While the discovery of the health-giving spa waters brought visitors such as Handel, George III and Byron to Cheltenham, the discovery of Le Champignon Sauvage brought food lovers from all round the nation. Michelin inspectors then burned rubber to get there and, today, Le Champignon Sauvage is one of only 10 two-starred British restaurants.
It is a remarkable feat for what is basically a family restaurant, with Pa (David Everitt-Matthias) cooking, and Ma (Helen Everitt-Matthias) serving.
This year, however, the E-Ms bought the shop next door and carried out a complete refit, including a massive update of the kitchen. Not that the changes have been radical. The dining room now holds 40 instead of 28, and the kitchen holds four instead of three.
The lemon and blue dining room, hung with a gallery's worth of art of varying proficiency, still has the feel of a cosy parlour, with its modestly skirted tables and heavily draped windows, and the menu is still a solid combination of classic French, inspired by former mentor Pierre Koffman, and more contemporary thrill-seeking flavour matches. So there is Megrim sole poached in smoked milk with wilted watercress; roasted duck foie gras with pickled peach, lamb tongue and fresh almonds; and breast of pigeon with date purée and goat's-cheese cream.
Before any of this, however, is a succession of nibbles: crunchy cheese sables, miniature onion pizze, and shot glasses of warm cauliflower purée with hazelnut foam, that tastes like a dreamy, savoury, Horlicks.
A sleek baton of pressed terrine is a glorious starter, topped and bottomed with slices of leek encasing pale, tender chunks of guinea-fowl breast, creamy little slabs of foie gras and a deep red layer of well-cooked ham hock. Intelligently, it is served at room temperature allowing the full yet delicate flavours to shine. Underlying the terrine is a smear of golden raisin purée - a sort of Michelin-star chutney.
Everitt-Matthias describes his cooking as masculine, and sure enough, there is nothing girly about a gutsy, full-flavoured bowl of pan-fried cock's kidneys, softly furled langoustine tortellini, tightly curled langoustine tails, and several unusual leaves such as fleshy ice plant and arrowhead orache, all paddling about in a wading pool of full-bodied, bisquey juices. I particularly like how the sea-sweet langoustines hit it off with the delicate, moussey character of the kidneys.
If I'm going on a bit about the food, it's because there's a lot to go on about. Take the neat, crisped fillet of zander (pike-perch), squatting on a rich, dense risotto of meaty Hereford snails, sauced with lightly sticky chicken and fish juices. For added interest, there are cross-sections of cep, pak choy, icicle radish, and little nuggets of confit chicken wing. With lesser cooks, so many elements would clutter. Here, the detail extends the depth of flavour, rather than adding more knick-knacks to the mantelpiece.
Around me, well-upholstered couples and foursomes all speak in reverential whispers. Two-star restaurants tend to evoke a strange mix of expectation and aspiration. Here, early evening self-consciousness takes a while to relax into mellow chatter.
From a French-driven wine list that runs from a very hospitable Charles Vienot house red for £11 to a £295 Chateau Mouton Rothschild '88, I choose a light-bodied but satisfying Dom Pernot Blagny 1999 (£32), a little-known red Burgundy.
The chef's fondness for surf-and-turf surfaces in a smart-as-paint dish of poached, then roasted, Gloucester Old Spot belly pork with razor clams. The pork itself is a single finger of crisp-skinned meat, reclining on purées of potato and pumpkin. In attendance are long, worm-like sections of clam, slivers of choy sum cabbage, tiny girolle mushrooms and a pool of intense jus made by combining the razor clam and pork juices. The pork is moist, long flavoured and almost nutty, but the clams keep the teeth working for no great reward.
To finish, an upside-downer of a hot fig tart is a glazed, gooey, gorgeous triumph that makes up for all the sad, pale, cold, pre-prepared tarts I have endured, magically matched to a rich, creamy, browned-butter ice-cream that tastes of honey and almonds.
Sticking my head in the kitchen to say thank you, I catch Everitt-Matthias on his own and on his knees, cleaning his new oven. He is a modest man with an immodest talent for turning out delicious, sincere, beautifully put-together food. Cheltenham may no longer be a fashionable spa, but I now know exactly where to go when I want to make myself feel better. *
17 Le Champignon Sauvage 24-26 Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, Gloucester, tel: 01242 573 449. Lunch and dinner served Tues to Sat; two courses, £38 per person, three courses, £47
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Other Michelin two-star restaurants
The Capital The Capital Hotel, 22-26 Basil Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7591 1202 Situated in a discreet, privately owned hotel in the heart of Knightsbridge, this poised, sophisticated restaurant keeps a relatively low profile in spite of its two stars. Eric Chavot is an original and inspirational chef who combines the classic with the unexpected in dishes such as his slow-cooked pork belly, boudin blanc and truffle emulsion, and crab lasagne with langoustine cappuccino.
Midsummer House Midsummer Common, Cambridge, tel: 01223 369 299 Following an extensive refurbishment last year, this landmark Cambridge restaurant was awarded its second Michelin star at the beginning of 2005. Nestling next to the River Cam, the setting is idyllic, but it's David Clifford's food that wins over the critics. Expect finely honed, look-at-me cooking, including pot-roast chicken with foie gras Wellington and truffle crisps, and deep-fried snails with pancetta risotto and parsley ice-cream.
Hibiscus 17 Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire, tel: 01584 872 325 Ludlow lost a Michelin star when Shaun Hill closed Merchant House earlier this year, but gained one when Hibiscus was awarded its second. Claire Bosi oversees the oak-panelled dining room, while husband Claude astounds with his bold cooking. Pauillac lamb is teamed with Morecambe Bay cockles; poached eel is matched with pork belly and confit pineapple; and Jerusalem artichoke is paired with crème brulée.Reuse content