Rabbiting on about the sauce

THE MOORINGS; 6 Freeman Street, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1BA. Tel: 01328 710949. Open Friday to Monday for lunch, 12.30-2pm, and for dinner, 7.30-9pm, and Thursdays for dinner only. Average price pounds 25 per person. No credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
AMONG the wild windswept beaches, spooky marshes, weird pubs and gigantic vegetable patches of the north Norfolk coast is a restaurant which, though tiny and tea-shop-like, serves food of startling deliciousness.

We parked right on the quayside in the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, nearly rolling into the water by omitting, in our excitement, to put on the handbrake. But the line between sea and land is never considered very important in these parts. A few years ago, my date told me, an entire boat was washed up on to the main street of Wells-next-the-Sea, which had become Wells-in-the-Sea during a particularly high tide.

Wells-next-the-Sea has somewhat let itself down with ugly pubs and food and amusement outlets called "Ye Olde Rock Shop" or "Pop in Leisure", but we decided it would take more than that to destroy the gentle seasidey feel. We were quite prepared to be snooty, though, when we first entered the Moorings - with its cheery blue frontage festooned with hanging baskets just along from the quay. Where, for heaven's sake, were the plain white walls, the bare blonde-wood table tops, the sulky staff with entire tablecloths wrapped round their waists, and frighteningly clever halogen lighting? Instead the little place was cluttered and cosy, with lacy tablecloths, pink walls, curly glass wall lights, mirrors with stripped-pine frames, net curtains on the windows, and a happy, casually dressed-up clientele - the ladies in flowery outfits, the gentlemen in slacks and short-sleeved shirts. There wasn't a platform plimsoll in sight. And the table settings! Patterned tablecloths beneath the lacy ones? Glasses with pink stalks? A padded wine cooler round the wine bottle?

When we tasted the food it wiped the smirks off our faces. Even the burnt nuts waiting to amuse our palates were startlingly scrumptious. My marinated goats' cheese starter looked a bit like a boiled egg with thousand island dressing on it. But the dressing, actually a "tomato and coriander creamy vinaigrette", was extraordinary, as if the coriander had been rushed from the earth two seconds before, en route from the greenhouse with the tomatoes.

The starter menu had been a real challenge to choose from, rather like going through a complicated multiple-choice questionnaire about your sex- life in Cosmopolitan magazine. There were 20 different ideas on offer, closely written and divided bewilderingly into three untitled subsections with the word "or" in between each item in the subsection. Fourteen of the starters were fishy ones - local baby whelks, cockles and smoked eel, as well as marinated herrings, smoked sea trout and soups, with exotic flavourings and accompaniments featuring fresh herbs, oriental seasonings and fruit-flavoured vinegars. If you peered closely you discovered that you could have "three fishy starters" chosen from eight of the 14. My companion went for this most complex of options, selecting Brancaster cockles with a shallot vinaigrette; baby whelks with Chinese flavourings - ginger, garlic and black beans - and squid salad with peppers, garlic and "oriental seasonings". They arrived in a stylish but practical three- sectioned white plate and were declared, to a fish, "fantastic". The only thing I had against the food so far were the bread rolls; they reminded me of the brown ones you buy from supermarkets in polythene bags, which are much too light and tasteless for their own good.

The undisputed star of the main courses was my companion's rabbit, boned and casseroled with sherry vinegar, basil and cream. Even the aroma made me want to snatch his plate, snapping: "I'm having that. I'm the restaurant reviewer."

"Oh, this is amazing, this sauce," he said, while I toyed sulkily with my sea bass.

"Mmm. It's got all sorts of stuff in, this sauce," he said, "God, it's really lovely."

"All right. Shut up about the sauce," I was about to mutter, when the owner and chef, a large and cheery American lady, bustled up, saying: "Isn't that great, the sauce?" Adding dreamily: "You know, when it's cooking, wild rabbit smells just like bacon." She then proceeded to tell us how to cook it, which is a very generous thing to do considering the plethora of celebrity restaurant cookbooks currently creating nest eggs for their chefs. There was, in fact, a generous air to the whole restaurant. They could easily have greedily crammed in more tables than the nine or 10 that were there, and the prices kept to the same spirit: two courses with salad or vegetables from pounds 13.95, and three courses pounds 17.95.

My sea bass, steamed, was just a smidgeon soggier and chewier than perfect but the sorrel and tarragon sauce was sharp and tangy and just great. Again it was the freshness of the herbs which shone. The accompanying locally grown vegetables made a laughing stock of most restaurant vegetables. For a start there was a great big dishful of them - spinach, beetroot, red cabbage, new potatoes and broad beans in sauce. There was something about the sheer tastiness which made you wonder what kind of grotesque watery mutant vegetables we are eating the rest of the time.

On to puddings - refreshingly free of the icing-sugar dredging mania that is smothering otherwise healthy and normal young puddings in style- obsessed restaurants. I went for "one chocolate mousse inside another" - like a Russian doll, I imagined; sadly, it was a bit of a letdown, being simply a baked chocolate mousse with a non-baked mousse in the centre. Nevertheless it tasted excellent, while my friend's trifle with marsala, amaretto and almonds was complete sog-alcohol heaven.

The only downside to the whole experience was that when the bill arrived we discovered they didn't take credit cards, which meant we had to come back and pay the following afternoon when the smells emerging from the kitchen made us want to take our seats again.