Glenfiddich restaurant critic awards: Your turn to criticise

Back in February we teamed up with Glenfiddich, hosts of the foodie Oscars, to launch a search for the nation's best amateur restaurant critic. Below we publish the winning entry, chosen by our panel of experts, along with two worthy runners-up
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Winner: Anne Gascoigne, tour guide from Orkney

Mart Café, Orkney Auction Mart, Hatson, Kirkwall, Orkney

Having admired the boisterous, bellowing hunks of bull-flesh in the sale ring we are now upstairs, standing in line at the café servery. The pungency of the auction was left outside the doors and we are ensconced in canteen-cooking coffee-comfort. A whiteboard advertises today's menu - home-made soup, steak pie, smoked haddock, cheese, leek and broccoli pie, tatties, green beans or baked beans, pear flan and custard, full breakfast.

We opt for steak pie -- and I mean steak, prime Orkney beef as raised on island farms, as sold downstairs, as slaughtered in the UK's most northerly EU-approved abattoir, just over the way. The piecrust is as light as oat-straw in a force nine, the savoury gravy as rich and warming as a peat fire. Today's tatties are mashed (but are sometimes chipped or boiled), the beans are alive and verdant - much more than mere decoration. We finish with fluffy, melt-in-your mouth pear pudding (and separate bowl of custard for the fussy one). Portions throughout are fill-fulling - not to encourage guzzling, but to fortify robust ranch-hands and stock-women. Yet no dish costs more than a fiver.

Service is self, prepared and cleared by a team of artisan staff. It is midday traditional, not lunch but "dinner" (as in breakfast, dinner and high tea, or dinner-ladies). The surroundings are spotless and airy, with functional melamine and a panoramic view across the ever-busy industrial estate to Kirkwall Bay and cathedral. Tractors and lorries process along the main road and beyond is heather-clad Wideford Hill, its summit en-scarfed by cloud.

Yes, it's simple food - but not an artful, contrived simplicity that relies on faux "themes" or retro-pretentiousness. There is no need for a Babel of competing exotic ingredients: no canting veloutes, escabeches, plinths or pilafs. Tastes here speak with an honest, intense clarity, a truly native tongue.

Yes, each day's choice is limited (fish and/or meat, a vegetarian option) confined like Orkney's island shores, but rich beyond all expectation when fully explored. The Mart Café may not do much, but what it does is done so very, very well.

Runner-up: Andrew Shanahan, freelance copywriter from Manchester

TGI Friday's, Royal Crescent, Cheadle, Cheshire

Recently, I have been in what scientists call "a deep funk". So, in an attempt to activate my happiness gland, I took my wife in search of junk food at the relentlessly upbeat TGI Friday's. With uncanny timing we visited on the day Whitbread announced TGI's was suffering from its own depression - year-on-year sales down 3.7 per cent, rumours of takeover bids. It's a good job misery loves company.

If Cheadle TGI Friday's was depressed, it must be the crying-on-the-inside kind. Fun was everywhere from the décor which looks like someone has won a trolley dash around eBay, to the waiters who must be fun because they wear badges! I know - badges!

Our waiter is Properly Bonkers and I fantasise about puncturing his lungs with my fork but, astutely, he's wearing several tough-looking badges over his chest. "How're you doin' today?" he asks and it's clear he's been told to pronounce the apostrophes. We order a Jack Daniel's Times Square Big Share, a Jack Daniel's Monterey burger, a chicken fajita tower and several milkshakes.

The "world-famous" Jack Daniel's glaze is an unmissable feature of the menu. It's a vindictive little sauce, excessively sweet and unpleasantly tacky; if you boiled down Ainsley Harriet you'd eventually get something close to it. Steaks, chickens, even salads are swabbed with the ick. While we're waiting for the food we listen to an eight-year-old child shouting.

For burger-joint food, it's above par. The burger is fat and juicy, and the chips are reasonable. The fajitas are nowhere as good as homemade but they are hot and riddled with satiating fats. One peccadillo is the guacamole, which is not good. On most days I have a higher avocado content.

The milkshakes are excellent though. The chocolate one is so calorific that I briefly become diabetic during my third, but I rally and soon we're paying the sub-£50 bill (£35 on food, £10 on milkshakes) and flitting into the night. As the sounds of the shoutiest child in England recede into the distance, I almost feel my heart start to lift, but it's probably just the fats settling in my arteries.

Runner-up: Sophie Silver, Consultant in the restaurant industry from London

Patisserie Valerie, 105 Marylebone High Street, London W1

"Cake o'clock?" the voice at the end of the phone asked. Hmmm cake, I thought, guiltily racing through the endless possibilities of suitable venues. Where should two girls about town eat cake on an ordinary kind of day? Yauatcha? True, the cakes are individual works of art, but with equally stunning packaging they are just as well suited to home consumption. Claridges or The Berkeley? Too happy birthday or afternoon hen. Sketch? Too full of Japanese tourists and fashion students.

No, this wasn't special-event tea. What we needed was a fix of affordable, reliable, calorie-laden cake. "Patisserie Valerie, Marylebone High Street!" I shouted down the phone, and raced out the door.

"Sit anywhere", and we do, on a so-small-a-gap-you're actually-sharing kind of table. The place is, as usual, packed with Marylebone pensioners and yummy mummies. And, despite its recent renovation, it still has its trademark tired and tobacco-stained feel. After a lengthy, and quite fierce, debate we decide on fruit tarts (mine blackberry and raspberry, Tea Girl goes for trad strawberry).

I make all the movements of a customer needing service; fidget a lot, twist from side to side, raise my eyebrows. Nothing. For a place that's always packed with people desperate for confection, they could lay on a few more staff.

Finally it arrives. The neglectful service, the tea stewed beyond recognition, pale into insignificance. For this is why we come. The fruit tart is perfection; its sticky glaze complementing the tartness of the berries. The sweetness of the créme patissiere, the buttery pastry, as good as anywhere in France. Tea Girl proves her devotion by jealously guarding her every last crumb. Ah, the joys of cake o'clock at Pat Val. I have a feeling we'll be back.

The winners of the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Awards will be announced tomorrow night. For results go to www.glenfiddich.co.uk/foodanddrink

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