MAXINE GORDON visits an ambitious new restaurant run by a duo who started out at Spark: York

I'D heard great things about Fish & Forest at Spark:York, but the pop-up that specialised in fish and game had moved on from the Piccadilly container park before I got the chance to check it out.

It popped back on my Eating Out radar when neighbours reported having had a fab meal at its new base in The Gillygate pub in York, where it opened a couple of months ago. "Cosy, relaxed and excellent food" was their verdict.

We booked online for Saturday night (no phone number is listed on its website), securing a table for three for 7pm. It's worth booking in advance because the dining room is small, just half a dozen tables, as well as one private-dining area for six.

It needs to be compact however, because this is a two-man band, with chef Stephen Andrews in the kitchen and French front-of-house tour-de-force Johan looking after diners. If there is a better maitre d' in the city, then point them my way. Johan is friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and looked after us all with charm and ease – checking in regularly to make sure everything was running OK. He genuinely wanted our feedback – a sign that this is a serious venture that wants to make its mark.

And it deserves to.

We thoroughly enjoyed our night at Fish & Forest. Our neighbours were right. The venue is "cosy and relaxed"; the dining room looks more twee than trendy – just what you'd expect in a traditional English pub. In contrast, the food is straight out of an upmarket French bistro. The menu is small, with just four starters, six mains and three desserts as well as four side dishes. Between the three of us, we tackled most of it.

There was just a single vegetarian option in the starter and mains selection, so our teenage daughter who is a veggie had no choice but to plump for the wild mushroom fricasse (£6) followed by the cauliflower curry (£15). But it was no hardship as each dish won firm praise. The starter was a comforting bed of mushrooms, cabbage, leek and onion with a silky buttery sauce crowned by a heap of straw chips (imagine Chip Sticks but even skinnier). The curry dish featured a generous hunk of cauliflower that had been covered in aromatic spices and roasted until just tender. It came with a little side jug full of a spicy and tangy sauce. Under the cauliflower was a medley of soft cabbage and onion and a sweet raisin jam which brought the whole meal together.

My husband Nick began with the salmon tacos (£7.50) – two small flour tortillas topped with meaty and succulent pieces of fish dotted with touches of peach and chilli. It was nice, but didn't pack the flavour punch of my choice: sardine, focaccia and tomato (£6). This was a posh sardines on toast, and was one of the tastiest snacks I'd eaten in a while. The focaccia appeared to have been pan-fried and was crunchy and oil-soaked in the best way possible. The fresh sardine had been butterflied and gently cooked to perfection, allowing me to spread it greedily over the inviting base. A home-made tomato sauce brought a piquant and welcome addition.

We scored a draw over our main choices – each of us clearing our plates completely (a recurring theme throughout the night).

Nick's seabass (£15) was a single fillet cooked to perfection and served upon a pile of gorgeous greens – leeks, onions and cabbage, which had all been fried in a pan with lots of butter and just the right amount of seasoning and some bacon lardons to give it a salty and moreish edge.

My dish was a less delicate affair, but delicious too: a trio of halibut, salt beef and fondant potato (£16). The hearty piece of fish had been pan-fried to just the correct colour of toffee, remaining gleaming white inside. The potato (yes, just one, but it was giant) was a colour match and, like the best chip, was golden and crisp on the outside, hot and soft inside. The salt beef, which had been boiled and cured and cut into a generous slice, was an interesting addition, giving another flavour layer to the dish which was enhanced by a thin-pouring St Vincent sauce (like a watered-down tartare but featuring a mix of green herbs too).

To finish, we ordered two of the three desserts (we didn't fancy the sorbet option). The rice pudding (£7) was note-perfect and given a surprising lift by the addition of a caramel sauce and slices of peach, while the chocolate delice with caramel, orange and Chantilly cream (£7) was one worth fighting over (which I did with my hubby). The delice was as decadent as it comes: rich and smooth with a lingering bitterness from the dark chocolate, sharpened by the addition of salt. The thick caramel spread, light cream and segments of fresh orange brought a balance to the excellent dessert, adding touches of sweetness and a sharp tang that we would remember on the cold, trip home.

At around £30 a head for a three-course dinner, Fish & Forest is not cheap. For its setting in a pub, these are more akin to upmarket restaurant prices. But this is restaurant food and worth it.

Fish & Forest, The Gillygate, 48 Gillygate, York


Closed Sunday and Monday

Food: Very good 4/5

Service: Top notch 5/5

Ambience: Cosy 4/5

Value: Worth it 4/5

Reviews are independent and meals paid for by The Press