The Zetter, London EC1

With its airy, bright atmosphere and rustic Mediterranean food, London's latest Italian restaurant is deliciously redolent of another country... Australia
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An accident of birth made me the obsessive eater that I am. I was born in a city that puts food up there with art, music and football. By 10, I knew all about Greek, Cantonese, Jewish and Hungarian food, then followed it with years of study in fine French, Chinese and Thai restaurants. By the time I learnt to cook as well as eat, I was buying German leberkase, Spanish sobrasada sausage and Vietnamese glutinous rice. This does not make me unusual. It just makes me Melburnian.

An accident of birth made me the obsessive eater that I am. I was born in a city that puts food up there with art, music and football. By 10, I knew all about Greek, Cantonese, Jewish and Hungarian food, then followed it with years of study in fine French, Chinese and Thai restaurants. By the time I learnt to cook as well as eat, I was buying German leberkase, Spanish sobrasada sausage and Vietnamese glutinous rice. This does not make me unusual. It just makes me Melburnian.

Multicultural Melbourne is the belly button of the gastronomic world, but the thing it does best is Italian. A large post-war influx of Italians produced a deeply Italian café culture, spawning a new generation of Melbourne/ Italian restaurants with high style and a casual attitude to everything but food, wine and coffee.

Incredibly, I have learnt more about Italian food in Melbourne than in Italy: the pasta in rich ragu, aged Parmigiano Reggiano massaged with extra virgin olive oil, perfumed gelato and perfect espresso, all brought by a never-ending series of Benitos, Robertos, Marios, Arturos, Gennaros, Maurizios, Arnaldos or Ginos.

So I walk into the dining-room and bar of the Zetter, a "restaurant and rooms" that was recently chosen by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the 50 coolest new hotels in the world, and I feel perfectly at home.

There is something about the easy synergy between the bar and the restaurant, the sunny, light airy feel of the place, the dark-brown bistro chairs, the wooden floors and the hulking great espresso machine on the marble bar that remind me of the great Melbourne/ Italians. There is in fact a Melburnian in residence, in co-owner Michael Benyan, who, with partner Mark Sainsbury, was involved in the highly successful Moro restaurant nearby. Benyan is an admirer of one of my favourite Melbourne restaurants, the Melbourne Wine Room, which goes a long way to explain my sense of déjà vu. Throw in a little Café di Stasio, Caffé e Cucina, Termini, Becco, Florentino, Luxe and Lardo, and I'm feeling almost teary.

The Zetter chef Megan Jones, last seen at Moro, has gone readily, steadily Italian in a rustic and seasonal Mediterranean sense rather than in the urban risotto/ carpaccio/tiramisu style copied by most London Italians. So there is fish soup with clams, prawns, mussels and maltagliati pasta, pappardelle with braised rabbit, grilled seabass with cauliflower, currants, pinenuts and anchovy sauce, and a chestnut honey semi-freddo.

Big blocks of decent focaccia bread come first, with a fine extra virgin olive oil for dipping.

A starter of puntarelle (a feathery, weedy type of Italian chicory), buffalo mozzarella and anchovy salad (£5) is so resolutely Roman it makes me want to follow Lazio. The combination of snappy leaves, snow-white curdy cheese and bright zingy anchovies is simple and smart, delivering lift-me-up flavour without weigh-me-down bulk. A piled-high salad of tender octopus, celery and green olive (£5.50) is good but not as singular, the flavours softer and smudgier.

A brute of a roasted veal chop (£17) is next, all tucked up in a wrap of prosciutto, topped with a great whack of crisp, fried sage leaves and served on a garden bed of velvety wilted spinach. The prosciutto makes for a salty bite, but the flavour of the plump chop stands up for itself.

Grilled seabass (£15.50) is a thrilling dish, with huge flavours jostling for position. The two fillets show off scorchy skin, the plate is bouncing with cauliflower, parsley, pinenuts and currants, and there is a puddle of smooth bagna-cauda style anchovy sauce just in case you needed flavour overload. By rights, this should be eaten by the sea, bare feet in the sand.

Adding to the fun is a good, mainly Italian wine list, unusually divided into geographic regions. From Piedmonte in the north, I choose a supple, surprisingly intense Dolcetto d'Alba 2000 from Bruno Giacosa (£30).

Cheese is blah. There is so much good Italian cheese in London that it is hard to understand why anyone would put out a gorgonzola that feels like Danish blue (£4) when, say, a rich creamy dolce latte could be drizzled with wild honey.

A little bowl of ice-cream is quite the opposite of blah (£4.50). The hit is a caramel coloured scoop of balsamic ice-cream that captures the intensity of that deeply sweet vinegar. Oh, and no squiggles of out- of-season berry coulis, thank you, just a crisp biscuit of the cantuccini type.

Service is friendly, personable, semi-Italian and generally on the ball, while the crowd runs from post-office workers to lively locals. In a typically casual gesture, the bar serves food during the day for drop-ins and hotel guests, and weekends are devoted to brunch.

It's this sort of flexible, generous attitude that summons images of my home town. But the Zetter is right for its own time and place, peeling away the conventions and complexity of London dining and giving us big flavours, high energy and an easy attitude, while being serious about its food and wine. I should have put them to the coffee test, but forgot - which would make any fellow Melburnian say I've been in London far too long.

15 The Zetter 86 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, tel: 020 7324 4455. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and brunch Sat-Sun 12-3pm. Dinner about £90 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: More designer hotel restaurants

The Samling Ambleside Road, Windermere, Cumbria, tel: 01539 431 922 Set in 76 acres deep in Wordsworth country, and overlooking the splendid Lake Windermere, the Samling combines designer-hotel style with country-house luxe, and a kitchen that sets its sights high. Feast on an assiette of pig's head with root vegetables, or roasted sea bass with a bouillon of red peppers, and you'll never want to leave.

Arthouse Grill 129 Bath Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 572 6002 One of Glasgow's hippest hotels, the Arthouse is a clever blend of classical architecture and modern design. The swish basement restaurant comprises cocktail bar, oyster bar, teppanyaki bar and grill, and a lively crowd tucking into smoked salmon, lobster and asparagus terrine or haddock mornay with poached egg and spring-onion mash.

Malmaison Bar & Brasserie Charterhouse Square, London EC1, tel: 020 7012 3700 Having forged a formidable reputation with a series of classy well-run designer hotels in Scotland and the North, Malmaison opened its London outpost last year. The brasserie keeps to the easy style of its siblings, with crowd-pleasers such as eggs benedict, Châteaubriand Bearnaise and a traditional fine apple tart.

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

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