Pardon the blasphemy, but just before Christmas is a hell of a time to open a restaurant. You cannot find staff. Companies booking office parties have never heard of you. The public at large is shopping, not dining. Taxi drivers would rather take customers to a place where there is tinsel, piped music and plate-smashing. Even the good ladies at the Tourist Information Board don't have you in their database.
This winter, Simon Gueller learned all this the hard way. The opening of his new restaurant, Rascasse, should have been a big deal in Leeds. Instead, it was the non-event of late 1995.
Still, this may prove the best of bad luck, for it should allow Mr Gueller precious time to iron out problems before the public swarms. And he should iron fast, because Rascasse means to be, in the words of Marlon Brando, a contender. For starters, Mr Gueller is an excellent cook. This 31-year-old may not be the prodigy that his Leeds-born mate Marco Pierre White is, but his cooking has terrific substance and class. Yorkshire folk may already know this from having eaten at Miller's Bistro, his little place in Harrogate.
Rascasse is named after the fish the French believe is an essential ingredient in bouillabaisse. Alors to that. Set in a canal-side warehouse conversion, the set-up is sleek, with blond wood floors, chic metal trim, and tables laid with starchy white linen, good cutlery, expensive salt and pepper shakers. If it were a shoe shop, the shoes would be Ferragamo. And it would be a big one. Rascasse seats I00. The look is so smart, it promises perfection, the sort one hopes for when entertaining clients, or splashing out on a special occasion.
You are greeted by a small fleet of well scrubbed men in suits in the reception, who offer you the choice of going straight to your table, or stopping briefly in an upstairs bar. We chose the bar. Here, in addition to cocktails and so on, a decent selection of wines is poured by the glass: six reds, six whites and a rose. A large red Rhone, Vacqueyras, cost pounds 3.50. The barman is a young lad who, in a novel approach, measured the red wine by the jigger. Those interested in cocktails might be well advised to wait until he learns how to make them. A Bloody Mary was almost unspiced and served on too much ice. A request for lime struck him as unusual. Though most restaurants would offer customers the chance to peruse menus here, or even order before going to the table, Rascasse did not.
Once downstairs, we were shown an enviable table, set in a corner, overlooking the water. Ordering was tricky. There were two of us, and when my companion ordered from the carte, and I requested the set menu of the day, we were informed in confidential tones that this was not allowed and that "the chef will scream". So we both ate from the carte, and we ate well.
A fish soup had just the right body and a spicy aromatic finish of aniseed, perhaps a dash of pastis, perhaps caraway. Croutons, shredded Gruyere and perfectly spiced rouille came on a dinky side plate. Another soup was terrific: a hearty number thickened with pureed white haricot beans. The base stock tasted like ham. A poached egg with a deliciously runny yolk stood in for a dumpling. There was a snipping of chive and a trace of truffle oil. Truffle oil is difficult to use - I usually find it cloying. Here, though it may have sung a bit too loudly, it was as it should be: part of the choir.
Unlike me, my companion is not forsaking cod until quotas are seriously revised downward and ordered it as a main course. His fish came perfectly cooked, served on a thick bed of pureed peas, with a serving of gratin dauphinois that, arguably, outshone the fish. Evidently there was foie gras in the sauce. My companion licked his plate clean and then purred contentedly.
My confit of duck was very good. The skin was crisp, the meat rich. The fixings around it included heart-stoppingly rich celeriac puree, and roast turnips which the menu, otherwise in English, strangely refers to as "navets". A side portion of vegetables contained good spinach, and a fancy dice that included courgettes and such. More spinach and some of the beautiful British cauliflower in season just now would have been more like it. We only managed one dessert and a beauty it was: a pear crumble came topped with vanilla ice-cream that could send Haagen Dazs and their titillating advertisements packing back Stateside.
Drinking at Rascasse is trickier. One can request drinks smoothly enough, but they don't seem to arrive. Two requests for water finally produced it. Our starters were on the table before we decided to cancel our request for a bottle of Guigal Hermitage, which would have required decanting and had not even been shown to us, much less opened. We replaced it with a workaday Morgon, one of the most reliable of the open-and-drink reds from Beaujolais. Once we had it cooled, it had just the style to stand up to Mr Gueller's great food.
Enough praise. This next remark is less a complaint than a suggestion: Mr Gueller, you cook like a dream, but your menu has room for more personality, more soul, and less foie gras and truffle oil. Fancy doesn't mean foreign. As for the service, this next comment is a complaint. Rascasse was not even a quarter full the lunchtime we ate there and staff should have been able to cope. If the place is to survive, and it deserves to flourish, then it will be because its employees develop skills to match their evident good will. It is too much of a proud poodle of a restaurant, too power-dressed, for customers to be expected to indulge comic amateurism. That said, those who do will probably eat terrifically well, if not from the menu of the day
Like a kitten that thinks it's a Great Dane, Popham's, Castle Street, Winkleigh (01837-83767) is a tiny village shop that thinks it's a restaurant. And the conviction is so great, it convinces us, too: tables are jammed in by the window. Dennis Hawkes is host while, behind a deli-counter, Melvyn Popham runs up the food. As for cuisine, let's say it's Modern Devon, a singular hybrid of new wave California cooking and Lakeland stodge, sort of Jeremiah Tower meets Connie Spry. I think I'll have the goat's cheese salad and sticky toffee pudding, please. Unlicensed. BYOB. No corkage. Open 9am-11am for coffees; lunch from 12pm Mon-Sat. A full lunch costs around pounds 18, or you can have a single course. Access, Visa
Opinion is divided in the catering world about the wisdom of naming a restaurant after oneself. Certainly, it is tricky to sell Chez Nico if Nico does not come with the fixtures and fittings. Perhaps this is why the restaurant of the Roux-trained chef, Michael Hjort, is called Melton's, 7 Scarcroft Road, York (01904-634341). At any rate, it might just as profitably be called A Very Nice Place. Set in what was once a cornershop or a private home, it's dinky, to be sure, and in an equally dinky Victorian terrace. Yet the running of the place is couth and confident: Michael Hjort can cook, be it venison with Cumberland sauce or conservative runs on flavours of the day, such as fillet of beef with polenta. While food is served with Northern generosity, pricing reflects Northern reserve: set-price lunch or early dinner (5.30pm-6.15pm) pounds 13.90, dinner pounds 19.50. Total about pounds 20-30. Open lunch Tues-Sun, 12noon-2pm, dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa.
What, ho, Pepys, a bit peckish, perhaps? There is an almost comic quality to the olde Englishness of the cooking at St John, 26 St John Street, EC1 (0171- 251 0848). So the buffalo mozzarella brigade find themselves offered celeriac and boiled egg, deep-fried cockscombs, partridge and pease pudding, mince and tatties. That said, the whitewashed dining room is effortlessly chic, the staff dashing and wines good. By Jove, the tuck is not half bad, either. (It can, in the case of pumpkin soup in a rough ham stock, be deliriously good.) Though avoid the mince. Open daily lunch, 12noon- 3pm, Mon-Sat dinner, 6pm-11.30pm. Three courses about pounds 20. Major credit cards
HEREFORD & WORCESTER
There is a fancy restaurant side to The Roebuck, Brimfield (01584-711230), namely Poppies. However, stopping during a tour of the spectacular countryside along the Welsh border, I have only eaten in the pub. Here I found quickly fried chicken livers to rival those offered by star chefs in swanky London restaurants. All the food is good: stews, sharp green salads, tarts. The presiding genius is a big, cheery woman called Carole Evans. Her side- kick, a fellow with a passing resemblance to Robert Morley, may or may not offer you wine. Pub meals, from pounds 15. Poppies restaurant open Tues- Sat lunch and dinner. Three courses about pounds 25-30. Rooms above, pets by arrangement. Access, Visa, Switch, Delta