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.