Review: Cafe 21, Fenwick's, York

Cafes within department stores used to be quite a thing.

Chicken schnitzel with truffle mayo and fried egg. (Simon Hulme).

In 1930s Leeds, Woolworths, Marks & Spencer and Marshall & Snelgrove all had cafes offering the likes of ham and eggs and “a plate of tongue”. In my day, school uniform shopping ended with lunch at Matthias Robinson’s or Schofields.

How things have changed. The latest Good Food Guide has 75 Yorkshire entries, none of them in a department store. No surprise there, but things may be set to change with the arrival of Terry Laybourne’s Cafe 21 in Fenwick’s, York.

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Laybourne may not be a household name in Yorkshire, but he’s something of a legend in the North- East. He opened his first restaurant, 21 Queen Street, in 1988 and within three years had gained a Michelin star. He went on to launch a string of restaurants, seven in all, including the Broad Chare, St Vincent’s wine bar and Cafe 21 in the Newcastle branch of Fenwick’s. He was awarded an MBE for services to the hospitality industry.

Cafe 21 in Fenwick's, York. (Simon Hulme).

Having made a relationship with Fenwick, York was an obvious next step, but with no street presence and in a space tucked away on the first floor, Cafe 21 could be easily bypassed. Don’t walk past because it is really very good.

The space has had a radical refurbishment since Carluccio’s time and it’s fabulous. Less a cafe and more a glamorous restaurant with white leather chairs, starched linens, potted palms and dusky pink banquettes.

The menu is straightforward. They open at 9am with a breakfast Bellini if you are so inclined. There are healthy sounding green juices and a lot of nice things with eggs: poached with smoked salmon and hollandaise or the on-trend eggs with avocado, lime and chilli along with omelettes and soufflés. Afternoon tea looks quite the thing too at £36 for two.

I am here for Sunday lunch, a family party and a birthday celebration. The set menu of three courses for £25 provides a fresh and creamy pea and lettuce soup (declared excellent) and a king prawn cocktail, conventional enough. Generous slices of sweetly tender lamb come with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and three veg. Also well recommended is a textbook lemon posset with raspberries or we could have chosen strawberry jelly and ice cream or spotted dick.

Salmon, French beans and pickled cucumber. (Simon Hulme).

The à la carte, or what they call the “All Day Menu”, covers salads and small plates. One of our party enjoyed the wood-roasted salmon, French beans and pickled cucumber in a yoghurt dressing, and from the “Large Plates”, I chose a Thai green curry with Jasmine rice. It may not pass for authentic in Bangkok’s Khao San Road, but with plenty of chicken and fragranced with lime and lemongrass, coriander and coconut, it passed the test of a very decent Thai curry.

You know the Teesside Parmo, right? It’s flattened breaded chicken with white sauce, topped off with molten orange cheddar. It reached a national audience when Anthony O’Shaughnessy made it on MasterChef and I remember having a “posh Parmo” at the Cleveland Tontine.

There are shades of the posh parmo here in Laybourne’s chicken schnitzel, which is topped with truffle mayonnaise and a fried egg. The price of £16.50 might be pushing it in a Middlesbrough chippy, but with fries and salad it’s satisfying and fair value if you consider the splendid decor, the white linen and an army of waiters.

Service was spot on from an attentive team. A shout out for our waiter, who feigned disapproval at the barman’s mixing of a Negroni sbagliato (that’s a Campari, red vermouth and Prosecco, to you and me) and was eager to replace it with a properly made one, though we insisted it was perfectly fine.

It was good to be lunching with family once more on plates that don’t have to be explained. If Terry Laybourne’s menu is neither radical nor revolutionary it’s not meant to be. He knows his audience. A chef of my acquaintance once told me she cooked food “you don’t have to be in awe of”. Cafe 21 is not awesome but it’s admirable and I’m very up for that.

Cafe 21 in Fenwick’s, Coppergate Centre, York YO1 9WY. 01904 946099, www.cafe21york.co.uk and opentable.co.uk. Open: Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm, Saturday, 9am-6pm, Sunday, 9am-5pm. Price: three-course set menu, £25, a la carte, approximately £70 for two.