I am not going to make a fuss about this, but January 29 was my birthday. When I
say that I am not going to make a fuss, I mean that I am not going to make a fuss
now. But I wanted to make a fuss then. The trouble was, there was no one left to
make a fuss with, aside from my daughter, Lois. My wife was away. My friends were
away. The dogs were away. Thank heavens Lois was there to take me out.
I had been meaning to visit Le Champignon Sauvage for some time. I kind of kept avoiding
the issue. It has two Michelin stars. It has an 8 rating in the Good Food Guide.
It has four rosettes in the AA Guide. It has been there for 17 years. What could
I possibly say about it that hasn't been said before? And yet, and yet, it is a good
thing to give old-stagers the once-over every now and then, to see if they are as
good as they are cracked up to be. And it was my birthday, and I deserved a treat.
Well, I wanted a treat, at any rate.
And it was a treat. It began as we slithered from the icy street into the cosy warmth
of Helen Everitt-Matthias's smile. It continued as we sat down at our table at one
end of the small dining room, and ended only when we bounced out again, full and
happy, into the slush and ice at the end of dinner.
Le Champignon Sauvage is small to the point of being very small. It seats 28 people.
It has not been decorated with the Changing Rooms mentality or modern design sensibilities
in mind. The walls are cluttered with interesting paintings. The curtains at the
end of the room are swagged and ornate. The colours are rich and full. It is like
being welcomed into the front parlour of some houseproud family. It has that sense
of unassuming warm-heartedness and personality.
Lois was in one of her more adventurous gastronomic moods. "I'll have the terrine
of roasted chicken, shiitake mushrooms and leeks," she declared boldly. "And then
I will have the roast lamb with sweetbreads and artichokes with powdered orange.
Although you may have to help me with the sweetbreads." So I thought I would have
roasted fillet of cod with pear and turnip and a light velouté of chestnuts followed
by breast of veal with snails and nettles.
It was obvious from these and other dishes on the menu - for example, fillet of red
mullet with duck confit, beetroot and dandelion salad; and fillet of brill, white
onion fondant and smoked eel cream - that, while the chef David Everitt-Matthias
might be deeply imbued with the methods and doctrines of French haute cuisine, his
cooking is not that of a man whose culinary curiosity is set in aspic. Indeed, to
jump ahead a course or two, a tiny, delectable pre-dessert of rose geranium cream
with damson also contained an unheralded sprinkling of space dust that popped like
fire crackers in our mouths, causing us to laugh out loud with pleasure and me to
reminisce about Heston Blumenthal's use of the same ingredient in a heart-stopping
So, while the building blocks of each dish may be treated with the respect that comes
from classic technique, the other ingredients - sauces, stuffings, supporting players,
vegetables - bring a thoughtful freshness to the dishes. Nor is the kitchen afraid
of flavour, or richness, come to that. There is a generosity of both, a certain forthrightness
as well as a layering of tastes, such as in Lois's terrine, which pitched chicken
against shiitake mushroom. It says a good deal for the chicken that it held its own
against the fungus, which has a powerful, enveloping flavour.
Indeed, much of Everitt-Matthias's food is really quite hearty. The breast of lamb
was a hugely hunky number, rich, soft and tender enough to eat with gums alone. The
combination of snails and nettle purée gave it a boisterous, rustic edge, and all
the elements were held in place by a ding-dong, oak-brown reduction that had a balanced
power, but that didn't glue together my lips.
The lamb and the cod dishes were of a higher order of delicacy, even though the chestnut
velouté with the cod would never get the thumbs up from Dr Atkins. It was very smooth
and refined, as a velouté is supposed to be, with the turnip and pear bringing out
the reticent chestnut with their respective earthiness and fruitiness, in the same
way that the powdered orange lifted the lamb dish, adding a breath of citrus oil
in the way orange peel does to a daube Provençale.
Yes, we did have puddings, too: a light prune and burdock mousse with toasted almond
ice cream for me, and for her a marjolaine of praline and truffle with Tonka bean
ice cream (whatever that might be). Both were as yummy as they were sweet. And, yes,
we did get a bill - for £100.50, which included £18.50 on a couple of glasses of
house wines, a brace of lime and lemonades, and waters. I haven't spent that little
on my birthday for a couple of decades.