Meals too good for the Michelin man: Emily Green goes to the West Country, where the Chef of the Year is just one of the crowd providing the finest restaurant meals in Britain

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TO MY mind the West Country includes the best wine merchants, the best cooks and the best hosts in Britain. Not only are they good to their customers, they also are good to one another. They trade staff and send over pheasants, mushrooms or whatever when one or another runs out. They help their sous-chefs to set up new places. And, if they really rate a restaurant, they send one another customers and come as paying guests themselves, often drinking late and talking shop.

George Perry-Smith started it all in the Sixties, with the Hole-in-the-Wall in Bath. His most famous acolyte is undoubtedly Joyce Molyneux, who has been cooking so well for many years at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Devon. Today it is difficult to pick out a single, most-influential restaurateur. Instead, there is one of the more oddball double-acts in catering: the partnership between Shaun Hill and Paul Henderson at Gidleigh Park hotel near Chagford, Devon.

Mr Henderson, who bought the mock-Tudor lodge and its entirely glorious grounds 15 years ago, is an American turned country squire who sports Day-Glo bow ties and tweed jackets. He is an oenophile and a born pamperer. His wine list is as good an introduction to fine drink as the Christie's wine course. Better, actually. You can have Louis Latour's Puligny Montrachet by the glass, but there are brave choices as well, such as the delicious Torres Milmanda Chardonnay.

Gidleigh Park might seem a conventional country house hotel - panelled and chintzy - but it is eccentric around the edges. The food, too, is unconventional. The chef, Shaun Hill, is a renegade Irishman. He could have sent out plates of this and that in sticky red wine sauce and got a Michelin star year in, year out. But he is too smart and too curious. He will filch an exotic ingredient or technique and experiment. If it suits his food, he will use it. The Michelin men must object because, two years ago, Gidleigh lost its star. By contrast, the Ronay inspectors love it and last week Mr Hill was named Chef of the Year in the Egon Ronay Cellnet Guide 1993.

I am with Ronay. If Mr Hill has a signature dish, it is sauteed scallops in lentil and coriander sauce. Like many of his dishes it has spawned some rough imitations, but the original is heavenly. The sauteeing points up the sweetness of the scallops, but leaves them tender and moist. The sauce is fine and light and delicately spiced, like a Thai beurre blanc. And the earthy lentils are used with the lightest possible touch - a small scattering instead of splodge.

A second starter sampled was, again, unorthodox and delicious. Open ravioli sounds like pasta that has dried out before crimping. Here, it is delicate sheets of pleasantly eggy pasta laid over and under sauteed foie gras. The pasta is hand- stretched, delicate and melting instead of machine-rolled and rubbery. The sauce is light and slightly lemony. Then the ingenious seasoning agents come into play: a light shaving of parmesan (for milkiness and saltiness), a fine dice of chives (for colour) and some julienned lemon zest which has been quickly browned to temper, but not eliminate, its acidic kick.

These were hard acts to follow. The main course, pheasant on noodles with truffle oil, was fine, and tarte tatin made with Victoria plums was a good idea.

With a typical absence of professional jealousy, Mr Hill wasted no opportunity to puff the cooking of a newcomer in north Devon. He is a Frenchman, Thierry Lepretre-Granet. Locals call him Terry. I call him good news. There are few cooks who could not benefit from taking a leaf out of his book. He cooks with a simple intelligence that is altogether rare. He sauteed lamb sweetbreads as a starter, serving them with melting shallots with pan juices and a refreshing dice of fresh tomato and a fragrant sprig of rosemary. Roast pheasant to follow was accompanied by blanched Savoy cabbage, cooked apple and a delicate cider sauce. As dessert, baked figs came with armagnac ice-cream.

Like Gidleigh, Whitechapel Manor, where Terry plies his trade, is a country house hotel with a difference. Co-owner John Shapland grew up seven miles away. His family has farmed in the area since the 16th century. He fell in love with the Elizabethan manor and sold his milk quota to buy it. All this country-cred serves to give the running of this beautiful place a quiet confidence and sense of real Devon hospitality.

A similar brand of hospitality is to be found in a favourite pit stop of the West Country food mafia, a village delicatessen in Winkleigh, Devon. Popham's is a deli in drag, in this case offering itself as a restaurant (albeit a tiny one); it is all the more charming for that. Two tables, accommodating 10, sit opposite a glass counter stocked with pates, clotted cream, gorgonzola and the like. The waiting is done by the co-proprietor, Dennis Hawkes, with just the right degree of pride and fuss.

Behind the counter Melvyn Popham might be poaching sea-trout or baking duck breasts. A menu chalked up over the counter shows enthusiasm for good, hearty food. Smoked trout pate comes with warm wholemeal toast. Duck breast is marinated in madeira, and baked. The meat will be pink and flavoursome and well partnered with sage, apple and onion puree. Lemon tarts have just the right bounce and acidity. Bring your own wine, really tuck in, and it should be utterly charming and cost about pounds 15.

The Reverend Woodforde, a small new restaurant in Moretonhampstead, is a newcomer to the vicinity. It takes its name from a notoriously greedy 18th-century East Anglian vicar and diarist, who must have caught the fancy of owner Neil Galbraith during his days as an English teacher.

Hoping to cook with Shaun Hill, Mr Galbraith and his wife, Veronica, sold up in London and moved to Moretonhampstead, a small town near Chagford. This proved somewhat rash. Mr Galbraith did not land the job he hoped for, so he opened his own shop. The resulting restaurant is bright and pretty, decorated with fabrics designed by Mrs Galbraith, who tends the tables with grace and cheer. Like all restaurateurs setting out, they have a tough job in hand. They can count on a reasonable flow of tourists, but have to win over locals who are suspicious of newcomers. And to lure and keep trade from more affluent towns and villages, the cooking will need to improve. Mr Galbraith leapt into chef's whites on the strength of a Prue Leith course and a year's experience at a Leith outlet in London.

I would wager that the meat in thewarm pigeon salad I ate last week had been sliced before cooking. At any rate, it toughened terribly in the pan. In what was described on the menu as a 'filo pie of artichoke and chanterelles with parmesan sauce' I could not find the filo. Parmesan was backseat driving if it was there at all. The mushrooms were like supermarket buttons and the artichoke hearts seemed briney and tinned. The sauce tasted like a gluey bechamel. The upshot was something a wholefood restaurant might have served in the Seventies.

Autumn pudding was a nice idea, a warmed-up play on summer pudding with quinces and apples. Bread is kitchen-baked and good. Wines are well chosen and democratically priced.

Moving east to Bath brings you to the ancestral seat of the George Perry-Smith empire. Stephen Ross cooked for Perry-Smith at the Hole- in-the-Wall, then ran Popjoy's in Bath, then Homewood Park hotel in Hinton Charterhouse, Avon. He returned to cooking in Bath last February, when he opened The Olive Tree. Of this restaurant, there is good news and bad.

The two adjoining rooms are pink, with fresh white napery, vases of blue irises, black tuxedo- backed chairs and a great number of polite, pastel-coloured still-lifes of food. It feels like a dainty tea-room, except that the acoustics are sharp. Penny Ross runs the place with warmth and, as if to keep the noise in check, a certain amount of decorum.

The wine list is intelligent - cheap, with good bottles from south-western France, gutsy chiantis and ace New World choices. The average price is pounds 10- pounds 14; only a handful of bottles cost more, such as a premier cru red burgundy at pounds 27.

Mr Ross is keen on cooking fish and even has 'fish nights' every Thursday. Judging from my smoked haddock on braised lentils, these nights should be good. A hot saffron and crab tart, too, was excellent: the meat came in good, moist, tasty chunks and the texture was sumptuous.

These good dishes make the poor ones all the more disappointing. The menu attests to stabs at modernism outside Mr Ross's repertoire. In one dish, salmon is partnered with sun-dried tomatoes. I have encountered this unsympathetic combination before, so avoided it. His attempt at Shaun Hill's open ravioli did not come off. The pasta was thick and rubbery; the cream and lemon sauce curdled around it. A chicken liver filling was overcooked. It lacked the ingenious use of lemon zest. As dessert, a tarte tatin with caramel ice-cream was fair, coffee good.

Way out west, on the north Cornish coast, every night is fish night. Rick and Jill Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, north Cornwall, is famous and successful for a reason. Few provincial restaurants have this electric combination of glamour and cheer. It draws custom. They fed 80 people last Saturday night, and a new special of mussels with black beans and oriental seasoning was typical of Rick Stein's ingenuity.

But what far too few know is that Mr Stein has finally sent out an acolyte. His sous-chef of seven years, Paul Sellars, has opened up the Pig 'n' Fish in St Ives.

This is a brave move on Mr Sellars's part. St Ives, though an ancient and dramatically pretty town, is quite depressed. Its Bohemian days may return with a new branch of the Tate, but just now it is a bit rough around the edges. Perhaps the Pig 'n' Fish signals the return of better days.

The dining room, managed by Mr Sellars's wife, Debby Wilkins, is pleasant and spare. Food is treated simply and deftly. Salmon might be used for a spicy sashimi. The thick, rough slicing of the fish would appal a sushi chef, but the fish itself is fresh and good, served with a horseradish, ginger and soy sauce. Cod tasted fresh and moist and was served with a thick basil crust. This was bedded on tender white haricot beans and fresh- tasting tomatoes, dressed with a flowery olive oil.

I would confidently expect any fish dish on the short menu to be good: bouillabaisse with rouille and parmesan; crab pancakes with chilli, lemon grass and coriander; sauteed scallops with spinach and star anise; and so on. The man can cook.

If, in two weeks or so, there is no answer from the Pig 'n' Fish's telephone, it is because Ms Wilkins is rather more pregnant than she appeared as she dashed around the dining-room last week. Eight-and-a-half months, in fact. For this reason, they plan to close for several weeks. With all enthusiasm for the blessed event, I hope they do not become too besotted with the baby and neglect their first-born, the restaurant.

Carved Angel, 2 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon (0803 832465). Fixed price 2-course lunch pounds 22.50, 3-course pounds 27.50; 2-course dinner pounds 37.50, 3-course pounds 42.50; Sun lunch pounds 30. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome, special portions. Smoking with consideration. Open lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, lunch Sun. Cash and cheques only.

Gidleigh Park, near Chagford, Devon (0647 432367). Children welcome, special portions. Vegetarian meals. No smoking in dining room. Fixed price 3-course lunch pounds 33, 4-course pounds 43; 4-course dinner pounds 43, or 7-course set menu pounds 50. All prices include service, VAT, mineral water and coffee. Major credit cards.

Whitechapel Manor, near South Molton, North Devon (0769 573377). Children welcome, special portions. Vegetarian meals. No smoking in dining room. Lunch and dinner daily. Fixed price 3-course meal pounds 26, 4-course pounds 37. Wines from pounds 10. Visa, Access, Amex.

Popham's, Castle Street, Winkleigh, Devon (0837 83767). Open 9am-3pm Mon-Sat. Unlicensed. Vegetarian meals. No children. No smoking. Mastercard, Access, Visa.

Reverend Woodforde, 11a Cross Street, Moretonhampstead, Devon (0647 40691). Three courses, including coffee, bread and VAT, pounds 15. Open dinner Thur-Sat until April, from Mon during spring and summer. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Cash and cheques only.

The Olive Tree, Russell Street, Bath (0225 447928). Approx pounds 25- pounds 30 for 3 courses, wine, service, coffee and VAT. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Open lunch Tue-Sat, dinner Mon-Sat. Thurs dinner 'fish night'. Major credit cards except Diner's.

Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall (0841 532485). Set 3-course dinner pounds 25.50. House wine pounds 8.95. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Open lunch and dinner Mon- Sat. Closes 19 December, reopens 4 February 1993. Visa, Mastercard.

Pig 'n' Fish, Norway Lane, St Ives, Cornwall (0736 794204). Closing soon, to reopen December. Approx pounds 20- pounds 30 for 3 courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Access, Visa.

(Photograph omitted)