One of the most promising ventures around at the moment is the Huntsbridge Group, an offshoot of Poste Hotels, a group of country hotels with a reputation for informal but up-market food and excellent wine. John Hoskins, a partner in Poste Hotels and a Master of Wine, bought out some Poste Hotels and acquired others to form a new gang of four in Cambridgeshire and Essex. Their base is at the Old Bridge, Huntingdon (hence the group name); others include the Three Horseshoes, Madingley; the Pheasant at Keyston and the White Hart, Great Yeldham.
The philosophy behind all of this is clear. The starting point is generally a pub and all that goes with it - which means real ale, a casual, come- as-you-are approach out front and food that won't break the bank. If you want to eat, you simply order at the bar and grab a table. Each place also has a slightly more formal dining area of one kind or another where dapper waiters serve and tables can be booked. Menus are deliberately modern, but each chef has his own mark to make, and the free hand encourages flexibility; it's hard to tell the starters from the main courses. There's also a natural-born emphasis on quality ingredients, whether it be breads, fish or unpasteurised cheeses from Neal's Yard. And there are wine lists that ooze quality and zip at every turn. Italians are the real treasures, but each slate promises unequivocally serious drinking at realistic prices. As a sampler, I set out for the Three Horseshoes, off the A1303 a couple of miles outside Cambridge. This pub is as immaculate as they come and it keeps up appearances in a village where most of the houses are crowned with thatch as neat as anything coiffeured by Vidal Sassoon. What really impresses about this place is its lack of snobbery: leather-clad bikers eat bowls of pasta and drink beer in the garden, while the management types who drive out from Cambridge Business Park in their BMWs swap policy decisions over plates of char-grilled fish.
Chef/patron Richard Stokes lays on a menu with a fierce modern Mediterranean accent. Think of a fashionable ingredient and the chances are that it will be listed somewhere: broad beans, truffle oil, pesto, every kind of mash, they all get a look in. When this flamboyant approach works - and it generally does - the results are vivid, cohesive and shot through with generosity and enthusiasm.
I could find little to fault in a salad of grilled chicken: an exactly blackened breast had been thickly spread with minty pesto and then perched confidently on a mound of just-cooked couscous. The supporting cast of shaved Parmesan, pine nuts, some trendy leaves and a dressing with a citrus edge worked beautifully. Just as impressive, I reckon, was an epic slab of monkfish, roasted and served with sublime baby fennel and a compote of tomatoes, onion and saffron. There's nothing finicky or precious about cooking like this: it convinces because of its freshness and vigour. I'm no great fan of puddings, but I bowed to superior knowledge when one of my companions - a lady of petite proportions - devoured a seductively warm, caramelised lemon tart and then proceeded to order sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce. The talk was all of lightness, abundant fruit and cumulative sweetness: as desserts go, this one had clearly come out of the top drawer.
A week later, with the first dismal signs of autumn in the air, I was checking out the White Hart at Great Yeldham, on the A604 between Haverhill and Halstead. It's one of those buildings you really cannot miss, a sprawling Tudor monolith built in 1505 and now the latest - and potentially most impressive - of Huntsbridge's acquisitions. If the Three Horseshoes is summery, this place is for the dark end of the year, with its massive beams, heavy old oak doors and newly laid flagstone floor. It feels majestic in a domestic sort of way. Heat comes from a monumental open fire, and puffs of smoke from the blaze are the only fumes around; customers who want to light up have to make a beeline for the garden. So says chef/patron Roger Jones, who came to Great Yeldham on a transfer from the Pheasant at Keyston.
Jones is a stocky, keen-eyed Welshman from Abergavenny who started his culinary career - like so many - at the Walnut Tree Inn, Llandewi Skirrid. "On my first day I was skinning rabbits and I didn't know one end from another," he admits. Eleven years on, with a sackful of write-ups and a Michelin M under his belt, he is putting the White Hart on the map.
You can often tell a chef's passion and enthusiasm by his attitude to bread. Jones warms to the subject when it is raised and offers some interesting statistics: he reckons that he saves more than pounds 100 a week by making his own rather than buying in - which is pretty impressive given that there are currently only three pairs of hands in his kitchen. His focaccia is a loaf to die for - easily the best bread I've ever tasted: the dough is proved in the wine cellar and it is served in rich spongy chunks three inches high, loaded with herbs and topped with barely crisp onion threads.
In other areas, it's clear this man is no slouch. Fingers of salmon and courgette in tempura batter are fashioned with spot-on dexterity so there's barely a hint of artery-clogging grease to be seen. They sit on the plate in radial symmetry with a pile of grated mooli (giant radish) and coriander in the centre; the sauce is a neat amalgam of stock, butter and soy sauce flecked with green spring onions.
\When it comes to the European classics he is also completely at home: his confit of duck, for example, shows technique as well as style. What you get is two big leg and thigh pieces, the meat salty but succulent, the skin crisped up just right. Around the rim of the plate are caramelised shallots, parsnips and a potent jus straight out of the textbooks.
It is hard not to be impressed, especially when the bill for two courses, plus a plate of cheese and a half bottle of `93 Macon La Roche Vieneuse, not to mention one spritzer and a glass of Marc de Jura, is just over pounds 28. Come to think of it, you could call in for lunch, have a dish of curried lamb's kidneys with pickled chillies, quaff a pint of Nethergate Bitter and leave with change from a ten pound note.