Manhattan Coffee House

August 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Cafe | Leave a comment
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It’s encouraging to take stock of just how many independent coffee shops are in Sheffield city centre. If you’re off the booze (i.e hungover) but still have a hankering for something wet, you can plump for Starbucks or Costa Coffee, or you can take a gamble on one of Sheffield’s many independent coffee shops.

I’ve walked past Manhattan Coffee House countless times, and there’s always someone sat outside with a newspaper and a cup of the hot stuff (I’ve actually seen some determined sod sat outside with an umbrella in one hand and a steaming hot cuppa in the other). So, this weekend we decided to see what these coffee fans knew, that we didn’t.

Upon stepping inside, we were immediately impressed by the size of the place. The handful of metal tables squeezed onto the pavement suggests a rather pokey venue, but Manhattan is a roomy cafe that isn’t stingy when it comes to dishing out the space between its many comfy chairs and sofas. There is also a pleasant, laidback atmosphere that you rarely get in Eccy Road venues – this is the sort of place where people come to do crosswords and read their newspapers in peace. The staff are polite and efficient, and the prompt table service means there’s rarely more than one party at the till. Manhattan is also onto a winner with the decor, which includes beautiful displays of white flowers draped around the ceiling’s exposed pipes, and warm amber lighting. The hustle, bustle and noise of Ecclesall Road feels a million miles away inside this chilled establishment.

So, top marks for the setting, but what about the coffee? The menu is extensive with a few twists to boot: cafeterias-for-one; a scrummy-sounding “hot chocolate sundae,” and plenty of icy, summertime favourites like frappucinos. I opted for an old favourite, a regular mocha (£2.60) which came with a rich layer of foamed milk and lashings of cocoa powder. It was also served with an obligatory biscuit, a nice touch that’s often missing from the big coffee chains.

Also arriving at our table was a cafeteria for one (£2.50) which isn’t a common feature on coffee shop menus (presumably because of all the washing-up it creates!) Manhattan’s cafeteria is available for several types of coffee, but our reviewer opted for columbian.

Besides the novelty value of plunging your own cuppa, ground coffee trumps its filtered counterpart everytime, and it’s refreshing to have the option of a cafeteria even if the other members of your party aren’t big fresh coffee fans. Manhattan also gets top marks for serving the accompanying milk hot. It’s these thoughtful touches that make independent venues like Manhattan worth a punt, rather than playing it safe with household names.

But Manhattan doesn’t just serve coffee, there’s a selection of indulgent hot chocolates too. The Manhattan Luxury Hot Chocolate (£3.50) is piled high with cream, pink and white marshmallows and finished off with a Flake.

This should be a sugar-addict’s dream in a mug, but the temperature of the hot chocolate spoiled this delicious-looking drink. Mashing the whipped cream into the hot chocolate (and let’s face it, who DOESN’T do that with a whipped cream topping?) made the drink unpleasantly cool. If you’re craving something sweet, you’re better off sticking to the Plain Hot Chocolate (£2.60) which is a no-frills mug of good old fashioned hot choccie. Ours even came with a pretty chocolate swirl etched into the milk; what more could you want?

Manhattan is a pleasant and surprisingly swankily-decorated, coffee shop. While it could take a leaf out of Tamper Coffee’s book and serve Our Cow Molly’s super fresh milk, it still stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Starbucks and Costa in terms of taste – even if it gets pipped to the post by Tamper.

A decent cuppa at a sensible price, in welcoming surroundings. If it’s a choice between Manhattan and the Costa Coffee just around the corner, there really is no contest.

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Zing Vaa

August 26, 2012 at 8:44 am | Posted in Restaurants | Leave a comment
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Zing Vaa is a name I’ve been hearing for the last few years, usually followed by “the best Chinese restaurant in Sheffield.” Interest piqued but with no idea where to find this place of legend, I was surprised to discover it was actually on my day-to-day route home, squeezed between Greg’s and GT News on the Moor.

Walking into Zing Vaa is a unique experience; the narrow, steep flight of stairs opens suddenly into a bright, spacious, basement-turned-restaurant. Once inside, Zing Vaa is a nice balance of modern sleekness and traditional flourishes, and some thought has gone into creating a feeling of light and space, despite the complete lack of natural light. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon, Zing Vaa was busy, with a few large parties keeping the staff on their toes. I’d advise booking your spot at Zing Vaa, even if you’re not visiting on a Friday or Saturday night.

We ordered our drinks and, as we’d walked to the restaurant (a vain attempt to justify stuffing ourselves with Chinese!) we asked for a pitcher of water. The waiter seemed confused, but eventually agreed to bring us a glass of water – a small hiccup, but irritating as we were already parched from the walk, and Chinese food tends to go heavy on the salt.

The menu is impossible to fault and extensive enough to make your head spin. Zing Vaa serve everything from dim sum, to very traditional-sounding soups, szechuanese, Asian Fusion cuisine, sizzling plates, seafood and, of course, all the old favourties: rice, noodles, Chinese curry, and stir fries. Loosening our belts, we ordered Round One of the ‘best Chinese food in Sheffield:’ Deep-Fried Crispy Prawn Dumplings (£4.20) Salt and Pepper Spicy Squid (£4.50) and, of course, Egg Fried Rice (£2.20.)

Zing Vaa’s dumplings are a prawn lover’s dream: four fat dumplings crammed with juicy king prawn meat. I actually found two king prawns curled around one another in the largest dumpling! The batter was light enough to be tempura, and had the softness of just-pulled-from-the-fryer batter. Delicious on their own, they were even better dunked into the accompanying fiery chilli dip.

Things got even better when the spicy squid arrived. The pile of lightly-battered squid was covered in colourful red and green chillies, spring onions, and red and green peppers. They tasted even better than they looked – the batter was melt-in-the-mouth light and expertly seasoned with salt and pepper, the squid was buttery soft, and the chillies had a fierce kick. An absolute must-try starter!

Egg fried rice is a difficult dish to get wrong, but Zing Vaa take it to the next level with lashings of extra seasoning. At a bargain £2.20 , this is the perfect side to share, and if you exercise some willpower and save a little to have with your main, it tastes even better mixed in with any sauce that’s going spare. The best egg fried rice in town!

But, this was only Round One, and it was time to – well, take our belts off completely, and order the mains. The ‘Sizzling Dishes’ section caught my eye, and I ordered the Mixed Seafood Plate (£8.20) which boasted prawns, squid and scallops in a black bean sauce. How could a seafood fanatic resist? We also ordered the exotic-sounding Szechuan-style King Prawns in a Bird’s Nest (£8.20) and spent the next fifteen minutes speculating on the bird’s nest element.

I heard my sizzling dish before I saw it, and turned to see a waiter rushing towards our table in a cloud of smoke, brandishing a smouldering skillet. At this point, we encountered our first real problem with Zing Vaa: the waiter practically flung the spitting pan on the table in front of me and vanished without saying a word. The bird’s nest dish arrived a few seconds later, carried by the waitress who’d shown us to our table earlier. She also threw the dish down and abruptly left without a smile or any of the pleasantries we’re used to – was everything ok with our meals? Did we need anymore drinks? (Actually, we did need some more drinks, but we didn’t get the chance to order them, and ended up popping into The Wig and Pen on the way home.) Up until now Zing Vaa’s had been beyond fault, but the staff’s rushed service left a nasty taste in our mouths.

Forgetting about the service, we admired our main courses. The mysterious bird’s nest turned out to be a bowl of dried noodles, holding a spicy, garlic-laced prawn broth. The hot broth packed a pleasant punch, the prawns were tender and expertly cooked, and there were plenty of veggies to add extra flavour and colour to the dish. A little salad and a sprig of herbs on the side, and this dish certainly had the wow factor.

The hot sauce, seafood and veggie broth disappeared in no time, and it was time to start breaking the noodles into slabs as thick as pie crust. After a few mouthfuls of noodles, our reviewer gave up, dismissing the noodle bowl as too stodgy and bland to be enjoyable. The thickness is probably necessary to stop liquid from leaking through, but a little flavour in the noodles would have gone a long way.

Like the bird’s nest main course, my sizzling dish was extravagantly presented. Served spitting and smoking on a big skillet pan, it boasted a mouth-watering selection of squid, big chunks of scallop and fat king prawns, not to mention veggies.

The vegetables still had a satisfying crunch, and the onions delivered a sting of flavour. The squid was a little overdone and chewy, but the scallops were falling-apart tender. The black bean sauce was tasty, although after so much spicy and heavily-seasoned food, it was a little blander than I would have liked. Perhaps the spot-on starters had completely spoiled us, but the main courses didn’t blow us away and we were left wishing we’d ordered some extra starters instead.

When it was time to pay the bill, we once again struggled with the customer service. It took us at least ten minutes to get the staff’s attention, and then another ten for them to actually bring us the bill. With an uncomfortably full stomach and a need for some revitalizing fresh air, we really could have done without the wait.

So, does Zing Vaa live up to its reputation as the best Chinese food in Sheffield? It has a lot going for it: the venue is bigger and brighter than expected, and the fact that it’s squirrelled away makes it feel special. The menu is one of the most extensive I’ve seen in a Chinese restaurant, and our starters were perfect. However, both our main dishes were a bit hit-and-miss and, after being built up by Zing Vaa’s reputation and our fantastic starters, it was a rude return to earth. Speaking of rude, the staff need to be a bit more pleasant to customers. The customer service at nearby Chinese eateries Jabu and Candytown puts Zing Vaa’s staff to shame.

Is this the best Chinese food in Sheffield? With so many fantastic Chinese restaurants just around the corner on London Road, it’s a tough one to call but Zing Vaa is definitely in the running. Do yourself a favour and go and see for yourself – and make sure you order the spicy squid and egg fried rice while you’re there!

Nosh

August 19, 2012 at 9:20 am | Posted in Cafe | Leave a comment
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As someone who enjoys whiling away Sunday morning in a coffee shop, it’s currently one of my biggest bugbears that Tamper Coffee doesn’t open on a Sunday (waaaaah!) The upside is that we’re always trying out new places for our little Sunday morning coffee club, which is how we discovered Nosh this week.

Located as central-as-they-come on Division Street, Nosh is a bright, pleasant and cheap-as-chips purveyor of hot drinks and assorted snacks. We placed our order at the till, where we were served by a very pleasant waitress who, rather than rushing through our order, took the time to exchange a few pleasantries with us – a surefire way to make new customers feel positive about a place.

We slipped into one of several surprisingly private booths and awaited our food and drinks. We were caught out by the fact that there wasn’t table service for hot drinks, and quickly returned to the counter for the liquid part of our order. There was also something a bit budget-hotel about the plastic tubs of sugar sachets and other condiments on the table, but these niggles were soon forgotten when we tucked into our hot drinks and snacks.

First up, was a bargain £1.95 latte which came nicely presented in a tall glass. Although the Our Cow Molly milk is sorely missing (Tamper, you’ve spoiled us!) this is still a cut above most big chains.

My hot chocolate was rich and indulgent without being sickly, even the dregs at the bottom were delicious rather than silty with undissolved chocolate powder. The drink was finished off with (un)healthy lashings of yummy chocolate powder. At £2.19 this treat is an absolute steal.

But that wasn’t the biggest bargain of the morning: the bacon, egg and cheese muffin we ordered came in at a pocket-friendly £1.60. A little dubious about this cheapie breakfast, we were pleasantly surprised by what showed up: a freshly-cooked, no-frills treat of tasty bacon, perfectly-cooked egg and a large slice of cheese. Grease-free and obviously pulled straight off the grill, our reviewer raved about the taste, the freshness and, of course, the price.

A large americano (£2.10) to wash down the muffin equalled one very happy camper.

Nosh is a cheap and cheerful place, set in bright, clean surroundings – they may pedal bargain butties, but there’s nothing ‘greasy spoon’ about them. Nosh serve a decent, Fairtrade cuppa (at this point, it goes without saying you can get better coffee elsewhere in the city) but it’s the no-frills food where they really excel. Do yourself a favour, and treat yourself to a budget-friendly breakfast sarnie while you’re there. If you’re on a tight schedule and/or a tight budget, quick, pleasant and pocket-friendly Nosh is the way to go.

El Paso

August 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Posted in Restaurants | Leave a comment
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El Paso is one of those places I’ve walked past upteen times, but never actually visited. Perhaps that’s due to its less-than-ideal location (at the bottom of the Moor, with a prime view across the current building work) and its shiny red plastic exterior, which is more takeaway than restaurant. But, after a couple of fantastic meals at London Road venues that don’t look much cop from the outside, we decided to give El Paso a whirl, and were very pleasantly surprised.

Behind the tacky exterior lies a cosy, welcoming little venue. We were braced for a worn-around-the-edges sort of place, but instead were greeted by neatly laid out tables, a funky little bar tucked away in the corner and a clear view into the kitchen, which is always a good sign.

And the surprises kept on coming: not only does El Paso have a cocktail menu, but our mojitos (£5.95) could have given snazzier venues like Browns and Mud Crab a run for their money. They were certainly a notch above the mojitos we had at ultra-modern Revolution the previous week – who’d have thought it??

True, they were sweeter than your traditional mojito, but they went down such a storm that we were on our second round before we’d finished weighing up the menu. El Paso has the full range of Mexican and Italian nosh on offer: crespelle dishes, enchiladas, burritos, chimichanga, paella, chilli con carne, lasagna, bolognese, pizza, and seafood dishes, including swordfish for those feeling adventurous. As lovers of both Mexican and Italian, we had a tough time picking just one meal, but finally gave the waiter our orders and, tums rumbling, waited for our grub.

And waited.

And waited.

Despite being one of only two parties in the restaurant, it was a good forty minutes before our food arrived. We could see the chef preparing our meals from scratch in the adjoining kitchen, but forty minutes is longer than anyone should have to wait for their dinner in a next-to-empty restaurant. If you visit El Paso during peak dining hours, make sure you don’t arrive as hungry as we did.

I plumped for the Mexican side of El Paso’s double-whammy Mexican/Italian menu, and ordered a veggie burrito (£8.95). My pair of fat, cheese-slathered burritos were served with a mountain of yellow rice covered with fistfulls of corriander. The coriander gave the rice a freshness I wasn’t expecting, while the burritos were absolutely stuffed with the usual suspects plus something I hadn’t encountered in a veg burrito before: spinach. The spinach not only gave the filling a unique colour, but also a really different flavour, with the fiery spices and cooling cheese completing this flavour-packed dish. Quite simply one of the freshest and most interesting-tasting burritos I’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing paths with.

After the taste sensation of the burrito and herby rice, the side salad was a complete let down. It was as bland as pre-packaged supermarket fare. To make matters worse, the El Paso staff brought us an extra portion of salad to share, which included the bonus prize of a stray piece of cling-film. The bowl it came in was also stained, as though it had been used for serving sauce-based dishes in the past. It may not have been dirty, but this bowl should have been bleached, or thrown out rather than reused as a salad bowl.

Moving on from this salad-related disaster and onto the star of the meal: El Paso’s paella (£10.00). This jaw-dropper was faultlessly presented with decorative shell-on king prawns and a ring of mussel shells arranged around the edge of the plate. A generous sprinkling of herbs, and you’re onto a winner even before you’ve taken a bite.

But what about the taste? The shell-on king prawns didn’t just have the visual wow-factor; they were succulent and perfectly cooked, and the rice was a treasure-trove of seafood: melt-in-the-mouth squid, small prawns and mussel meat, with a little chicken thrown in for good measure. A seafood lover’s paradise.

Our bill came with a few complimentary chocolates, but if El Paso were trying to soften the blow of the bill with sweets, they needn’t have bothered: we’d had our fill of fresh, tasty and high-quality grub for a very reasonable price.

After such a satisfying meal, it’s easy to play down El Paso’s shortcomings – the bland side salad, the less than spotless salad bowl, the missing locks on the ladies’ loo, and the shabby, empty function room you have to walk past on your way to the aforementioned lock-less loo. It’s this lack of attention to detail that makes El Paso a rough-around-the-edges find, rather than something really special. Fantastic food, surprisingly good cocktails and reasonable prices – but frustratingly, this place could do better.

Revolution

August 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Posted in Restaurants | 2 Comments
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Located in the snazzy West One Plaza, Revolution may make you think of vodka shots (in thirty homemade flavours, no less) rather than food, but one look at the menu shows Revolution have some serious food ambitions. Sunblushed tomato, asparagus and pea linguine, summer mezze board platters, and plenty of pricey tapas – no bargain beer and a burger deals here! So, keeping an open mind, we headed to Revolution for a midweek treat (and a few midweek voddies, of course!)

Inside, Revolution Sheffield is an aircraft hanger of a place, with floor-to-ceiling windows, shiny wooden surfaces, oceans of room between the assorted tables and booths, and an ultra-modern bar of LED lights and glittering booze-bottles. Decor-wise, it feels like a trendy nightclub – not your usual venue for a spot of supper. Keeping an open mind, we settled into a booth and ordered a round of mojitos (£6.50) which tasted too much of soda water, but we ploughed ahead, slurped down our cocktails and ordered some tapas to start: homemade potato wedges with dips (£4.95.)

The chunky potato wedges arrived with the skins on, just the way we like them, but the accompanying sour cream dip was strangely runny and tasteless – disappointing. Thankfully, Revolution redeemed themselves with the sweet chilli dip, which had a fierce kick. As a spice fan, I scrubbed the sweet chilli bowl clean, but if you can’t take the heat you might find the sweet chilli dip a painful ordeal.

Appetites duly piqued, we wasted no time ordering our mains, which arrived in double-quick time. My Salmon and King Prawn Linguine (£8.95) looked promising, as I was presented with a bowl full of linguine and creamy sauce, topped with a generous portion of smoked salmon.

The white sauce was refreshingly light without skimping on taste and, mixed up with a forkful of linguine and assorted veg (firm asparagus, fiery rocket and peas to be precise) it was delicious. The smoked salmon was the highlight for me, delivering a hit of seriously strong, salty deliciousness, but I was disappointed by how overcooked the king prawns were.

On the whole, a flavour-packed dish of perfectly-cooked veggies, a light but tasty sauce, and plenty of seafood, although at £8.95 Revolution are definitely being cheeky with their prices. To put it into perspective, my linguine was roughly the same price as a vegetarian pasta dish or Spaghetti Ragu at Strada.

Since we were in a vodka bar, we just had to sample Revolution’s special vodka glaze, and ordered the intriguing Revolution Vodka Pizza (£7.95). This thin and crispy pizza wasn’t mean with the toppings: chorizo, goat’s cheese and mozzarella with sweet chilli peppers, fresh rocket and the aforementioned vodka-glazed chicken, finished off with a drizzle of tart balsamic vinegar. Thin pizzas are easy to overcook, but the Revolution staff avoided this pitfall and sent out a perfect thin and crispy pizza. The vinegar drizzle in particular was a clever touch, giving the pizza extra bite.

Which brings us neatly onto the bill, and our major issue with Revolution – the price. Not only is the food expensive, but the steep booze prices bump up the bill even further. Even if you stick to pints all night, expect to feel the pinch. The surroundings are top-notch and the food is tasty with a few quirky options on the menu and quality ingredients used throughout, but there’s no escaping the fact that Revolution feels like the sort of place you’d pop into for a bite to eat on a whim, rather than somewhere you’d book in advance and look forward to – and the prices don’t reflect that. Good food, modern surroundings, but ultimately, the cheque was a bit of a stinger!

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