Eating Out: On the pleasure principle

The Epicurean, 81 The Promenade, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL51 1PJ. Tel: 01242 222466. Open Mon-Fri lunch and dinner, Sat dinner only; three-course dinner £35; set lunch: two courses £15, three courses £20. All credit cards ac cepted price etc
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The Independent Culture
THE EPICUREAN restaurant in Cheltenham is on the kind of town-centre street that instils not just the desire, but the urgent need for such glorious fripperies as "Caravaggio-style" painted wooden pears. Every shop along the Prom sparkles with temp tations great and small for even the most reluctant shopper. The Epicurean, too, is in the luring business, catering to several tastes and budgets with its three restaurants on one site - a basement tapas bar, a ground-floor bistro and, on the first floo r, anelegant poshie (the one we went for).

Since the trio opened four months ago, they have been the talk of the town among the eating-out classes. For one thing, until now the area has been short of good restaurants, which is strange considering the wealth in the county, not to mention the racing crowd. For another, the restaurants have colonised part of Chelten-ham's former town hall - a municipal- Georgian office block.

Our epicurean experience began 23 hours before we took our seats at table. At 9.45 on Friday night, the phone rang at the house of my Cheltenham friends' who had booked the table: "I'm ringing round everyone booked for Saturday to say I have some ducks au foie gras flown over from Paris. They're marinading now but I want to see how many portions I may need before I roast them." Maddie realised she was being addressed by the chef from the Epi-curean, but beyond that was totally bemused. Had the ducks flown over under their own steam, she wondered? Would we all have to have them? Reassured on most points, she put in an order for one portion.

The following evening our party of four was greeted on the doorstep and guided past the noisy bistro with its bright orange-wash walls to the upstairs restaurant, decorated in what you might describe as Louis XVI put through bleach. The room is panelled in stripped wood with a whitish finish, the soft furnishings and carpet are cream, and the five tables are covered in thick, white damask cloths. The one ready for us had no cutlery and no glasses - just four silver plates.

The spareness extends to the menu. The seven starters and as many main courses are given minimal description: "game broth", "parsley soup, poached oysters", "cod, veg-etable and mustard sauce". The conceit, of course, is that these plain names describe fancy food that makes you gasp in wonder.

We started with the parsley soup, startlingly green with two massive oysters looking like whales caught in shallow waters; lobster ravioli - more correctly raviolus or -lo - there was only one, albeit big enough to fill a soup plate; seared scallops, tomato and basil (much as described); and red mullet, haricot beans and baked garlic. All were absolutely delicious.

We had already tested the chef, Patrick McDonald's skill when we were served his complimentary appetiser. It didn't sound very appetising - prune, black pudding and mash - but when the tiny glistening baubles (no more than 5cm in diameter) arrived they were hard to resist. I will be risking black pudding again.

There was a wait between courses, which we spent speculating about our fellow guests. At one table of four, there was talk of dollar accounts - so we guessed they must be successful businessmen and their wives, perhaps up for the race meeting. At anotherthe group was speaking of a friend who "was doing her soup kitchens for the poor and underprivileged". Eek. And how was the lobster, darling?

And what must they have thought of us as we discussed the spiky world of competition croquet? One of our party plays for Chelten-ham. Quaint, eh? Or is it ironic in a post-modern sort of way? As you might expect, croquet is big in Cheltenham. In the world league, the town team played Switzerland - and won.

By this time our main courses had arrived. The croquet player had the pot roast pheasant, cabbage and bacon; the other two had roast salmon Provencale and, as an anecdotal investment, pig's trotter, sage, onion and truffle. It fell to me to try the specially flown-over duck au foie gras. Each looked like a painting and yet was irresistibly appetising.

The salmon was a Matisse: slithers of tomato, celery and courgettes surrounding a slab of salmon coated with olive paste. The pig's trotter, which yielded fewer stories than we had hoped, looked like the centre-piece of a still-life in oils of the Dutch school. The two birds fell into the same genre.

As we were tucking in, it seemed that the chef's appetiser had been there to act as a pace-setter in richness. Each of our meals was exquisite - international-class haute cuisine - but we sensed that a longing for lightly steamed broccoli or a green salad would not be long in coming.

For the moment, though, we were undeterred and launched into ordering dessert. We had three between us - vanilla custard with marinated prunes, lemon tart, and peach sable with raspberry. Before they arrived, we were slipped another of the chef's complimentary inter-course dishes - there was no stopping this guy's determination to fur our arteries. It was a chocolate cappucino: chocolate mousse covered with cream, in a coffee cup.

The prunes and custard were not as you might remember them from school days: a dome of baked custard dusted with ground vanilla, surrounded by prunes and pieces of nut brittle. The lemon tart was a counterpoint to the other puddings - a plain triangle ona large white plate.

The piece de resistance, however, was the peach sable, whose constituent parts were those of the super-naff (though totally scrummy) peach melba. In this case the poached peach sat in its raspberry bath under a gold-leaf hat. Yes, real gold-leaf, which is quite edible. It reminded me of nothing so much as Caravaggio-style painted pears. That was it, I would have to have them.