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Food & Drink: Socking great flavours of the bistro: The Whites are back in business, the customers back in droves. Emily Green revels in the well-made, classic food she loves

NEAR the castle in Newark, Nottinghamshire, dinky placards advertising local businesses protrude from a civic flowerbed. Strung from the first- floor window of Gannets Bistrot 94, right next to the castle, a rather silly white banner announces the arrival of 'top-rated chef Colin White'. I cannot speak for the veracity of the messages in the flowerbed, but the one about Mr White is true.

Few chefs have received the sort of praise heaped on Mr White during his 30-year catering career. And few have his pedigree: apprenticeship at the Sharrow Bay Hotel in Cumbria, whose kitchens cooked straight from the pages of Constance Spry, followed by two years at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Bath, where menus came straight from Elizabeth David. Here he met and married a waitress called Gwen, who, after 26 years in catering, knows the nature of loyalty.

The Whites opened their first restaurant in the Jew's House, Lincoln, said to be the oldest building in Europe. They built up a local following from 1979-85, and caught the attention of The Good Food Guide. But the lease was problematic. By 1986, acting on advice to set up shop in the 'M4 corridor', they opened Whites restaurant in Cricklade, Wiltshire.

It soon became Jane Grigson's local, and that great lady promoted Whites until her dying day, attracting guide inspectors and critics whose reviews could have filled Quaglino's. They might have filled Whites had it not been launched at the onset of the recession in a grey village on the outskirts of Swindon. By 1990 it was clear to Mrs Grigson, friendly critics and the Whites that the restaurant was bound to go bust.

Mr White returned to jobbing, never very happily. Then friends from the Lincoln days invited him and his wife to take over a small bistro above their cafe in Newark. No premium. No financial grief. Six weeks ago, they did just that.

It feels right, this quirky upstairs operation. A temporary side- entrance skirting the cafe kitchen leads to a small upstairs dining room and bar. Smoking is strictly prohibited; the nicotine yellow of the bistro's walls come from a paint pot. But it has a proper bistro buzz, and customers from the 'Lincoln days' are already returning in droves.

One can see why. A chalkboard menu, which changes twice daily, reflects one of the canniest fish- buying operations in the Midlands. Sourcing local produce is one of Mr White's strengths. He has long made a practice of seeking the best of British, be it lamb from Jacob sheep, fresh free-range eggs or first-class pork from Gloucestershire Old Spots.

Mrs White runs the dining room, and her robust brand of cheer slots in more naturally, more charmingly here than in the prissier Cricklade operation.

As for the food, it is so appealing I ate to bursting point, starting with a salade nicoise from the blackboard. Two good fillets of steaky tuna were grilled, and served with soft boiled egg, rather harsh anchovy fillets, beans, yellow cherry tomatoes and lettuce. It was fine, but not Mr White's best. Charring the tuna left a metallic- tasting sear, pleasant in other dishes, but here undermining the rich salty-savoury flavour that makes the dish. In short, the fish should have been poached.

Next: mushrooms armenienne - mushrooms cooked in red wine with bacon. Very Seventies, very tasty. Next: a wonderful vegetarian gratin made of layered polenta, tomato sauce, fontina and gorgonzola. Next: cod 'chowder' with puy lentils and salsa verde. Chowder it was not - otherwise it was a knock-out. The stock, the fish and the pungent salsa gave this soup a robustness I have not tasted outside the Mediterranean countries that buy most of our cod, then cook it properly.

Next: gingerbread with a cider sabayon and caramelised apple. The sabayon was delicious, its cider spritely and teasing. The cake was very good. It would have been perfect made with more sweetly pickled ginger and less harsh-tasting powdered spice.

As one might gather from such a binge, this is all just the sort of cooking I love: hearty with socking great flavour. I was too painfully full to taste a plate of food ordered for the photographer. I had thought she had asked for tuna, so I left her to her char-grill, only dimly wondering when I looked up from my own food what Mr White was doing serving prunes with tuna. When I asked him about this, he roared with laughter and said it was pork, from a local organic grower called Mrs Potter. I took some of the pork steaks to cook at home. They were superb.

Mrs White is gradually selling off existing wine stocks before compiling a new list. The 1992 Blondelet Pouilly Fume she has already laid in is on the list for pounds 16 a bottle and is, like the Whites' food, well made and classic.

Gannets Bistrot 94, 35 Castlegate, Newark, Nottinghamshire NG24 1AZ (0636 610018). Open lunch and dinner Tues-Sat. Light meals from pounds 10, full meals and wine approx pounds 20- pounds 25. Children welcome. Piped music. No smoking. Visa, Access.

(Photograph omitted)