Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Sustenance and sustainability...(not a Jane Austin sequel)

Moonlight glistened on dark water and the reflection of light sparkled, adding a dreamy quality. Dreamy? Isn’t this Newcastle? Well, er, yes. Between the Millennium Bridge and the wonderfully monolithic wrought iron Tyne Bridge, that makes Newcastle’s landscape famous; along the quayside, with Baltic, the brutalist art museum, and Norman Foster’s undulating curves of the Sage (Newcastle’s equivalent to the Sydney Opera House, according to the taxi driver), in the new heart of Newcastle, lies one of the City’s prize assets.

Café 21 is the inspiration of Terry Laybourne, author of the cook book Quest for Taste, and the first chef to bring a Michelin star to the North East. Although the Café's aim is for informality, the initial impression, from the sleek bar, dark wood surfaces, dimmed lights and hushed tones of the diners (through enjoyment, I should add), is of formality and this is reflected in the menu, bringing together classic European dishes and English food, most of which is locally sourced from artisan producers.

A combination of work and a chaotic journey north had darkened my mood. It was late and I was tired and cranky, so I felt disappointed that I didn’t have time to indulge in a couple of dishes or more. I settled, though, on the one dish that could ease my mood and hit all my bases at once; the North Country Hot Pot (well I am in the North!) with ham knuckle smoked sausage pork belly and lentils. Pork, pork and smoked pork! (Did I mention the pork?)

Brought to the table in a cocotte big enough for two but with a perfectly portioned plate for one. A cloud of steam released the sweet smell of meat and muted woody aroma of lentils as the lid was lifted.

Succulent hock from Middlewhite pigs, boned and slow cooked, pulling apart to the touch of the fork, and with biting-into-velvet softness. Adding to the richness of flavour, a generously thick slice of salted pork belly, stripes of pink meat and full flavoured off-white fat. Smoked Morteau sausage from Lyon, thick cut discs, finished the combination of meat flavours, spongily resistant and gently smoked; sweetness, smoke and savoury. Smooth textured lentils cooked in ham stock formed the luxuriant base to which fibrously crunchy French beans, wilted baby leaks and green leaves, chateau-cut carrots and potatoes, were added. Fully satisfying and just right, so sad it had to end so quickly.

Back to the dreamy quality of Newcastle, and the palate of colours, sights and sensations in my mind as I drift off to sleep with a smile painted on my face. I am looking forward to going back.

Café 21, Trinity Gardens, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2HH T: 0191 222 0755

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