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
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
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
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.