Summer 2021 marks two milestones in the post-industrial bubble that is Kelham Island. Cutting edge restaurant Jöro has expanded beyond its upcycled shipping container base to open a four-room boutique hotel nearby, complete with chef’s table, while the homely pub at the heart of this buzzing urban community is celebrating 40 years of just being The Fat Cat.
A maverick umbilical cord links that almost bucolic cask beer mecca, whose in-house brewery spawned the iconic Pale Rider ale, to the sleek steel (well it is Sheffield) Krynkl complex where chef Luke French has transformed the city’s culinary expectations over the past four years. It reached No.34 in the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards (announced on August 16).
Post lockdown it seemed a good time to visit both pioneering venues. So a tram from the station (after a Thornbridge Jaipur refresher, naturally at the Sheffield Tap on Platform 1B), then across the busy Shalesmoor roundabout to a suddenly hushed warren of backstreets to establish the respective locations.
A detour might have been in order, too, to the Kelham Island Tavern, arguably the city’s best craft beer pub venue but – sign of the times – there was a Covid-closure note on the door. Still the pre-amble ramble did allow me to soak in the atmosphere of a district that defines industrial heritage and cool renewal…
Renewal, of course, means creatives clustering in shiny new build apartments or brick-heavy warehouse conversions with a casual bar/dining scene springing up to service the influx. And occasionally big hitters show up such as Mana in Ancoats, Brat in Shoreditch or Casamia on the Bristol waterfront. Sheffield has its own contender…
One slight tremor as I entered the penumbral interior, the normal 50 covers reduced as a Covd-safe measure. Would the widening horizons of Luke French and his wife and business director, Stacey Sherwood-French impact on the core operation? Not jut th hotel project but also street food spin-offs. Fear not this was an outstanding £65 eight course lunch that ate up three joyful hours. I’m not sure I’m a fan of the building, shaped from 29 shipping containers but I am of a serving staff that included one who had a sake qualification (thanks for the New Mountain Junmai recommendation) and another who knew his way round the new Spanish wine frontiers of Ribeira Sacra and Sierra de Gredos.
Chef Luke has previously expressed his desire to “find something similar to L’Enclume or The Black Swan at Oldstead, somewhere rural we can forage in and with a smallholding to grow our own ingredients.” For the moment he’s as urban as it gets, albeit with some amazing rural suppliers. Just a Michelin Bib for the moment but the food I encountered across my tasting menu surely deserve a star. Manchester’s own Mana deserves a second, but that’s a whole other matter.
Jöro Highlights? Virtually everything, from an early introduction to Chawanmushi, a savoury Japanese custard here flavoured with smoked eel, a tiny tranche of which also featured alongside salmon roe and pancetta. Wortley wagyu rump in a tartare with celeriac and mustard was less groundbreaking but equally wonderful. I should have asked about the Wortley provenance (it’s the fabled beef of Japan but reared in South Yorkshire’s grasslands); I didn’t make the same mistake with Doncaster peas. “You’ll taste them and know why,” was the enigmatic response. Their yoking with mint and lamb fat yielded more detailed exegesis. The key to the dish was ‘lamb garum’ where lamb mince and koji had been given 10 weeks in a water bath to create a fermented base for this incredible dish. For more on garum read my recent article.
What I really loved about the whole experience was a straightforward punch of flavours, whether a pure tranche of Cornish cod on a bed of smoked haddock and creme fraiche sauce or among the desserts the stand-out strawberries with lemon verbena and organic yoghurt. You get the dedication to our own raw materials filtered through an appropriated Japanese and Norse (hence the name) sensibility.
Stays and JÖRO Packages can be booked online via this link.
THE FAT CAT
Neither of my two destinations is on the island proper, man-made in the 13th by diverting water from the River Don to power medieval mills. So a distant seed sown for the Industrial Revolution proper, the catalyst for which in Sheffield was the opening of John Crowley’s Iron Foundry in 1829, tapping into river power abundant coal and iron ore.
If you want to get the full story visit the Kelham Island Museum, which was created 40 years ago. You can see it prize exhibition for free because the only Bessemer steel converter still in existence stands in front. This egg-shaped black hulk quickly revolutionised 19th century steel production.
Thirsty work, the industry in its heyday and pubs like The Alma just down the street of that name existed to slake those forge-driven thirsts. Then came the long slow decline of the Steel City. From the Seventies onwards recession and dereliction battered Kelham.
It took a brave man to acquire the Alma, change its name to the ironic Fat Cat and start brewing his own exceptional beer in the yard.
That was the grand plan of Dave Wickett, the new co-owner. The pub introduced Sheffield to a cavalcade of guest beers and by 1990 when Dave took sole control he created his own Kelha Island Brewery in the beer garden. The pub survived flooding in 2007; the level is charted on the exterior alongside that of the The Great Sheffield Flood of 1864. It survived Dave’s early death and is still brewing in premises across the street.
In 2004 their flagship beer Pale Rider was voted Supreme Champion Beer of Britain at The Great British Beer Festival. It has hardly been off the hand pull ever since, though a recent month’s hiatus perturbed devotees.
Matthew Curtis, in his highly recommended new survey, Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, £15.99) descrIbes Pale Rider thus: “There was some malt character in the flavour, soft and candy-floss sweet, but only fleetingly. This allowed a crescendo of hop to build with notes of candied orange peel to the fore, but they were restrained throughout with a balanced bittersweet finish forming at the end of this orchestral flourish.
A touch flowery but a good summary of my ‘aperitif’ experience before lunch over at Jöro. Old meets new in one memorable Kelham Island afternoon.