What should a "neighbourhood" restaurant be like? Somewhere that relies on repeat custom, rather than tourists and passers-by; friendly staff who remember you; a familiar yet evolving menu to keep things interesting; and prices that signify a treat, but that aren't beyond your reach.
To put one such place to the test, I visit The Artichoke in Buckinghamshire. Within striking distance of London, but sprawling enough to be called countryside, this neighbourhood has a certain "gin and Jag" feel – perfect for a smart restaurant with ambitions for both culinary plaudits and love from its locals. The Artichoke opened in 2002 and quickly gained attention for chef Laurie Gear's accomplished cooking. But a fire in 2008 closed the place for 16 months – plenty of opportunity for the South Bucks set to find a new favourite.
The first clue to how it is faring comes when trying to book a table – I have Sunday lunch in mind but The Artichoke doesn't open on Sunday, which seems like wilful dereliction of duty. It takes some courage to halve the potential weekend take.
So it's Saturday lunch we arrive for, at 2pm, the only available time despite two weeks' notice. Things must be going well. Then again, when you only have about 10 tables, it's easy to be fully booked.
The tiny room is a deft mix of olde worlde and crisp newness – Clare Nelson (who also did the award-friendly Ledbury) revamped it after the fire and was smart enough to keep the timbers in place, but team them with subtle glass panelling, angular upholstered chairs and white-painted exposed brickwork. The effect is of right place, right time.
A three-course set lunch at £22.50 is the big draw, but there are some very promising dishes on the à la carte menu too. Luckily, our party of four is able – and willing – to cover most of the modern European list.
Before I go any further, The Artichoke has one big drawback. The maître d', though perfectly professional, has a touch of the automaton. It's not because we are first-time townies: he seems the same with some regulars who have popped back to note down the wine they'd had earlier in the week. Courteous, but lacking in warmth. Sorry, mister, but that's how it felt to me.
If The Artichoke has its eyes on the Michelin prize, perhaps it should allow his co-host to take centre stage. She works the room, burnishing relationships with the regulars like nobody's business.
On to the food. An amuse-bouche – a shot glass of fresh pineapple juice with a coconut foam that should be too sickly but isn't – inspires the child in the party to ask for (and get) seconds. Then she tucks into the set menu. From a choice of three dishes at each course, she has creamed spinach and Parmesan soup with pumpkin gnocchi, followed by roast fillet of cod, clams, mussels, crisp garlic, basil, pancetta, red peppers, olives and chickpeas. Heady stuff for a 10-year-old, but she eats every scrap before I have time to stick a spoon in. The soup is earthy and the fish dish fresh and of itself, but mingling beautifully.
My starter is sumptuous: lightly curried scallops, pickled carrot and coriander, with artichoke purée and toasted coconut (£13.50). The others opt for young beets, Shepton goat's cheese, lemon thyme and rye bread (£8.50), which has an eye-popping beetroot sorbet as part of the dish, and English rose veal Holstein with a fried quail's egg, sauce gribiche and wood sorrel for £12. It's a bit like a millionaire's fried breakfast.
Each main is perfectly balanced – duck with a soft apple sauce and wintery vegetables; lamb with creamy cauliflower, garlic and aubergine; and a superb piece of bass, accompanied with a lobster raviolo and bisque, which its owner silently demolishes, repelling all incoming forks with a growl. Mains average £18, which reflects both the provenance of the ingredients and the skill assembling them.
It won't surprise you to learn that the puddings – sunken warm chocolate cake, three scoops of home-made ice-cream and a plate of English and French cheeses with hand-made crackers – are all exemplary. Even the petit fours with coffee are fabulous – with a cranachan ice-cream in a white chocolate shell getting the mmm vote.
Artichoke is some distance above a "can't be bothered to cook, let's go out" local, serious without being pompous. I advise visiting before you can't get a table at all. If necessary, move into the neighbourhood.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The Artichoke 9 Market Square, Old Amersham, Bucks, tel: 01494 726 611 Lunch and dinner. £180 for three-course lunch for four with two glasses of wine and service
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.com