John Lewis is a laudable shop but does its cafe need a bit of new thinking for 2015?
Q: What does the John Lewis restaurant in Sheffield have in common with superstar chef Gordon Ramsay’s establishment in London’s Mayfair?
A: They both charge £6.50 for a bowl of soup.
Now, I’ve not yet eaten at multi-Michelin starred Mr Ramsay’s Heddon Street W1 eaterie but I’m sure it will be a different experience to the Place To Eat cafeteria on the second floor of John Lewis - or Cole Brothers as it’s still affectionately called by Sheffielders.
The Pea and Ham in Sheffield was actually a nice but fairly ordinary soup.
It came with a hunk of good quality bread and a little pack of butter. Not over-salty, it had tender chunks of ham hock meat and a fresh pea flavour to lighten its gutsy and substantial texture.
But I wonder how it compares to Gordon Ramsay’s cider and white onion soup with Lincolnshire Poacher croutons for the same price in the West End?
We arrived at The Place To Eat for a late lunch and found the place pretty quiet by 2.30pm.
It has a cafeteria-style set up – you take a tray and walk along the serving counter, picking up your food or being served from heated trays by very friendly staff.
I ask one member called Steven about the giant cous-cous which I wasn’t sure I’d seen before and though he wasn’t sure either he went and found his menu description booklet and was able to enthusiastically confirm what the dish contained.
Steven was also kind enough to go to the kitchen and bring out a fresh cheese and tomato quiche from the oven for us.
Unfortunately it didn’t seem to contain much of either. In the whole piece of quiche there was one half of cherry tomato, no richness, tang or creaminess of cheese and there was a slightly over-cooked egg texture to the whole thing. Disappointing.
The salad was fine and one very impressive innovation at the counter is the availability of balsamic vinegar and three choices of oil to create your own salad dressing. There were olive oils infused with basil, chilli and garlic and a plain olive oil option.
The roast vegetables with couscous is another good idea and the basil-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing went very well with it.
The vegetables were large chunks of red onion, green pepper, courgette and tomato but all would have benefitted from a little longer in the oven so that the sugars had more time to caramelise to give the dish some intensity of flavour.
The desserts were the highlight of the meal and the fruit tart looked suitably colourful and inviting.
No disappointment here.
The fruits were fresh enough to have bite and sharpness and set in a sweet and creamy custard-style base on beautifully crisp yet melt in the mouth pastry.
My wife had the ginger loaf cake which had a syrupy top, was light, moist and comforting and a reminder of Saturday afternoon TV at my grandmother’s as she made tea while we watched the football results come in on the teleprinter.
I know it’s a cafeteria and not a fancy restaurant but both desserts would have been helped by something to go along with them – cream, sauce, jus, custard, a drizzle, dusting or dollop of something to cheer things up a bit, add oomph and extra flavour to what were basically good desserts.
The overall impression was of food a bit over-priced and under-powered for 2015.
The store’s PR and Marketing co-ordinator, Dawn Newbold, said: “The core menu is changed three or four times a year. We do have seasonal dishes added at Christmas and Easter.
“Carrot cake is our most popular cake and our most popular meal is fish and chips. The most popular sandwich is egg mayonnaise and cress on granary tin loaf.
“All our food is farm assured and all our tea and coffee Rain Forest Alliance approved.”
John Lewis is a big name company that treats its workforce very well. All are partners in the business, all are encouraged to develop their abilities in return for a yearly share of profits.
Absolutely laudable and a model others would do well to follow.
But I think their loyal customers deserve a bit better when they eat there.
Sure it’s adequate but John Lewis and its sister brand Waitrose have always stood for quality, service and value.
Perhaps the loyal and largely middle-aged clientele are happy with what they get, or perhaps some continue to go there as part of a shopping tradition that still involves dressing smartly, bumping into old friends and lunch at ‘Coles’.
Never Knowingly Undersold is the John Lewis pledge but in this case like for like comparisons with other, similarly targeted café venues across the city don’t always meet that promise.
Our lunch bill for one starter, two main courses, two desserts, a coffee and a raspberry crush came to: £31.50.
Place To Eat lacks bit of bite
Shoppers want café bargains
Price not right at Place To Eat
* The Place To Eat is on the second floor of John Lewis Store in Barker’s Pool, Sheffield, S1 1EP.
* The Place To Eat serves hot food from 11.30am to 2.45pm.