll have gathered there’s lots here for folk who don’t eat meat – but for us carnivores there’s an excellent Hathersage venison pie (perfect pastry) with homemade brown sauce, and Tideswell pork with beetroot puree and capers that we didn’t get around to on account of being too full. The bread might have played a part in that. I’m powerless in the presence of good bread, and here it’s the most extraordinary texture – dense but stretchy, chewy but light. We fell on it as if we hadn’t eaten in a fortnight and it proved to be the perfect scooper-upper for all the above.
Finally, a ‘pud-pud’: burnt apple meringue tart – sticky gorgeousness with a fabulous crust – hell they know how to bake here.
Tonco arrived in Dyson Place at the back-end of 2019, following a string of successful pop-ups on Abbeydale Road. The timing of course was terrible but it didn’t deter Flo Russell and her friend and business partner Joe Shrewsbury. Flo learned to cook at Sam & Sam Clarke’s highly regarded Moro in London. “I worked there and next door at Morito for about three years,” says Flo. “I loved the way they ran the place – nurturing enthusiasm, supporting local businesses and producers – and no frills!” Frills notwithstanding, Tonco featured in the Observer Food Monthly 2022 Awards: Best Restaurant Runners Up; it don’t surprise me none.
Russell and Shrewsbury have made good their commitment to sustainability, and they’re determined to make the place available for all purses and ages – students and older folk call by for coffee and a Danish in the mornings. This is a place with a whole lot of heart and a beautiful soul, with lovely service, fabulous food and genuine warmth.
Go for the coffee, stay for a glass of low-mark-up wine, and perhaps the venison pie. You won’t need deep pockets. You’ll thank me, and Raymond Carver.
Tonco, 2 Dyson Place, Sheffield S11 8XX www.tonco.co.uk
Open: Wednesday to Saturday 10 am – 11pm