The Craftsman, Cheltenham: “They know what they’re doing and they do it extremely well” – restaurant review | Food
The Craftsman, 30 Clarence Street, Cheltenham GL50 3NX (01242 571 257). Starters £ 6.95 to £ 11.95, main courses £ 12.95 to £ 26.95, desserts £ 6.95 to £ 7.95, wines from £ 22.95
In the early 1980s, as on several occasions in the following decades, there was a great fashion in the area for gutters. Classic teenager, that is to say consumed by the desperate need to fit in, I duly pinned and sewn my black school pants. It was a terrible idea for a fat kid with massive thighs and relatively thin calves. I ended up looking like Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD, from the 1968 Beatles movie Yellow submarine. I like a contemporary reference, me.
The message here is clear: beware of fashion sirens. As for pants, so for restaurants. I love the current vogue for distressed brick walls, incandescent light bulbs and Crittall window frames as much as I do the next tragic hipster. But it’s worth acknowledging that just because we end up bored with a particular style and move on, it doesn’t mean that what we left behind was bad or wrong or, more importantly, less sophisticated. . It was just what came before.
And so at L’Artisan in Cheltenham, a French restaurant that, consciously or not, channels another age and beautifully. This age is, I think, around the mid-1980s, when The Howard Way defined the majestic padded aesthetic. The walls here are rolled up in rags in daffodil-yellow tones, and there are high-backed velvet chairs with candy cane stripes. Some of the plates are square and the menu is a sturdy leather binding written in beautiful italics. The sounds of La Vie en Rose float in the brightly lit small room. The clientele on the evening of our visit are mostly older couples whose conversation will revolve around whether their young adult children are safe tossing or a little worried, in fact. We all settle back into a hot, soapy tub of a restaurant experience; the one we adored the first time around and still adore.
L’Artisan is owned by Yves and Elisabeth Ogrodzki, who left their restaurant in Provence 15 years ago to benefit a village in Leicestershire. I would insert here the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow over the decision to leave the sunny, lavender-covered hills of Provence for the East Midlands, but I don’t wish anyone to think that I am insulting charming rural Leicestershire. There they established what they described as a French country inn, which won numerous regional awards, before deciding to settle here. Yves cooks. Elisabeth serves and works the room and makes sure everyone is happy, which is clearly the case. When she asks you if you’d like a little glass of Calvados between the starter and the main course to “cleanse the palate”, the phrase “it would be rude not to” takes on new meaning. Who could refuse such encouragement from Elisabeth?
There is freshly baked bread, in various varieties with and without seeds, presented in a sturdy basket, which hangs from Elisabeth’s arm and with it, whipped butter with capers and fresh herbs. This bread will become an ideal vehicle for chasing away the last remnants of the garlic butter lakes that accompany a platter of nine shell snails. Having been spotted on the menu, they must be ordered and loved. They bring me spring clips. They bring me little forks. They bring me more bread. Snails are the very definition of “properly”. Cheltenham is home to GCHQ and teeming with linguists. They will understand this great fanciful detour to extremely advanced French.
Perched on a golden pastilla stuffed with a mixture of soft sheep’s cheese and butternut squash mousse, come two large scallops sentinel on a powerful royal shrimp. There is a bit of frothy and creamy sauce. There is a bunch of bright vinegar arugula salad. It comes on one of those square frosted glass plates that knives scratch against. It is an observation rather than a criticism. It adapts to the room. We sip our calvados halfway through cooking, as sweet and mellow as the late autumn sun.
Yves may have some help preparing all of this, however – seen in the kitchen – he seems to be flying solo. Obviously, its solution is the same for every main course: a deep square of tanned and garlic dauphinoise, a basket of filo pastry filled with ratatouille, mangetout, squares of butternut squash, etc. The next table of six ordered the prime rib to share. They each receive the plates with these items placed just like that, while waiting for the main event. It is the same with ours. One of our main courses is a confit rabbit leg, topped with a ripe mustard sauce, so old school it was probably at the common entrance. Another has a filo cigar filled with duck confit and a sliced duck breast which, being a little overcooked, is the only negative note of the whole meal.
The desserts center around the punchy pun that is L’Artisan HorseChoux. This is a cabbage that, in a nod to Cheltenham’s racing heritage, is shaped like a… well, you get the idea. It is garnished with a variety of creams, pistachio or lemon, hazelnut or raspberry and ends in turn with a horseshoe in milk or dark chocolate. It’s not a bad joke, but it’s a much better dessert. It’s the kind of dessert that makes you smile involuntarily when placed in front of you. We also have a long rectangular plate of their sorbets, each one a blend of flavors: blackcurrant and strawberry, banana and tangerine, and apricot and mango. They come dressed in tubes of meringue and halved grapes, strawberries and mint leaves. It’s the culinary equivalent of a square jacket in primary colors, the sleeves rolled up.
With starters around £ 10 and main courses at £ 20, the evening bill might not be small, although at lunchtime there is a three course menu for 20.95 £. It often includes French onion soup. Elsewhere, the menu also offers a “real” boeuf bourguignon. It would be easy to roll your eyes, but in truth you know that the former actor’s version of Yves and Elisabeth would really be the one you would compare everyone else to. They know what they are doing and they do it extremely well. Yes, L’Artisan sometimes looks like a love letter from the past. But boy is this beautifully written letter.
There was great consternation in the restaurant world earlier this year when Waitrose announced that the Good food guide, which it had owned since 2013, was to cease publication. Now the guide, who has advised diners on where to eat well since it was founded by Raymond Postgate in 1951, has been saved. It was purchased by the Code Hospitality restaurant networking group, created by entrepreneur Adam Hyman. A new guide will be released for 2022 and longtime editor Elizabeth Carter will stay on.
In Liverpool, Art School chef Paul Askew joins a group of his former protégés to launch Barnacle on the mezzanine floor of the city’s Duke Street Market. Askew, whose father was a captain on the Blue Star Line sailing out of Liverpool, describes the new business, which will open next month, as a “Scouse Brewery… We aim to tell the story of the culinary and cultural odyssey of the city through its history. ‘ Visit barnacleliverpool.fr.
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