Restaurants: A brasserie with an authentic French accent in Preston
Preston is a down-at-heel Lancashire mill town, depressed and depressing. Yet where there's muck, there's brasseries. Heathcotes Brasserie, a brand new place in one of Preston's few Georgian squares to have survived Sixties town-planners, would not be out of place in smartest Kensington. Its address tells the story: Heathcotes is in Winckley Square, home to any number of law offices. Nearby, vast law courts are under construction. It took a Lancashire lad with worldly tastes to see scope for a classy canteen to feed the briefs.

He is Paul Heathcote, the Bolton-born chef who last year received his second Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant in Longridge, on the outskirts of Preston. With this new place, he must also be aiming south for custom, to the wealthy suburbs of Manchester. Here the only serious competition comes from Manchester's Chinatown, specifically Yang Sing.

Unusually for British "brasseries", Heathcotes is an honest adaptation of the French prototype: downstairs there is a bar where one can drink and/or eat light food, notably seafood and roast chicken cooked on a rotisserie. Upstairs is more of a restaurant operation, with tablecloths and a separate bar. Both levels are smartly fashioned into big spaces with highly varnished blond wood flooring, white-white walls and splashy modern murals.

Other touches would baffle a Frenchman, such as staff all decked out in black sommelier's aprons, none of whom are wine waiters. Some problems are sure to be sorted, such as ventilation, which on the place's third day of business left guests rather hot and somewhat stuck to their chic plastic Philippe Starck chairs. Yet, if one studies the place-settings, it is evident that there is an experienced restaurateur at work: the cutlery, glasses and crockery are all elegant and substantial.

This suits the food, a clever blend of northern fodder, French classics and Mediterranean gear. Notes on a pale blue menu credit the hybrid to Mr Heathcote and his former sous-chef, Max Gnoyke, who has graduated to head chef at the brasserie. Reading the menu, it is clear that both chefs have a gutsy sense of food, and that neither can spell. Never mind. It's not a quiz, but a restaurant, and these chaps can cook.

I should know. I went alone and as anonymously as one can when ordering three starters, two main courses and two puddings. This long graze started with a plate of savouries, involving little snackettes set around a bowl of olives. Best, to my mind, was cooked fennel, but all were good, including rillettes, silky cured ham, and a fishy number topped by a sliver of rollmop. Next came the soups, one a rich French onion with a crouton topped with gruyere. The second, yellow pea soup, was a play on pease pudding, and it was terrific: strong, robust and tasting as if it was made with ham stock. At first, lacing it with truffle oil seemed a silly fancification, but this good northern soup stood up to dumb luxury. I hate to say, it may even have benefitted.

There is plenty on the menu that one might find in London, Paris or New York: Caesar salad, char-grilled chicken, risottos. I daresay they would satisfy, but I chose a hot-pot, followed by fish and chips. The hot-pot was fantastic, with satisfyingly high, meaty-tasting lamb, in a well-judged reduction whose richness was cut by the medicinal sharpness of rosemary and what tasted like oregano. To the side, there were very decent spuds glazed by the jus, and braised red cabbage that seemed to have wandered in from another dish, but was jolly good. Fish and chips were not such a treat. The halibut was delicious, but its "beer batter" and puddle of slightly low-down and savoury tomato sauce were not for me; OK chips came in a dish on the side.

To follow, a gooey chocolate tart, served with a splodge of even gooier and more chocolatey sauce, came with quite enough artistry in a dusting of cocoa and confectioner's sugar, and did not really need its strawberry garnish or leaf of mint. That said, it tasted great. The kitchen also sends out a perfect caramel ice-cream, not too rich, not too gooey, just right.

The wine list is short, but a pleasure. Few London places have the sense, or sensuality, to put a good riesling on by the glass or a wham-bam dolcetto, a tannic Piedmontese red that could cut through the richest of meats. For them that wants, pint jars of beer are served with great ceremony in the dining room

BELFAST

When The Roscoff, 7 Lesley House, Shaftesbury Square, BT2 7DB (01232- 331532) opened five years ago, with its ultra-polite Canadian manager, modern design and jazz on CDs, the place sat strangely in a ragged Belfast parade. Yet it was brave of Paul and Jeanne Rankin to open there, and they lost at least one window to the Troubles. Happily, the Rankins' cooking and their commitment to local produce (such as Sikka venison) won over locals fairly snappish, and produced Northern Ireland's first Michelin- starred restaurant. The place stocks great wines, but do stop for a pint of Guinness at the dizzyingly ornate Crown Bar nearby in Great Victoria Street before dinner. Three course set-price lunches (chosen from two options per course) cost pounds 15.50 and dinners (from seven options per course) pounds 23.50. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Major credit cards.

BRISTOL

Do not drive to Markwicks, 43 Corn Street, BS1 1HT (0117-926 2658). It has a wonderful wine list, particularly good for Rhones, and the local traffic wardens are doggedly efficient collectors of parking fines. But go. The dining room - set in the cellars of the old town's Commercial Rooms - is lovely, all burnished wood, marble floors and ornate plasterwork. The cooking lives up to the setting. Braised squid in red wine sauce is lifted by a punchy gremolata. Breads, olives, and kitchen-made ice-creams are all excellent. Set-price two-course lunch pounds 13.50, three courses pounds 16; three-course dinner pounds 21.50. Major cards, except Diner's. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat.

EDINBURGH

The auld alliance between France and Scotland has left the most agreeable legacy: The Vintners Rooms, The Vaults, 87 Giles Street EH6 6BZ (0131- 554 6767), set in an old claret warehouse on Leith Waters. Meals are served in both bar and restaurant, both handsome, candlelit rooms. The menu caters for traditional appetites with seasoning and skill, so one might find roast birds served with crisp rashers of smoked bacon, rich fish stews, kitchen-made terrines, farmhouse cheeses served with salted water and (at this time of year) bowls of cherries. Naturally, the wine list is heroic. Two-course set lunch pounds 9, three courses pounds 12; pounds 20-pounds 30 a la carte. Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Major cards, except Diner's.

LONDON

Ever since Alastair Little made his name by writing wildly experimental menus for lunch and dinner every day, young chefs have been imitating him. Alas, most are no Alastair Littles, and the upshot has been serious damage to the quaint notion of consistency. Safe havens from wanton originality are the two more accessible restaurants run by the famous grump of haute cuisine, Nico Ladenis: Simply Nico (48a Rochester Row, SW1 0171-630 8061) and Nico Central (35 Great Portland Street, W1 0171-436 8846). The cooking is skilled, producing confit of duck, braised oxtail, perfect liver and bacon, cool rare beef with potato salad, red onions and basil. Of wines, Guigal's delicious 1991 Rhone is pounds 17.50 a bottle; Baron Rothschild Reserve Medoc '92 pounds 3.50 a glass. Both places work to civilised set-price (multi- choice) menus, which, as they should, include coffee and service.

Simply Nico: two-course lunch pounds 21, three courses pounds 24, dinner pounds 26. Nico Central: two-course lunch pounds 19, three courses pounds 23.50, dinner pounds 26. Both restaurants open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Major credit cards.

Heathcotes Brasserie 23 Winckley Square, Preston, Lancashire PR1 3JJ (01772-252732). Bar open daily 11am-11pm (meals pounds 10-pounds 15); brasserie lunch and dinner daily (approx pounds 25). From Mon-Sat a two-course business lunch costs pounds 8.50, three courses pounds 10.50. Children welcome; special portions on request. Vegetarian dishes.Taped music. Major credit cards

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