WHAT a find – a Michelin star standard restaurant within a ten-minute drive from home.

I’m talking about the Vita Bella Italian restaurant in East Hanningfield. Previously run as the Three Horseshoes pub, it was certainly a lucky find for my wife and I.

We booked the night before Christmas Eve, so was unsurprised to see the spacious open beamed restaurant heaving with festive diners.

What did surprise us on arrival, was the quality and professionalism of the staff – all in smart uniforms and all wearing white gloves.

It wasmore reminiscent of Michel Roux’s Gavroche restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge than a former Essex country pub brought back to life after being left derelict for three years.

The service was faultless, from the warm reception from Adriana when we entered, to the attentive politeness of the owner – who I shall call “Chips” because I can’t pronounce his Christian name – who took our order.

There’s a variety of menus including a two-course choice for £22.95 or three courses for £25.95. There is also a lunch menu – two courses for £15.90, or three for £18.90.

In addition, there is a specials menu and the a la carte, which I went for.

Spoilt for choice, I could have chosen anything, but decided to start with ravioli stuffed with lobster, crab and prawns served in a lobster bisque sauce.

Amazing flavour and textures and possibly a mains choice on our next visit with some crusty homemade bread. It was so delicious, the pasta so delicate and the filling so fresh.

My wife had calamari – a generous portion of squid rings lightly fried in what looked like a tempura batter. I pinched one off her plate. Yum.

Perusing the wine list, I spotted my favourite tipple, Amarone, but at £126 a bottle – and being in charge of a red racing car in the car park – I instead settled for a glass of very quaffable Rioja. My wife said she enjoyed her glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Rolling the Rioja around in my mouth whetted my appetite for the main event – a fillet Rossini.

It was a beautifully tender 10 ounce steak served on a freshly-baked crostini and topped with duck foie gras. The jug of piping hot mushroom sauce put me in charge of just how much I wanted to dress the steak with. The steak cut like butter and cooked just how I asked for it – the rare side of medium.

A dish of sauteed new potatoes and broccoli was shared with my wife’s dish of succulent chicken breast served in a white wine, cream and mushroom sauce. She woofed it down and left an embarrassingly clean plate.

We rested for a while before choosing a desert. I was intrigued by the sound of the panettone al forno – an Italian take on bread and butter pudding. It was a picture on a plate servedwith custard, ice cream and a dish of cherries bathed in liquor.

My wife wanted to taste it, so I trading a small portion for some of her homemade tiramisu – again delicious.

We declined coffee, being so close to home, but my wife took up Chip’s offer of a complimentary glass of Bailey’s.

The Vita Bella is in its fourth year of trading. Long may it continue to do so. It is without doubt my favourite restaurant of 2015.