Jay Rayner finds good basic cooking skills at Incanto in Harrow-on-the-Hill but is unimpressed by the attempts at creativity.
The disappointment with Incanto, which classes itself as an Italian, is that there is clearly someone in the kitchen who can cook. The basics are there. They know how to roast meats, bake great breads, knock up a soufflé and so on. There were lovely smoked olives on the table. A starter of light ravioli with a liquid duck-egg-yolk centre - tricky to pull off - came with bacon and wild mushroom, and was exemplary.
But on top of that is something else, which they no doubt would call creativity and I would class as desperation. The food resembled the dishes in the latter stages of MasterChef, when wet-lipped competitors are screaming "Feel my passion!" and have completely lost the plot. The stock base for that crab risotto was good, but the only thing it had to say to a scoop of passion fruit sorbet was: "Please go away."
Price: £120 for meal for two including wine and service
Tony Naylor describes the Cartford Inn in Little Eccleston, Lancashire as "a distinctive bolthole of real warmth", which would be more expensive in Cumbria or Devon
I was given the penthouse. It is not a word I expected to hear at a country inn, on the Fylde peninsula, halfway between Preston and Blackpool, but it is a fitting term for this enormous, open-plan, £200-a-night doozy. It looks like a magazine feature, with its walk-in shower, freestanding bath beneath a huge Velux window, wall-mounted Bang & Olufsen iPod dock, and terrace overlooking the River Wyre. Half the space is, essentially, a wet room. Opened in a new extension last July, the rooms have thick carpets, slick bathrooms and handsome furniture. The attic rooms in particular - one a tartan-and-Union-Jack homage to Vivienne Westwood - elegantly reconcile historic pub and modish design. Julie Beaume, who runs the inn with her French husband Patrick, has a good eye.
Price: Doubles from £100 for bed and breakfast
Zoe Williams enjoys excellent food at "almost-silly" prices at Restaurant Tristan, in Horsham, West Sussex
I had the chicken parfait with beetroot two ways (a cube of delicious jelly, and a chic, minimalist, single-ingredient chutney). I was expecting a country-pub taste, with a knowing wink of sophistication conveyed, perhaps, by booze. Instead, it was drop-your-fork tasty.
There was something about the texture - a fairytale smoothness and lightness, almost on its way to being a mousse, but with none of that egginess. I could only marvel, also, at the taste, which seemed to convey everything you've ever loved about a chicken, from the near-gaminess of the leg to the delicacy of the oyster, through the richness of the liver, past the breast, which I don't really like as much as the rest, plus a topnote of thyme and a buttery finish. And that was it - a symphony of chicken.
I don't want to rush you past the puddings, because the passion-fruit soufflé is the thing that got the people on the next table chatting to us. Again, it was beset with cheffy touches: a blood-orange granita dropped into the top with great ceremony. The balance of tartness and sugar was perfect.
Price: Three courses: £20
Jill Turton discovers good, original cooking at the newly-extended Cafe No 8 in York
The menu is sensibly short and sweet: half a dozen starters and mains, a regulation wine list, a couple of blackboard specials. Nothing is too aspirational but there's just the right amount of originality to make it interesting. The bisque was astonishingly rich, packing in cream and a ton of shellfishy stock. For mains we might have chosen chicken with chorizo, beef in red wine, grilled haloumi with carrot tagine but went for the special of Dover sole, well priced at £13.50. We got two generous fillets of that sweet fresh fish arranged over crushed potatoes with a chive and butter sauce.
The only niggle, but a significant one, is that the chef might have removed the frill round the edge, to prevent a mouthful of bones which were hard to spot amid the spuds and sauce. It has made the transition from tiny neighbourhood restaurant to medium-sized neighbourhood restaurant with ease. To skilfully deliver a menu of such overall range is equally impressive.
Price: Three-courses including coffee, wine and service: £80
"The points the reviewer picked up are fair and we're striving to be that bit better, but you can't complain at a headline that says ‘bigger and better'. Overall it was good."
Martin Gore, co-owner of Café No 8 Bistro in York