I entered another world on saturday, the world of Michelin starred restaurants and it was breathtaking. You may wonder what an apprentice chef is doing frolicking around in a fancy restaurant, we’re supposed to be in the kitchen right? The restaurant I am speaking of is called ‘Le Champignon Sauvage’. Owned and run by chef David Everitt- Matthias and his wife Helen, it has been ticking along rather nicely since 1987 in the spa town Cheltenham. Apparently the chef has never missed a service since his restaurant opened, which is no mean feat. I spent the afternoon restraining myself from asking for a tour of the kitchen. ‘Le Champignon Sauvage’ came to my attention when my father sent me a copy of David’s cookbook, ‘Essence’. It is a fantastic book, the combination of beautiful photographs and innovative, creative recipes which showcase the best of local ingredients make it a real standout. I have lent the book to many of my friends and colleagues who are now huge fans of David’s work. And so, after waiting a year and a half to finally come home to England, I had the pleasure of visiting the restaurant.
We were greeted by a friendly and professional waitress and were seated on a large round table in a quiet corner. I had a little chuckle with myself when they brought some warm gougeres to the table, it is a recipe I have cooked from ‘Essence’ and I was delighted to discover that he makes them better than I do, I’d be worried if he didn’t. I am only a second year apprentice after all! We both kicked off with a glass of the house sparkling (Ruffin Brut) whilst we fought with the appealing menu’s, how can you choose what to eat when you want everything on the menu?
Eventually we made our choices, I chose to start with the Roasted native lobster with miso glaze, risotto of oat groats, onion and orange and spiced bread. The lobster was perfectly cooked, sweet and tender, I’ve never eaten a native before. Risotto of oat groats was incredibly flavoursome, perfectly seasoned and I enjoyed the chunkier texture. The spiced bread, for me, bound the whole dish together, it had hints of star anise and Szechuan pepper. So, we were off to a fine start. Mr T enjoyed a rabbit cannelloni with icicle radish and wild asparagus. Again, it was beautifully seasoned. As we were having very different starters we opted for two half bottles of wine. Charles Vienot 05 Chevrey Chambertin and Gocker 07 Gewürztraminer. I must backtrack a little, afer we ordered our starters we were presented with an amuse-bouche of white asparagus veloute with coconut froth. It was a silken, earthy, delicious little bullet of flavour.
Next up, I ordered roast wood-pigeon breast with pigeon pastilla, whilst Mr T opted for Bream with baby squid and octopus married with chorizo sauce and baby vegetables. Mine was again incredibly flavourful, the roast breast was rich and gamey and perfectly pink inside. The pastilla was spiced wonderfully and the large round grey plate was littered with little pauses of flavour, preserved lemon, fig paste, confit baby carrots etc. Mr T found his bream was moist and tender, the wonderful treatment of the baby squid and octopus brought the whole dish together. And the medley of baby vegetables showed the sheer attention to detail. There were many and varied ingredients on each of our plates but they were so dexterously handled that they managed to avoid the ‘party on a plate’ aspect.
Have I gushed enough yet? Not quite my friends, not quite… And so it was, with heavy stomachs we soldiered on and asked for the dessert menu. As an Earl Grey fan from way back, I could not pass by the Iced Bergamot Parfait with orange jelly and liquorice cream. On contact, the deeply intense and concentrated flavour of bergamot exploded on my palate, it was strong and for about three seconds, it scared me. However, it soon mellowed out and then almost disappeared, I had to keep eating more just to make sure I hadn’t imagined it! The orange and liquorice were the perfect partners and the whole dish was seamless (again). Mr T chose the Lemon Meringue cheesecake with lemon jelly and basil mojito sorbet. In his own words, it was ‘very lemony and very fresh’, oh how eloquent he is. I personally found the basil mojito sorbet a bit much on its own but when I tried it with the lemon cheesecake it worked well.
By this point in the proceedings we were stuffed to the gills and marginally intoxicated so we ordered coffee and petit fours with the intention of taking the petit fours away with us. Which we did, better to enjoy them when you’re hungry I think, and that’s exactly what we did the next day. So we wound up the proceedings with Armagnac and coffee and rolled out of the restaurant and onto the bus, from glamour to stark reality in a few short steps!
Overall, it was the best food experience I have ever had. I have eaten individual dishes in other restaurants over the years which equalled some of the dishes but I have never had every single facet be so consistently high. The staff were polite and helpful but very restrained. My only gripe which I felt I must include was the atmosphere, or lack thereof. Admittedly we were dining on a saturday lunchtime but the small dining room (35-40 pax) was very quiet. Populated with nice middle-aged country folk, it was a bit staid to say the least. I think next time I would want to go with a larger group, so we could liven the place up or book the whole damn place and fill it with people we know. Because, I think everyone I know should eat there. David Everitt-Matthias and his team are clearly cooking with passion and enthusiasm and have a rare and thorough understanding of food. I would go there again and again, if only I lived in the same country and wasn’t on an apprentice’s wage…