The last time I ate at Cafe No 8, we were jammed in side by side, shoulder to shoulder, cheek by jowl. Intimate but in a good way. You could make new friends every time you ate there. The trouble was getting a table at all since there were so few of them and the place was so popular.
Then last year they extended. They took a bite out of their garden which is directly beneath York’s city walls at the back of Gillygate and built a new dining room there so that now there’s a bright, white sunny room with 20 additional covers – doubling the capacity.
If it’s not as cosy as the corridor at the front, nor is it cramped. It has an attractive reconditioned wooden floor, beams and eaves and fold back doors that lead into the garden.
The garden was always a bit special. Still is, or at least will be when they do the final tidy up and add the awning and space heaters so that you can be warm as well as dry. But on a sunny Sunday morning with coffee, the papers and a full English – meat or veggie – it’s a happy place to be. The expansion has certainly not affected No 8’s popularity.
Our visit, on a Tuesday evening, saw the place near full, not I’d guess with tourists who generally prefer to be inside the city walls or tend not to book up far enough in advance but with locals – a party of school teachers, a middle-aged couple, a man educating his companion on the Greek debt crisis. The menu is sensibly short and sweet: half a dozen starters and mains, a regulation wine list, a couple of blackboard specials.
Nothing is too aspirational but there’s just the right amount of originality to make it interesting.
There are starters of mussels with spiced coconut broth; black pudding and belly pork rissole with baby apples and smoked tomato jam and mustard dressing. It’s a menu put together by the joint owners Martin Gore, front-of-house and self-taught chef Chris Pragnell.
We order two starters: a hot smoked salmon and langoustine bisque with samphire, aioli and organic bread; and fresh figs with honey, lavender and goats cheese, lemon oil and aged balsamic vinegar.
The bisque was astonishingly rich, packing in cream and a ton of shellfishy stock. It was so strong in fact that it caught the throat, but it was a tasty, robust and full-bodied broth.
Having mistakenly spread the aioli on the bread – it was in a little pot on the same plate as the bread and looking for all the world like butter – we were re-supplied with both, dunked the aioli in the broth and redoubled its octane. Not a dish for the faint-hearted or anyone wanting to go garlic-free but you had to applaud the sheer gusto of it.
By contrast, the fresh figs with honey made for a lovely, light, fresh dish. The tang of goats cheese and the sweet honey and balsamic dressing helped out the just-warm figs.
It would have been even better if the advertised lavender had made its presence felt and if the figs had been softer and riper.
For mains we might have chosen chicken with chorizo, beef in red wine, grilled haloumi with carrot tagine but went for the special of Dover sole, well priced at £13.50. We got two generous fillets of that sweet fresh fish arranged over crushed potatoes with a chive and butter sauce. The only niggle, but a significant one, is that the chef might have removed the frill round the edge, to prevent a mouthful of bones which were hard to spot amid the spuds and sauce.
The other main was a splendid piece of slow-cooked lamb shoulder with carrots. It was tender and aromatic with soothing spices of saffron and cumin and had a tasty dish of spiced rice alongside.
To finish we shared the cheesecake of the day which was crumble-topped gooseberry and elderflower, comfortably big enough for two but the weakest link in an otherwise admirable meal. Any delicate elderflower flavours were lost among the sharpness of the gooseberries. The crumble topping was, well, gritty.
No 8 bills itself as a cafe/bistro, a tag that sells itself short. It has made the transition from tiny neighbourhood restaurant to medium-sized neighbourhood restaurant with ease. To skilfully deliver a menu of such overall range is equally impressive.
It further ticks all the boxes of a convivial setting, friendly service, and decent value. So it’s not hard to see why for so many of its faithful clientele No 8 is No 1.
Cafe No 8 Bistro, 8 Gillygate, York YO31 7EQ. Telephone: 01904 653074. Email: email@example.com. Website: www.cafeno8.co.uk.
Open: Mon-Fri, noon-10pm, Sat & Sun 11am-10pm.
Price: Three-course dinner for two including coffee, bottle wine and service, about £80.