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Food and Drink

Food & Drink: Doing very nicely, and no thanks to us: Robert Mabey's restaurants are popular and fun, but Emily Green still has doubts

To judge by the affection Robert Mabey inspires in East Anglia's leading restaurateurs, he is a genuinely nice man. This is no mean praise for a chef, whose profession typically involves long hours, short tempers and tangled grudges.

He has been less fortunate with critics. When he launched his first restaurant almost five years ago, two leading food writers wondered in print if the meals he served them had been rehydrated, reheated or both. Yet Mr Mabey's business has flourished into a small chain. A month ago, he opened his third Suffolk restaurant, St Peter's in Ipswich.

One thing is certain: the loyalty Mr Mabey commands from his colleagues is well earned. After his apprenticeship in a series of taxing London kitchens, including Le Gavroche, he was called in the mid-Eighties to a troubled Michelin-starred restaurant in rural Norfolk. The chef, David Adlard, with whom he had worked at the Connaught, was ill and in urgent need of a locum. And it was while he was at Adlard's (then located in Wymondham) that Mr Mabey was noticed by the proprietors of Hintlesham Hall hotel in Suffolk.

Hintlesham did well with Mr Mabey at the stove, and Suffolk proved hospitable turf for him. In the autumn of 1988, he left the hotel to open Mabey's Brasserie in nearby Sudbury. The Regatta in Aldeburgh followed; then, last month, St Peter's.

When Mr Mabey left Hintlesham Hall, it was natural for the critics to follow. To their dismay, the food he served in Sudbury did not reflect the standards of the gastronomic temples on his CV. Expecting something related to Le Gavroche, they found it was closer to a motorway service station.

The first critical groan in these pages came from a freelance, Denis Curtis (formerly food writer for the Telegraph). I edited the piece and, mindful of Mr Mabey's record, several months after, asked the late Jeremy Round (our inspired, rather more modern food writer) to look in and double-check.

These two gentlemen were not given to agreeing on much, but they did about Mabey's Brasserie. They reported 'fresh lobster soup' that tasted abrasive, like something from a packet; salty lamb burgers spiked with a violent cocktail of aromatics; soggy chips; and partially reheated puds.

Almost five years later, it may seem gratuitous yet again to review a Mabey restaurant. It would be, had the stream of praise for Mr Mabey not persisted, most impressively from Nigel Raffles, whom Mr Mabey helped to set up St Benedict's Grill, one of the better restaurants in Norwich. I had not been in the new Ipswich restaurant for long before it became obvious that the critics had almost certainly been right. The food was bog standard. Granted, the menu lists certain exotic items, such as 'Italian leaf salad with fresh parmesan and olives', which the waitress thought might involve olive oil. Understanding of Italian food is not a strong point at St Peter's: another dish included 'pasta noodles'. From the Orient, there were prawns with a dipping sauce. Mainly, however, St Peter's seems content to serve sturdy English fodder, dressed up for a wine bar.

I had a gruel-like potato and leek soup served with greasy, under-baked garlic bread. To follow, 'roasted chump end of lamb on a pea puree with herb sauce and hand-cut chunky chips' consisted of characterless meat on mushy peas (not puree) with a vague hint of mint, and big, rough chips that looked better than they tasted; I would guess they had been sitting around. Caramel ice-cream with toasted almonds was truly pleasing, reasonably wholesome but reminiscent of sticky toffees from the newsagent. Coffee was weak and seemed to have hotplate fatigue.

Discussing the restaurant further requires the logic of not just a restaurant critic but a (provincial rep) Prince Hamlet. For every minus, Mr Mabey chucks us a plus. In his defence, it is arguable that we critics may have expected Robert Mabey to cook Michelin-standard food, for the simplistic reason that his teachers did. This is to ignore the fact that he seems happy (and successful) with his middle-brow chain of family restaurants.

Plain grub, however, still deserves skilful treatment. Rejecting three-star silver service is no justification for bad cooking. And anyone who makes it known that he cooked at the Connaught and Le Gavroche should be able to serve garlic bread properly.

I wonder if Mr Mabey is not being too nice for his own food. An equally good-hearted restaurateur in Italy or France might not have the same problems, propped up on all sides by quality suppliers, experienced staff and knowledgeable customers. In Britain, however, putting good food on the table can be a fight.

I will not write him off, since to do so would be to deny him credit for certain gentle reforms. His chips may not always be as good as they look (probably the result of some professional economy), but they are chunky, hand-cut and, gutsily, the skin is retained; they have not been dumped from a freezer bag. When a blackboard menu promises 'local game sausages', I bet it really is local game, and good on Mr Mabey for employing local produce.

St Peter's is a happy restaurant, done out in bright yellows and blues. It is child-friendly: those heavily polyurethaned pine tables can take any number of spills. It brightens up a bleak spot of Ipswich near a roundabout, a dull-looking hotel and a grimy riverfront industrial patch. It has free parking, no-smoking sections, vegetarian dishes. Staff are amateurish, but really hospitable and eager to please.

To Mabey or not to Mabey, that is the question. Suffolk says yeah.

St Peter's, 35-37 St Peter's Street, Ipswich, Suffolk IP1 1XP (0473 210810). Vegetarian dishes. Open Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. Light bar meals from approx pounds 5, in restaurant pounds 10-pounds 15. Three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT approx pounds 20-pounds 25. Visa, Access.

(Photograph omitted)