I visit Cheltenham

Saturday, March 22nd , 2008

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Long–time readers of this web site will know that I have rather struggled with the Fat Duck over the years. The ultra-experimental is not my personal favourite cooking style, and so while I could admire the inventiveness I always yearned to see more of the technically superb cooking (one example pictured) which can be found on the a la carte rather than the tasting menu. However I have found that each meal I have eaten there has been better than its predecessor, culminating this week in a meal with so many fine elements that I have finally nudged its score up to 9/10, the only 9/10 I have on my site in the UK. A pigeon dish was a real highlight for me, as was a superbly balanced crab biscuit starter. If they would introduce more seasonality into the menu then this would be capable of even greater heights. 
Le Champignon Sauvage was a place I have been meaning to visit for some time, and perhaps my expectations were too high. There were some fine aspects of our meal: a lovely duck main course, terrific home-made bread, a very fairly priced wine list. Yet there were some slips also which you do not expect in a two star Michelin restaurant, and for me the menu is trying too hard to be determinedly modern. Ingredients are great, technique patchier than I had expected.   
Lumiere is a much more casual affair, and by contrast with the sparsely populated Champignon Sauvage it was full. The menu is modern British, with sensible use of spices in some dishes combined with excellent ingredients, lifting it above the level of the trendy bistro it could easily be. There was a real warmth to the welcome, and generally good cooking with just the odd blemish. Since the owners are planning to sell up (the chef has designed a golf game he hopes to bring to market!), check carefully if booking.
In Cheltenham we stayed at an unusual boutique hotel called Thirty Two.  This is a grand Georgian terraced house overlooking the impressive Imperial Gardens. It has just four rooms, run by a pair of gentlemen who are interior designers by training, and who have done a terrific job of updating the feel of this old house in an eclectic style. The rooms are spacious and attractive, and there is a lovely drawing room with a view over the gardens. Essentially this is an up-market boarding house, and the front of house Jonathan (his partner has the same first name) is a genial host. It is certainly fully priced, but it is very well located and we had a most enjoyable stay there. 
There has been a chef change at the trendy Mint Leaf but the cooking level has not really shifted. There are still excellent tandoori dishes, nice presentation, fine breads and prices that are too high.