Why go? Michelin-starred cooking at incredibly good prices.
Every restaurant critic is expected to have his or her own top tip, a little gem
languishing in delicious obscurity which the pundit can guarantee will serve up a
blinder time after time. It is one of the curiosities of the British restaurant business
that my top tip - indeed, the place that first gave me the appetite for eating out
for a living - should be both obscure and yet one of the dozen best establishments
in the country. The inspectors for Michelin, as fair a measure of these things as
any, rate it as highly as La Tante Claire or Le Gavroche. And yet the chances are
that you have never heard of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham.
I first went there ten years ago and had what I considered to been one of the best
meals I had eaten in my life: an open ravioli of lobster and mussels in a pasta as
soft as silk, followed by rich, gamey roast pork and then a mint chocolate soufflé
that almost floated off the table, it was so light. A year or so ago, when appointed
restaurant critic for The Observer, I swiftly returned to Cheltenham, desperate not
to be disappointed. I wasn't. If anything, the food seemed to have improved. Michelin
agreed. Last year, Le Champignon Sauvage was the only restaurant in Britain to be
upgraded from one to two star.
The most extraordinary thing about the place is the number of people who produce
the food. Recently chef David Everitt-Matthias doubled the size of his brigade: there
are now two people helping him instead of just one. Granted, it is a small place.
The bright, airy dining room, overseen with irresistible informality by David's wife
Helen, has just 28 covers. But dishes of this intensity and precision still require
a lot of work, however many you are sending out. "I'm a masculine cook rather than
a feminine one," David says of his gutsy style. "I like to have three or four things
on the plate and for each one to be there for a reason. It's terroir food that has
been brought up to date."
That's as good a description of the food here as any. A starter of scallops, left
by most chefs to headline by themselves, here co-star with country ham and a pickled
apple puree, bringing together the sweet, the salty and the sour. A main course of
fillet of Wiltshire pork, homemade black pudding and stuffed cabbage is quintessential
Everitt-Matthias. It sounds almost overwhelming, a butch dish in an effete gourmand
world, but in David's hands each ingredient takes on a peculiar delicacy: he has
a talent for making the pork taste more of itself than the original ingredient. Ever
in search of grace notes, he serves an intense chocolate tart for pudding that comes
flavoured with coriander.
There are some great bargains to be had: the three-course lunch comes in at £19.95,
and an evening menu du jour costs only £17.95 for two courses and £21.50 for three.
But even the prix fixe dinner menu (£39 for three courses, £46 for four) is competitive.
Refreshingly, Everitt-Matthias claims no ambitions beyond his stove. "I've turned
down Ready Steady Cook and things like that," he says. "I'm not a TV chef. It's not
my scene. I just want to hide in the kitchen. " For those of us who count ourselves
among his fans, that is terrific news.