Restaurants: Eat your Hart's out

Paul Smith isn't the only stylish number to come out of Nottingham
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Until now, my knowledge of modern Nottingham has been eclipsed by irrelevant information about its neighbour Leicester, the home of Joe Orton, Gary Lineker, Sue Townsend, this year's county cricket championship, and the pop group Cornershop. So I am indebted to a friend who was able to act as local interpreter and champion of his long-abandoned home town.

Bigger than Leicester or Derby, richer than Sheffield, it can boast Trent Bridge cricket ground, and Brian Clough. The Playhouse is one of the country's most dynamic regional theatres. Gritty British indie film TwentyFourSeven is set there, Raleigh, Plessey and Boots the Chemist are based there. Kenneth Clarke and Leslie Crowther - yes, trivia fans - come from there. Everything suggests it must have plenty of takers for a sophisticated metropolitan restaurant of the sort that has until recently been hard to find in most regional cities.

It helps to have a native informant to put a restaurant in its context, and this one had a final qualification that clinched his appointment - he had once sniffed glue with an older boy who knew Paul Smith, the city's most famous living son and reason alone to suggest Nottingham has a certain style.

Hart's, which opened just under a year ago, should further that reputation. From hospital to hospitable in one bold step, this smart, brightly coloured, good-looking restaurant occupies part of the old Victorian infirmary which is being converted into offices and homes. It has a fine pedigree, coming from the same stable as Hambleton Hall, the expensive country-house hotel in Rutland, whose owner Tim Hart also established the Ram Jam Inn roadhouse on the A1. All three are staging posts of good taste along the price spectrum, and at Hart's, which occupies the middle ground, everything is pitched just right. Prices are on the high side of everyday, but it is easily accomplished enough to justify them.

The menu, written in cut-to-the-chase style, sounds eminently edible. There's no local this or that, nothing to indicate where in the country we are, but enough variation on the obvious to add interest. Pork chop with baked apple and cauliflower and almond mash, or half a roast lobster, roast tomatoes and new potatoes are typical.

The bread - warm brown and white rolls covered with drifts of flour - augured well.

"Most restaurants just serve what the others do," said my local boy, making light work of a ham terrine with diced carrot, gherkins, lentils and onions, which he considered proof of the self-assurance of Hart's. My special mixed salad was as special as salad can be without turning into something else. Light on leaves, it included cherry tomatoes, artichoke, quail's egg, green beans, Parmesan, freshly made pesto, large croutons and a creamy dressing. I agreed with my companion, that in most other restaurants this would have been a more predictable Caesar salad. Hart's has the confidence to be different.

My companion ordered venison on the flimsy grounds that deer might have been running around in Sherwood Forest and be the closest to a local delicacy. On being told by the French waiter that the meat was cooked rare, he wondered if the Nottinghamshire meaning of the word would be what he was used to: "Will I get Nottingham rare or French rare?" he asked. Gallic pink, it turned out, tender and pepped up by peppercorns and a caramelly, sticky, almost chocolatey reduction that he described as "pleasantly close to Bisto". It came with sprouts, parsnips and carrots draped artfully but unfussily around it.

I had red mullet, the skin crisp and scattered with rosemary, with more pesto and, regrettably, pinenuts again, which made it too like the starter salad. But, otherwise, the perfectly cooked fish, cubes of saffron-coloured potato, red onion and orange-coloured pepper sauce combined brightly and sweetly together.

We pressed on to puddings: a triangular slice of lime parfait with a great chocolate sorbet, and chocolate pudding, aka fondant (the dark baked cake that's runny inside) which was tragically burnt at the bottom. It was the only moment when Hart's missed a beat.

Blocks of beautiful, bright colours, comfy tweed-covered banquettes and chairs, handsome David Mellor cutlery, pictures such as the BBC2 Test Card in freehand, sympathetic lighting and thoughtful staff in denim shirts all played their part in making this an exceptionally attractive place to be; everything except that final oven temperature was perfectly adjusted.

It was a Tuesday night in Nottingham and Hart's was full of animated customers of all ages. It deserves to be Hart's Restaurant, Standard Court, Park Row, Nottingham (0115 911 0666). Lunch and dinner daily. Set lunch pounds 9.50 two courses, pounds 13 three courses. A la carte, average pounds 20. Major credit cards. Disabled access.

More Midlands: Bites, page 75

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