Restaurant review - Cafe Lilli, Norton, Teesside
PUBLISHED: 13:29 14 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:12 20 February 2013
Anne Graham discovers a taste and ambience of the continent at this stylish bistro-style restaurant in Norton
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 youd have thought. I dont know Norton well enough to be authoritative on the subject, but we couldnt find anywhere that fitted the bill. There are plenty of pubs - just not with the kind of atmosphere we were seeking this particular evening.
So thank goodness for Caf 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 dcor 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. Its just one part of the Caf Lilli mix that shows that the owners have confidence in what they do and how they do it.
Another is the wine. Its all Italian - and this isnt a strictly Italian restaurant - but theres method in the apparent madness of not offering a customary round-the-worlds-vineyards selection.
Part-owner Roberto Pittalis is, as his name suggests, Italian and he knows his home countrys wine. He spends half the year running Caf 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 its great. It gives us both time to do research, in my case trying out the different Italian countryside wines that you cant 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 youll find wholesale changes at Caf 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 theres constant tweaking to keep things fresh. For example, the menu changes every four to six weeks to reflect whats 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 Caf Lilli is no hardship, thanks to the bar and the lively ambience.
Ive been several times and the food is good and plentiful. The large portions mean Ive never been able to manage a three-course meal in one sitting, but Ive 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; its 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 partners choice and, as I poked my fork in to try a bit, there was an undignified battle for the last mouthful.
For puddings weve tended to go for the traditional and have not been disappointed. The crme brulee is an enduring favourite, and sticky toffee pudding also hits the spot.
Im not alone in loving this place. Caf 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 Caf Lilli has earned the village a richly deserved reputation as a foodie paradise.
Caf 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
Customer really is king
Being close to the local community is important to owners Roberto and Daryl, who have made sure they use local produce wherever possible.
Much of the meat at the restaurant comes from farms nearby and vegetables in season are also sourced locally, such as tomatoes from Roseberry Topping.
And this is one place where the clich of the customer as king really does ring true. Roberto and Daryl have recently altered their table-booking policy in line with requests from business people in the region, and have always tried to keep up to speed with what the locals want. This attention has paid off, with about 80 per cent of customers being regulars who come back month after month.
We talk to them all the time to find out what they like and what they think and to answer any questions, said Roberto. Theyre very interested in the wine, where it comes from and how I found it. And, on a few occasions when people particularly like a dish and want to cook it at home but cant find the ingredients themselves - such as smoked paprika which you cant get everywhere - well let them have some of ours.
Now thats service. And with a smile, too.