LAURA ROWE visits a small Cheltenham restaurant that makes a classic Friday night fish supper something you’ll want to enjoy every day of the week
We do a lot of things really well here in the Cotswolds – local meat, cheese and ale (good lord, the ale is good) – but, given that our little region is completely landlocked, you’d think that a good fish restaurant would be rather harder to find. You would, of course, be wrong.
Purslane opened on Rodney Road in Cheltenham, just off the main drag, a year ago this month – and has already had the likes of Jay Rayner waxing lyrical about its neighbourhood vibe, simple philosophy and skilled cookery. A little birdie told me that a certain Mr Fort had a great meal here only a few weeks ago. Not bad for a small restaurant that can seat a max of 40.
But when you look at the calibre of the owners, it’s really little surprise. Head chef Gareth Fulford, along with restaurant manager Stephanie Ronssin, were previously at the top-notch Kingham Plough in the north Cotswolds. Before that Gareth did stints as an events chef for Sodexo Prestige. Parisienne Stephanie, meanwhile, trained at one of the city’s top hospitality schools before working for the likes of Helen Everitt-Matthais at Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham’s esteemed Michelin-starred restaurant.
It’s a small place, on the site of the former Italian restaurant La Capannella – not particularly inspiring, but not offensive either. Just comfortable. The menu is equally non-fussy.
Starters are all £8, mains all £16 and puds £6. Or you can grab a choice from the ‘light meals’ menu, where dishes range from £5-10. No messing about.
And it’s good value, too, when you consider that 50% of the menu is British seafood, sourced from the non-too-cheap small, inshore day-boat fishermen, who use hand lines and nets off the coast of Cornwall, alongside top-quality British produce, which they have clearly spent time and effort researching.
The food is surprisingly ‘fine dining’, though. And by that I don’t mean miniscule, pretentious or over-styled – I mean ingredients that have been carefully sourced and then expertly paired and cooked using an impressive variety of modern techniques. Yes, there are gels; yes, there are foams. But they all have their place on the plate.
Like with my starter, for example. The most delicate morsels of langoustine – so soft they almost melted in the mouth – were encased in a just-set Evesham tomato jelly with tiny cubes of the fruit. So intense was this flavour that you just know that the kitchen will have spent an age perfecting the ultimate, clear tomato consommé – which, if you’ve read Raymond Blanc’s A Taste of My Life, you’ll know to be something a little bit special.
A variety of heritage tomatoes had been oven-dried, and so were doubly intense in flavour, while monksbeard (similar to samphire) provided a salty contrast in texture and flavour and a langoustine bisque had been aerated into the lightest of foamy mousses.
A dish of grilled Farleigh Wallop (a goat’s cheese by bassist-turned-Cotswold-cheesemaker Alex James) was certainly simpler, but no less considered. Double-podded broad beans had been lightly dressed and bound through baby watercress, with edible flowers, while Aveton cheese (again made up in the north Cotswolds, this time by Crudge’s Cheese in Kingham) had been transformed into savoury, crisp shards.
With so much great fish on offer it would be rude not to choose it – so we opted for the very trendy (’cos it’s sustainable and cheap) megrim, and hake.
The former made up one of the prettiest and tastiest plates I have seen in a while – with dramatic onyx-like beluga lentils, bright red heritage tomatoes, grassy greens, snippets of chives, golden rapessed oil and crispy, deep-fried sand elvers. The fish was perfectly cooked, melting into milky flakes.
The hake was an all round meatier affair and displayed the real versatility of fish in all its guises. A huge fillet, with satisfying crispy skin, was paired with deeply comforting confit chicken wings (the sort that make you drool), still al dente and yet creamy white beans, earthy oyster mushrooms and sea spinach. Beautifully rounded, beautifully presented.
A woodland strawberry pud again presented a display of masterful techniques – from purées and fruit leathers, to parfait, a blasphamously naughty clotted cream ice cream, a sugary shortbread rubble, meringue twigs and even a gel pouch, which burst with real strawberry flavour. And yet a simpler layered dessert of roasted apricots, yoghurt mousse, granola and apricot ice cream was just as delicious.
Affordable but inventive; small but ambitious. And great fish! Purslane is a real catch.
PURSLANE, 16 Rodney Road, Cheltenham, GL50 1JJ; 01242 321639; www.purslane-restaurant.co.uk