Warwick Payne tries out the Black Rat in Winchester, which is already causing a stir, just three months after opening

IT only opened in June, but already, The Black Rat is a strong contender for Winchester's best new restaurant of 2007.

The Chesil Street venue has an impressive menu created by a top Hampshire chef.

While based at the Old Chesil Rectory nearby, Philip Storey's talents were recognised with a Michelin star.

That in mind, I was eager to discover if The Black Rat's cuisine was equally impressive.

On arrival, the décor looked familiar, chiefly because it reflected The Black Boy pub in nearby Wharf Hill.

David Nicholson owns both venues, and hopes the restaurant will follow the success of his award-winning pub.

For starters, my dining companion had salad of fresh buffalo mozzarella with peaches and basil. He was highly impressed, and eager to attempt the recipe in his own kitchen.

Making the most of being with a mate instead of a date, I selected whole tiger prawns with chilli and garlic.

As expected, they were gratifyingly messy and tasted fantastic.

For the main course, my companion had Gressingham duck with prunes and Savoy cabbage.

The meat was plentiful, and came with tasty sauce. The cabbage's texture was also good, but its flavour was often lost amongst the strong-tasting duck.

I had grilled black bream fillets. Apart from light seasoning, the delicate texture and flavour did all the talking.

The rest of the dish was a fabulous riot of colour, featuring chorizo sausage, fennel and tomatoes.

At this point my companion noticed a trend.

All of the dishes, he said, had at least two strong flavours, meaning there was never any danger of a dull mouthful.

For dessert, he chose freshly baked honey Madelaines (miniature sponges) with Valrhona chocolate.

The taste and texture was perfect, and the presentation was excellent, which was true of every dish we tried.

I opted for Plum Tarte Fine' with toasted almonds and crème fraîche.

It was a gamble, as I often find plums too sharp, but I trusted the chef and was rewarded.

The crème fraîche neutralised the fruit's bitterness, and the pastry and almonds were equally tasty.

After the meal, my companion and I agreed that the quality we expected to find was in plentiful supply.

The restaurant staff were also friendly and attentive, helping diners to feel comfortable.

The meal for two, including two bottles of Old Speckled Hen ale each, was £72.45.

The Black Rat, Chesil Street, Winchester. For reservations, call 01962 844465