Restaurants: Blanc check

Raymond Blanc expands out of Oxford.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the pleasures of dining alone is being able to eavesdrop on one's neighbours - I even prefer it to examining the contents of other people's supermarket trolleys

Raymond Blanc once described himself as having been "kissed by the Muse of the Flambe", but that alone is not grounds for refusing to take him seriously. He is, in fact, a seriously clever cook in the high French tradition. I was once lucky enough to be taken to his flagship, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and was dazzled - both by the sophistication of the food and dreadfulness of the decor. Blanc's chain of bakers - Maison Blanc - is a tribute to the variety of extraordinary things the French can do with just five basic ingredients - eggs, butter, flour, almonds and sugar. Service there, too, is quintessentially French: "Can I have a pithiviers, please." "Monsieur will not get his pithiviers until he has got its pronunciation exactly right." Blanc's achievement is all the more impressive if you recall he is entirely self-taught.

But while M Blanc would like us to learn the French art of good living, he is not himself one to sit back and enjoy life. In 1966, he opened Le Petit Blanc Brasserie, nearer the centre of Oxford. Now a second has opened in Cheltenham. This, we can take it, is the beginning of a "group" - I would have said "chain", but I was primly told M Blanc does not like the word.

The new restaurant, in Cheltenham's grandest hotel, the Queen's, is laid- back and "modern" in feel, with chrome tables, a Picassoesque frieze, and piped jazz, though I am not sure Blanc has been well served by his designers - the banquettes are covered in a slippery, fake-feeling, mottled brown leather, and, during the day, the lighting is gloomy - but the place has been packed from the day of opening. This is one restaurant you can be sure won't fail.

Hitherto, Blanc's cooking has been marked-out for its Frenchness. He deployed foreign ingredients and techniques, but in the way the French always have, in the manner of the imperialist's sense of noblesse oblige. He has written of the shock of arriving in Britain and discovering an absence of a peasant tradition - a truth brought home to him when, soon after his arrival, he drove out to Aylesbury in search of "le vrai Aylesbury duckling", only to discover no one in Aylesbury had heard of such a thing. With the new brasseries, though, Blanc has looked for inspiration not to the French farmyard but the British supermarket. The menus at Cheltenham and Oxford are similar, and both offer something for everyone: there's a section for pasta (penne with Provencal sauce and grilled goats' cheese), one for hearty English fare (sausages and mash and onion gravy), and another for those who prefer smarter French cooking. In keeping with these democratic values, prices are reasonable: main courses start off below pounds 7. Yet it is still surprising to find the man who gave us breast of Bresse chicken cooked in a pig's bladder, scented with truffles and mousserons, or Calvados souffle nestled in an apple with a sabayon of Normandy cider, serving up a mixed salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and sliced red pepper. The wine list shows the same international and democratic flavour - prices end at pounds 32.50, which is about where they start at Le Manoir.

I went for the fancier French options. In the case of the first course, fanciness took the form of marinated sardine fillets, layered with paper- thin slices of baked aubergine, served with a strong caponata (a sort of Sicilian ratatouille), all of which was very prettily done, though with a slightly lacklustre flavour, the fish and aubergine not really pulling together. Braised leg of rabbit could have been served with more noodles and fewer braised winter vegetables, but the rabbit itself fell off the bone and was beautifully sweet. (I am always surprised, incidentally, to see this on a menu, rabbit being the only animal the British both eat and keep as pets.) For dessert, I was tempted by the caramel souffle (15 minutes' waiting time), but elected for a coffee parfait instead. This turned out to involve 10 different components - surely a record, even for a French dessert - including the parfait itself, a chocolate biscuit, almond brittle, creamy trails of coffee, chocolate and vanilla sauce and chocolate coffee beans. This may have been over-egging it a bit, but it tasted much better than it sounds, the parfait being both bitter and creamy.

Service was excellent. I was eating alone, but the food came so fast I hardly had time to get to know myself - an hour after I had arrived, I was paying my bill (pounds 36 with a couple of glasses of wine and service), which on a weekday lunch is pretty much how it should be. Still, one of the pleasures of dining alone is being able to eavesdrop on one's neighbours - I even prefer it to examining the contents of other people's supermarket trolleys. In this case, I was able to tune in to a rather racy conversation between two elderly Cheltenham ladies in tweeds, about their early boyfriends, and was sorry not to have a better excuse to linger. They, incidentally, had both chosen the deep-fried crab cake with green risotto and chilli oil dressing, which they thought "very nice", although whether either of them had been kissed by the Muse of the Flambe was hard to tell. Le Petit Blanc, The Queens Hotel, The Promenade, Cheltenham (01242 266800). Open all day, all week. All major cards.

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