LIKE most young couples, Matthew Rushton and Nic Parker shared a dream... but unlike most, they cancelled their wedding and blew the proceeds – along with their life savings – on opening a restaurant.
It was one heck of a gamble, not least because their chosen location was Chesterfield: a town not renowed for its culinary distinction. But in Chesterfield restaurants are like buses, it seems – they all come along at once.
For years the Old Post was the only serious contender. Then came NonSolovino, closely followed by Calabria, Nonnas and the four-star Casa hotel.
Now the launch of Aubergine has brought the tally to six – and the man behind two of these gastronomic landmarks is Matthew Rushton.
He started his career at a five-star hotel in Guernsey, then worked with Gordon Ramsay (who also, coincidentally, named his first restaurant Aubergine) before returning home to become head chef of the acclaimed Peacock at Rowsley. He later helped to relaunch the White Horse at Woolley Moor before being head-hunted by millionnaire Steve Perez to run the kitchen of his planned luxury hotel.
Matt enjoyed the challenge but a year was enough: “I didn’t cook at Casa, I managed a team of 15 chefs. Now I’m getting back in the kitchen and doing what I do best.”
It is a measure of his worth that boss Perez not only gave his blessing but also volunteered to invest in the new operation, less than a mile up the road.
But that wasn’t on the cards: “I’ve got the buzz back, here,” says Matt. “When it’s your own business you have that bit more passion and it’s great!”
Matt and Nic – who runs front of house – had been looking for months when they found the one-time lawnmower shop.
“It was like a building site,” recalls Matt. But they put in a kitchen and toilets, turned the showroom into a restaurant and finally opened in May.
“It was a bit of a gamble; we were pushing the boundaries for Chesterfield,” he admits. “But it’s been fantastic from day one. We had a plan of where we wanted to be in 12 months but we did it in eight weeks.”
There’s no question that this is different from anything else in the area.
By day Aubergine serves leisurely, city-style breakfasts: not your average greasy fry-up but smoked salmon and scrambled egg, or a stylish full English, complete with circular eggs, potato rosti and the daily papers.
There are also light meals and snacks. And three nights a week Matt opens in the evenings for a dinner that’s every bit as good as the ones he served up at Casa – but at a fraction of the price.
“I’ve never been in this job for the money, it’s to see people happy. Customer satisfaction is what makes us special and we want ordinary people to come here.”
The place has an air of quality but it’s not ostentatious.
Bold wallpaper, rugs and roman blinds reflect the aubergine theme against a flexible backdrop of bare tables, floorboards and soft downlighters.
The transition from coffee house to restaurant is marked by the addition of cloth napkins and flickering tealights.
The wine menu is impressive, with an eclectic range priced from £10 to £40 and food recommendations with each.
We take our seats and splash out on a bottle of Chilean merlot, smooth and plummy, at an eminently reasonable £12.95.
Our waitress delivers a plate of warm, crusty bread with a dish of garlicky tomato butter; service is willing but lacks polish.
There’s a choice of half-a-dozen starters and twice as many main courses – including steaks, Thursday being steak night.
My companion goes for black pudding from the specials menu: set on a bread base and topped with a poached egg, an asparagus spear and half a tomato.
The egg just fails to be runny, which is a shame, but otherwise it’s a good combination of tastes and textures.
I put Matt’s skill to the test with cheese soufflé – not an easy dish to cook accurately but this is spot on.
It’s supremely light, packed with cheesy punch and comes with a dinky little boat of creamy cheese sauce that provides the perfect finishing touch.
On to the main course. Chicken breast is cooked in a rich sauce of red wine, tomato and onion: mellow and succulent with a touch of sweetness.
It’s presented on a nest of puréed potato, with a bowl of cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and fine beans.
My fillets of sea bass are perfectly crisp skinned and moist with an exquisite lemon butter sauce. The accompanying ‘sautéed potatoes’ seem to be a single spud, sliced, deep fried and reassembled – but I love the crispness and it tastes great.
Dessert of lemon tart is nicely executed but could be sharper. It’s served with thick clotted cream.
My cooked cheesecake, though, is a triumph. The creamy cheese filling, with just a hint of lemon, is firm in texture and a perfect balance of flavours, set on a thin biscuit crumb base and decorated with blobs of mango purée.
We finish our meal with excellent americanos. Three-course dinner for two, excluding wine and service, is £54.40.
lVerdict: Fine food in a relaxed atmosphere at reasonable prices, whatever the time of day.
lOpen: Tuesday-Saturday 8.30am-3.30pm; Thursday-Saturday 6-11.30pm; Sunday 9.30am-3pm.
lAubergine coffee shop and restaurant, 413 Sheffield Road, Chesterfield (01246) 269631 www.auberginechesterfield.com