How often have you eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant and the chef has not been there? The more stars, the greater likelihood of celebrity opportunities outside the kitchen, with the absent chef becoming an increasing phenomenon in the world of fine dining.
Not so at Le Champignon Sauvage, where David Everitt-Matthias has not missed a service since its opening in 1987. This amazing record – surely unmatched by chefs at this level – allied with excellent technical skill and creativity have produced food of a consistent stellar quality, earning him a first Michelin star in 1995, with a second in 2000.
The modest, unassuming personalities of both David and his charming wife Helen are reflected in the restaurant they first set up 1987. Located in a semi residential area a short walk from Cheltenham’s town centre, Le Champignon Sauvage’s unremarkable two storey blue and white exterior merges unobtrusively into the parade of shops and restaurants either side. Indeed, the tiny entrance porch, where the menu is also displayed, can easily be missed by first time diners. Inside, the small bar with deep, comfortable leather settees leads to the main dining room on the right. Originally with 28 covers on nine tables, it doubled in size with the takeover of the picture framer’s next door in 2005. Despite this, and the increased demand following the second Michelin star five years earlier, it says much for the couple’s concern for the comfort of their diners that they decided only to add four extra tables and retain only one sitting.
The décor and furnishings of the room combine elegant, traditional formality with splashes of contemporary design. The two toned walls of maple panelling and mushroom paint have a pleasing, soothing effect. Eclectic modern art and large mirrors enliven this background, adding to the sense of space. Wooden slated blinds over the sash windows give both light and privacy. Clever spotlighting at night allows dishes to be admired in all their glory. Tables dressed in fine linen are well spaced, with the round ones on the left hand side of the restaurant made especially attractive with pleated under-cloths, pendant lighting and banquette seating. Acoustics are excellent, with parts of the original dividing wall deflecting sound waves from the other half of the room.
Passion is a much overused and devalued word in gastronomic circles, but one that truly does apply in David’s case. Now, with some 35 years’ experience, he still talks enthusiastically about all aspects of food, as if he were new to the profession. Whether creating new recipes, updating older ones, manning a busy service or passing on his wisdom to his small team, the overwhelming impression is of someone happiest in the kitchen. This is also literally true for diners, as, unlike many other Michelin starred chefs, he does not visit tables after service, preferring to let the food do his talking.
Such understatement has enabled him to keep a relatively low public profile amongst top chefs. Not that he treats television appearances with disdain, but is extremely selective and will only participate when the restaurant is closed.
Nevertheless, the high esteem in which he is held in the industry has led to numerous accolades. In a career already distinguished by a host of awards, such as the 2007 Catey Chef of the Year, through to the current edition of the Good Food Guide when crowned their Chef of the Year. A permanent feature of the major food guides, with four AA rosettes and 8/10 in The Good Food Guide, Le Champignon Sauvage’s position as one of the leading restaurants in the UK is assured.
At the heart of David’s modern French cuisine is the extraction and enhancement of flavour, encapsulated in the word “Essence” which is employed in the titles of two of his ground breaking cookbooks. The use of both classical and more modern techniques, the judicious addition of herbs and spices, and a willingness to experiment, adapt and refine, have all been to this end. He predates food trends such as the use of seasonal, British and locally sourced produce, nose to tail eating and foraging by at least ten years, and has embraced aspects of molecular gastronomy but not been overwhelmed by it. Whilst acknowledging the influence of his fellow chefs, David’s food retains his own individual stamp, its integrity having stood the test of time and fashion, and is all the better for it.
Flavour and texture combinations are always harmonious and often unusual, sometimes mixing luxurious with humble ingredients. Seared scallops with carpaccio of pig’s head, pressed terrine of rabbit with brown trout, and sea bream with baby squid and chorizo cream might all feature on the menu. The use of wild food, not for decoration but as an integral part of the dish, is also notable. Consider, for instance, butter poached dabs with wilted ground elder, stonecrop garnishing beef tartare or Cinderford lamb with dandelion
Attention to detail is exceptional. For example, flavoured foams are prevented from collapsing too quickly by the use of soya lecithin granules to stabilise them. The preparation of leek ashes involves a complicated process of blanching, grilling, grinding and sieving to produce what is a small, but essential, part of a dish. The presentation of both sweet and savoury courses is exquisite, with a conscious artistry that avoids overcrowding the plate – white porcelain or dark stoneware – which themselves are carefully selected to showcase their contents.
For a two starred establishment, the menu structure and pricing offers excellent value for money. A set lunch and dinner (not Saturdays) menu is £26 for two courses, £32 for three with coffee and petit fours a mere £3 extra. The a la carte menu, with five or six options in each course, ranges from £48, £59 or £67 for two, three or four courses (dessert and cheese). A seven course tasting menu with an amuse bouche and pre dessert is £85, a bargain compared with London restaurants of a similar or lower standard.
Fine-Dining-Guide visited on a busy Thursday evening in October and found an embarrassment of riches in the tasting menu.
Amongst a selection of delightful canapés were cubes of rich but not over salty parmesan custard coated with chorizo crumbs. These produced a veritable taste sensation. Miniature sweetcorn and bacon muffins were moist and flavoursome, whilst brioche crisps with nettle and goat’s cheese dip gave contrasting tastes and textures. Such delicious, original and labour intensive preparations at this early stage of the meal augured well for what was to follow.
How fitting, given the restaurant’s name, that the amuse bouche should feature a shot of warm honey fungus veloute topped with garlic foam, a classic combination of earthy and herby flavours that worked well together.
A favourite amongst the warm, home- made breads is the bacon brioche, suitably buttery, soft, light and crumbly. The granary, white and poppy seed alternatives all benefitted from a good bake, with crisp crusts and firm crumb.
Dexter beef tartare, with its marbled grain and darker colour, was accurately seasoned with a well-balanced mixture of capers, shallots, mustard and parsley, and bound with olive oil. The accompanying corned beef, involving more labourious, time consuming preparation, had a smoother texture with contrasting mouth feel but equally unctuous flavour. Garnishes of tiny pickled onions and Shimeji mushrooms, bread crisps and stonecrop stems gave contrasting flavours and textures, whilst the whole dish was lifted by a lively but overpowering wasabi cream.
A dish of utterly fresh Salcombe crab saw the sweet white meat spiked with herbs and dressed with a coconut veloute. In contrast, and true to his philosophy of using the whole animal to avoid waste, the crab jelly, made from the shells and brown meat, had a deep crustacean flavour. White asparagus gave an al dente crunch to a dish finished off with a herbal garnish.
Large, hand dived scallops form Scotland were precisely seared to produce a seared caramelised crust encasing soft, sweet flesh. Apple matchsticks and pickled beetroot gave a gentle, balancing acidity, whilst the inspired finishing touch was an apple puree with a hint of smokiness.
The next dish was the most inventive on the menu, using heritage vegetables as the star. Buttered Witchill potatoes, turned in leek ashes and set on a caramelised onion puree of sweet intensity, were offset by a mild buffalo milk jelly and seasoned by delicate slices of turkey prosciutto – another original preparation which testifies to the chef’s fertile imagination.
Cinderford, near the Forest of Dean, is the chef’s favoured source for lamb. The tender, fully flavoured and accurately seasoned chump was served with roasted sweetbreads, the soft milky texture of which complemented the main cut perfectly. Wilted dandelion with its caramelised root gave a gentle bitterness which balanced the orange and goat’s curd accompaniments.
With the savoury courses over, desserts can often be an anti-climax on tasting menus, another failing which Le Champignon Sauvage avoids. Indeed, given that David has devoted a whole book to desserts, this part of the meal offered extra excitement.
A pre-dessert featured damson parfait, the mild astringency of which was countered by a yogurt foam.
The first dessert featured Bergamot parfait, encased in a gel of bergamot and orange, and partnered with liquorice cream and orange jelly. This combination of Earl Grey tea fragrance, citrus and aniseed, topped with a liquorice tuile, was a veritable tour de force in conception and execution.
Chocolate delice with beurre noisette and butterscotch is a variation of one of David’s classics – chocolate delice with salted caramel. Here the addition of beurre noisette added a certain nuttiness to the finished dish. The accompanying milk ice cream helped to moderate the rich bitterness of the chocolate.
This highly accomplished meal was not over yet. Given the succession of preceding courses, we could only admire if not consume the tray of petits fours served with expresso coffee. Lime leaf chocolate truffles, bitter chocolate fudge, blackcurrant and liquorice jelly, and chicory macaroons might all feature. Best of all is the miniature savarin, oozing with rum syrup and glazed with apricot jam. Together they put to shame the perfunctory specimens often served in many high end restaurants.
A meal at Le Champignon Sauvage is a real joy, not only because of the food. Guests are always assured of a warm, friendly welcome by Helen who guides her young front of house team with seamless efficiency. Service, led by Justyna Juszczuk, is at once knowledgeable and solicitous, without being obtrusive.
Ultimately the success of Le Champignon Sauvage lies in a remarkable team effort, ably led by the chef patron. His sharing, caring qualities are seen in the mentoring of his small brigade of whom he is highly protective. Whether in the kitchen, front of house or foraging in the nearby countryside, those who work at the restaurant are given full credit, as seen in the photographs in his three cookbooks.
Le Champignon Sauvage moves from strength to strength. David’s most recent accolade, for Outstanding Contribution to Food in the 2013 Observer Food Monthly Awards, recognises his enviable achievement. But here is a chef not even at the top of his game as his seemingly inexhaustible creative energies and capacity to learn indicate there is so much more to give. The UK needs a three starred restaurant outside the south east and Le Champignon Sauvage is a strong contender. We await the next Michelin guide with eager anticipation