The new Casa Rustica Grande in Northallerton puts Gareth Dant’s tastebuds to the test

REGULAR readers of this column might be familiar with its fairly regular hand-wringing about the mystery of Northallerton’s vanishing restaurants.

Actually, non-appearance would be a more accurate description, as there has been for some years a stability among the eating places in North Yorkshire’s fine county town. Those that have opened for the most part remain trading, but there are just too few of them.

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Cafés are a different matter, of course: there are more of those than you can shake a little wooden coffee stirrer at.

But when it comes to the vaunted and sought after “night time economy” – with vibrant bars and restaurants that encourage people to stay in town after the shops have closed, or to glad rag-up and return after dark – that has been a different matter.

This summer has however brought positive signs of change. Firstly, Tejanos, reviewed favourably here back in July, brought some Tex-Mex spice to town.

And now a long-awaited annexe to the hugely popular Casa Rustica café has burst onto the scene in all its lurid custard-yellow banquette glory.

Fans of the tiny Casa in the Market Row arcade and of its Brazilian owner Leo Faro will have breathed a large latte-scented sigh of relief to learn its Grande sibling, over the High Street and round the corner on the way to the Friarage Hospital, was going to complement the café rather than replace it.

The new joint opened a couple of months ago in prominent Friarage Street spot that has had a chequered recent past. Some may remember the quirky Bennetts’ eatery on the site some 20 or so years ago. A couple of curry house variants have occupied it since then.

A full refit has given it a fairly rough-and-ready sawn timber and hessian sacking vibe, with a lively bar area downstairs, room for a few diners along that aforementioned yellow bench seat and about 20 or so covers squeezed in the upstairs room around a little square gallery that opens up ground floor to the first.

Quite how there is room for a kitchen too is a mystery. Like its café cousin, it’s compact – and rather cute for it.

On Sunday evening we were shown straight to our table upstairs; I might have liked to linger a little below stairs another time, or simply visit for a drink. From our first floor table, sometimes it felt a little like the real party was elsewhere, a fact perhaps not helped by the fact there didn’t appear to be speakers upstairs, so music as well as laughter filtered up through the gap in the floor.

The opening has, by the way, a rather marvellous lighting feature made from a wooden cable reel and a variety of bare filament lightbulbs.

The current revival of cocktails is well represented in the Grande menu. I enjoyed a lime-laced caipirinha (£6.95) – apparently Brazil’s national cocktail, based on Cachaça, a sugarcane spirit. Delicious.

The food menu is another shaken-up mixture, of Latin American and Mediterranean inspiration. The restaurant and bar, it declares, offers a “unique and laidback drinking and dining experience; Brazilian-style Churrasco – chargrilled steak and espeto skewers, as well as authentic petisco – "tapas-style dishes from around the world”.

That’s as fair a summary as I could give.

Petiscos make starter-sized servings, or can be combined for a main meal – three to five between two is the helpful recommendation. There are currently 18 to choose from ranging from £4.95 to £14.95 for a house platter of cheeses and meats for two. There is a fair bit of choice for vegetarians.

The remainder of the menu is given over to a choice of three steaks (rump and sirloin, £19.95 or a massive chuleta extra-large ribeye cut on the bone and served for two at £55); beef, pork, chicken or halloumi skewers (espetos) ranging from £13.95 to £9.95. A range of five interesting-sounding salads promise a “lighter alternative” (from £5.95 to £7.95).

Anna kicked off with a gambas pil pil (£6.45) – a Spanish dish of garlicky flash-fried huge prawns. She loved it, and it turned out to be the highlight of her meal.

For me, 'nduja sausage (£5.95) was a new experience. A spreadable and very spicy salume from Calabria, it’s mixed with roasted peppers and olive oil and slathered over charred pitta breads. The first mouthful or two provided a blow-away sensation for my mouth, but by the time it was gone my poor taste buds felt in need of something less fiery as a complement.

Not for the first time that night, I was to rue our failure to take the tapas route of multiple dishes.

For mains, we’d both gone for espetos – rump of beef for Anna (£13.95) and loin of pork for me (£11.95). Both came with a choice from two sauces, and two sides. I chose a salsa with chips and a house green salad, Anna the green chimichurri sauce with some sweet potato fries and salpicao – a coleslaw with potatoes, apples, celery and raisins.

The skewers arrive at the table in a slightly ostentatious way, suspended from a hook over your plate – rather like a gibbet – as part of a wire contraption underneath the dish.

Nice tabletop theatre, but in both cases the meat was simply too dry and chewy. Interlaced with delicious grilled onion and sweet peppers, the kebabs were nevertheless over-cooked. Anna had asked for hers to be well done so perhaps got what she deserved, but mine had been billed as “marinated juicy strips of pork”.

The sauces and sides were fine – the sweet potato fries and salpicao in particular – but the overall effect was spoiled.

What’s more, in spite of the waitress’ fancy pants use of an electronic tablet to take our order, it still managed to get mangled in translation in the kitchen, so that the wrong sides were with the wrong meat and sauce.

Desserts, unfortunately, made things worse. Of the three out of four menu choices available, both my strawberry black pepper meringue (£4.50) and Anna’s mango and passion fruit cheesecake (£6.95) were frozen solid.

Perhaps, I thought at the time, they were meant to be fresh from the freezer (although that would be very odd for a cheesecake), but it was only when revisiting the menu back at home I realised there was no mention of the word “frozen” in descriptions for either dish.

Most odd, and no wonder the intriguing-sounding black pepper and strawberry combination made no impact on my palate.

A fizzy water and a delicious glass of Italian Borgo Magredo Pinot Nero brought the bill to £61.60.

Service throughout was pleasant and attentive – in hindsight we should have put it to the test by raising the dryness of the meat and the frozen nature of the puds.

However, even with the litany of moans outlined above, I’d go back – if only for good cocktails in a nice atmosphere.

If eating, I’d stick to the petiscos – most of which read like delicious tapas dishes, or perhaps try a salad.

There are many reasons why I genuinely hope Casa Rustica Grande thrives – and so far it certainly seems to be doing just that.

Please, just turn down the heat for the churrasco, and keep the puds out of the deep freeze.

Casa Rustica Grande, 1A Friarage Street, Northallerton, DL6 1DP

T: 01609 258160

Food served: Mon-Thu, noon-10pm, Fri-Sat, noon-11.30pm, Sun, noon-9pm.

Steps up to front door, toilets are on ground floor

Food quality: 3/5

Service: 3/5

Surroundings: 3/5

Value: 3/5