A good lunch at the end of the day

Emily Green visits a brand new restaurant in Newcastle that lives up to its Michelin-starred parent
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The Independent Online
Cafe 21 is a squeaky new place in Ponteland, a suburb just north of Newcastle upon Tyne. When Susan and Terence Laybourne opened it seven days ago, the idea was to provide a cheap and cheerful local. No bookings. No frills. Just good food at keen prices. However, note well: it only opens for dinner. Showing up at midday last Wednesday was a mistake that afforded me an unexpected pleasure: lunch at the new place's parent restaurant, 21 Queen Street in Newcastle proper, then dinner, later on, back at the cafe.

The senior restaurant is altogether swankier. It has a Michelin star, muted colour scheme and plump sofas in reception, all fine and good. However, to my mind, what makes both places special is the touch of the Laybournes.

To picture their style, imagine a couple with (between them) 31 years' experience in catering. Make him a smart, blunt-speaking Geordie who did countless apprenticeships in France before his first jobs as chef in Switzerland and Germany. Make her a vivacious brunette with graceful, easy cheer. Then make both of them good Northumbrian bon viveurs who, when they are not feeding people, are touring restaurants in Britain and abroad.

The upshot is a sophisticated heartiness that, for all its continental schooling, has an entirely winning Geordie accent.

The Laybournes opened 21 Queen Street six years ago. There were then, and are now, plenty of restaurants in the tangle of old buildings that rise so dramatically from the old town quayside. But it is 21 Queen Street that pulls the barristers from the nearby law courts.

These gentlemen know their tuck. They arrive, ties askew, ribboned briefs tucked underarm. They come for the easy charm of the waiting staff and the perfectly judged turbot finished in veal stock and topped with crisp, finely sliced potatoes. They smoke cigars between courses. They like a good claret and a spot of champagne as a digestif. Their laughter shakes the window panes, rising to such a crescendo that even the staff walk around grinning. ``You should see it when the judge comes,'' says the manager.

The bistro caters for a different if equally affable mob: commuters, mainly, who may not have much of a budget after paying for their sprawling bungalows or modern updates on Ann Hathaway's cottage.

By 6pm on its third day of business, with no advertising or press, the cafe already had a good smattering of customers. Marvin Gaye's voice came softly from the stereo. An intense young chef with a Mohawk haircut shifted from a long day's preparation into service (he is 24-year-old Dave Kennedy, who has spent the past three-and-a-half years cooking at 21 Queen Street).

The food I ordered from a blackboard menu was simple and good. Fish soup was light and properly strained, correctly served with a side-dish offering croutons, rouille and grated gruyere. Melting braised oxtail to follow could have passed muster in a far posher place, or with the pickiest Jamaican matron, though why restaurants reduce the sauce quite so much escapes me.

An almond and pear tart, with the lightest of whipped cream, was good: the top slightly caramelised, the almond filling offering bulk neatly avoiding being stodgy or dry. The pastry was good, too.

A short, intelligently compiled wine list sticks to pretty much foolproof producers in France, Italy, Australia, South Africa and America. Prices are reasonable: a bottle of Lievland Sauvignon Blanc costs pounds 11.10, a fair price for a stylish wine.

Praising the Laybournes is easy. Perhaps, instead, we should thank them. The next generation of Geordies will not have to live abroad to grow up eating well.

Cafe 21, 35 The Broadway, Darras Hall, Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne NE20 (0661 820357). Open dinner Tues-Sat. Meals with wine approx pounds 15. Music. Major credit cards.

21 Queen Street, Newcastle (091 222 0755). Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat. Set-price lunches pounds 15-pounds 17; a la carte approx pounds 44 incl coffee, wine, service and VAT. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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