IFORGET just how lovely Café 21 is. The critically acclaimed smart Quayside favourite is not one of Newcastle’s top restaurants for no good reason.
When we strolled in for lunch one Saturday, the sassy modern bistro was shining like a new pin and felt fresh and inviting.
Staff, too, were immaculately dressed, on the ball, and all welcoming smiles. It’s one slick operation. But one with a heart too.
On first impressions, the restaurant felt really cared for and the staff switched on – there’s clearly no place for slovenliness or complacency here.
Which is presumably why chef/restaurateur Terry Laybourne is such a tour de force in the North East.
His Café 21 signature restaurant – one of five eateries in his 21 Hospitality Group – started life as 21 Queen Street, back in 1988, where it famously won a Michelin star within three years of opening.
The original fine-dining restaurant, once located in the street of the same name, is now Café 21, a smart, city-centre bistro.
It has been in its present location on Trinity Gardens, housed in a light and airy modern building with glass frontage, since 2007.
We took a window seat offering a great view of the tastefully decorated dining room with surprisingly high ceiling. It’s all polished floorboards, interesting design accents, wall displays of bottles, and green and grey feature walls.
Tables were smartly dressed, draped in pristine white table linen, glasses were sparkling and little lime green vases with freshly-cut flowers, in place.
My only gripe was the restaurant felt a touch on the cool side to me. But as my husband pointed out, it was January and I was wearing a top with sleeves only to the elbow. He and the teen daughter had their own internal central heating going, as they were – thankfully – shrugging off the tail-ends of flu.
Starters and a little tipple would soon fix any remaining chills. Hubby and I decided on a carafe of pinot grigio, Terre del Noce, Dolomiti, at £15.50 and the daughter sipped lemonade, £2.30.
We nibbled on a bowlful of green olives and excellent crusty sourdough bread that were brought to the table.
For a Saturday lunchtime in early January the place was filling up nicely, most diners descending about 1.30pm.
The set lunch menu looked tasty, and surprisingly affordable, at two courses for £16.50 and three courses £20. There was ample choice too with five starters, five mains and five desserts, so we all decided to order from this one, rather than the a la carte.
My choice of smoked haddock gratin starter was a good one, served up piping hot in its baking dish.
The delicate smoked fish morsels and the leeks worked through the creamy, buttery, gorgeously fattening sauce made for a great start. It was a delight to break into the browned crust. A rich, filling and flavoursome dish.
The other half’s salad Lyonnaise was a fresh, attractive looking, healthy starter. Bunches of perky mixed leaves, morsels of tasty belly pork, slices of boiled potato, green beans and all topped with a poached egg, perfectly runny in the middle. Just what the doc ordered.
Daughter’s roasted butternut squash soup in delicate tureen, garnished with a dollop of double cream, had a sweet flavour, was smooth as silk, and “was just right, temperature-wise”.
My main of Gruyere and onion tart with chive sabayon, boiled organic, heritage potatoes and side salad, was a clean looking, fresh and appetising plate.
The tart was substantial, the pastry casing light, flaky and buttery, and the filling of sweet stringy onions contrasting with the punchy cheese in a custardy sabayon was so good. It was rich but not heavy.