Merlot Brasserie, Cheltenham

Katie Jarvis guiltily escapes a home fraught with pre-exam nerves.

THERE'S a palpable air of gloom in the Jarvis household. (Can you palp gloom? A moment of self-doubt.)

It's exam time - GCSEs to be specific - and we're either tiptoeing around, whispering in sepulchral tones so as not to disturb; or testing Spanish vocab, a somewhat beleaguered challenge as none of us speaks a word of it, though a Spanish stewardess was once very snappy with me on a plane. I've also discovered my science isn't up to scratch, either. "What is the thickness of the earth's crust?" I quiz Ellie - having deeply studied her textbook - before finally revealing, "It's the depth of the skin of a football." Talking about thickness, Ellie reveals that that is an analogy which only holds true if you picture the earth as the size of a football. Did I not wonder, she asked, why I didn't receive third degree burns from bubbling whorls of superhot magma every time I planted daffodils? This is deeply hurtful as a) I'm not a gardener and b) was only trying to help.

What's worse is that we've been banned from going away on holiday until the end of July - and then we have to be back for the results in August! Last year, I travelled by train around India, by coach around Holland, and via lavatories in Africa (don't ask; I was overconfident in several smaller restaurants). This year, I've hardly left the house, though kindly visitors have wheeled me to the window twice.

Kids nowadays just don't have a clue. By studying so hard, they're only storing up trouble for the future. When I was young, we deliberately didn't revise for exams specifically so that, in later life, we could claim we could have done much better if only we'd tried. Ian bucked the trend by getting a first-class degree in some rampantly obscure subject to do with wiring. Electronic engineering, I think it was. The chap who presented it to Ian told him he was so nervous about doing the Latin bits of the ceremony, he practised annually on his cat. As a result, he had the best qualified cat in the country.

And so it is that you find us creeping out of the house, silently closing the door like burglars in the night, and heading off to a place where we can talk at somewhere between five decibels and 130, the threshold of pain (which can also be measured in terms of Coldplay tracks). Silence is hard to cope with. Am I the only person on this planet who, in spite of great respect, always has to resist the urge to yodel during quiet bits in church?

We choose Merlot Brasserie in Cheltenham. Interestingly, when Ian phones up to book for 7pm, he's offered slots at 6pm and 8pm. We feel slightly huffy about this to begin with but, on ingress, realise this is a theatre-goers' paradise. You presumably have to plan your meals round performances. (I've never felt quite the same about the theatre since the time I inexplicably got the giggles during a serious murder/mystery play. During the final, extremely tense denouement, Ian and I were both in rolling around in burbling hysterics, much to the consternation of fellow audience members, the cast and, indeed, ourselves. But, as usual, I digress.)

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What a nice little place Merlot is. For a start, it's packed to the rafters even though it is, indeed, six o'clock. There's also a warm and instant welcome from the waitresses who are smiley in a manner almost exactly dissimilar to that of Parisian waiters. The menu is vaguely Oriental-meets-Gloucestershire, with dishes such as salt and pepper tiger prawns sitting alongside Cerney ash goats' cheese and fig salad for starters (that's two different dishes, you understand); and Gloucestershire sirloin steak versus local soy-braised local pork belly with Asian vegetables.

The home-smoked duck breast, orange and hazelnut salad is never going to set the Thames on fire (odd thing for a duck to do anyway), but pretty acceptable; as is the above-mentioned Cerney cheese. (I defy anyone to go wrong when using such an exemplary product; the praise is due to choosing to serve it in the first place).

The slow-braised Cotswold lamb shank is full of flavour - more so than the lemongrass chicken 'tomyum', which (noodles and all) proves evasive and reluctant to be eaten with a knife and fork. But all extremely pleasant stuff, made even more enjoyable by the wonderfully convivial atmosphere.

Desserts are a bit samey in the sense that they're all rather heavy - but diets aside, they're remarkably good: we munch through sticky toffee pudding; and a vanilla ice cream with a shot of Kahlua and another of espresso.

Even with a side order (chips, actually - we are hungry), the meal is pretty good value (with wine and coffee) at �85. The portions aren't massive, but neither are they of the shall-we-frame-it-or-eat-it? style of food that drives me to drink (and a doorstopper sandwich).

I like Merlot; I like the people who work there and the sort of people who eat there. And from the few window seats, I also like the view - in an urban, watching the world pass by, sort of way.

Maybe we'll go there to celebrate when Ellie gets her results which, I hope, will reflect both her work and my trauma. Of course, I could have done much better in my O levels, but I didn't really try.

Ambience 7

Service 8

Food 6

Value for money 7

Merlot Brasserie is at 2a Ormond Terrace, Regent Street, Cheltenham GL50 1HR, 01242574008;

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