Ah Cheltenham! The flower of the Cotswolds, the cradle of English womanhood, the spiritual heart of the British empire (check out Imperial Gardens, and its Crimean war memorial) a town of glorious vanity, where they hold the flagship race of British steeplechasing and where they invented the literary festival.
The self-conscious grandeur of the place strikes you as you drive past the Regency-period municipal offices on the Promenade – where else do local government buildings look so stately? On the north side, the Montpellier development offers the same look of stately overkill: rather ordinary pubs, shops and banks are dressed in honey-stone finery, as if the Royal Crescent in Bath had come to the town and spawned a lot of slightly common children.
We were here to stay in the Montpellier Chapter Hotel. It used to be the Kandinsky, a hotel favoured by lit-fest types. Now it's been acquired by the Swire Group, who have pots of money and bags of swank – they own Cathay Pacific and the Upper House hotels in Hong Kong and Beijing. Would their howling sophistication suit Cheltenham – and, more importantly, would it make for a good restaurant?
The dining-room is big, light and airy, the ceiling dominated by huge chandeliers like galactic Polo mints. The décor is a fashionable palette of grey, very grey, taupe and (my wife informed me) saddle-brown. The kitchen offers a reassuring display of steaming stockpots, a pizza oven, dark-green tiles, extractor fans concealed inside a gleaming lightbox – and (I hope he won't mind my saying) a substantial-looking chef, like Swelter in the Gormenghast books, hard at work at the marble pass. His name is Gary Wheeler, and his pedigree includes time at The Bear in Woodstock and at the Michelin-starred Lords of the Manor in Bourton-on-the-Water. At the Montpellier, he's apparently been 'guided' by the great Simon Hopkinson, though he seems to be a chap who needs little help from anyone.
The first big surprise of lunch was that, when you ask for a wine list, you're handed an iPad. Even as this strikes you as a terrible idea, you're also wondering why so few others do it. The second surprise is the affordability factors. Though à la carte main courses hover around the £20 mark, their lunchtime menu (noon to 2.15pm) is a dizzyingly cheap £16.50 for three courses. And all steaks are half-price on Thursday nights. Plus, we have a classic fine-dining menu, special-offered at the price you'd pay for a pizza lunch.
Angie went for the cheapo version. Her ballotine of goat's cheese came as a savoury cylinder, flecked with tomato, chilli and strands of pickled cucumber, served on toasted walnut bread. It was a deliciously light, summery starter. My seared tuna tar-tare (whatever the hyphen was doing there) offered fabulously fresh, sushi-grade, purply-pink tuna with tiger prawns, a salad of bacon and capers with green beans chopped up into tiny roundels, topped with shellfish crème fraîche, a nicely lumpy accompaniment to the soft tuna mash-up. It was a rather dainty dish, but that was perfectly welcome in the 80-degree heat.
My wife's fillet of ling arrived lying exhaustedly upon a herby risotto that was heavy on the tomatoes, and a shellfish cream sauce. "For the [inclusive] price," she said, "this is a hefty portion, nicely cooked, and the sauce is like lobster bisque, fresh and homemade." I wondered if you really needed both a risotto and a soup along with your fish, but was told not to be so pedantic. She admired the green salad's mixum-gatherum of leaves, green beans, spring onions and cucumber.
My 'lamb three ways' was more workmanlike than wow. The breast had been anointed with breadcrumbs and cooked until it was rather unyielding. The rump had been confited, then roasted with rosemary, and was lovely; the cutlet was pink and eat-with-your-fingers fabulous. A carrot purée and boulangère potatoes and paprika, made you want to mop up everything left on your plate. If I had a niggle, it was that the textures of roast and pan-fried lamb rump and breast are rather similar. Maybe they could have experimented with sweetbreads or liver...
A simple summer pudding with vanilla ice-cream and a yummy raspberry parfait, with a welcome hint of mint, finished off a lunch that was fantastically English, cooked with ambition and generosity of flavouring, and served with decorous politeness.
We'd begun late and it was after 3pm when we finished. From 3 o'clock, a gaggle of ladies in summer attire gradually took over the dining-room's remaining tables, and were now tucking into tea from white pots and little gateaux served from cake stands. I got the impression they came here every day – an image of unchanging Englishness as potent as the doves on the crest of Cheltenham Ladies' College, just a minute's walk down the road
Bayshill Road, Montpellier, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire (01242 527788). Three-course lunch £16.50; three-course dinner from £40 per head