Eating Out: Little room for improvement

Martin's Restaurant With Rooms: 11 Mostyn Avenue, Craig-Y-Don, Llandudno, Wales LL30 1YS. Tel: 01492 870 070. Open Mon-Sat only (unless guests are in residence, phone to check Sunday opening). Lunch served 12-2pm, dinner 6pm-late. Set menus: pounds 13.95 for two courses, pounds 16.95 for three. Average a la carte dinner, pounds 25 per head. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE VICTORIAN gentility of Llandudno's crescent promenade has all the characteristics of the quintessential small British seaside town that you might find described in a John Betjeman poem. With its white- fronted, rather grand hotels - which have gloriously archaic names like the Hydro and the Imperial - and its retention of the kind of seaside entertainment that predates video games and virtual reality simulators, the promenade at Llandudno commands a spectacular view of the broad bay, book-ended on either side by the rather eerie promontories of the Great and Little Orme headlands.

Running parallel to the promenade is an equally elegant high street. The Victorian developers of the original shops must have had an eye to protecting the genteel browser from the frequent rain, and thoughtfully provided the frontages with those cast-iron-and-glass canopies you find in any self-respecting spa town from Buxton to Baden-Baden. Even today, it is easy to see how Llandudno was conceived and built for an era of quiet imperial confidence, and for the restrained leisure of mercantile bourgeois Britain at its most respectable.

As the town backs up the hillside at its northern limit, there is a perfectly preserved funicular railway which takes you half-way to the summit of the higher of the Ormes, from which you can see both the receding forms of the mist-shrouded mountains to the south, and on the facing escarpment, a curious field where visitors have laboured to spell out their names with arrangements of seriously large stones and boulders.

For all its allure, however, Llandudno does not appear, at first glance, to be the kind of place where you would find world-class cooking. True, there is the famous Bodysgallen Hall country-house hotel, just outside the town, where resting captains of industry are rumoured to arrive by helicopter. And in the high street in Llandudno itself there are one or two cafes where you could make a delicious snack lunch of deep-filled prawn mayonnaise sandwiches and a bowl of salty chips. But it's not some- where you would expect to stumble across an exceptionally good meal.

Until now, that is, because Martin and Jan James' Martin's Restaurant With Rooms has already caught the professional admiration both of Gary Rhodes and a singular Fat Lady, for the inspired cooking of its proprietor. Martin's Restaurant With Rooms (and there are just four, each of which promises that winter cosiness which makes you want to stay in bed with a good book and a bag of home- made biscuits at this time of year) is situated in the quaint Edwardian villa which was once occupied by the Arch Druid of Wales. He must have left behind some positive karma (or its druidical equivalent) because at Martin's there is no attempt to disrupt the natural ambience: rather, the atmosphere is intimate and relaxed, with a homely feel in keeping with its semi-detached premises. This is a place where the welcome makes you feel secure, along with the need to express boundless gratitude for the wonderfully attentive service.

Martin James had already enjoyed a hugely prestigious succession of appointments prior to opening his own restaurant. He has worked at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, and with Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester in London; he was first sous chef at Hambleton Hall, Oakham, when it gained a Michelin star, and went on to spend six years as head chef at Bodysgallen Hall. With such a wealth of experience, it is hardly surprising that Martin's menus present an enticing mixture of grand cooking, regionally-inspired specialities - such as roast Welsh lamb with onion marmalade and a red wine jus - and just the right selection of simple favourites to make you feel quite at home.

There is something fantastically uplifting about the experience you enjoy at Martin's, of sitting at a table in the bay window of a modest Edwardian villa, thinking about nothing in particular, and being presented with a bowl of carrot and coriander soup with herb croutons in which the classic harmony of tastes is doing the culinary equivalent of humming the best of doo-wop. Rich and warming, with just a faint edge of spice giving the whole dish that raison d'etre which even the best soups can sometimes lack, this was a starter to make you feel smug. And if you wanted to make doubly sure that there would be ample room to enjoy one of the more extravagant main courses, then the galia melon filled with mandarin sorbet and topped with port wine crystals was the perfect way to open those taste-buds gently.

These days, when a wine list can be slightly longer than a Polish telephone directory and twice as confusing, it is nice to hand over the decision to the restaurant. To wine purists, of course, this is rather like jumping off a roof and shout- ing "Catch me!", but Martin's partner Jan made a quick assessment of our choices for main course - steamed fillet of salmon and a puff pastry parcel filled with beansprouts, cheese and seasonal vegetables on a lemon and herb butter sauce - and pronounced a chilled bottle of exquisitely floral Gewurztraminer 96 to be just the job. Which it was, to the point of nearly tempting us to throw our last shreds of formality to the winds and have a bottle each. But beneath its gentle bouquet, this is a wine which packs a hell of a punch, and it would almost be immoral to underestimate its sophisticated potency.

Called to attention by awe for this wine, rather than simply being sensible, we let it work its magic as we cruised through our main courses. Martin's puff pastry parcels were a work of art in their own right, packed with flavour and wonderfully moistened by the lemon and herb sauce. While the salmon - which, you guessed it, was indeed "meltingly tender" - became a light and creamy seafood medley with its accompanying seafood and prawn mousse, given body by a pasta and saffron sauce.

With a light rain lashing the windows, we indulged in dangerously extravagant puddings. Pear and frangipan tartlet with poire William liqueur ice-cream, a tartlet of strawberries with a quenelle of clotted cream, and, can you believe it, a selection of local cheeses. Martin's Restau-rant With Rooms was more than a delight: it was pretty near perfection.

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