Smeltery burns bright in the night. The glowing letters which spell out its name bringing a warm glow to the otherwise stark building that this café calls home.
It is housed in the mima gallery in Middlesbrough’s Central Square and is fast becoming a community hub, social and foodie destination which literally feeds the soul.
It mixes art, people and good food with a sociable and creative approach that is the essence of the Slow Food movement. Indeed, the café’s very existence was commissioned by the gallery as part of its direction as a centre for ‘useful art’.
The Smeltery overlooks a neat community garden from which chefs pluck ingredients to create nourishing, healthy and inspiring plates of food. For the many, not the few.
Every Thursday finds The Smeltery joining forces with mima for a ‘Community Day’ when a free lunch (donations accepted) is served for all. This encourages people who might not have stepped into the gallery before to take a look and experience what’s on offer, food and beyond.
At communal tables you might find a barrister from the law courts opposite enjoying a bite to eat with a student or a refugee, next to retirees or university lecturers, museum volunteers or community police officers.
For Luke Harding, that sense of belonging and feeding is what The Smeltery is all about.
“The gardening project encourages people born in other countries to grow vegetables from their homelands that can’t be bought in local shops. Then in our kitchen we cook with them – or sell them in the gallery shop.
“mima’s new direction is geared to opening the gallery for community use. Food has an important function within this agenda.”
Luke has achieved recognition as the owner of Eaglescliffe’s Waiting Room vegetarian restaurant which has attracted regular awards and accolades, including runner-up in The Observer’s Best UK Restaurant category in at least five of the last ten years, and the Best Restaurant in The UK award from the Vegetarian Society.
His active approach to provenance, support for local produce and sustainable food is a given at The Waiting Room and The Smeltery, though his latest venture is one for the meat and fish fan too.
So you will see inventive and exciting dishes on the menu such as starters of home-soaked sloe gin-soused mackerel, UK truffled-infused potted Whitby crab with parsnip rosti and thistle flower cheese soufflé.
For main courses, Luke and his team actively seek out local farmers and producers for the main course offers such as, organic Piercebridge steaks, slow-roast organic lamb with celeriac, blackberry jelly and goats’ cheese dauphinoise or the black-garlic roast hake with miso garlic broth and pickled brassica leaves.
He uses bread made by Rise social enterprise bakery, Acorn Dairy organic milk and butter, Botton Village jams and Parlour Made cheese from Sedgefield.
Says Luke: “The Smeltery’s Slow Food menu-making elevates healthy, ecological vegetables and wholefoods alongside ethically-reared meat from carefully researched local small-scale organic and free-range farms.
“It is all beautifully cooked with bags of attention to the complete dish”.
The story of the dish on the menu is told as a whole rather than just ‘meat…with’. All the ingredients have an equal role like the players in an orchestra.
On Sundays there’s a selection of roasts – with Piercebridge Organics meat or poultry from Harome in North Yorkshire, as well as vegetarian casserole.
As well as giving thought to the food in The Smeltery, the surroundings play a huge part in what Luke says has become, “a delight-filled buzz’.
In the past the gallery’s café space was a soul-less, cavernous space; now it is cosy, comfortable, bright and inspiring.
The end result of craft and making sessions was the creation of everything from salt and pepper pots right through to the tables and chairs you sit at to enjoy lunch. (A recommendation: The Smeltery fish stew. No need to head to France for a bouillabaisse. This herby, hearty fish-packed tomato stew is as good as it gets).
The vibe is industrial, arty and welcoming. The moment you walk in you see dishes loaded with lovely-looking salads, bold in colour and big on aroma. Elsewhere you spy mouth-watering cakes, boulder-like scones and take a peek at the chefs beavering away in the open kitchen.
The team at mima has been working collaboratively with Middlesbrough Environment City and Investing in People and Culture (IPC) to create a community garden in the centre of Middlesbrough, a space where different groups, particularly those from marginalised communities can come together to socialise and learn new skills.
The new garden by the gallery is being transformed into a vibrant space filled with flowers and home-grown vegetables for The Smeltery.
The project puts the belief that art can be a tool for social change into action and it is hoped that the garden will become established as a peaceful and special place for everyone to enjoy and a site to host classes and sociable gatherings.
The Smeltery bustles by day and at night (Thursday-Saturday) cosies up as a welcoming place to enjoy a three-course meal in the spirit of the Slow Food movement.
Other events include cinema screenings which match a movie and meal for a different social evening as well as gigs, readings and exhibition launches.