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Cheltenham's sauvage face

LE CHAMPIGNON SAUVAGE; 24-26 Suffolk Road Cheltenham GL50 2AQ. Tel:02142 573449. Open Monday to Friday lunch 12.30 to 1.30, dinner 7.30 to 9.15, Saturday 12.30 to 1.30 5.30 to 10.30. Average price per person, pounds 40. Credit cards accepted
Idle and disorganised visitors to Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham should be warned. The Champignon is not the only thing that is Sauvage. The chef, David Everitt-Matthias, can be pretty savage himself. Last orders for lunch are at 1.30 on the dot, and the two plump literary ladies in tweeds and frothing curls who condescended to arrive at 1.35 without having made a booking got short shrift from the waitress. Very polite short shrift, but absolutely no hope of lunch. The lady with the more booming voice marched off, saying that this was the unacceptable face of Britain. I might easily have said the same thing, but by that time I was in awe, as much of the waitress as of the system.

We had been warned about the deadline when we rang to book, and found ourselves at one o'clock, stuck in traffic, five miles away. Being blessed with a mobile telephone, I rang Le Champignon Sauvage to warn them we might be late. A woman's voice answered. She was unrelenting: last orders were at half past one, but she was amazingly patient in explaining exactly how to find our way through the one-way system and up to Suffolk Road. By 1.20 we were in Cheltenham but lost, and I rang again. This time she talked me down street by street and said she would be outside the door to show us where to park.

We found her with only two minutes to spare. I threw myself into the restaurant while my wife parked the car, and she stood over me, pencil at the ready and insisting with an anxious eye on the kitchen door that I order for both of us. I then realised that she had been combining the street-by-street talkdown with serving all the tables. In the evening, she told me, last orders were at 9.15.

The restaurant, with a small bar, is a calm room with green-upholstered high-backed chairs, pale grey tablecloths and a bright little yellow-patterned border running underneath the cornice. It seemed entirely full of contentment, with customers ranging from the young parents of a happily gurgling baby to a pair of almost suspiciously happy married oldies. I hesitate to go any further than that as the last time I, or possibly my wife, attributed some fellow-diners' radiant happiness to adultery I received a cross letter from them, saying that in fact they had been married for 20 years.

There was a choice of three things for every course. The guinea-fowl confit with layers of crispy potato sounded a bit much for a starter so I risked ordering a cream of celery soup with a poached egg for myself, and as a surprise for my wife eel tortelloni with a watercress cream. For the main course there was something described in French as jambe d'agneau - the whole menu had a slight air of having been translated out of English into French and then back again - which figured in English as Cinderford lamb shank braised with honey and beer served with a roasted carrot puree, but I thought we should try something a bit more exotic. I therefore ordered the roti de saumon au chou aigre - "soured cabbage" - beurre rouge au genevrier, and spiced breasts of wood pigeon - supremes de pigeon ramier - served with a port jus and Puy lentils.

I made a minimalist but expensive decision on the wine, ordering a half- bottle of something called Beaune Premier Cru at pounds 18.80. Many cheaper wines were available, as well as some that were far more expensive.

Almost as soon as we sat down we were brought a little appetiser, a piece of "naturally" smoked haddock with cream and sweet corn, which despite my reservations in general about anything containing bits of sweet corn, could not have been better. My wife said it was "very good and wholesome".

She was initially satirical about the starter I had chosen for her, picturing the chef's expression of ecstasy, after hours of "What can we give them?" when he finally thought of eel tortelloni. Then it arrived and she became more respectful. The little packets of eel were very good, the pad of spinach underneath and the watercress sauce were delicious, as were the deep-fried shreds of leek that decorated it. My celery soup was light and peppery and full of flavour. The poached egg was a good idea, but could have been more lightly cooked.

Perhaps by contrast with our mad dash to get there, the mood in Le Champignon Sauvage now seemed leisured and almost idyllically peaceful. The lady at the next table said they ought to tape the baby's chuckles and play it as background music.

The salmon with soured cabbage came with a black olive polenta and won a good deal of approval. The soured cabbage was heading in the direction of sauerkraut, but much milder and sweeter and went very well with the moist, pale pink salmon and the polenta. I had two large pieces of pigeon breast. It was underdone, a pinkish-red, and came with a rich lentil sauce. We were also brought little side-dishes of mangetouts, carrots, broccoli and a tender cube of swede.

For pudding there was a warm chocolate tart with vanilla ice-cream. Again, rather out of curiosity, I ordered the cake de betterave - translated as "beetroot cake" - with a greengage sorbet. This was a little sponge- cake flavoured with something red and sweet I wouldn't have immediately identified as beetroot, with an equally delicious sorbet littered with sultanas that I wouldn't have immediately identified as made with greengages. But then I'm not an expert. My wife chose the cheese.

Lunch for the two of us, including coffee, came to pounds 57.70, without the tip. !