Cafe Lilli, Norton-on-Tees
Posted: 24 Feb 2011
Café Lilli in the pink
Funny place, Norton.
Beautiful setting, period homes, idyllic duck pond – the ideal spot for a pre-dinner pint in the perfect traditional village pub.
Or so you’d have thought. I don’t know Norton well enough to be authoritative on the subject, but we couldn’t find anywhere that fitted the bill. There are plenty of pubs – just not with the kind of welcome and atmosphere we were after in the three establishments we peeped round the door of – and beat a hasty retreat from.
So thank goodness for Café Lilli, a relaxed, stylish, bistro-style eatery where punters in business suits blend in effortlessly. And, more importantly, where the food lives up to is surroundings.
It has a continental feel about it, with a large central island serving as both the bar and a hub around which everything revolves.
Flagged stone floors, posters on walls, unisex loo and even a Vespa scooter are elements of the eclectic décor which gives the place an individual feel – a far (and welcome) cry from the off-the-peg, neutral look you find in too many establishments. It’s just one part of the Café Lilli mix that shows that the owners have confidence in what they do and how they do it.
Another is the wine. It’s all Italian – and this isn’t a strictly Italian restaurant – but there’s method in the apparent madness of not offering a customary round-the-world’s-vineyards selection. Part-owner Roberto Pittalis is, as his name suggests, Italian and he knows his home country’s wine. He spends half the year running Café Lilli before handing over to business partner Daryl Chadwick. Then he heads home to Italy and the enviable task of researching what the different regions have to offer in wine before bringing the fruits of his labour back to England.
He said: “I believe in sticking with what you know very well. Ever since we opened seven years ago Daryl and I have worked like this and it’s great. It gives us both time to do research, in my case trying out the different Italian countryside wines that you can’t get in other restaurants or the supermarkets.
“If you work flat-out you never get a chance to do this and you end up stale, never trying anything new.”
Not that you’ll find wholesale changes at Café Lilli: its tried-and-tested formula of great wine, modern bistro food with a bias towards Europe and a cracking atmosphere whatever the time of day are too successful to be tampered with. But there’s constant tweaking to keep things fresh. For example, the menu changes every four to six weeks to reflect what’s at its seasonal best.
Another recent change is an adaptation of the booking policy because of customer demand. At some peak times you still might have a bit of a wait, but waiting at Café Lilli is no hardship, thanks to the bar and the lively ambience.
I’ve been several times and the food is good and plentiful. The large portions mean I’ve never been able to manage a three-course meal in one sitting, but I’ve had my share of starters, mains and puddings on different occasions and can vouch that all three are consistently excellent.
Soup is always a winner to start with, and the Greek mezze is another reliable hit, packing punchy flavours and springy flat bread. For mains, the risotto is always popular, and pasta dishes come a close second.
On my last visit, though, I chose sea bass fillets. Two seriously large pieces of this wonderful, fine-textured fish came with samphire (otherwise known as sea asparagus, it’s an underused and delicious accompaniment, especially to seafood), brie and mushrooms. That might sound like a strange combination but it worked beautifully although it was very rich. Meltingly tasty shin of beef – sourced locally – was my dinner partner’s choice and, as I poked my fork in to try a bit, there was an undignified battle for the last mouthful.
For puddings we’ve tended to go for the traditional and have not been disappointed. The crème brulee is an enduring favourite, and sticky toffee pudding also hits the spot.
I’m not alone in loving this place. Café Lilli has proved recession-proof, being packed out even early in the week and, not surprisingly, it won the Teesside restaurant of the year award in 2009 from the Gourmet Society. So bonny Norton may not be the pub capital of this part of the region but Café Lilli has earned the village a richly deserved reputation as a foodie paradise.
Café Lilli, 83-85 High Street, Norton, Teesside TS20 1AE
Closed on Mondays only
Food served 11am-11pm
Reservations 01642 554422
Bookings taken all day Tuesday-Thursday. Friday and Saturday last booking 6.30pm.
An early bird menu is available 5.30-6.30pm
Childrens’ menu available all day every day
Member of the Slow Food Society
Teesside restaurant of the year 2009