Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham (Two Views) 2004

Posted on: October 11th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

A Master of Understatement by Simon Carter

In 1987, David and Helen Everitt-Matthias opened Jay Rayner’s favourite restaurant: Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham.

Helen runs the front of house of the 28 cover dining room with just one helper. David heads a kitchen staff of three.

One of the select band of Two Michelin Starred restaurants, with 8/10 in the 2005 Good Food Guide and Four AA Rosettes, Le Champignon Sauvage rates as the sixth best restaurant in Britain in The 1% Club. From the outside you would not imagine what takes place inside; as with 43 Upper Brooke Street, London, if you did not know you would not know – a secret club for gastronomes.

David has modestly described his cooking as Cuisine du Terroir with modern spicing. The term traditionally means regional French cooking using local produce that deliver flavours and textures unique to that area (just as a wine from a similar grape varies enormously according to the ‘earth’ of its origin.) It’s a phrase that conjures up earthy, hearty, gutsy, “masculine” food and to a degree these are adjectives that can be applied. They form, however, merely a cover by which the book must not be judged. The cooking is precise and clinical, the preparation faultless and the construction (components, ingredients) demonstrate versatility of style as well as a refined appreciation of taste and texture. The end products on a plate are clearly the result of a passionate dedication to the art.

The dramatically understated Duck Foie Gras starter comprises two large warm slabs on top of Duck’s Gizzards, Pancetta, roasted Quince, Walnuts and a Maury reduction. (Maury wines; lesser known than Banyuls as a dessert wine to typically accompany chocolate). The Lasagne of Sweetbreads (creamy Lamb Pancreas) and rich, unctuous Oxtail on a balancing horseradish sauce had a wow factor from the moment it arrived right through to the end. Indeed, a wow factor that I’ve not experienced for a long time! The Shetland Scallops with Pea Puree and Roasted Onion Sauce were a perfect contrast in style – enormous scallops (the type you’ll never find on a Waitrose fish counter) , perfectly seared, deliciously fresh and sweet with a tiny pinch of sea salt on top. This type of clean, precise cooking I would more associate with Royal Hospital Road. As a master artist, Everitt-Matthias switches between the gastronomic equivalent of Impressionism and Baroque with ease.

Delighting in winter menus I followed with the offal based dish of Pig’s belly and Pig’s cheek which was unashamedly rich and hearty, providing a rising sense of euphoric delirium (as only Pig’s offal or Valrhona chocolate can). “Ah, return to Bistro Bruno Monsieur Loubet and end this antipodean madness, ” I lamented.

After some cheese I chose the layered meringue, praline cream and chocolate cake with Tonka bean ice cream on the side. Tonka beans are large and strong flavoured. Heston Blumanthal and Chris Staines have both flavoured ice creams and the former created a veloute. Rich and flavour packed, the pudding finished me off; I couldn’t manage any of the (many) exquisite looking chocolates that came with coffee.

A note on the pre-pudding and pre-starter. I’d never paid too much attention to these freebies – one too many samey pumpkin veloutes or uninspired lime creams. In fact the first time I really took notice was at Tom Aikens’ where a celeriac veloute had subtle and complex flavours that developed on the palate and lingered like a Grand Cru Classe. On this occasion we were offered a game and liquorice veloute. The richness of the game and the sharp distinctive liquorice met on the centre of the palate in a crisp conclusion. Very interesting (in a positive way) and memorable. The pre-pudding was a Rose Geranium scented cream topped with sugar space dust. I found this less convincing (let Heston do as Heston does).

In all, the evening was worth every minute of my four hour round trip and about twice the price we paid. [The sensitivity of the local clientele to price points means the average bill is between a half and two thirds of what you would expect from one of the few restaurants of a similar rating in London. At the same time, maintaining the 60% plus GP required to run a profitable business must take some doing. The wines too are easy on the customer with comparatively low mark-ups across the list.]

Passing references might be made to other chefs – Loubet, Koffman, Ramsay or Blumenthal but only as compliments, not as eclectic influences. The cooking is individual and the style is unique. I’m not sure what motivates the likes of Michelin to award the coveted Three Stars but in the modern age they may expect their luminaries to represent the industry in the media. While this is not the way of David Everitt-Matthias his cooking will continue to light up the gastronomic world for some time to come.

Should you live within a 90 minute journey of this restaurant and you do not visit at least once a quarter then you must ask yourself why….

A Champion Among Restaurants by Daniel Darwood

My first of six visits to Le Champignon Sauvage was for Saturday lunch, shortly after the restaurant gained its second Michelin Star. The dining room was relatively empty except for me and two elderly local hoteliers chatting to Helen Everitt-Matthias. Their conversation moved onto the quality of local restaurants and hotels and went something like this:

Couple: Have you heard of Michelin?

H. E-M : Yes…….

Couple: Would you like a Michelin Star?


H. E-M: Well,actually we have two (modestly)

Couple: Really?………..

(embarrassed silence)

I had to chuckle at the couple’s faux pas and Helen Everritt-Matthias’ phlegmatic response. In many ways things have not changed: the residents of Cheltenham and its environs must still be relatively unaware – or insufficiently appreciative – of this gastronomic jewel in their midst, otherwise it would be packed out every night, as is the case with equally rated establishments in the south east; and Helen Everitt- Matthias remains as charming, courteous, tactful and modest as ever.

Indeed, lack of ostentation is the hallmark of Champignon Sauvage. Its façade blends in with the rest of the terrace of shops, restaurants and pubs on Suffolk Road so much that it is easy to miss the front entrance altogether. The lounge is the size of a sitting room, whilst the restaurant itself has only 28 covers. An eclectic but not flamboyant choice of paintings decorates its walls, and the tables, chairs and place settings offer only modest comfort and luxury. Prices continue to represent excellent value for money, whether it is the set lunch, the weekday set dinner, or indeed the Carte, given its luxury ingredients and masterful cooking. Nor does the chef visit the diners at the end of service to receive applause:

David Everitt-Matthias, a previous winner of the National Chef of the Year, is highly skilled but low profile.

What has changed and what is bold is the confident development of the menu. This is based on the scrupulous sourcing of the freshest ingredients –

Shetland Scallops, Gloucester Old Spot pig, local (Winchcombe) venison – and an imagination limited only by a judicious sense of which combinations actually work. Consider for instance the amuse bouche of game veloute with liquorice. Instead of two strong flavours counter-acting each other, the soft earthiness of the game is cut by the distinctive taste of the herb.

Throughout, the cooking is complex and multi-layered, true to the French classics but with innovation enhancing the finished combination. The generous starter of seared foie gras came with fried pancetta, gizzards, Maury syrup and balsamic dressed salad. This is a robust dish, not for the feint hearted. The same is true of a lasagne of oxtail and sweetbreads, where the light horseradish foam balanced the richness of the meat and offal. Hand dived scallops – plump, rich and perfectly timed – were balanced by pea and onion purees of exquisite smoothness.

Main courses include saddle of venison, with the texture of beef and meltingly tender. The sauerkraut which accompanied it was mercifully free from excessive acidity that can mask any dish. Pork belly and pig’s cheek which proved rich and unctuous, and not overwhelmed by the five spice seasoning.

French and English cheeses were in prime condition, as were home made biscuits which accompanied them. Crackling sugar in the pre dessert of geranium scented cream tickled our aural sensations. Fortunately, we were not offered headphones to enhance this experience! Desserts are as rich as the other courses, albeit simpler in their presentation. Roast pineapple and molasses, with pineapple and angelica sorbet; proved a successful combination of sweet and hot, light and cold.

All the incidentals, including the crusty strong flour white rolls and petits fours are first rate. Wines, whether per glass or bottle, are excellent value for money.

With only three in the kitchen, and despite its limited space and unremarkable location the restaurant nevertheless goes from strength to strength. The sous chef has recently been a runner up in the Young Chef of the Year competition, an accolade which speaks volumes for the experience he has gained under David Everitt- Matthias.