Jan Moir Are You Ready To Order
Look, S. Here is the wine list. Have a look through it and pick out some nice bottles. That's your job. Now what's happening? The waitress places two glass phials of soup on the table before beating a noiseless retreat back to the kitchen.
Do we drink the soup? We do.
Hang on a minute. That's fantastic. In years gone by, there have been moments when I thought I might scream if someone set yet another dolly-sized cup of cauliflower velouté sploshed with truffle oil courtesy-of-the-chef in front of me, but this is in a different league. The fluffy, smoked spume is so light that it melts on the lips like a snowflake and what lies beneath is a shot of lentil-based soup that's both warming and exotically fragrant. As a present from the kitchen, it does what it is supposed to do: make one feel better about being alive and sharpen the appetite for what is to follow.
A match is struck and the fire is lit inside the fat-bellied stove. After a long break from restaurant reviewing, It's all coming back to me. We have some soup, yes, and then afterwards I write about it? It seems a funny way to make a living, but I guess there could be worse.
Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham must be one of the most remarkable restaurants in Britain. For 20 years, it has been run by the chef David Everitt-Matthias and his wife, Helen, garnering a clutch of top awards - including two Michelin stars - in the process. Yet the couple keep a very low profile.
If you haven't heard of him, that's because he is not making television programmes or signing book deals or advertising low-fat spreads in magazines. He's in his kitchen cooking. Every single day. For he hasn't missed a lunch or dinner service since his restaurant opened in 1987. Working in the kitchen? Now there's a scary concept for those grinning turnips masquerading as chefs on our television screens.
The restaurant is set in a quiet street to the south of the city centre in premises that might possibly have been a pub. Inside, there is a large, comfortable bar area where Mrs E-M wafts in to greet her customers. The restaurant itself is a long, narrow room decorated in shades of yellow and blue.
Imagine being trapped inside a billowing Swedish flag on a cloudy day and you will get the idea. Thick striped curtains are looped around roundels at the windows, while bright, modern art hangs on the walls. You could carbon-date the design style to the exact day that the puffball skirts hit the high street the first time around, but at least this restaurant's decor is unique and comfortable with itself, which have to be signs for the good.
The menu is unique, too. With its roots in cuisine de terroir, Mr E-M's dishes use both the finest and the humblest of ingredients with intriguing individualism: skate wing with smoked haddock brandade and clam velouté; roast pigeon with cockscombs and parsley root purée; duck foie gras with roasted quince and walnuts; lasagne of oxtail and lamb's sweetbreads with horseradish sauce; prune and burdock root mousse with toasted almond ice cream. There is something else that is different, too - every dish seems well ordered and sensible. They sound as if they will work.
To begin, S continues work on his six-volume opus A Terrine in Every Town (or I'll Cry) by ordering the restaurant's partridge, foie gras, ham hock, pear and turnip version, while I have the special, a ravioli of brandade resting on some trotter meat and dressed with an almond sauce. It seems an odd selection of ingredients, in a let's-use-up-the-leftovers way, but good housekeeping is the life-blood of small restaurants and the dish, with its silky pasta and moist meat, is rich and comforting, with the lightest of nutty sauces.
The pressed terrine is a thing of beauty, a curving, jewelled slice of layered meats, with a few glistening crystals of salt scattered on top. It has a perfect contrast of flavours and textures - the solid density of the bird above the sleek foie gras above the plush shreds of ham. S confesses it's "one of the best ever" and he should know.
From les plats principaux, as Le Champignon Sauvage insists, a beautiful fillet of gilt-head bream undulates across a few cep mushroom gnocchi, which look like tiny cocktail sausages, but taste like little mushroom clouds. Around this is a swirl of red wine and carrot emulsion, which has a spectacular colour, but a restrained, dry, elegant flavour.
Cinderford lamb, served with onion roasted with liquorice and some crushed Jerusalem artichoke, is the one stumbling disappointment - the fillet is tough and sinewy - but I partly blame myself for ordering it in the first place. Restaurants have got to have lamb on the menu - the British public demand it - but this is not a great time of year for it. In mitigation, the dark hint of liquorice that furtively creeps through the sauce is superb.
Best of all, however, is the chicory cheesecake with chicory ripple ice cream. Everitt-Matthias is known for his use of wild herbs and unusual ingredients, but he doesn't do it to shock or just to be different, he does it because he knows what will work. The chicory gives the baked cheesecake a haunting, bitter toffee edge and a flavour that is almost burnt, but without that dry crackle of carbonisation. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it - another good sign.
Other things to like here include the home-baked breads, the crisp, caraway biscuits served with cheese and the dinky beauty parade of hand-crafted petit fours served with coffee.
The prices, on the wine list and elsewhere, are fair to the point of madness. We love our eight-year old bottle of fruity, silky Vosne-Romanée (£49) from a list that's really worth plundering and realise that there is something else that makes Le Champignon Sauvage unique.
It must be almost the only two Michelin star restaurant in the country where you can have a three-course à la carte meal for under £45. Really, these people are saints.
PS. Since this review was published, the restaurant has undergone a stylish refit. The Swedish flag look is no more, but the food is still wonderful.
- Le Champignon Sauvage, 24 Suffolk Road, Cheltenham (01242 573449). Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £96.