The West House, Biddenden, Kent

Pa's in the kitchen earning Michelin stars, while Ma's out front running the show. The West House proves that, in the right hands, the old ways can still be the best
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The family-run restaurant is an endangered species, with sightings as rare as those of ospreys, bitterns and corncrakes. Hounded out of the city by spiralling prices - doing up a restaurant in London can cost anything between £500,000 and £1m, plus lease, rent and running costs - the odd remaining ma and pa couples have relocated to the country.

But here, even their last chance at running a business - the local pub - is failing them as old boozers are either bought up by wealthy chains or colonised by hungry young chefs who just want to knock out decent food for their mates without the long-term responsibilities of family, school fees and mortgages.

So this particular ma and pa did the only thing possible and, in 2002, moved to a 400-year-old building in a picture-book pretty Tudor village in the middle of Kent.

Pa is Graham Garrett, a highly capable chef who first cooked with London-legend Nico Ladenis before running the House in Chelsea for Richard Corrigan. Ma is his partner, Jackie Hewitt, who runs front of house. Somehow they manage to raise two school-age children as well as run the restaurant.

There isn't anyone else, just a young chef from the local college who helps out on weekends. So the person who cooks your meal has also done the shopping, the chopping, and - more than likely - the dishes as well.

It is all very ye olde in the dining-room, with its mind-your-head-oops-too-late entrance, white-washed walls, exposed beams, polished wooden tables and straight-backed wooden school-marm chairs.

But before you start thinking of the West House as a pleasant little tea room, let me add that it was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year, and it wasn't for its scones and jam.

Garrett's fine-dining training shows in a menu that incorporates the best of modern British with a clear liking for French, Italian and Spanish flavours. Smoked-haddock fishcake comes with Spanish piquillo pepper, chicken-liver parfait is teamed with crab-apple jelly, and a fillet of brill is partnered by wild mushrooms and truffle cream.

An amuse-gueule of a tiny sardine drizzled with mossy herb oil mounted on a crisp croute amuses more than the mouth with its sardines-on-toast chic.

And how refreshing, to find a wine list of about 40 bottles where nearly half those listed are around £20 or less. For those interested in higher things, there is a separate Fine Wine selection of half a dozen bottles that goes up to Le Chambertin Grand Cru 99 from Domaine Rossignol Trapet at £90, but as a pleb, I am content with an easy going Janthial Rully 2000 (£31) Burgundy from Domaine Vincent Dureuil.

The set-price menu for three courses also looks to be good value at £24.50, and even better value once the food starts arriving.

A dish of "ham of lamb", cured in-house, is a baldly honest dish. The lamb "prosciutto" is freshly, finely sliced and tastes sweet and subtle, with a splodge of sticky green-tomato chutney on the side bringing it back to Britain.

Also good is a thick, smooth, unmucked-about-with bowl of fashionably greige (grey-beige) white bean velouté, in which the only visible embellishment is an edible diameter of crisp streaky bacon reaching from one side of the bowl to the other.

Considering there are 20-odd mouths to feed, and just one chef in the kitchen and one waitress/bartender /sommelier/plate-clearer in the dining-room, the pacing is remarkably good, with inter-course pauses kept to a minimum.

A giant fillet of crisp-skinned, line-caught cod is treated in gusty style with travelling companions of baby beetroot, wilted beetroot leaves (good touch), grilled chorizo sausage and swizzles of paprika-orange chorizo oil and sweet vinegar. Balance-wise, it simply doesn't put a fin wrong.

More gutsy cooking shows in a beautifully presented dish of two dark, gnarled lumps of beef short rib sitting on the smoothest, sweetest parsnip purée, along with a tiny bunch of small, young carrots so perfect, they look modelled out of marzipan. The only let-down is the meat itself, which is a little dry and firm. It's a big let-down really, because if the beef doesn't work, the beef doesn't work, but it is the only real let-down of the night.

Anything else that might raise a doubt is either too small to worry about (a cutesy-pie stuffed chef doll sitting on the shelf, decorative plates and Norah Jones and her easy listening pals) or so much a part of the fabric of the place that nothing can be done about it (Ma being too run off her feet to do much idle chit-chat or promote a sense of well-being in the dining-room).

Puds are fine - a "chocolate soufflé tart" is a crusty fondant that willingly spills its molten centre into a little puddle of caramelised blood oranges and a scoop of excellent Earl Grey ice-cream - and the cheese tray flies the banner for Britain.

Ultimately, the West House feels more European than British, perhaps because Europe has more of a tradition of mère-et-père or mamma-e-pappa establishments. I only hope this one will inspire more of the same here. Ta, Ma and Pa.

15 The West House 28 High Street, Biddenden, Kent, tel: 01580 291 341. Lunch, Tuesday to Friday and Sunday; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday. Around £85 for two with wine and service

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

Second helpings: Other ma-and-pa restaurants

Harry's Place 17 High Street, Great Gonerby, tel: 01476 561 780 Harry and Caroline Hallam's tiny dining-room sits a grand total of 10 guests at three tables, tucking into chicken and leek terrine, lamb with Madeira and tarragon, and apple and calvados soufflé. Harry cooks, Caroline hosts, and the whole thing feels a bit more like a dinner party than dining out - although it's not every dinner-party cook who can boast a Michelin star.

Ostlers Close 25 Bonnygate, Cupar, Fife, tel: 01334 655 574 Amanda and Jimmy Graham have run this relaxed, candlelit restaurant since 1991. When Jimmy says the produce is locally sourced, he means it. Seafood comes from the Pitterween market, poultry and eggs from a nearby farm, and many herbs and vegetables from his own garden. Such dishes as Jimmy's venison with wild mushrooms, and apricot sponge with raspberry-ripple ice-cream are the stuff of local legend.

Tom Aikens 43 Elystan Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 2003 You might not think of this striking, cutting-edge Chelsea hotspot as a family-run restaurant, but while Tom Aikens runs the kitchen, his wife Laura runs the floor. The result is a memorable dining experience fuelled with Tom's deft creations - braised pig's head with pork belly and stuffed trotter; roast langoustine with jabugo ham; and caramel parfait with almond mousse.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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