Second helpings of the first-rate

From an Italian café with dishes to assuage the biggest appetite, to a pub with an extraordinary wine list, Caroline Stacey applauds The Independent's favourite restaurants of the past year
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Of 50 restaurants - mostly new, almost half outside London - we reviewed this year, a handful stand out. A few of these weren't new. Aux Fin Gourmets in Paris, Sol in Shrewsbury, The Old Woolhouse in Northleach, Gloucestershire, Nantyffin Cider Mill in Crickhowell, Chor Bizarre in London were some of the stalwarts far and wide we enjoyed for the first time. One new restaurant, The Good Cook, didn't even make it to the end of the year. We hope the following go from strength to strength.

Of 50 restaurants - mostly new, almost half outside London - we reviewed this year, a handful stand out. A few of these weren't new. Aux Fin Gourmets in Paris, Sol in Shrewsbury, The Old Woolhouse in Northleach, Gloucestershire, Nantyffin Cider Mill in Crickhowell, Chor Bizarre in London were some of the stalwarts far and wide we enjoyed for the first time. One new restaurant, The Good Cook, didn't even make it to the end of the year. We hope the following go from strength to strength.

 

Carluccio's Caffe, 8 Market Place, London W1 (020-7636 2228), and now also at Fenwick's, Bond Street, London W1 (020-7629 0699). As soon as it opened there was a queue past the natty packets of Carluccio's Italian food, the deli counter and the parked Piaggio for a table at this West End Italian diner. And no wonder. It's a friendly, shiny, clattery, unstarchy café serving sensationally good, filling Italian food for ungreedy prices that reflect their carbohydrate content. The wild mushroom soup is as good as you'd expect from the fungi expert (though it has bacon in it), there's fried mozzarella sandwich, arancini di riso - deep-fried Sicilian rice balls with fillings of mozzarella and ragu - antipasti plates for vegetarians or meat-eaters and simple hot plates such as swordfish with green beans. Probably not more than £20 with wine. You can't book, you should go.

The White Hart Inn, High Street, Nayland, Suffolk, near Colchester (01206 263382). Fifteenth-century inn in a lovely village on the Suffolk/Essex border, reopened last year under Michel Roux's benign but distant and down-played influence. An all-French team makes it clear that this is somewhere rather special, and the pretty dining room and bedrooms are further attractions. Twice-baked goat's cheese soufflé; mussels with Roquefort sauce; confit of rabbit leg, tournedos of beef, grilled wood-pigeon; chocolate fondant, or clafoutis given a twist with mirabelles instead of cherries are typical of comfortingly French cooking with class. £40 or so, with wine.

The New End, 102 Heath Street, London NW3 (020-7431 4423). One of the most assured and welcome additions to a London neighbourhood. Tom Ilic's cooking combines the best of rough and smooth - that is, rustic and seriously accomplished - in dishes such as pig's head fondant and pickled cabbage, and foie gras and pigeon terrine. Braised pig's cheek with garlic and parsley mash, and breast of duck with caramelised endive and red onion marmalade were revelations. Rhubarb with panna cotta flavoured with lemon and ginger was also a winner. If flavours sometimes err on the side of refinement, there are worse sins in a restaurant, and at its earthiest it's excellent. Around £30 without drinks.

The Crown and Castle, Orford, near Woodbridge, Suffolk (01394 450205). Opened this spring by David and Ruth Watson, whose 20 years' contribution to good food has included running Hintlesham Hall and the Fox and Goose in Suffolk, and her award-winning writing career. Their casual, tasteful, food-led seaside hotel has a stripped down, New England feel that fits the briny landscape, and robust cooking that celebrates local supplies. Seafood treats include potted shrimps; dressed crab with home-made mayonnaise; crab cake spiced with chillies, plus avocado and coriander; and oysters from Orford, served with sausage patties. Lamb's kidneys with black pudding, bubble and squeak and mustard sauce starred on the meat side, and treacle tart was a perfect ending. £30 a head, including coffee and wine. Together, such great food, welcoming hosts and Suffolk's huge skies are certainly an irresistible draw.

Incognico, 117 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2 (020-7836 8866). Overlook the terrible punning name, for the Nico is Ladenis, and his aim on the quieter side of the West End is to bring his brilliant cooking to a wider public. Starters are around £8, mains around £12 and a set-price menu at lunchtime is £12.50. Classic brasserie dishes range from irreproachable salads, through terrine of foie gras, to a knockout grilled John Dory, and osso bucco on saffron risotto. Finish with a crÿme brulée with mascarpone and raspberries, for around £25 a head before wine and service. David Collins - this year's ubiquitous restaurant designer - has made it look comfortable and expensive but unintimidating. Don't let be-suited businessmen have it all to themselves - this has the makings of another Ivy.

The Admiralty, Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2 (020-7845 4646). The gloriously restored Somerset House boasts this restaurant conceived with Oliver Peyton's characteristic flair and serving cuisine de terroir under galleon-shaped chandeliers in rooms painted in rich National Trust tones. An early chef change when it opened in the summer didn't seem to have spoiled the cooking when we went, though others have disagreed. Evolved, earthy cooking expertly balances meat or fish with seasonal vegetables: pigeon infused with thyme and petits pois had the bosky fragrance and flavours of rural France. Vegetables were spooned from copper pans, chocolate mousse was similarly silver-served in billowing spoonfuls. Disadvantages: dim lighting, loud noise and highish prices: easily £50 including wine. Nevertheless, a gracious and delicious congress of past and present.

Gueller, 3 York Place, Leeds (0113-245 9922). Yorkshire's Chef of the Year, Simon Gueller, who made his name in Harrogate and earned a Michelin star at Rascasse in Leeds set up on his own in a Georgian townhouse. It's a chef's restaurant tailored to suit his cooking and customers, a handsome place where the rituals of expensive and reverential eating - mini dishes between courses, petits fours with coffee - are observed, but the service isn't overbearing. Heavenly brioche, perfect shellfish soup; foie gras, guinea fowl and pear pavé - a wondrous combination - all before dinner's halfway through. Stuffed pig's trotter, the tenderest venison with red cabbage and fondant potato might be main courses. True, there are not a lot of vegetables, and presentation errs towards the architectural, especially with desserts, but the technique and flavours triumph. Lunch is £14-£18, dinner £30-£48 without drinks, £50 plus with.

Wapping Food, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, London E1 (020-7680 2080). In a partially-gutted power station turned into an art and performance space, tables extend from a small and visible kitchen into the turbine house to form this terrific place to eat in an area that's long been lacking. The wine list is entirely Australian, and the shortish menu displays an Antipodean ease with global ingredients and techniques. Calf's liver, black-pudding and bacon salad; Jerusalem artichoke and rosemary soup; John Dory with polenta and pepperonata are examples of the successful and everchanging line up of dishes. Sweet potato chips, stir-fried bok choy are typical of varied side orders, and honey-roasted plums or dinky chocolate mousse represent simply rewarding puddings. Take in an art installation while you're there - and for fun, wonder and good food it's unbeatable. Around £40 for the works.

The Food Rooms, The Chapel, 53-55 Battle High Street, Battle, East Sussex (01424 775537). At the back of a pioneering food shop where as much produce as possible is grown or produced locally is this airy, modern café that uses the ingredients to hand to terrific effect. There might be grilled fillet of Charolais beef with chicory, walnuts and red wine jus, or roast pork tenderloin wrapped in Parma ham with mustard and cream sauce for either side of £10. Or there are assemblies of the store's stock - great salads with chorizo and a poached egg, terrines, smoked salmon, cheeses and charcuterie, organic bread and olives. Ice-creams head the bill in the dessert department. It's not licensed. Children's high tea is around £5, adults will spend around £15. Inspirational.

Crooked Billet, 2 Westbrook End, Newton Longville, near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (01908 373936). An ordinary-seeming pub with an extraordinary wine list. John Gilchrist, award-winning former sommelier of Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, and chef Emma Sexton combine his knowledge and massive range of wines by the glass, and her gutsy and imaginative food without any pretentions and with prices that make a wine and food matching package unusually accessible. Wines from £3 to £30 a glass, plus dishes such as bouillabaisse and daube of beef or monkfish Wellington amounting to around £20 for three courses, make a satisfying evening's eating and drinking, albeit in surroundings of not especially outstanding beauty.

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