Eating Out: Turning Kia-Ora into wine

DAFFODIL: 18-20 Suffolk Parade, Montpellier, Cheltenham GL50. Tel: 01242 700 055. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch from noon to 2.30pm and from 7 to 10.30pm for dinner. Average price per person, pounds 20 without wine. The bar is open from noon to 11pm and snacks are served between 2.30 and 7pm. Major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE DAFFODIL Cinema opened its doors in 1922 and swiftly became a major attraction. How could it fail, with its double curving staircase, its moulded plaster-work, and the very latest in chic design? But fail it did in the end, like so many other independent cinemas. In 1963 it screened its last film (the original Cape Fear, starring Gregory Peck), and when the audience had emptied out on to the street, the doors were locked and the projectors shut down for good. Over the past 30 years it has had various ignominious incarnations, but now, it has risen from the ashes, gleaming and heroic in a fabulous new guise - Cheltenham's hottest restaurant.

The owners have restored the building lovingly and stylishly. Remarkably, many of the original features have survived the years of neglect, and have been brought back to life. The plaster mouldings of daffodils still grace the walls; the old speakers are right up there on either side of what was once the screen; the embracing arms of the double staircase sweep down from the circle to the stalls, which are now the main restaurant. This space has been neatly divided in two by a long blue banquette, while upstairs has been transformed into a comfortable bar, guarded by two ancient film projectors. Where the screen once masked the wall, now hangs a huge mirror reflecting the goings on downstairs to anyone who cares to watch from the "cheap seats" above. Underneath it runs a new kind of film - an open kitchen where chefs in black neat caps toss and fry and griddle to the audience's satisfaction.

The keen chef sources generous helpings of excellent produce from surrounding counties. On the menu they list Gloucester Old Spot Sausages, which come from a very good butcher in Cirencester who just happens to be the person who tipped us off to the quality of the food here. Then there's the deliciously salty Wiltshire Ham hocks, braised so long that the meat melts down into an accompanying and mollifying puree of mushy peas. Keen's lovely nutty, real Cheddar is the star of a double-baked souffle.

Restaurants that cater positively and intelligently for young children seem to be on the increase. A small miracle of sorts to think that in a year or two's time it may hardly be worth remarking upon, when the waitress lays up spaces for toddlers with toddler- sized cutlery. Right now it seems like an enormously thoughtful touch, as does the unsolicited offer to serve any of the dishes on the menu in child-sized portions. And to cap it all, the waitress, who looked far too young to have children of her own, even asked if it might be wise to dispense with the whole basil leaf that would normally float on the tomato soup that my daughter had chosen. Hallelujah! Somebody at Daffodil understands finickety little horrors who think anything green and herby is tantamount to poison. Luckily the basil in the meatballs, which both of my two happened to fancy, was finely chopped into the very fabric of the brace of cannonballs which turned up perched on small hummocks of tagliatelle. No distinguishably poisonous matter there.

Nor, unfortunately, was there anything to dissuade my son from sticking his grubby lit- tle fingers gleefully into my "chocolate lentils" (his own very apt description of the outer ring of tiny lentils bathed in a fine, sticky, smooth deeply savoury brown sauce). Seeping gently into them from the inner circle, idled an ivory, cream and stock reduction of a sauce, blanketing a juicy pot-roast chicken breast. All in all, the elegantly restrained dish smacked of a classicaly trained chef behind this trendy cafe's easy-come-easy-go menu. Far better than my almost instantly forgettable first course of a crostini, whose burden of indistinguishable chargrilled veg was smothered to semi-oblivion by wall-to-wall mozzarella wadding.

The smooth, dense chicken liver and foie gras pate that my husband tucked into, however, disappeared in the swishing of a cat's tail. Excellent, he pronounced, as the final crumb of toasted brioche disappeared. He followed with the ham hock and mushy peas, which seemed to cause him little trouble, either. Come to think of it, both of his courses, though at first glance from utterly different schools of cookery, shared one crucial attribute - a toothless wrinkly could have downed them both without fear of choking. So could a toothless baby, for that matter, though I suppose the salt content of the ham would have been severely frowned upon by a health visitor. Not a bad thing in either case and certainly not something that William, with a full set of teeth in his jaws, even noticed. It's funny what you miss when you're leering right over the plate.

Daffodil's chef, or maybe its proprietors, must have phenomenally wide jaws, and who knows how many teeth. I know this because the "bite-sized" portions that jostle cosily on the formidable plate of Daffodil puddings for two, were gigantic - at the very least a couple of mouthfuls each, and in most cases three or four. The four of us raided it mercilessly, each going for our own favourites. William had the hots for the slab of semi-solid panettone bread-and-butter pudding, I loved the lemon tart, Sidney was partial to the poached strawberries and tiny poached pear, while Florence, who is an unabashed pudding queen, adored the lot (including a very good apple and black-berry crumble and toffee brulee) bar one. By some bizarre and fortunate chance, I seemed to be the only one of us who relished the two triangles of very dark, chocolatey marquise.

Daffodil's cuisine may not quite be Oscar-winning, but it merits some sort of culinary Bafta, at the very least. Original, congenial, well-thought out and well-executed, let's hope that it inspires the rescue and restoration, or restauration, indeed, of the remaining handful of old cinema buildings that have not yet been mown down or re-instigated. What better way to bring them flickering back to life?

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