Much to my shame, having been unable to spend much time on blogs over the past few months, I am incredibly tardy at posting a couple of reviews. To add to my shame, these are not really just normal review, but they are in fact reviews of two of the best meals that I was lucky enough to have last year! An annual visit to Le Champignon Sauvage has become something of religious pilgrimage for me - one that really needs to occur more than once a year, as once is never enough, usually leaving me with a serious case of cold chicken afterwards - even as I write, I am having pangs of desire to put on my jacket, pack up my laptop and get in my car to head straight down to Cheltenham for a fix of David's food. Alas, sanity prevails and I will remain just where I am with the wonders of a prêt a manger Swedish meatball wrap for lunch rather than the ethereal delights that await any person lucky enough to eat at this wonderful restaurant. My last meal at LCS was a particularly special one, not least because it was my wife's first visit as a special treat for her birthday (I usually keep her locked in a cage being fed on dry bread and water!). David had very kindly agreed to cook for us, so I knew we were in for something really special, so as we set off from London to the B&B that was to be our base for our trip. We arrived in Cheltenham at around 1pm in need of a spot of lunch. Now, I am not sure quite how I manage this, but it seems that every time I have been to Cheltenham I have managed to pick the culinary equivalent of a pub toilet after a heavy night as a lunch spot. The last time I was down, I had such a terrible meal of flaccid battered calamari and a pasta dish which was so bad, that I almost wept for the crimes against food that were being committed at this particular restaurant. The past had actually all but disintegrated into mush and water that I was compelled to head down to WH Smiths to buy a "my first cook book" to take back and hand deliver to this particular restaurant in the hope that this could save others from the distress that I had been faced with. Now, to be fair, looking back at it, the fault for this terrible lunch was entirely mine. I really, really should have known better, but for some godforsaken reason I actually chose to eat at the Bella Pasta on the high street - why oh why the inclination even popped into my head I really don't know. Perhaps it was because it was past lunch time when I arrived in Cheltenham on this occasion and I was so hungry I was even contemplating chewing on my own arm. In retrospect I probably would have enjoyed my arm more Now, you might think I would have learned my lesson from this experience, that I would have done my research in advance or, at the very least, have avoided places famed for poor food. Sadly, the truth is, I must have deep seated desire to punish myself with a bad meal before enjoying the delights of LCS as this time, having spent a good 45 minutes walking up and down the high street in search of inspiration for lunch, I ended up making a bee line to the Wetherspoon's pub (yes, the one right round the corner from Bella Pasta!) for lunch. Now, if steak cooked to the point where it resembles leather and chips that have more in common with mashed potato (without the potato flavour) is your kind of thing then it would have been a truly delightful meal. Sadly for me, this is not really my kind of food, and so, alas it was another terrible lunch. Oh well, maybe next time I will just take a packed lunch! By the time we reached LCS following a lovely walk from the B&B we were both absolutely ravenous. We were greeted by an ever efficient and truly charming Helen who took us to our table - a two-top by one of the windows. Personally, I am rather fond of the room, the tables are well spaced and it is incredibly bright and airy with lovely details all around without being overly fussy. Before I get on to the meal, I have to make an apology for the fact that I am bound to miss some of the details (despite having made notes straight after the meal and having vivid memories of each dish) of the incredible meal that David served us. Suffice it to say that it was truly exceptional, and my concerns that it could not live up to previous meals at LCS proved totally unfounded. In fact, I would go as far as to say it gets better and better - consistently excellent. Quite how it has not yet received 3 Michelin Star status is beyond me - the wife still maintains it is the best meal she has ever had. Seeing Ducasse at the Dorchester receiving 2 stars and a rising 3 star status in the 2009 guide only goes to show how wrong Michelin can get it at times. Having had one terrible meal at his London incarnation and one very average meal there - both costing more per person than the entire meal for both of us at LCS, it leaves me wondering rather cynically if David might not be well advised to change his surname to a something more Gallic. To me, every meal that I have had the privilege of having at LCS has been the unequivocally of 3 Michelin star cuisine and is, in my humble opinion, one of the best restaurants in the UK. We started with a glass of champagne each - the perfect aperitif and a great accompaniment to the canapés which were served. The canapés, as usual were cheese gugeres and a kind of mini pizza topped with a rich, wonderfully reduced tomato sauce and unctuous caramelised onion. Served warm straight from the kitchen, these really are superb, the thin butter pastry melting away in your mouth leaving your pallet alive and primed for the food to come. Next were the excellent breads - made daily on the premises and served warm with a rich, slightly salted butter. Quite how the tiny brigade (just 4 people including David!) manage to find time to make these as well as to prep all the ingredients that is needed for the intricate dishes that are served at LCS is beyond me. It actually leaves me wondering if David has been consorting with Santa Claus and has found a way to slow down time to allow them to get all their prep done before diners arrive! There was a choice of three breads (and being the pig that I am I tried all three!), white, poppy seed and my personal favourite, the shallot and bacon brioche. The amuse was a pumpkin mousse with candied pumpkin, dried fruit and a coriander foam. This was very autumnal dish with a lovely earthy flavour coming through the sweetness of the pumpkin and dried fruit. The coriander gave a slightly zesty edge, cutting through the richness of the mousse, whilst pumpkin seeds and the candied fruit provided some interesting textural qualities to the without overpowering the natural flavour of the pumpkin. The first course was a single plump scallop, beautifully seared with a sliver of belly pork, broccoli puree, roasted peanuts and a peanut foam. Not ingredients that I would naturally put together, this dish fulfilled on every level. Like with the amuse, the textural qualities of the dish were very interesting, traversing from the crunch of the nuts, to the soft buttery texture of the scallop and the pork to the smooth puree. The dish had complex layers of flavour, starting with the sweet, slightly caramelised flavour of the peanuts, then the sweetness of the scallop blending and that wonderful belly pork and ending with the slightly anodyne flavour of the broccoli. Certainly a very pleasant change to the usual scallop, pork belly, cauliflower combo (no matter how nice it is!) The second course was native lobster marinated in miso with an oat risotto. I was worried that the miso flavour would overpower the mild flavour of the lobster, but yet again, David had balance the flavour so well that the salty-sweet flavour of the miso worked in harmony with the lobsters subtle flavour. The oat risotto was rich and creamy and added a nutty quality to the dish. The third course was for me, perhaps the most shocking dish (in a good way). When Helen presented us the dish and explained that it was "Zander with a boudin of tripe, hibiscus jus, carrot puree and vegetable jelly beans with lady smock" I was slightly nervous. I have only ever had tripe 3 times prior to this occasion, and every time had been an unmitigated disaster. What can I say, I simply don't like the stuff, not how it looks, the taste, the texture and certainly not the smell. Whilst I have the upmost respect for David's cooking I really couldn't see what he could do to tripe to make it in any way enjoyable. I had images of myself as a small boy the first time I tried tripe. I must have been 8 years old and had been invited to the house of a boy in the year below me at school. His mother was a lovely German lady who for some reason thought I might be a good influence on her son and that somehow having a friend in the year above would benefit him, so she arranged with my mum for me to go over after school one day. Quite why she thought I might have any positive effect on this boys life was and remains beyond me, however that evening certainly left an impression on me! When we sat down to the table, I was served a large white plate with three things on it - only one of which I recognised as being sauerkraut (no, really, they did serve me sauerkraut!) Of the other two items on the plate (other from a pool of salty water that covered the base of the plate due to the lack of draining the food after boiling it), one looked rather like a peeled, boiled egg, and the other a wrinkly piece of fat. I bit into the egg only to realise that actually it tasted nothing of egg, had a rubbery texture and tasted rather ureic. I decided I was not a fan so moved on to the wrinkly fatty thing. The smell of this was really quite unpleasant, but compared to the taste in my mouth it was perfectly acceptable. As soon as it entered my mouth I wanted, no I needed to get it out again. I had no idea what I had been fed, but one thing I was sure of, it was the worst thing that I had ever tasted in my life. I tried so hard to resist, but I was unable, I had to run to the bathroom where I promptly threw up rather vocally all over the floor. Quite taken aback, my new friend's lovely German mother "vot is vrong, you not liking zee boiled tripe unt kidney?". Needless to say, she reassessed her judgement about me as a suitable play mate for her son and I scarcely saw him again. For me, I still have nightmares about that meal and the arrival of a boudin of this creation of the Devil had me fearful that I would end up embarrassing myself by having to run to the bathroom to deposit the wonderful food I had so far consumed. Nonetheless, I will try anything once (or 4 times in this case) in the name of gastronomy. The Zander was absolutely beautiful - its a fish that I rarely see on menus, but it was meaty with dense sweet flesh, perfectly seasoned and cooked so that the the flakes separated with little effort. The boudin was surprisingly delicious, a revelation in fact. None of the awful, faecal flavour that I have experienced in the past, nor the rubbery, slimy texture. This was tender and meaty with a pleasant offal flavour that when combined with the sweet hibiscus source was lifted to a new dimension. The vegetable "jelly beans" looked just like that and were indeed a sea vegetable that had a slightly bitter sweet taste and popped on biting in to them (a bit like a very fresh grape), squirting a little bit of salty fluid into your mouth. The combination of this with the fish and the tripe was really quite inspired and utterly delicious. The final touch, the Lady Smock, which I had never had before but had read about in Essence, was the final touch to the dish. It had a peppery flavour (not unlike rocket, only stronger) and caused my tongue to buzz, rather like the effect of a good Szechuan pepper corn. The flavours and textures all worked so well that not only was it delicious, but a very interesting dish to eat, with no two mouthfuls the same. You have to give homage to a chef who is confident enough in his ability and understanding of flavours and techniques to serve a controversial and widely disliked ingredient like tripe on his menu fully in the knowledge that it would be delicious. Whilst I do not intend to cook it at home any time soon, nor am I likely to order it in any restaurant, I would happily eat it any time David chooses to serve it at LCS. The penultimate savoury course, a rabbit tortellini with vanilla puree, apple and radish was another big hit. The pasta was paper thin and cooked so that it retained the faintest hint of bite. The rabbit was full of flavour and incredibly tender, the vanilla puree had both a cleansing affect on the palate thereby enhancing the flavour of the overall dish and the combination with the sweet apple and the rather sharp, crisp radish brought the whole dish together. The presentation was also absolutely beautiful as with every course that came out during the course of the evening. The only downside is that when I was telling my sister about the meal, my 4 year old niece overheard and was so abhorred by the idea that I ate rabbit (she has one as a pet) that she gave me the cold shoulder for a couple of days - oh the sacrifices we make in the name of gastronomy! The final savoury course of the evening was a partridge breast with braised partridge wrapped in cabbage, pickled pear and caramelised chicory. The partridge was a fantastic specimen - hung for just long enough to acquire a good gamey flavour without becoming overpowering. The breast was so succulent that I wonder if it had been cooked sous vide (I think I did ask the question but that it wasn't) and the accompaniments of the sweet pickled pair and the bitter chicory were the perfect soil for the rich meat. The braised partridge was absolutely stunning, I could have eaten a plate of it - the flavour was so deep and indulgent with the cabbage serving to give it a freshness so that it was not too heavy. Cooking like this really is something to wonder at! The first desert that was served was a hibiscus and raspberry jelly with a lemon mouse, strawberry sorbet, gingerbread crumbs and a touch of popping candy. As with the savoury courses, so much attention is given to the deserts at LCS, they have multiple components that work so well together. So often chefs try and put too many items on a dish and despite each individual item being a delight in themselves, the whole is less than a sum of the parts. At LCS, that is absolutely not the case. The citrus of the mousse cut through the sweetness of the jelly and the sorbet, whilst the gingerbread gave a comforting warm tingle at the back of the mouth. The popping candy came through only at the end of the mouthful, almost like an echo of the mouth puckering effect that strong citrus can have. The whole dish was light and came together like a great symphony. The second desert was a pumpkin brulee with cherry stone ice cream (no, I had never thought of using a cherry stone or any other stone for a sorbet for that matter, but boy did it work!), chocolate shavings and a touch of popping candy. Helen suggest a glass of Banyuls to accompany this and the final desert - never one to pass on a desert wine we went with her suggesting which was a fantastic accompaniment for both dishes. It was interesting to see pumpkin come up again at this stage of the meal - it was like going full circle back to the amuse and worked very well. I am often disappointed with brulees at restaurants, as too often the sugar layer is burnt to smithereens or is a soggy mess of only partially melted sugar. This specimen had a crisp sugar layer that looked like bronzed glass - it cracked into shards when tapped with a spoon making a very satisfying sound. The cherry stone ice cream had a slightly bitter taste with a background flavour of cherry. The meal, despite the number of courses (which for me was spot on) was incredibly well balanced and each dish was a multi-sensory experience without the need for gimmicks or iPod's (although they have their place too, as Heston has so well shown). It worked so well with the slightly nutty pumpkin, taking the edge off the sweetness of the dish and giving it balance. The final desert and indeed the final dish of the meal was a chocolate and black olive fondant with fennel ice cream, and a tuille of sugar and dark chocolate. I could wax lyrical about how the olives gave depth and moistness to the fondant, or about how with the lightest tap of the side of my spoon it split in half oozing its rich, sticky filling onto the plate, or about the lovely contrast that the anise flavours of the fennel ice cream, but I wont. The components of this dish speak well enough all by themselves - it was the perfect finish to a flawless meal. We finished the meal with coffee and petit fours in the bar area. Despite being full we still managed to put away a fair few of them (how could we resist) and we were joined by David and Helen for a good old natter about life, restaurants and David's new book on deserts (as with his last book essence, one of the best books out there with inspiring recipes that actually work!). Having had many meals out last year at a number of restaurants, many of which are were very good and indeed well renowned for their food, I have rarely been shocked or inspired. So many restaurants, whilst having faultless execution and delicious food, have become almost homogenous, refusing to take the risk of introducing new flavours or combinations at the risk of alienating diners (and perhaps Michelin?). Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it does make dining out less interesting with the same or similar dishes and plating appearing all over the place. It was therefore refreshing to visit LCS where the food is not only superb but also stands out from the crowd, highlighting the chef's excellent palette and cooking ability. David combines flavours and textures that I have never seen or tasted before - certainly not together on the same plate anyway! It is also a testament to David that he is always in the kitchen, if he is not there for any reason, the restaurant closes - I only wish some other chefs were as committed to their trade rather than ditching the restaurant in favour of television cameras and book signings. We finally decided to leave to let David and Helen finish off and go home (at gone 1 in the morning, they must have been shattered!). As I settled the bill, I was again reminded of the incredible value at LCS - the multi-course menu, 2 glasses of champagne, a bottle of Saint Veran and a bottle of Givry pinot noir, as well as coffee and petit fours for less than £200!!! I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, especially as the wine list has wines starting as low as £12!! Is this perhaps the best value 2 Michelin starred restaurant in Europe?! I certainly am yet to find anything approaching the value and with such un-greedy mark-ups on the wine list (the cash cow of most restaurants). Whilst the style of food is vastly different, I can't help finding myself putting both LCS and the Sportsman together in my head. The reason for this is not only that both were in my top 5 meals of last year, nor the fact that both have very, very late write-ups from me, nor indeed that both were the locations for celebratory meals for me and my wife this year. For me the reason that I put these two together is that both David Everett-Matthias and Stephen Harris have inspired me with their food, both have their own unique style, both are passionate about what they do and go to extreme lengths to source the best local ingredients and both offer incredible value for money in a relaxed surrounding. These are chefs who I firmly believe are doing what they do because they love to cook and love to give their diners not only excellent food but an experience to remember. Neither chef is after fame or riches (although I am sure neither would complain about the riches!). And that to me comes across so clearly in their food - the passion is there. It sounds rather corny, but they are restaurants where, to steal the phrase from Raymond Blanc, leave you feeling richer for going there - I can't wait to go back again!