Martha, my dear

A transatlantic marriage made in heaven
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is a reason why country folk in East Anglia famously prefer eating in chain-owned steakhouses rather than cottage restaurants. They think cottage restaurants are for tourists. Decorated like antique shops, these restaurants have all the atmosphere of a chapel of rest, and bills that could pay for a well-padded coffin. Worst of all, customers are expected to have gastronomic experiences instead of dinner.

Martha's Vineyard is a cottage restaurant with a difference. It has a simple, welcoming quality. By the time pudding arrives, you realise that everyone in the place is having fun. It is affordable. And it does not feel like a tourist-drop, though it is set in Nayland, a relentlessly picturesque village on the Suffolk-Essex border. In fact, this village is so very pretty - with its pebble-dash church and beamed buildings in blushing Suffolk yellows, browns and pinks - that it has an unreal feeling, as if it were a forgotten set from a Powell and Pressburger film.

But what really makes the difference are the owners, a pair of cracking professionals who make the restaurant business seem easy. They are Christopher Warren and Larkin Rogers. He is a 31-year-old East Anglian, with a smiley countenance and perfect manners. It is he who greets with such easy charm; and it is his wine list that ensures you can drink terribly well from pounds 9 to pounds 16 a bottle, and brilliantly from pounds 16 to pounds 20. He is so very good at his job, that it came as no surprise to learn he trained at Gidleigh Park, an immaculately run hotel in Chagford, Devon.

She is Larkin Rogers, the 37-year-old American one glimpses through the kitchen hatch. Do not be misled by the baseball- style cap or her jokey manner as she calls orders: she is not flipping burgers. Her cooking has a combination of skill, soul and finesse that is more than a bit special. She trained at the CIA for cooks (as opposed to spooks), the Culinary Institute of America, then met Mr Warren while working at Gidleigh Park. There followed a transatlantic romance. "We figured we had to buy the phone company, or get married," she says. They got married, and, in 1989, opened Martha's Vineyard.

The name, one would think, refers to the island off the coast of Massachusetts, once home to 18th-century whaling fleets, now a favourite resort of the Princess of Wales. This allusion somehow suits the handsome beamed rooms, which have been decorated with an almost Puritan good taste. There is dark wooden furniture, the tables laid with crisp white linen and brightly coloured napery. Walls are a light, very pretty shade of Shaker green. Confidently, there is no clutter, no dusty crocks or beaten brass, which makes the place seem clean, and allows the cottage, the ancient milestone at the front and the 18th-century church next door to provide the scenery. Having imagined quite a connection with Martha's Vineyard and its fine old captains' houses, it was amusing to learn, in this case, that the name refers to a Californian wine made by Joseph Heitz.

This restaurant opens only half the week: evenings from Thursday to Saturday, and for Sunday lunch. This respects country habits, and allows time for thought, which shows in the writing of the menus. Several weeks ago, the Sunday lunch menu was short, but capable of satisfying the most diverse of appetites. For vegetarians, there was a roast tomato soup followed by sage spatzle (dumplings) with sauteed mushrooms and Jarlsberg. For meat eaters, there was braised oxtail. By way of poultry: duck rillettes served with cornichons, sloe chutney and potato bread, or, as a main course, roast chicken breasts. For fish lovers: a warm salad of sauteed herring roe, or pasta with scallops in a cream sauce, or a fish stew. This sort of balance is rare, and the sure mark of an intelligent cook.

About the food: a good stock, and the roasting of the tomatoes, would account for the rich flavour of the tomato soup. The magic was in garnishing it with tiny fried green tomatoes, whose crackling batter and squirting green juices brought the whole thing alive. As for the herring roes, these were served very lightly pan-friend, just warm, and meltingly tender. Partnering them with fresh, sharp greens, a scattering of crisp bacon bits and using a bacon dressing was, again, the touch of a smart cook - a cook who likes to eat.

The seafood stew was less successful. In fact, it wasn't a stew. Its components were lightly cooked, not braised; its liquor was too light, its salmon miscast, its crouton with rouille good but in the wrong dish. Oxtail braised in cider was perfect, as were the accompanying veg, particularly a sharp green spinach, a New Zealand variety evidently, that tasted more like kale.

Ms Rogers is not just a good cook, but an excellent baker. Put too much cheese in a bread, and one achieves a greasy, sickening effect. Her cheese bread was more bread, less flavouring, and the richness of the cheese was cut by a well-calculated dose of sharp Provencal herbs. In the dessert menu, listing the secret ingredient of the "coriander-infused baked lemon custard" seemed unwise - the notion of coriander in custard a turn-off to conservative eaters. Yet the pudding itself was first-rate, the custard rich, loose and pleasing. Top marks for the accompanying biscuit as well. A cranberry-and-apple cobbler, served blazing hot with a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top, was perfect. I did not try the chocolate and rum bread-and-butter pudding. However, Delia Smith, a local, and a fan of the restaurant, did. She must have liked it. It features in her Winter Collection.

The wine list is a beaut, a selection of 40 bottles which puts to shame the efforts of many a big league proprietor. Here one finds the butteriest of Australian chardonnays for pounds 14.95, or Guigal's 1990 Rhone for pounds 16.50. This particular Guigal is so good, it is now a rare find in France. Cheaper at pounds 12.95 is a particularly good Rhone-clone, Cotes d'Oakley, from California. There is a 1985 Rioja, some really peachy burgundies, very interesting bottles from South Africa and Italy. Mr Warren says that, unlike London, most of the restaurant-going in East Anglia is for special occasions. He not only respects this, but prices the bottles so the lucky denizens of the villages north of Colchester can afford to celebrate in style.

This is my favourite sort of place, which cheerfully flatters with understatement, as if to say: yes, of course, eating out in Britain is always this good

digest

LONDON

The Arts Theatre Cafe, 6-7 Great Newport Street, Covent Garden, WC2 (0171- 497 8014) is what architects call a "DIY" restaurant: there was no designer, just a job lot off the back of a lorry. Still, the effect is cheerful: candles stuck in wine bottles and gingham cloths can and do a cafe make. The food is surprisingly good, and very healthy, say a fresh tuna salad, or grilled chicken with lemon and a bulgar wheat salad. The cooking is Italianate, and vegetarian-friendly, offering, perhaps, pumpkin gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. Good house wines, cheery service. Open 12noon-11pm, Mon-Fri, 6pm-11pm Sat.Two-course meal pounds 10, with wine about pounds 15-20. Cash and cheques only

BATH

Two years ago, there was a slavish devotion behind the recreation of the seminal Fifties and Sixties restaurant, the Hole- in-the-Wall, 16 George Street (01225-425242). The result is not just respectful, it's nice. The look is very Festival of Britain: blown glass from local craftsmen, sisal floor coverings, beautiful upholstery and white walls with black trim. The cooking, too, is something of a period piece, reflecting the influence of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. Pheasant features prominently on the set dinner menu. The name, given by US servicemen, refers to the original entrance through the coal-store in a lower walk of a two-tier promenade. Very good wine list, and keenly priced business lunch at pounds 9.50 and pounds 11.50. Three-course dinner, pounds 19.50. Access, Amex, Visa, Switch. Vegetarian meals

BOURNEMOUTH

If it's on display in Sophisticats, 43 Charminster Road (01202-291019), its probably cat-shaped. This tiny restaurant, feline right down to the end of its swizzle stick, is camp as Christmas. It certainly took a decade or two to collect all the porcelain pussies, and, rightly enough, the cooking has a Seventies feel: olives stuffed with pimentos, chicken in cream sauce, sticky puds. It is also good. One owner tends bar and serves, the other cooks. Both are droll and entirely charming. Open dinner 7pm- 9.30, Tues-Sat. About pounds 30. Cash and cheques only

HARROGATE

Simon Gueller could have gone bust with Miller's, 1 Montpelier Mews (01423-530708). Then, several years ago, he had the nous to transform it from a relatively expensive small restaurant to a relatively affordable bistro. He also had the help of Yorkshire boy made good, Marco Pierre White. So one finds pommes puree instead of mash, but, whatever you call them, the spuds are great. So is the risotto with squid ink, or the grilled calf's liver and the well-nigh perfect tarts. Open 12noon-2pm,7pm-10pm, Tue-Sat. About pounds 25-30. Access, Amex, Visa, Switch

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