Expectations are higher than usual before our lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, because having eaten here before, I’ve set them there. When I sit down and think about the food I’ve been fortunate enough to eat, few places stand out as much as the first time I dined here. It was dinner full of twists and slight of hand, of punchy flavours that evolve in the mouth. It was technically perfect, confident and brave. I’m anxious when we book again because I want it to sparkle like it did before, and because I’ve backed myself enough to tell Claire the food is up there with the very best I’ve had. She’s a fussy one, that girl.
Fortunately, it’s everything I remember and more. The cooking of David Everiit-Matthias still continues to push boundaries with the subtlest of gestures. Canapés on arrival see an exquisite walnut and blue cheese cookie, with the lunches only misstep; a creamed cods roe on a spongey squid ink cracker that leaves us hankering for water. From there it’s back to the ethereal bacon and shallot bread that we smear thick with salted butter and instantly request seconds of. I remember the little ceramic pots that the amouse’s come in fondly, this one with a courgette and lovage set cream at the base, dots of parmesan cream and a crumb of black olive and flax seed. What on paper reads like a random list of ingredients is coaxed into dish that evolves from an almost curried vegetal start into one that finishes with a long savoury depth. It’s a brilliant pre-starter that pulls you in and refuses to let go.
I always feel guilty when I order soup in a restaurant, especially so in one bestowed with two Michelin stars. It’s always the most beige of options, the decision to make when the ability to make decisions alludes you. The cauliflower and cumin soup may have been beige in colour but the flavour is there in abundance – a blast of earthiness and warning spice. Texture comes in the way of a crunchy Bombay spice mixture that takes it up a notch by adding interest and definition. We dredge the last of it from the base of the bowl with more of that bacon bread.
We dip into the a la carte menu for pigeon. The breast is very rare, with a pastilla of spiced leg meat and pistachio. It needs the sweet acidity of the cherry to cut through it all and it’s here in puree’s and gels and most cleverly, as a glazed dome in a pate de fruit style that had the appearance of a cherry, stalk and all. It’s a brilliant bit of cooking; light and packed with flavour whilst always offering contrast. This alone is better than anything we ate at the three star Ducasse two months back.
There was also so much to admire about a rabbit main. The leg is beautifully moist, stuffed with offal and roasted, as was a teeny boudin sausage that had the faint tang of working organs. We love the thick baton of slow roasted carrot and dots of the same pureed vegetable which I swear had been enlivened with a squeeze of orange juice. Top billing goes to the croquette of confit shoulder that manages to make the usually delicate flavour of the meat more forceful. The entire dish is complex in technique yet gloriously simple in taste.
The last time I was here I waxed lyrically over a pork dish that I then described as one of the finest I have ever eaten. I still stand by that. This is another stellar piece of porkery, a slender rectangle of belly, pressed and roasted to perfection with a glass-like piece of crackling lining one side. What makes this dish so special is the juxtaposition between the sweet and the acidic: The latter is everywhere, from the lightest of pickles used on baby onions and walnuts, to salad onions and gossamer thin slices of pear. The former is a deep brown sauce of cooking liquor reduction that has been thickened to an almost treacle like quality. It is beautiful. The man is a genius.
Claire fancied two of the desserts so I am told to order an apple cheesecake even when there is a cheese trolley with my name written all over it. The cheesecake is good, maybe a little too subtle for my liking, but it works so well with a vivid blackcurrant sorbet that tastes purely of the dark fruit. Solid pastry work is at hand with a pistachio and raspberry tart with pistachio ice-cream. Sandwiched between the shortest of pastry is a pistachio frangipane and the smoothest of raspberry jams. It’s a Bakewell tart for grownups. Adventure can be found elsewhere on the plate with candied pistachios and glazed raspberries. Like the cheesecake it’s just two ingredients, each perfectly aligned with one another. We finish with petit fours which veer from a divisive chocolate flavoured with star anise to a mini rum baba that neither of us want to share.
With lunch an absolute bargain at £34 for three courses and wines starting at £22, we could have done this for under a ton had we not had a bottle of fizz and something indulgent from Paulliac. But hey, who cares, it’s places like this that are worth saving for. Afterwards we saunter around the corner to John Gordon for another glass of red and get the train before it starts to get a little blurry. On said train we discuss the lunch; she loved it. Of course she would, it’s brilliant. Two years on from my last visit this little hobby of mine has taken me to some very serious restaurants, yet this little place in Cheltenham firmly remains one of my absolute favourites. Le Champignon Sauvage is vital. You must give it a go.