83-85 High Street
1st Sunday of the month, 2-6pm
Norton village, in Stockton-on-Tees, is a pleasant surprise.
It’s a bit like a rural market town, with a duckpond, village green, Victorian memorial cross, pretty almshouses and a long wide tree-lined high street – a contrast to sprawling Stockton and the stark industrial Teesside landscape surrounding it.
It almost has the feel of a French village, with its shaded villas and rows of cars parked either side. Maybe that’s why the owners of Café Lilli chose this spot to open what is a very continental café.
Daryl is a jolly man with red hair and a beard. His business partner is bald and called Roberto, but I didn’t meet him, because he was away in Sardinia.
Daryl Chadwick (his customers call him Dal) and Roberto Pittalis have pretty idyllic lifestyles. They share the running of the restaurant, each spending one month in Norton and the next either in Italy or, in Dal’s case, on a boat sailing around the Greek islands. As a result they scarcely meet – as a customer you either get the bearded one or the bald one, but rarely both together.
The menu is, as you might expect, rustic Italian with a Greek influence. And there’s quite a bit of French in the mix. There’s a risotto and pasta of the day, mezze with Greek-style hummus but olives from Umbria, fish souvlaki with zucchini, chicken parfait and crème brûlée. Even the burger comes with parmesan roast potatoes. I’m surprised they don’t insist on payment in Euros. Mercifully all the wines are Italian (rather than Greek), and well chosen.
Inside, there’s a central bar, marble-topped tables and simple Parisian-café-style wooden chairs. It’s the sort of relaxed ambience that would entice you to while away a few hours escaping the afternoon heat. Except this is Teesside, so there’s no afternoon heat. But Mrs Diner and I pretended there was, so we had a long, lingering lunch.
The only disappointment was at the start – rather ordinary French bread, when we anticipated proper Italian baking. But it was plain sailing after that.
Chicken liver parfait was smooth and balanced, studded with fresh pistachios, a perfectly caramelised onion marmalade and very good watercress. Home-cured beetroot was deliciously smoky, with a generous round of smooth goats cheese on rocket and a swirl of balsamic.
We moved onto risotto and pasta. The former was onion, its caramelised sweetness sharpened with parmesan, the whiteness brightened up with spinach leaves. It was exceptionally good.
The pappardelle was dried, but of good quality, with perfectly pink, tender chicken livers, dressed simply in sage butter.
Then to the main course (though, frankly, the pasta on its own would have been meal enough). I faced an enormous burger, impaled with a steak knife dagger, as if challenging me to a duel, while Mrs Diner had a fish kebab, or souvlaki as Dal called it, presumably to remind him of his boat, bobbing away under the Mediterranean sun.
Frankly, I’d feared dry and dull, as fish kebabs can be, especially as it was sea bream fillets, rather than the usual more robust cubes of fish. But this was moist, fresh, perfect, with just a hint of charring: bream and sweet, delicate prawns, and with an intense tomato sauce.
And as to the burger: with dagger removed, the bun oozed its juices – smoky pink meat mingling with a delicious rarebit of smoked applewood cheddar, Dijon mustard and the distinctive scent of truffle. Only the bun disappointed: it should have been a fresh, sweet brioche, but this was like one of those tiger things from Tesco – and I would have preferred fries. Nevertheless, with its spicy ketchup, and served alongside an excellent salad of rocket, capers and the sweetest sun-kissed tomatoes, this burger is worth a trip down the A19.
There was more. We ordered a platter of desserts, with a classic crème brûlée, a tiny soft meringue with lemon cream, a fantastic chocolate mousse infused with the scent of rosemary, some candied walnuts, and one of the world’s great brownies, which tasted of treacle tart. At just £5.95 including an espresso, this must be the biggest bargain in the North.
Indeed, it was all very reasonable: at lunchtime, starters were £6, the pasta and risotto only £7, and the burger £11 – these same dishes cost rather more in the extended evening menu. Café Lilli only opens Tuesday to Saturday, apart from the first Sunday in the month, when, from August, they’ll serve lunch with jazz from 2 till 6pm.
Now that sounds very civilised.