To qualify for the endearing label "local", it's not enough these days for a restaurant to be within walking distance of the front door. It has to have other, easily identified but hard to realise qualities. These include: a small, familiar main room, with an ambience that tends towards the intimate; ultra-friendly and few waiting staff; and, above all, garrulous owners on hand to take orders, talk about the perils of nearby parking, and ask after your father-in-law's cat. Most of all, the establishment should be named after said owners. By something approaching this alchemy, Angela's in Exeter is a wonderful local restaurant.
It sits on the steep slope linking the river to the town centre. There is a single, small eating area facing the street with cut flowers on each table, quiet soul music and wooden floors. Local artists, depicting local scenes in pastel colours, are exhibited on the walls. Paddy and Richard, with whom we are here, have identified three sights of the south-west captured in paint: Exeter's quay, the coast at Dawlish, and St Michael's Mount, the family seat of the St Aubyns.
The name of the restaurant comes from the female half of owners Richard and Angela Valder. She is charming, polite, joyful and tonight, a winter Thursday, the sole front-of-house staff member, serving 14 customers. Much of her service is, hilariously, devoted to getting out a procession of cocktails. Available are a Moscow Mule, elderflower with gin (both £4.75), as well as that bizarre, bright-yellow concoction called a Snowball (£4.50). This contains a double measure of Advocaat with lime cordial and lemonade, tastes terrifyingly of Nesquik (which I thought I'd left behind years ago) and might be best saved for the shape-shifters at Timepiece, the five-floor club 10 minutes up the hill.
The menu is short and thankfully free of painful childhood memories. There are eight starters, eight mains (one fish, five meat, two vegetarian), six desserts and a cheese selection. The starters range from a French onion soup (£6) to disappointing Brixham scallops with mixed leaves and balsamic dressing (£9.50). The leaves are over-dressed and far from fresh, and the scallops lack flavour. This is also rather steep for a scallop starter. Fortunately, there are several other good options, including a baked goat's cheese (£6.95), a game terrine of rabbit and pheasant (£7.50) and warm confit duck leg (£7.50).
The meaty mains are expensive, from £18.95 for a loin of pork to a fillet of beef for £26. That's getting on mega-pricey, given we're closer to Land's End than London, and I imagine a majority of locals would be more than perturbed by it. The beef, though, is terrific, and comes with a brandy-and-green-peppercorn sauce – yet even that is not a patch on the duck with a caramelised orange jus, which is much better value at £21.50. There is – alert! nonsensically long description coming – a guinea fowl and ballotine of leg filled with chestnut of cranberry stuffing finished with a madeira jus (£19.50), which tastes of all the things it's meant to. And the loin of venison on puréed parsnip, with a smooth red wine, rosemary and dark chocolate sauce is exquisite, but alas £25.
All these come with that appalling English appendage: bland, lifeless, steamed vegetables, in this case carrots, potatoes, butternut squash, sprouts and broccoli, with nothing but salt, pepper and butter to rely on. This custom really is one of the great failings of our culture, and perhaps the Valders shouldn't be blamed for repeating a common error. But it does risk filling tummy space that would be better filled with some excellent desserts, of which pears poached in dessert wine and cinnamon with vanilla ice-cream (£6.50) and a dark-and-white-chocolate cheesecake with Baileys ice-cream (£7) are the best.
The wine list is slightly more affordable than the food and there is decent port for £4.25 after dessert, if you don't want to get straight to Timepiece. Yet that is but one option confronting us in this glorious, improving city, where the quality of life is high because everything feels local.
Angela's dutifully conforms with this scheme of being; and though the prices are a little discomfiting, everything else about this place suggests that Exeter's people are unusually well served in their desire for an excellent local restaurant.
Scores:1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Angela's 38 New Bridge Street, Exeter, tel: 01392 499 038 Lunch, Weds-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sat. About £100 for two, including wine
14 The Quay, Brixham, Devon, tel: 01803 858 681
A superb range of great-value fish dishes and local wines – part of the formula that ensures this very unstuffy and down-to-earth bistro is very popular
The Masons Arms
Knowstone, Devon, tel: 01398 341 231
Head and shoulders above the country-pub norm, Mark Dodson's thatched Exmoor inn is worth a detour, offering innovative but not OTT food in glorious surroundings
The Willow Tree
3 Tower Lane, Taunton, Somerset, tel: 01823 352 835
This small but beautifully formed restaurant (10 years old this year) is a reliable and friendly spot providing the best food for miles around
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com