'Twas the week before Christmas and the jobs were not done.
 
Not a present was wrapped, yet they all weighed a ton The cards were unwritten, the turkey unbought So we gave it all up for a much better thought. The children were safely still tucked up in school And Mum and I felt just like breaking the rules We abandoned the shopping, with one bag apiece And settled down comfortably for a right good old feast.'

 
Like Prancer and Dancer we had dodged the puddles and the crowds, heading northwards to a newly opened restaurant in the centre of Chester.
 
The Joseph Benjamin restaurant, at 140 Northgate, was opened last month by two brothers named, well you've guessed it, Ben and Joe.
 
Joe, 25, has won Cheshire Young Chef of the Year four times so our expectations were high.
 
The restaurant nestles beneath the City Walls, tucked at the side of Sayer's bakery. It promises local produce, seasonal vegetables and fine wines and as we walked through the door on a dismal winter afternoon there was a warm cheery welcome from all the staff.
 
The restaurant is small, seating only about 16 people. The brothers also offer a small delicatessen and you can buy lunch (no sandwiches) to take away.
 
We hadn't booked so our hearts sank when we saw that most tables were full, but thankfully another mother/daughter combo were just finishing and we were given a table. The cold, wet weather had given us both a hearty appetite and if we could manage it, we planned to do the full three courses. Our deadline was to be out by 3pm to make it to the school gates so we hoped the service was good.
 
The menu looked promising and wasn't daunt-ingly too large and the only thing lacking was a wide selection of soft drinks.
 
I had been out on The Chronicle's Christmas 'do' the night before so had had my fill of wine and fancied an elderflower pressé. Our waitress suggested we sample a glass of local apple juice from Willaston Fruit Farm.
 
The menu changes regularly, depending on the fresh produce available, with a choice of four starters and five main courses as well as tasting plates of North West specialities from the deli counter. There is a cheese plate with a selection of fine cheeses from the neighbouring Cheese Shop and from further afield, a platter of cured meats and salamis.
 
These are all available for £8.95 and would be a good idea to share with friends.

Anyway, we were starving and ready to tackle the full monty.
 
For shellfish lovers, there were potted shrimps flavoured with lemon horseradish and paprika (£5.20) and for carnivores a warm salad of Bury black pudding and San Daniele ham on toasted mushroom and onion focaccia (£4.85).
 
I have a bit of a goats' cheese fetish so was pleased to see an interesting dish of the aforementioned with honey and black pepper, beet-root and walnut salad and chutney and ordered that.
 
It was delicious. The goats' cheese was suitably melted with just enough bite in the centre and the portion size was just right for a starter. I could taste every item listed on the menu, each of which complemented the others beau-tifully.
 
Mum went for the home-made leek and potato soup which is a favourite for both of us. It was served with two huge pieces of a locally baked bread but we had to ask for butter as it wasn't included.
 
I have to stick rigidly to a gluten free diet, so eating out can often be a challenge. It was pleasing to discover that besides the obvious like bread, pastry and cakes, nothing was thickened with flour. Even the home-made sausages were gluten free - a joy for the likes of me.
 
I couldn't decide between the grilled sea bass (£13.95) or the hot pot but a brief look outside at the lashing rain convinced me it had to be the lamb hot pot with braised red cabbage (£10.50).
 
There was roast turkey on the menu with the full works but Mum and I have a pact not to eat any poultry for the seven days before the Big Day.
 
For vegetarians there was an interesting home-made gnocchi with butternut squash, wilted spinach and pesto (£10.50) but after much deliberation Mum decided on the home-made chicken and wild mushroom sausage with sauté potatoes and roasted vegetables (£11.85). Despite a hint of tarragon, her least favourite herb, she declared the dish was delicious and polished off every mouthful. 

The lamb in my hot pot was the tenderest meat I have tasted and the whole experience was exquisite, with the dual benefit of warming me up inside.
 
Unfortunately for us coeliacs, pudding is a bigger challenge. I would love to have tried the sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce (£4.50) or the chocolate and hazelnut brownie with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream but alas, no chance.
 
Mum ordered the apple and cinnamon crumble which was served with a home-made custard. With two prolific apple trees in her garden, she has become a veritable expert on the uses of the forbidden fruit. This crumble not only came up to but exceeded expectations. The apples were just 'tart' enough with had the right degree of crunch; the crumble had just enough cinnamon not to be overpowering. The only problem with the custard was that there was just not enough of it.
 
Oh, to have tried a piece! Joe Wright and his brother Ben have revived our faith in British cooking and I have already booked for a night out with the girls in the New Year.
 
If you can't make lunch, the brothers open the restaurant in the evenings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays or why not take the family for Sunday lunch? You'll love it.

Factfile

* Joseph Benjamin Restaurant, 140 Northgate St, Chester, CH1 2HT Tel: 01244 344 295

* Best thing: The best food in Chester.

* Worst thing: Not enough choice of soft drinks.

* Would suit: Small groups of friends or families although the restaurant can be booked for private parties of 16 - 20 people. The menu changes regularly depending on availability of fresh, local produce.

* Cost: £45 for three courses and coffee plus soft drinks. Wine starts at £10.80 a bottle or £3.20 a glass and goes up to £20.95 a bottle for an Alain Geoffroy Chablis or a Joseph Drouhin Pinot Noir. Champagne available at £34.95 a bottle.