Another dinner out with beloved daughter, budding biochemist and trainee gastronaut. This time she took the train from Bristol so my task was to find somewhere more than adequate for dining in Cheltenham, the best the town can offer. I don’t know whether it’s the best Cheltenham can offer but the answer was fairly straightforward.
Brasserie Blanc (henceforth BB) stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, not only due to its eponymous proprietor, the renowned French chef, TV personality and hospitality entrepreneur Raymond Blanc, but also for being situated in the elegant and refined heart of Regency Cheltenham, the area known as Montpellier. It’s a chain, serving decent food at brasserie prices rather than Quat’ Saison end of the market. It clearly demands attention and the consequent review by virtue of popularity with the dining (and chattering?) classes of Gloucestershire – and if M Blanc can be relied upon for anything it is knowing his market segments and price points, as well as decent nosh.
These days most establishments give you at least a flavour of the menu on their website. BB is at the fixed end of the scale, with menu closely prescribed and published, allowing us to pick and choose well before our booking (also achieved online.)
Whatever you think of the food the menu certainly reads well, with a fair number of attractive hors d’oeuvres (or “horse’s douvers” as my dad used to say, tongue firmly in cheek), though the focal point is unquestionably the steaks – the point where carnivores start to salivate, regardless of the many other tasty delights on offer. The menu is on the upper scales of brasserie fare, sufficiently differentiated with a touch of class to appeal to palates jaded by the me-too sameness of gastropubs and bistros everywhere. Lindsey saw it more as tapas style, thanks to the allure of grazing on “small plates” among our modern preferences when eating out.
A quick enquiry via Twitter (BB is social networking aware, natch) revealed the restaurant had no objection to diners picking from the starter menu, indeed it is probably the norm nowadays though waiters and managers would have curled their toes in anguish and probably ordered the diner from the premises at such a suggestion not too very long ago. These days anything goes American standards of customer service dominate.
Situating the restaurant in the erstwhile ballroom of the very grand and regal Queens Hotel was a wise move. The room is spacious and airy, enlivened by a hum of purposeful activity. The elegance of the surroundings is offset by a modern decor and trappings, and by cute waiters in waistcoats, ties and the obligatory apron, worn in the French style. Ours was enthusiastic and nimble, polite and courteous, and accommodating. More than that you can’t really ask, other than being adept at dealing with a crisis – though thankfully that eventuality did not arise.
A quick stop at the bar en route saw us order a cranberry juice and a millionaire’s cocktail – on offer at a fiver. Thence to a comfortable table with vaguely food-themed pictures, good quality cutlery and fine linen knapkins.
On being presented with the set menu over some yummy nibbles (sourdough – though not enough of it, aioli, balsamic, tapenade) Lindsey did a hasty about turn from the tapas idea, so we chose two courses each from the set menu, plus a cheeky starter to share of steak tartare plus accompaniments. This arrived as a micro portion of finely cut raw seasoned fillet steak, topped with an egg yolk that threatened to envelop it, amid two greenish waves of minced capers and finely chopped parsley. All very lovely and of redoubtable quality, if perhaps a tad under-seasoned.
Presentation set a precedent, since all dishes served had had an artistic cheffy touch or two before serving. I know the theory about eating with the eyes though personally I think it’s gone too far, to the extent that some establishments substitute appearance for favour and quality in their priorities, typical of modern life: superficially appealing but no substance. Wrong wrong wrong – not that I’m accusing BB of such a crime against cooking!
Lindsey’s main of whiting fillet with smoked ham hock, sauté potatoes, spinach, peas and parsley sauce makes it sound rather more impressive than it tasted, if only by sheer number of ingredients. It was good but not exceptional. The fish was well cooked but bland, though the sauce compensated with a few comfort food flavours to remind us of what mamma used to make.
The same could be said of my main, though the disappointment with my beef Provençal came less with the dish, which was slow-cooked and perfectly competent, and more with the fact that I could have cooked it at least as well, possibly better, at my home. The thing about restaurants is that if you find one with serious intent the dishes should be ones better than you could possibly hope to replicate. Not in this case, even with perfectly cooked al dente pot roast carrots and the tiniest shaped eggcup of rice I’ve ever seen, as if carved from Ivory by a man with binocular glasses. It soaked up some but not all of the juices on the plate. I should have asked for more bread, which would have felt like holding up my bowl of gruel and asking “please sir, can I have some more?”
The desserts hit the highest spots, appropriate for a stage performance in which the best is saved til last. My brioche bread-and-butter pudding with a gorgeous silky vanilla custard had a depth of flavour you would not think possible for the dish, such that I could easily have eaten the same again. My daughter plumped for the apple and almond crumble, also with custard rather than the advertised cream, and wolfed it down.
We both went for a glass of house wine at a very reasonable £2.50, mine a Merlot and hers a Columbine, though Lindsey’s habit of diluting it with ice cubes won her no favours. The accommodating waiter brought her the ice regardless.
I have no real problem with any aspect of the meal, though we agreed in was all too pretty-pretty nouvelle and needed an occasional dose of rustic portions and a few robust flavours to finish it off. Next time I want to explore more of the carte though, since the aromas coming from other tables wafted our way invitingly, especially the moules with a curry sauce!
As we departed I wondered what M Blanc would make of his own creation. Doubtless he thinks of it as bringing civilisation to the folk of Gloucestershire and other carefully-chosen locations, but I hope he isn’t too complacent with it.