The Brasserie Blanc, Cheltenham - Restaurant Review

Katie Jarvis considers herself a Francophile, but the French don't always get it right...

There's a strange smell of burning at the Brasserie Blanc in Cheltenham. It's not the chefs - you can see them working in the theatre-kitchen at the back of the restaurant. As the smell gets nearer, we can see one of the waiters is smouldering. Or, rather, the card he's holding in his hand.

He notices us staring. "A guest set fire to it," he explains with a nonchalant 'surely this happens in most restaurants you visit' air as he walks past. "Sometimes, it's the menus that catch alight," he adds.

Well, it's all part of being a French restaurant. Because that means having tables so minute that the small candle twinkling atmospherically in front of you has a nodding acquaintance with every flammable article on the table; and that - if you're fair minded - you have to take it in turns to host the bottled water.

Ian once stepped into a restaurant on Paris's Left Bank armed with an open expense account and an accompanying gaggle of hungry, thirsty businessmen. Far from being thrilled with the prospect of early retirement on tips alone, the waiter looked round the empty restaurant and said, "Come back in 10 minutes." One can only imagine his surprise when the 10 minutes was up.

The Brasserie Blanc seems to have got this aspect of Parisian dining right, too.

The vast sea of tables tonight is largely untroubled by guests; nevertheless, the chances of service seem similar to the chances of rescue when cast adrift on a piece of flotsam (or is it jetsam? I'm not very marine minded) in the Pacific. Occasionally, you see what you think is the light of a passing ship, but it turns out to be a distress flare lit by another castaway. In the form of a burning menu, for example.

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While Ian is momentarily distracted, I take the opportunity to edge the bottled water silently over to his side. It's a skilled manoeuvre; just a fraction too far and it will be over the edge of the table. It's a selfish/considerate gesture. Considerate in the sense that the candle is awfully near his cuff and the water could prove useful.

I've eaten out at more French restaurants than I've had hot dinners. (Why do they never warm the plates?) In fact, I spent the best part of six months living in an hotel in the centre of Paris and dining out every night. During that time, I learned various things, including how to park in tiny spaces. From the panoramic vantage point of my hotel window, I'd watch a Frenchman charging down the road, in a way that would have brought tears of joy to the eyes of Napoleon, before suddenly spotting a parking space - admittedly a rare Parisian commodity. The ability to come to a complete and instantaneous standstill overshadowed any manufacturer's 0-60 claims. Then, the parking: bang, bang, bang, bang.

Thus was born the well-loved Jarvis family game of trying to spot a car in Paris that didn't have a dent. It's similar to the four-leafed clover English equivalent, but far more challenging.

And I learned how to cross a road: carefully. Zebra crossings in France are merely a way of using up leftover white paint.

But enough nostalgia.

What I'm trying to say is this. There are many things I love about France, but parking and zebra crossings are not amongst them. Similarly, there are many things I love about French restaurants that don't include service and table size.

We order wine and are told off by the highly indignant waiter for not asking to try it first. I order a salade Alsacienne (smoked Alsace bacon, poached egg, potato salad) from the fairly permanent menu (it changes seasonally). It's a while before they come back to tell me it's off.

So I choose a 'special' of gratinated gnocchi with local swiss chard and Roquefort sauce (from Primrose Vale farm shop - nice touch) which is OK. Followed by omelette paysanne (open omelette with smoked pepper, onion, potato and tomato), which is nothing to write home about.

Ian has chicken liver terrine; and a Glen Fyne estate sirloin steak, which he says is very good. Before my main course is served, the waiter has to move the bottled water slightly to make room for my plate. Clever... I give Ian a hard stare, but he's busy studying something in the far distance.


In short, the whole thing is a bit of a something and nothing experience. One of the highlights is when the guest next to us has a sneezing fit so impressive, several of us contemplate calling Norris McWhirter's successor. Admittedly, that's not the restaurant's fault, though there's the outside possibility it was attention seeking.

Finally, the pudding. I, for once, am not tempted even by the flaming baked Alaska which, I feel, could simply be the restaurant's attempt to accept the inevitability of a small table, a candle, and a dessert containing alcohol. Ian has the blackberry and apple crumble which can only be described as unlike any crumble before or since.

Oh - and the other thing I do like about French restaurants is how reasonable they tend to be. Certainly not �81 for a brasserie meal where no one splashed out. Definitely a comme ci, comme a evening.

Ambience 7

Service 6

Food 6

Value for money 6

Brasserie Blanc is at The Queen's Hotel, The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN; 01242 266800; www.

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