Dom Dwight : Yorkshire Post : 26th April 2008

If you want to find the best chef in York – possibly even in Yorkshire – head to The Blue Bell on Fossgate, a tiny, friendly and rather remarkable old pub. You won't find him there before about 11pm, of course, because up until then he's slaving away in the kitchen of another place across the road – his own.

Though you're less likely to see him, a far more sensible plan would be to book a table at his restaurant, J Baker's Bistro Moderne. And you really will have to book. Two years after opening and Jeff Baker's attempt to create a restaurant that would attract a regular crowd of locals, rather than pandering to Minstermaniacs and other tourists, has been undeniably successful.

Calling with a week's notice to book a table for two on a Tuesday night and we still only just squeeze in for a late dinner slot. Incredible. Particularly when you consider the wide array of empty tables waiting to be filled around the rest of the region – it's enough to make other restaurateurs weep.

Mr Baker may well be used to that. In the 10 years he spent as head chef at Pool Court in Leeds, he consistently outperformed every other chef for miles around, holding on to a Michelin star for a decade, all the while simultaneously serving the busy Brasserie Forty4 from the same kitchen with fewer staff than many other restaurants. Possibly even on one leg. When he left to set up his own place in York, Pool Court's all but retired owner closed it down. With it went Leeds's only Michelin-starred eaterie (at least until Anthony's gets the recognition it deserves).

Before he'd even opened his Bistro Moderne, Jeff had a very clear idea of what he wanted: an informal place, with none of the stuffiness of Pool Court, where local produce was celebrated and where the front-of-house manager knew the regulars by name, because he was always there. More than anything, the idea was to find a way to provide genuinely fantastic food, but to somehow keep it relaxed – fun even.

Truly good food is available all over the region if you know where to find it. But often it's to be eaten in reverent awe, where to speak above a whisper would seem boorish and a dropped fork might require the perpetrator to send letters of apology to all around. The chances of anyone even hearing cutlery crash to the floor at J Bakers are slim. Mellow ska on the sound system and a general hubbub of happy chatter provides a vibrant, though not too raucous, backdrop. This, together with the warm coffee-and-burnt-orange colour scheme and an even warmer welcome, would be a good start to any meal.

Of course, this isn't just any meal. First indications of the quality of what's to come are the giant knobbly fingers of freshly baked bread that arrive before ordering, some top quality butter upstaged by a dollop of smoked cod's roe. It's essential, too – in the time we spend deliberating, others may have eaten, brushed their teeth and got into bed. Not that it's a long menu: lunchtime consists of a good number of smaller plates in addition to some large ones, but dinner is limited to a choice of only five starters and six mains. It's bold stuff and just what you'd expect from a chef of his calibre, but it doesn't make choosing any easier. We wonder if ordering everything might be an option, only to discover it is. Well, almost. "Grazing By Night" seems thought up especially for us, with £35 per head buying a seven-course tour through Baker's culinary wonderland.

First up, astoundingly delicate chicken pressed with sweetcorn and tarragon is accompanied by a pungent froth of sweetcorn in a cappuccino cup, followed by a plate of shredded crab with Indian spices. At this point I should mention my wife's "predicament" – being undeniably pregnant normally means a lacklustre meal robbed of all its naughty bits for her. Not so here. Rather than simply removing unsuitable elements from each dish, replacements are improvised on the spot without fuss. I even find myself getting jealous when I taste the rather less spicy lemon dressing on her crab.

Beautifully soft potted duck rolled in pistachio crumbs comes speared by an intensely bitter shard of nutty caramel next, producing a dish that manages to be visually arresting without seeming pretentious. The arrival of a fillet steak topped with a crunchy duck egg marks the move from a mineral-edged half bottle of Sancerre Les Bouffants to one of Chateau Montaiguillon, a plummy St Emilion – asking the restaurant manager to recommend something from the well-chosen wine list paid off. The steaks are the stuff of legend. Even my wife's, which can't be served rare, is so tender. Not for her the incredible combination of rich duck yolk, buttered spinach and steak, though, and I am forced to pretend it's not as good as it looks.

Playfulness returns with dessert: the two scoops of ice cream atop a light fruit salad taste exactly like those lurid Fruit Salad and Blackjack penny chews of old. The cheeseboard, while very good, is far more straightforward and seems like a surprisingly understated end to an otherwise extraordinary meal. Until coffee comes, that is, and with it a bowl of intensely dark homemade Valrhona chocolate truffles and giant but almost weightless marshmallow pieces. Fabulous stuff. And when a meal like this comes in at under £100, all those empty tables elsewhere suddenly don't seem quite so unfair.

J Baker's Bistro Moderne, 7 Fossgate, York, YO1 9TA, 01904 622688.

Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12-2.30pm and 6 till 10pm.

À la carte dinner for two with wine from about £35 a head.