Terry Durack : The Independent on Sunday : 25th June 2006

The concept of a Bistro Moderne doesn't strike me as being very well-suited to York. A Tea Room Quainte, or a Pub Traditionelle, perhaps. But a Bistro Moderne?

York is a city that feeds rapaciously on its past, which it neatly stores away behind picturesque shop fronts, inside medieval walls, in its soaring cathedral and within recreated villages. Appropriate refreshment, then, is a cream tea at Betty's Café Tea Rooms or a pint of the local brew in one of its 365 pubs.

So you have to wonder what chef Jeff Baker was thinking when he followed a 10-year stint at the esteemed Michelin-starred Pool Court in Leeds by moving into a modest shop-front space in the middle of historic York. He could claim a hole in the market, I suppose, but sometimes holes are there simply because nobody cares enough to fill them.

The downstairs dining room of what was once a piano shop is now a long, narrow, bare, spare dining room that is less I've Spent a Fortune To Be Minimalist, and more I Can't Afford to Be Anything Other Than Minimalist. Caffe latte walls are hung with deep-red abstract sunsets, floors are bare, and polished wooden tables are tucked in at slightly awkward angles. Mine is placed at the very foot of stairs that lead to an upper-level bar/lounge.

The welcome is cool, but the menu is so hot to trot, it more than compensates. For a start, it is self-assuredly short, with just five starters, six main courses, four puddings and two "savouries" that take both local produce and local dishes and make something more of them. So things such as Yorkshire asparagus soup, pork pie and Yorkshire spuds, Scott's Longhorn steak, egg and chips, Northumbria black-faced lamb chop and Spotted Dick may not be quite what they seem.

The first hint that I am in for something special comes with warm, crisp, chunky, dogbone-shaped ciabatta bread served in a smart wooden bowl with a pat of very good unsalted butter. The next is a starter of terrific, home-made corned beef, whose long, balanced flavours would give many a fancy French terrine a run for its money. Served in its own lidded glass preserving jar, it is topped with a layer of chopped jelly and a scattering of cornichons, and accompanied by a quenelle of spiced beetroot, nicely underscoring the beef.

What is described as a saddle of wild rabbit with black pudding is actually a big, fat, round ravioli of black pudding and rabbit meat sitting amid thin, tender rabbit slices, roasted cherry tomatoes, and feisty mustard cress. It is clever, relaxed, and full of good, intense, well-defined flavours.
For a three-month-old restaurant in York that doesn't have lace curtains and crinoline-shaped teapots, J Baker's is well filled, with lots of dating couples, some business types and the occasional family oohing over the puddings. And what a novel experience, to be scratching to find a wine over £20 on the globally minded, food-friendly wine list. A separate private cellar list is there for those who feel the need to spend more than £19.95 on, say, a big ripe, plummy Gigondas from Château du Trignon. Each wine listed is numbered, in an unfortunate trend that turns what could have been an enjoyable negotiation with knowledgeable staff into an order for a glass of number two and a bottle of number 29.

The big, ripe, plummy characteristics of number 29 suit Baker's "pork pie", a warm pasty-type affair that's stuffed with soft, giving pork, served with sweetened roasted vegetables and a turret of mustard mash made of Yorkshire spuds. As well, there are two plugs of pancetta-wrapped pork fillet, which is probably needlessly generous.

So far, so good. It has all been likeable, flavour-packed, fresh and well put together. Way beyond good, however, is the daily fish special. Simply described as butter-poached monkfish, it combines the translucent lobes of snow-white, meaty flesh with double-shelled broad beans, peas, artichokes and a couple of big floppy inner tubes of fresh pasta. The brilliance is in saucing the fish with sweet crab juices, which instantly gives it the flavour - it already has the texture - of fresh lobster. I'm sure the steak, egg and chips is a cracker, Jeff, but please make this your new signature dish.
The cheese course is a bit ho-hum, but Baker's take on the northern favourite, lemontops, is a glorious thing, served in a tall parfait glass as a layered hotchpotch of jelly, lemon-curd ice cream, biscuits and berries, like a cross between a knickerbocker glory and a sherry trifle.

The young floor staff are a little uncoordinated, needing a stronger hand to rise above the level of eager amateur, and the dining experience is surprisingly casual, given the high degree of craft and care in the kitchen. But J Baker's is all about great produce turned into great food with imagination, and an understanding of what we love to eat. Simply by doing this, it has taken York from the 13th century into the 21st.

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

J Baker's Bistro Moderne, 7 Fossgate, York, tel: 01904 622 688
Lunch and dinner served Tuesday to Saturday. Three-course dinner, £24.50; two courses, £18.95

Second helpings: More bistros with class
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe 66 Baker St, London W1, tel: 020 7935 4007 It's not every bistro that can boast two classically trained, Michelin-starred chefs. Brothers-in-arms Chris and Jeff Galvin turn out finely honed classics such as steak tartare and escargots bourguignonnes.

Bistro 21 Aykley Heads House, Aykley Heads, Durham, tel: 0191 384 4354 For 10 years, Terry Laybourne's popular bistro has been a shining light in an otherwise dull restaurant scene. Seasonally driven menus run from asparagus with hollandaise sauce to roast suckling pig.

Bistro Soleil La Route de la Haule, Beaumont, St Peter, Jersey, tel: 01534 720 249 This beachside diner comes into its own in summer when everybody heads for the outdoor terrace with its killer views over St Aubin's Bay. Local seafood shines here, from oysters and lobster to fresh fish.