24-26 Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2AQ | (01242) 573449
Le Champignon Sauvage Restaurant in Cheltenham is a famous two Michelin star-rated venue situated in the town’s Suffolk area, offering modern French cuisine with a twist.
It wasn’t just David Everitt-Matthias’ cooking that created a constant stream of surprises during our trip to Cheltenham’s two Michelin Star restaurant, Le Champignon Sauvage. SoGlos.com’s bank manager was in for a shock too.
With 21 years of being awarded a banquet of accolades and winning over food critics’ frosty hearts the nation over, what could possibly be written about Le Champignon Sauvage that hasn’t been typed, and re-typed, before? Well, rather a lot as it happens.
Yes, Cheltenham’s Le Champignon Sauvage is one of only 12 restaurants in the country with two gloriously shiny Michelin Stars to its name. Yes, the food is sublimely crafted and inventively conceived. And yes, it most certainly is a destination restaurant worth seeking out by gastronomes spanning Gloucestershire and beyond. But you probably knew all of that already.
What you might not know is that during our visit to the Suffolk Road restaurant there wasn’t a snooty member of aristocracy in sight; you didn’t have to have a degree in French to read the menu; and most surprisingly of all, the most exquisite dinner we’ve had the pleasure of devouring in Gloucestershire didn’t give the bank manager a heart attack – in fact, we were astounded to discover that a nearby pub was actually serving more expensive house wines.
Seated at a circular table for two, with both chairs facing out towards the middle of the restaurant, a spot of people watching seemed expected – with diners entering the restaurant all unable to resist nosily glancing around to see who they would be dining alongside. We weren’t sure if the newcomers were expecting to see high flying celebrities incognito in Cheltenham, but sans the sunglasses-wearing A-List, Le Champignon Sauvage catered to quite a mix on our evening visit: a sprinkling of young, trendy couples indulging in romantic dates; a splash of the middle-aged executive, all dressed to impress; a dash of glamour from the tanned pensioners with expensive tastes when it came to the overheard wine selection; and a pinch of the more casually-dressed after-workers, who comfortably dined solo.
The décor too is homely and inviting, not the sleek minimalism we expected. An eclectic mix of art in the dining room hinted at the patrons’ individual tastes and a trip to the ladies revealed a kitsch collection of mushroom themed-art work and ornaments. Despite the warm décor and lack of dress code, however, this isn’t an establishment where anything goes.
The atmosphere upon entering the quiet and brightly-lit dining room – with a noticeable lack of music to allow dedicated attention to the food, presumably – is far from casual. Chatter, eased by the collective sipping of well-priced wine, unmistakably warmed-up during the evening, but this is a restaurant where rowdy would certainly not cut it. Arriving on time is also an unsaid expectation – which David mentioned later had led to a few ‘ridiculously late’ people going home hungry in the past.
Surveying the impressively extensive wine list – one of the most affordable we have seen anywhere in the county, starting from just £11 a bottle for a decent house – we opted for a bottle of red Menetou-Salon, priced at the lower end of the selection at just £17. The two- and three-course set menu choices proved tempting, particularly as they are breathtaking inexpensive at £23 and £28 respectively, between Tuesday and Friday. But, we opted for the a la carte selections – still surprisingly economical at £39 for two courses and £48 for three courses.
From the first spoonful of the pre-starter – lightly fragrant vichyssoise with dense, creamy salt cod mousse – the experimental quality of Le Champignon Sauvage’s uniquely conceived food was immediately evident. The menu descriptions only hinted at the whimsical flavour combinations awaiting us and, as we broke the warm brioche and bacon home-baked bread, we almost held our breath in anticipation.
To say that we were not disappointed would be the understatement of the century. Tender discs of flavoursome dived Shetland scallops with a subtly sweet Jerusalem artichoke puree, globe artichokes and liquorice root combined to create a first class starter that was to set the standard for the evening. The hearty terrine of Whelford guinea fowl, tender ham hock and leek, beetroot, salty sea purslane, date and caper puree melded complex flavours with dexterity – with both starters served with elegant precision and infinite care, each worthy of a glossy photo in David’s cookery book Essence.
With the arrival of the main course came more meaty delights opposite – this time a tender, pink hunk of Cinderford lamb and smoked onion, served with a powerful cep mushroom puree which proved a richly dark, musky and masculine dish that reminded the smiling diner of running through damp, autumnal woods. My beautifully succulent partridge with sticky chicory caramelised in maple syrup, served alongside a creamy walnut mash, also conjured images of foraging through forests – albeit on a brighter day.
The service was as efficient as a well-oiled machine – slick, professional and swift without being rushed, thanks to two polite waitresses, while David’s wife Helen sashayed gracefully from table-to-table, sharing smiles and her extensive food knowledge with diners keen to flex their foodie muscles by questioning minute details of the menu. While most of our surrounding diners seemed to take food very seriously, giggles were aroused in the most earnest of gastronomes by tiny servings of pink geranium-scented crème brûlée, topped with joyous mouthfuls of popping candy. I have to admit this delicate pre-dessert was the highlight of the evening, not only for its nostalgic touch, but for showing that good food can have a sense of playful humour too.
Chicory once more made an appearance in the odd-sounding, and even odder-tasting, combination of salted chicory root iced mousse, vanilla rice pudding and rich chocolate sorbet. Presented in a layered sandwich, the complex combination worked like an alchemist’s spell, but the salty dessert wasn’t quite to my individual taste. The warm prune cake with pressed apples and wild cherry stone ice cream meanwhile was a luxurious take on a classic dish, oozing with a moist, mature bitterness.
To say that we arrived at Le Champignon Sauvage with high hopes would be foolishly obvious. David Everitt-Matthias’ well-reported skill in the kitchen, an unsurpassed quality of ingredients and award-winningly inventive menu were always going to combine to create one of Gloucestershire’s greatest restaurants. Matched with a self-confident lack of pretention and unexpected value for money, however, makes Le Champignon Sauvage as pretty darned near perfection as we could hope for.
The average price for a three-course meal for two at Le Champignon Sauvage, excluding drinks, is around £75.
By Michelle Fyrne
Tuesday 25 March 2008
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