Blood and wine

Michael Caines has taken the affordable-quality concept to the West Country
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Michael Caines, The Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter EX1 1HD Tel: 01392 310031

Michael Caines, The Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter EX1 1HD Tel: 01392 310031

Being an absentee chef is a fantasy for most cooks. Along with the yearning for a naughty full five hours sleep, plus the odd day off to go and shoot animals you won't later pan-fry with shallots. Look into the puffy, wistful, broken-veined eyes of any chef and you'll glimpse it, the other great dream. The dream to diversify, expand, propagate; the culinary equivalent of spreading your seed - the further away from base camp, the more impressive.

Michael Caines' eponymous new restaurant in Exeter is the chef's first baby. Caines himself is the gastronomic equivalent of Michael Parkinson - a man impossible to dislike. Justly famous for his cooking at Gidleigh Park, Caines is also noted for possessing a bionic arm. Or at least, prosthetic, the result of a road accident and subsequent amputation in the early Nineties. Caines is respected, not simply because he didn't see it as the end of his career, but because, in a matter-of-fact way, his love for cooking meant that he would always carry on, real arm or mechanical.

Word has it that Caines wanted to open a restaurant in his home town because he was so sick of the lack of eating options. Dining out isn't a priority in the quaint city centre of Exeter. They do other stuff here, like shop for rustic tat. It's a blandly pretty place reminiscent of Morse's television Oxford. Like many British provincial towns, it has that unmistakable undercurrent of boredom-inspired violence. You can actually see the dividing line between the nice part of Exeter and the darker, bleaker side where "stuff happens", right at the historic South Gate.

Michael Caines is in the nice bit of town. Part of a small hotel, The Royal Clarence, smack opposite the glorious gothic cathedral, which draws tourists from all over the globe. Indeed, it is the tourist-friendly tone that separates Exeter from its less cosmopolitan Devon surroundings, deep in the heart of Britain's redneck country.

Around the restaurant are other chocolate box treats: a tea shop - the requisite hideous boutique selling such items as black velvet cases with tissues emerging from a pair of gigantic red, satin lips; and a disturbingly large population of huge, ginger cats.

With an eyeful of the Cathedral, the restaurant's decor wisely doesn't try to compete - soft spotlights, white tablecloths, semi-abstract watercolours on the walls. But each table boasts a hive-inducing highball glass filled with those glass nuggets that want so desperately to be in good taste.

Michael Caines has handed over his baby to chef Jean-Marc Zanetti with the aim of providing quality food at prices that won't make you weep. The mid-range restaurant has been very much the capital's priority recently, with a zillion and one eateries flogging endless and affordable seared tuna and banana parfait. And this place wipes the blond wood floor with pretty much most of them.

The food is enticing without being intimidating, in a won't-change- your-life-but-it's-good kind of way. A starter of poached egg tartlet with sweet onion confit, smokey bacon and musky wild mushrooms is given more depth with chicken jus and works well. Crab ravioli with lemongrass and ginger is less successful, despite the freshness of the shellfish - the lemongrass bullies everything else off the plate.

The casually black-clad waiting staff are relaxed and charming, bar the customary sullen 17-year-old, who would no doubt prefer to be on the other side of town of a Friday night. But when asked in which way the "wild" sirloin steak was actually wild, the otherwise well informed head waiter replies: "Er... it probably roams free and comes from Dartmoor."

Feral or not, the steak is a flavoursome hunk of cow, an inch and a half thick, served with excellent gooey Béarnaise sauce, and fat chips. Roast Gressingham duckling with honey and spices has the scent of star anise and is nicely cooked. A dessert plate of cheeses, also apparently of unknown but probably local farmhouse origin, is delicious.

The clientele here comprises the local gentry, international cathedral watchers and visiting posh parents with their university-attending offspring. Together forming a riot of pastels, all are left to linger. Michael Caines has understood perfectly the mid-range restaurant: good food, great service, and pretty respectable value. A three-course meal for two with a fine £20 bottle of Beringer Californian Chardonnay, dessert wines, service and coffee comes to £97.

We have coffee upstairs in the deserted Cathedral lounge, decorated with chintzy sofas, portraits of sundry debauched Royals and the occasional spider, as the sounds from beyond the South Gate waft up to the open window. "Wankah!" "Pissarf!" Burrrrp!" A quintessentially English town, Exeter.

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