Cheltenham boutique hotel restaurant, The Montpellier Chapter, caught my eye some time back. Unusually it wasn’t the menu or the food that I found most interesting, but that the consultant chef was Simon Hopkinson. One of the most talented chefs Britain has ever produced; the man is a legend. Since retiring from the professional kitchen, he’s written a number of truly excellent recipe books, particularly Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which is considered by many (including me) to be one of the best cookbooks of all time. As far as I know, Simon Hopkinson isn’t currently lending his name to any other restaurants, and considering his reputation; it’s kind of a big deal, even if he’s not actually in the kitchen cooking.
So, The Montpellier Chapter has been languishing on my extremely lengthy, mental list of restaurants I must visit for quite some time until last Sunday, a trip to Cheltenham finally propelled it to the top.
The Hotel itself is gorgeous. On the corner of a leafy road, lined with similarly massively proportioned grand regency piles, it’s an impressive sight. Inside, it all feels very Kelly Hoppen; taupe modernist, contemporary but with just enough of the period features retained to stop it running away unrestrained into footballer’s wives naffness.
The restaurant itself is a pleasant space - parquet floor, high ceilinged, white walls, with lots of windows flooding the room with natural light. One end of the room is tiled dark green and set with a wood fired oven. Beyond, just visible, are the kitchens.
On a Sunday lunchtime the restaurant was filled with well heeled looking families. We were handed the wine list, which in keeping with the upmarket contemporary vibe of the hotel is listed on an iPad. Tres space age.
Deciding that sherry would be just the thing to follow the superb Bloody Marys we’d already sunk at the bar, ‘E’ and I ordered a couple of glasses of Fino and asked for some tap water. Bread and butter were placed on the table. Outside the sun was belting out rays, the sky was azure, I grinned at ‘E’, this all felt very pleasant indeed. Our sherry arrived, and ‘Holy Moly’ I thought, ‘that’s a massive glassful’, ‘this is frigging awesome’…
*needle skidding across the track*
The massive glass of sherry wasn’t sherry. It was wine. Bollocks. Calling the waiter over, we explained there had been a mistake and could we get the sherry we’d ordered. No problem. Would we like some water? Yes, we’d already been asked by one of the other waiters so presumably it was being dealt with.
We were both starving, so we dived into the bread.
It wasn’t stale, but it definitely was not very fresh. ‘E’ in her expert opinion as a café owner, and therefore no stranger to the complexities of aging bread reckoned it was probably yesterday’s. It was so dry I could feel my essential bodily moistures being absorbed by the pappy dough in my mouth. Swallowing hard and greedily gasping for breath, I emerged muchos desiccated. ‘E’ and I agreed it was bloody horrible. Yet another waiter appeared with our much smaller, but correct order of ice cold Fino. We complained about the bread, and asked for some more. We wanted the fresh stuff, the sort they no doubt reserve especially for visiting dignitaries and royalty. The waiter assured us it was made today, but sometimes it’s sliced just before service and it dries up a bit, adding he agreed it should have been cut ‘à la minute’. A few moments later, the replacement bread arrived, and it was much, much better.
Still no water though. We grabbed yet another passing waiter (they seem to have a hell of a lot of staff) and asked for our aqua a la tap which still hadn’t arrived. He obliged, and soon after our starters arrived. Things were back on track and looking up.
Pork Terrine with Piccalilli and toasted country bread was good, the accompanying piccalilli was lovely. Overall nothing spectacular or special just well made, absolutely no complaints apart from it could probably have done with a little bit more toast.
‘E’s smoked salmon and crayfish salad with cocktail sauce, was more or less that 70’s classic, prawn cocktail. Retrotastic. Exactly as with my starter, ‘E’ reckoned it was well made but not particularly interesting.
So far, so middling.
My next course would be the real test. Roast Chicken. With the whole Simon Hopkinson ‘roast chicken and other stories’ Montpellier Chapter connection, if this wasn’t frigging exceptional, I’d be spitting and damning everyone involved for incompetence and would never, ever, ever forget it. Ever.
No pressure then.
I surveyed the Breast, Leg, Sausage rolled in Bacon, Bread Sauce, Roast Potatoes, Vegetables and a Jug of Chicken Gravy and then in a sudden movement, so fast it was almost imperceptible, I started eating. The roast chicken was perfectly cooked, crisp skin, moist flesh. It was a really decent portion of meat too. Top marks. The sausage wrapped in bacon was a bit inconsequential and could have done with being a bit more flavoursome. I also like the meat content a bit more coarsely ground, but it was more than welcome in the now swirling melee of meat, veg, spuds and gravy being pushed around my plate. The vegetables were cooked just right, with a nice bit of bite. The roast potatoes were decent, certainly not the best I’ve had but not bad.
At the end, hefting my gut to a more comfortable position, politely belching, and considering my plate, so wiped clean it could probably be pressed instantly back into service, I mused over the fact that a good roast dinner is hard to find, and the one I’d just eaten, despite some minor niggles was overall, absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed it, so much so that it almost cancelled out everything else. Simon Hopkinson can rest easy.
Meanwhile, ‘E’ had been eating Wild Mushroom and Spinach Tart with poached Eggs and Hollandaise. A bit of an usual choice this for Sunday lunch, but pescetarian ‘E’ wanted something that would work with the roast potatoes and veg and didn’t fancy the fish. The tart turned out to be a disc of puff pastry, with other ingredients piled on top in a sort of deconstructed assemblage. ‘E’ reckoned it nice enough as a brunch dish, but not really the thing when stacked up against a roast dinner. Having said that, the hollandaise and the poached eggs were absolutely perfectly cooked.
The available dessert choices were strictly old school, so sticky toffee pudding for ‘E’ and crème Brulee for moi. Exactly as with the starters, nothing that’s going to set the world on fire but good examples of classic standards.
It could be argued that Sunday lunch service isn’t the best judge of a restaurant’s capabilities. Although in fact, I was pretty content when I left. The chicken was probably one of the best roast dinners I’ve had for quite some time. The other courses we ate may have been a little workmanlike and uninspiring, but everything overall was well executed and the kitchen obviously knows what they’re doing.
The front of house however, was pretty sloppy. Entirely avoidable howlers included serving the terrible dry bread, the mixed up drinks orders, the fact we had to repeatedly ask for water before some finally arrived, empty glasses left un-cleared on our table throughout the meal, and then, the cardinal sin of not checking back to see if our food was OK when it arrived. All of these issues seemed to stem from there being no fixed waiting staff assigned to deal exclusively with areas of the restaurant but a kind of ‘free for all’ system of constantly rotating faces. It left us feeling that the service we received was friendly but sadly inattentive and impersonal.
Nevertheless, tantalisingly, that roast chicken dinner really impressed me, and I could forgive almost anything for a decently cooked bit of meat. So, I’ll probably pop back at some point to see how things roll on a different day with an alternative menu.
The Montpellier Chapter
Telephone: 01242 527788