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Countryside Dining

| Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005

A new generation of chefs shoots for the stars in surprising places.

Historically, most tourists, business travelers and even locals viewed dining in Britain as little more than a biological necessity. Then London began to emerge from under its culinary cloud.

The city's size and cosmopolitan nature developed a market for the fine-dining cuisine of other countries, most notably France. Such great chefs as Marco Pierre White, Michel Roux and Raymond Blanc led the way, bringing fresh ideas to the British table. Also influencing tastes and lending luster to the United Kingdom gastronomic experience were iconic French chefs -- Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon, the late Bernard L'Oiseau and Marc Veyrat.

Now their young, liberated disciples are fast transforming the whole dining scene. Though classically trained, these kitchen wunderkinder are setting their own culinary directions. Already claiming recognition from the venerable Guide Michelin, they're adventurous, and candid about their three-star ambitions.

Interestingly, many are packing up their mis en place and moving out of the city to smaller towns or less-hectic countryside venues. Away from major hubs, talented toques are opening world-class, destination restaurants. Some have guest rooms, others locate in luxury country estates, still others situate in towns previously viewed as unlikely choices. Here are a few treasures:

Getting Gidleigh

Turn down the narrow, muddy, high-walled road from the village square in Chagford, Devon. Go deeply into a valley on the edge of the brooding Dartmoor National Park. Most of the road is wide enough for only one car, so drive slowly and be prepared to back up to a passing place should a vehicle come in the opposite direction. A handsome half-timber, stone fronted mansion, set on 45 acres of gardens and woodlands, looms up from the mist. This is Gidleigh Park, a Relais & Chateaux property and a special place.

Gidleigh Park's restaurant is one of the finest in England. Ten years ago, chef Michael Caines took over the Michelin one-star kitchen, earned a second star and is targeting the third. This remarkable man executes an opulent tasting menu, utilizing the fine local products of his southwest England "larder" millefeuille of pan-fried foie gras, with turnip, apple, boudin noir and sherry vinegar sauce; a quail egg tartlet with onion confit, smoked bacon and black truffle; the freshest sea scallops accented with celeriac puree, soy sauce and truffle vinaigrette; luscious filet of locally raised Red Ruby beef with wild mushroom puree and Madeira sauce.

Desserts are a delight. Or finish with a selection of artisinal cheeses, produced within 50 miles of Gidleigh, that rival the best of France and Italy.

Gidleigh Park is Caines' "home restaurant" where he cooks the most and trains his burgeoning pool of talented staff. But a broader vision drives him and his business partner, Andrew Brownsword. The duo hopes to address an underserved market for quality, mid-priced restaurant meals. Watch for a string of Caines-branded restaurants throughout the country, singing the gospel of good food for all. Bye, bye bland bangers.

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Seeking Simpson's

Grim, post-industrial Birmingham has long been viewed as a dining desert. Now, in the elegant suburb of Edgbaston, a Michelin star shines. Chef-owner Andreas Antona, a self-described cockney Cypriot, debuts Simpson's, a restaurant with four individually themed guest rooms in a magnificently restored Victorian mansion. Meticulous service is gracious, never stuffy.

The accomplished kitchen turns out contemporary French-based cuisine, applying innovation to the best British ingredients. Loch Fyne smoked salmon and Salcombe crab join in a torte with guacamole, tomato and pimento coulis. Local lobster comes with truffled spaghettini and lobster cream. Duck is from Gressingham, both a place and a breed. Finnebrogue, in Northern Ireland, supplies venison. Premier lamb comes from Cornwall.

From Simpson's "Orangery," view chefs Luke Tipping and Adam Bennett choreograph their enthusiastic culinary team. This dining space also overlooks a charming garden with a glass ceiling for stargazing. And, speaking of stars, Antona intends to earn two more.

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Kitching's kitchen

"Secretly Cooked Smoked Tender Beef Filet, Unusual Flavours and Ingredients, Cheese Scone, Brazil Nut, Soy Sauce, Carrots, Leeks and Mushrooms, Grated Vanilla Fudge, Dried Mint, Black Pudding Wafers, Balsamic Glaze, 'going classical.'"

That's the menu description of a single main-course dish at Juniper, chef Paul Kitching's critically acclaimed, Michelin-starred restaurant in the Manchester suburb of Althrincham. Celebrated chef Gordon Ramsay calls Kitching "the shining star of the North." Others reference him as an eccentric genius or the Salvador Dali of British cuisine.

Undoubtedly one of the most forward-thinking of British chefs, he delivers consummate technical skills, boundless creativity and an agenda that challenges diners' preconceptions of food. Indeed, his gourmet-tasting menu may well conjure up the Mad Hatter's tea party. A succession of 12 or 21 -- or more -- small square plates present unexpected flavors and textures in daubs, powders, bites, foams and dips: Air-dried banana slices, chocolate mayo, curried fudge or egg in a cup with pea foam. One early dessert, "toothpaste and mouthwash," offered strawberry cream on a toothbrush, accompanied by a plastic cup of crème de menthe.

Partner Katie O'Brien manages a polished front-of-the-house. You're encouraged to eat with your fingers, then lick them clean. Kitching triumphs in the success of arresting flavors in unorthodox food. Diners pack the place, finding art, theater and fun.

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Cartmel calling

In the shadow of a medieval priory, Chef Simon Rogan has turned a 13th-century blacksmith shop into a gastronomic pilgrimage site. L'Enclume -- French for anvil -- is a restaurant with charming overnight accommodations nestled in the picturesque village of Cartmel, Cumbria. Gourmands travel miles, even from the London area, just to sample the cuisine.

While influenced early on by modern French masters Pierre Gagnaire and Marc Veyrat, Rogan has evolved his own personal style, plucking flavors from wild local herbs (perilla, lovage, bergamot) and celebrating local products (Mr. Little's beef filet, Waberthwaite air-dried ham). His "Taste and Texture" menu startles and delights.

Last December, the (London) Sunday Times restaurant critic, Giles Coren, gave L'Enclume a previously unheard of 10 out of 10, declaring Rogan the "best chef in England." The chef modestly calls his venture "a work in progress," but even the traditional English breakfast, with homemade black pudding, is sensational.

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Just a taste

Watch as the list of countryside must-try restaurants continues to grow. The Observer Food Monthly bestowed "Best Restaurant 2005" on Anthony's in Leeds. Remote Ludlow supports a cluster of star chefs' establishments, including Mr. Underhill's and Hibiscus. Rick Stein's world-famous The Seafood Restaurant situates in Padstow, Cornwall. And three top-rated icons reside in quaint, quiet, Bray: Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Hinds Head Hotel, and Michel and Alain Roux's Waterside Inn. Stay tuned.

Additional Information:

If you go

Manchester airport is the most convenient international gateway to reach all of these destinations. Juniper is located less than 20 minutes away by car, Simpson's and L'Enclume about 90 minutes. Though the drive to Gidleigh Park is about 4 hours, all but 30 minutes is on motorways. Gidleigh, Simpson's and L'Enclume have their own guest accommodations. For Juniper, select a hotel near Manchester airport or in the city center. All have Web sites for information and reservations.

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