Robert Cockroft : Yorkshire Post : 22nd April 2006

There's a Bistro Moderne in New York named after its classically-trained chef. And there's a Bistro Moderne in old York named after its classically-trained chef.

The American model, DB Bistro Moderne was opened in 2001 by Daniel Boulud who had worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. It aims to be accessible and contemporary with fresh food.

The York model, J Baker's Bistro Moderne, was opened a month ago by Jeff Baker, who won a Michelin star for his previous restaurant, Pool Court in Leeds. It aims to be "less exclusive and more inclusive" with simple, bold food.

Coincidence? Not entirely. Boulud and Baker are reflecting a trend for top-end chefs to descend from their kitchens and share their skills with a wider audience. This is not always motivated by altruism. Top-end kitchens are labour-intensive and margins can be thin.

Joel Robuchon set the hare running in France in 1996 when he closed his three-Michelin star restaurant, saying he was retiring. He returned three years ago with, literally, a workshop, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, with easier prices and a cool, quasi-Japanese design.

Others have followed suit, most notably Alain Senderens who held three Michelin stars for 28 years at the glitzy Lucas Carton in Paris, canteen to government ministers and the classier end of celebrity.

He stunned them all last year when he announced that the pressures and prices of haute cuisine were too much and that he was handing back his stars. He's since transformed his restaurant into a humble brasserie. Well, not so humble. A month ago, Michelin decided it was not playing his game and gave him two new stars.

Jeff Baker insists he's not looking for accolades, but they may come looking for him, because this new venture, run in partnership with Neil Nugent, a development chef for Asda, is a corker.

Action provokes reaction, and if Baker's pointed comments about inclusivity were aimed at the defunct Pool Court which employed him for 10 years, they were unnecessary. He's bright enough to succeed without biting the hand that fed him and one glance at the menu is enough to see that he is up to something new and different.

Dinner brings a short à la carte menu of, for the moment, five starters, five mains, four puddings and two savouries.

Three courses costs £24.50 and might yield risotto of ox-tail with pickled ox tongue and mixed cress; rib steak with egg and chips and Bakewell tart.

With such a brief repertoire, Baker may need to govern a tendency he had in Leeds to devise wacky menus. Even now, a starter of "hand-dived scallop custard with roasted Whitby crab juices" may not be quite what the cautious people of York are expecting. Nor indeed the scallops.

On the other hand, stew (of red deer) and dumplings looks a good idea and there seems to be no shortage of takers for his lunchtime and early evening grazing menu. We called on a Saturday as queues outside Pizza Hut were reaching Hull.

Deluded souls. Around the corner on Fossgate, Baker's menu was offering, for £4, spring carrot salad, curried almonds and coriander, Baker's BLT; or handmade black pudding and Scotch egg. Six pounds would have bought them pressed ham hock with pease pudding or spiced Whitby crab on toast, or cod in beer batter, or mussel and potato hot pot. A fiver would have brought dill-cured salmon with avocado and, for 50p less, a salad of duck livers, drunken orange and hazelnuts.

Any one would be a bargain at the price, and they are not tiny tapas portions. Put them in the hands of a creative talent like Baker and the results can be spectacular. My advice to those with skates is to have them oiled and head to this elegant diner while you can still get in.

It certainly succeeds in its aim to be a broad church. The oldest luncher there was about 109 and the youngest four months, because its mother told the goo-gooing, coochy-cooing waiter (male, not English, obviously) so. We were a mixed crowd and the place buzzed nicely because of it. To promote social harmony, there's even a piano in the bar upstairs. Sadly, it's out of tune.

The grazing menu contains 10 savoury items and the waitress looked vaguely alarmed when we ordered five, plus side orders of hand-cut chips and fine beans with cured bacon and shallots. Perhaps she feared for our cholesterol.

It was admittedly a pig out, literally in the case of the pressed ham hock, a glorious terrine made all the more beguiling by the presence of foie gras. Who puts foie gras in a £6 terrine? Correct; J Baker. Old habits die hard and it's to be hoped this entertaining contrast of utility and luxury continues to inform his menus.

In fact, small surprises are sprung at every turn. Shredded, lightly spiced Whitby crab, a shock of marine freshness, sits on a brioche, its tang finding a counterpoint in the vanilla tones of the bread. There is further sweetness in the filaments of candied fennel, another bright idea.

Dill-cured salmon, cut in thick strips, arrives with avocado ice cream, sleek, seductive and bracing. The knockout element in the duck liver salad turns out to be the scattering
of hazelnuts. Rarely was so much owed to so few.

Most of the plates arrive with mixed herbs – sage is a favourite – or interesting cress as structural components. Herbs even have a walk-on part in the Whitby cod in beer batter where the story is of translucent fish and almost translucent batter. Add the bespoke French fries and here is York's poshest fish and chips.

At L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris, dispiritingly, now one of a fast-expanding chain, you will find a similar procession of small dishes served with theatrical ceremony by waiters in black.
In York, the service is friendly, swift, without ritual and prices are infinitely more friendly.
And, for all his magic with mash, Robuchon can't make a rhubarb fool to rival Baker's.

This is a masterly construct where a rhubarb-infused cream sits above a purée of the fruit which has been sweetened to leave a touch of astringency. Simple, fantastic.

This is fast food raised to a new plane. By coincidence, there's a Macdonald's a few doors away. It's a furniture shop. They all should be.