Taste of '95

This was a big year for restaurants, and, appropriately enough, 1995 will go down as the year size mattered. Gary Rhodes and company opened People's Palace with 200 seats. Sir Terence Conran and company opened Mezzo (750); Marco Pierre White revamped the Criterion (162); Belgo branched out in Covent Garden with Centraal (375); there is a brand new Wagamama in Soho (176) and, last but not least, came L'Odeon in Regent Street (220). Well, how very numerical. Though I enjoyed some of these restaurants, f...
Restaurant of the Year Martha's Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard, 18 High Street, Nayland, Suffolk (01206-262888) has problems. The name, which refers to a Californian wine, is too much an inside joke of one of its oenophile proprietors. The location is in a blink-and-miss-it village just outside Colchester. Yet the greeting, the food, the low-key simplicity of the place is more than a bit special. The chef, Larkin Rogers, looks hard for the best local, often organic, ingredients, then writes menus of exceptional balance: the offerings one Sunday lunch might include, for vegetarians, a roast tomato soup followed by sage spatzle (dumplings) with sauteed mushrooms and Jarlsberg. For meat-eaters, there might be 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. Cooking is sure and clean with a healthily sybaritic edge to it.

The wine list, which is compiled by Ms Roger's husband, Christopher Warren, is a beaut. His selection of 40 bottles 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 an '85 Rioja, some really peachy burgundies, very interesting bottles from South Africa and Italy. Open dinner Thur-Sat, lunch Sun. Two courses with coffee pounds 16.50, three pounds 20, average spend with wine about pounds 25-pounds 30. Vegetarian meals. No smoking. Visa, Access

Chef of the Year Juliet Peston

Any regular reader of food guides or cookery pages will have heard of Alastair Little, handsome young(ish) turk of Modern British Cooking. The case is just the opposite for Mr Little's long-time co-chef, a 34-year-old Londoner named Juliet Peston. This summer, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from the kitchen of their Soho restaurant, during which she recovered from a near-fatal road accident, Ms Peston returned. Her reappearance at Alastair Little, 49 Frith Street, London W1 (0171-734 5183) has more than righted slipping standards, it has set them soaring. Just the place for grey legged partridge served on meltingly sweet cabbage, or the best salads outside Provence, or sharp lime sorbet. Open lunch Mon-Fri, 12noon-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat, 6-11pm. Three-course lunch and dinner (or two courses and coffee), pounds 25. Otherwise about pounds 30-pounds 40. Vegetarian meals. Major credit cards except Diner's

Restaurateur of the Year Marco Pierre White

Famous for his least attractive quality, his temper, White is rarely discussed sensibly is the classical assurance with which he cooks. And almost never reported is his generosity to young chefs. During the past three years, he has helped with the opening of Millers Bistro in Harrogate, and, in London, the launches of Pied a Terre and Aubergine. This year, he again had a hand in the opening of two critically acclaimed restaurants, Interlude de Chavot in Fitzrovia, and the Fat Duck in Bray. He manages all this while still cooking at his Michelin three-star, the preposterously named The Restaurant Marco Pierre White, and while still running the Canteen in Chelsea Harbour. Just to keep it sporting, he recently took over the Criterion Brasserie in Piccadilly. One senses he should rest, but suspects he won't.

Pub of the Year The White Horse Inn, Chilgrove

It is obvious from the outside that something is a bit different about The White Horse Inn, High Street, Chilgrove, West Sussex (01243-535219). The sign, where the picture of the horse should be, bears the image of a glowering pussycat. Once inside, there is beer. However, if you want a pint of something, it might as well be a 1959 Lynch-Bages. This pub has one of the best wine lists in the country. The cooking stands up to it: thick wild mushroom soups, perfectly roasted scallops with bacon and lettuce, black pudding with poached eggs or local partridge served with all the trimmings. Less appealing are the more experimental dishes. The owners, Barry and Dorothea Phillips and Neil Rusbridger are charm itself. Guess the mystery wine (pounds 17.50 a bottle) and drink free. Open lunch Tue-Sat, dinner Tue-Sat. Reservations advisable. Dress: country squire. Vegetarian meals. Unsuitable for small children. Light bar meals from about pounds 15, restaurant, about pounds 30-pounds 40. Major credit cards except Amex

Brasserie of the Year Heathcote's

Sorry London, the northerners have it. Better than Marco Pierre White's Criterion, better than Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon, better than Terence Conran's Mezzo was Heathcote's Brasserie, 23 Winckley Square, Preston, Lancashire (01772-252732). It might have stood competition from Rascasse, a new outfit in Leeds, but this opened only weeks ago and is still teething.

While the London outfits are more sophisticated (bully for them), and their customers less likely to send restaurant critics vitriolic letters (entirely commendable), Heathcote's easily beats them in the most important two categories: cooking and service. This is no doubt down to Paul Heathcote, the proprietor and a star chef in his own right. He has a gastronomic temple down the road in Longridge. This place is his populist turn. It is bright, clean and smart. Set in a handsome Georgian town house, there is a large bar downstairs. Here one finds Goosnargh corn-fed chickens off the rotisseries, or Loch Fyne oysters sold for 95p each, and Murphy's Stout at pounds 1.90 a pint or country French white for pounds 10.25 a bottle. Upstairs, a dining room proper is less lick-your-fingers, more proper restaurant. Still, the tone is gutsy. There are Lancashire hotpots, fish and chips, Caesar salads, and one of the best chocolate tarts served outside of Roux kitchens. A short wine list offers everything by the glass, including a particularly classy Riesling (better value at pounds 16 a bottle). Service is cheer itself. Food served in bar 12noon-9pm Mon-Sat (pounds 10-15); brasserie lunch and dinner daily (about pounds 25). Vegetarian dishes. Children welcome. Major credit cards

Bar of the Year Rocinantes

Praise for Rocinantes, 85 Whiteladies Road, Clifton, Bristol (0117-973 4482) appeared only recently in these pages. The place is a tapas bar, but with a difference: it serves good food. Regulars occupy the place so comfortably, they have a sort of built-in quality. Music plays. Cigarettes are smoked. Coffees drunk. Bar meals eaten. Wine bottles drained. Jokes cracked. People watched. To the rear, there is a restaurant where one might find eggs Benedict on a Sunday, or grilled marinated chevre with roast vegetable salad, or butter beans cooked with pancetta in tomato sauce. Vegetarians are catered for, carnivores need not worry about BSE: the produce is either wild or organic. Open daily, Mon- Sat from 9.30am-11pm (breakfast, lunch, dinner plus bar open mid-afternoon), Sun from 10am-3pm, 6-10.30pm. Bar meals from pounds 5-pounds 10, restaurant pounds 20-pounds 30. Children welcome. Major credit cards except Diner's. Three steps to entrance, assistance for wheelchairs

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