As I finished my last forkful of lamb at Le Champignon Sauvage, I felt a pang: a brief flurry of what felt like…what? Sorrow? A moment, passing yet potent, of sadness that I might never taste lamb cooked so beautifully, so wonderfully, in Britain again?
Ridiculous, no? Preposterous. Risible. I’d have thought so too. Until now.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Le Champignon Sauvage is a cornerstone of British fine dining- over two decades’ worth of consecutive appearances in The Good Food Guide. Add two stars from those nice French tyre chaps, retained since 2000, and four AA Rosettes: it’s an impressive pedigree. The place ranks on every ‘best of British’ list going and unsurprisingly David Everitt-Matthias is something of a hero to his peers. You don’t get eulogies from Gordon Ramsay (the introduction to his book ‘Essence’) or Pierre Koffman (the sequel, ‘Beyond Essence’) or Heston Blumenthal (‘Dessert’) without enviable palmarès, if you’ll allow a fairly topical allusion.
This is rarified company. Britain’s finest restaurant critics have written what amount to love letters to the place: the inimitable Marina O’Loughlin awarded the food an unprecedented 10/10, while The Telegraph called it ‘remarkable’ and the food ‘flawlessly executed’. He was foraging before it became fashionable and ‘Nordic’ and aspirational. You won’t necessarily see him plastered all over your Sunday Brunches and the like- he has famously overseen every single service since he opened in 1987, and when he’s unavailable, the kitchen closes down- but he is certainly a chefs’ chef.
In short, expectations are a little on the high side.
The exterior, on the A40, is unimposing and hardly hints at its prestige: the dining room is decorated in muted tones. There’s a quietly cheery buzz about the place- no stiff-backed temple to cuisine this- and the staff are knowledgeable and welcoming. Front of house is run, graciously, by Mrs Everitt-Matthias.
A fragile malt cracker with a tartare of pouting with pickled pear and yuzu yogurt is as delicate as it is alliterative; a sourdough macaron with a duck liver parfait filling and another of parmesan custard with little crumbs of chorizo are intriguing little introductions. All are gone far too quickly; I am impatient for the main event.
From an encouragingly brief menu, everything tempts. How I manage to resist breast of pigeon with a pastilla of the leg meat, is still beyond me. Ultimately, greedy curiosity wins, as so often; a boned-out pig’s trotter, stuffed with nettles and delicately meaty snails and served with ox tongue, seems about as French as you can get without going the full Belmondo and shrugging enigmatically as you light another Gitanes.
This feels luxurious, the humble potato crushed and sieved until it is elevated to a velvety indulgence with deep notes of confit roast garlic: although it’s clearly the result of refined process of cooking, it’s not prissy, delivering a hearty, sticky treat.
Three huge, identical scallops come flecked with black sesame seeds in a light liquid which turns out to be an onion dashi. It’s all subtlety and natural sweetness, the limpid broth letting the meaty scallops show themselves off.
The beautifully flaky texture, the pearlescent flesh, the dish briny with samphire: a hefty tranche of cod comes with brown shrimps and a spiced wine jus. It’s utterly precise cooking. But that lamb? Ah, the lamb… It’s a hard choice: there’s Brecon venison with blackcurrants and beetroot on tonight too, and it’s easy to picture the palette of reds and purples. It’s the promise of sweetbreads which swings it, and the idea of liquorice.
The lamb is sublime, born out of some ambition to remind us how meat should taste. Everything sparkles, heightened, intensified somehow. The peas seem greener and sweeter than any you’ve tasted; this is three dimensional food, somehow: the ingredients just seem to spring into sharper focus. It’s like when you watch the football (other sporting analogies are available) in standard definition and then switch to HD: everything seems more vital, more defined, more vivid somehow, more clearly delineated as itself. A poor analogy, clearly: but as close as I can get to telling what this plate felt like.
That slightly gamey fat is expertly rendered, the jus is an endlessly rich, treacly delight and whispers of diligent, patient reduction. It is slurpably good, were it not that kind of place. It is the kind of thing you would cheerfully lick and suck from your fingers- or someone else’s, come to think of it; with the sweetness of the onions against the aniseed notes of liquorice, this is a plate to be reckoned with, to judge others by. It doesn’t stop there: sweetbreads are wonderful, nutty from their finish in foaming butter. It’s a quietly devastating plate of food.
It’s simply- and I rarely use the word in this context, having seen it trotted out in the service of the quotidian far, far too many times- perfect. Perfect. It immediately sets the standard by which all future lamb will be judged.
There’s a mille-feuille type affair of mango- caramelised- on top of a Thai infused cream.
A sorbet keeps me coming back while I decide whether I like it or not. A happy dissonance is in play; it’s a neat trick, a playful shock to the senses to meet the familiar flavours of Thai green curry, of chilli and coriander and the perfume and bite of lemongrass and lime, in a dessert, in something icy cold. I end up fascinated, loving it.
An elderflower and lime panna cotta balances sweetness with the tartness of gooseberry, with the tiny little depth charges of meringue pieces.
Orange, liquorice and bergamot bring hefty, punchy doses of concentrated flavour.
This is remarkably fine dining, without making you feel as if you have to run the gauntlet of throttlingly tight-collared formality, the clenched buttocks and raised pinkie of ‘Fine Dining’. They were beautifully relaxed about our four year old daughter eating with us: this, at a place which has a prestige rivalled by few in this country. In short, it’s everything it promises to be; an aristocrat of British dining. It’s unshowily elegant, never brash or flouncy or frilly or flashy. It’s not an Italian sports car gaudy in canary yellow, but a classic Daimler Jaguar, all burr walnut and padded leather and quiet good taste, its engine a powerful purr rather than an attention-seeking roar desperate to be noticed.
A phenomenal meal, one to make memories to treasure. You might think cooking this good is prohibitively expensive, that it’s not for the likes of me and thee and that you’d have to pawn one of the children or hawk a kidney on the dark web to fund your dinner; that you’d have to spend the weeks in anticipation and eating peanut butter straight from the jar (crunchy, not smooth: what do you take me for?). In short, that your credit card is about to receive an unseemly drubbing.
Our bill was north of £150 for the evening, which many would balk at; but when you learn you can eat two courses for £28 (or 3 for £35) on a set menu for both lunch and dinner, you may relent. That’s an affordable luxury, something like larceny for cooking this special: you have, I’ll bet, paid more for far, far less. Trains leave from Cardiff every hour; it’s barely 40 minutes from Temple Meads, and around two hours from Paddington or Euston. Do it.
I left Le Champignon Sauvage in awe of David Everitt-Matthias’ skill.
You will, too.
Le Champignon Sauvage
24-28 Suffolk Rd,
Tel: 01242 573449
Closed Sunday, Monday.
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.