Did the home-cooked French fodder at this quiet little joint manage to improve the mood of a rather cold, damp JESSICA CARTER? (Clue: yes, it did.)
You know when you’re on holiday and, by total accident, stumble upon a right little gem of a neighbourhood restaurant? It’s so friendly, and the food is so hearty, that you end up going back every night of your stay, feeling like you’re in on a little secret? (You can guess where I’m going with this, right?)
So, L’Artisan is precisely that kind of place – it just happens to be in the middle of Cheltenham is all. The dining room has a distinct whiff of summer holiday about it, even on the dark, rainy January evening we went. The sunny interior and warm welcome put us in just the right frame of mind to shake off the winter chills, and start looking forward to our imminent feed. Sat in a sweet little table for two in the window, we were mildly surprised to see the passing cars – wipers frantically swishing to and fro – and British Heart Foundation shop across the road, no matter how many times we peeked over the curtains.
This homely little French restaurant opened in 2013, and has been quietly and steadily growing its clientele base ever since. But while you’ll find loyal customers who come back time and again, it’s also entirely possible for you to meet locals who have never been – or even recognise its name.
French proprietors Yves (who heads up the kitchen) and Elisabeth (who you’ll meet front of house) have a long history in hospitality, having run places in their home country before coming to England. They opened this spot in Cheltenham after successfully running a Leicestershire pub-restaurant for seven years. L’Artisan, though, is free of any pub-esque restrictions, and seems to be entirely personal to the pair; from the tablecloths and décor to the music and (especially) the food, it’s as reflective of them as you’d imagine the inside of their own living room to be. And you’re treated with the same sense of ease and friendliness that you’d expect there, too.
The food is robust, homemade French grub, its character echoed in the thoughtful but unpretentious presentation. There’s a sizable a la carte to choose from, while a separate lunch menu offers the likes of chicken with French blue cheese cream (£11.95) and pan-fried salmon with Champagne beurre blanc sauce (£12.95), as well as salads and omelettes. A small number of wines are available by the glass (there are plenty more by the bottle), including a delicious Côtes du Rhône, which I wouldn’t think twice about ordering again.
Pan-fried scallops (£10.95) – the flesh almost melting in the mouth, so delicate and well-cooked was it – came sat on a thin, almost crepe-like wrap, containing creamy but flavoursome brocciu (ewe’s curd cheese from the island of Corsica) and vegetables. A citrussy edge, courtesy of a kalamansi coulis, cut through the softness of the seafood and cheese, and balanced the novel combination of flavours.
There was also home-smoked salmon (£9.95). The fresh, almost translucent shavings of fish encased a compacted stack of cubed potato bound in a creamy sauce, and was given punch by capers, horseradish cream and chive.
Being a pescatarian, The Nurse doesn’t often have enough choice on a menu to induce any kind of dilemma, but the brows furrowed when she was presented with two seafood options that each contained two different types of fish. It was the duo of cod and red mullet (£19.95) that won out in the end, the soft, well-cooked fillets bought together in a light and delicate lobster bisque.
Pigs cheeks (£17.95), braised in honey and white wine, were joined by crisp strips of streaky bacon in a coating of thick, dark gravy for the second main. The tender meat flaked compliantly at the pressure of my fork, its richness lifted by a sweet apple purée. The same generous collection of accompaniments came with both dishes: creamy potato dauphinoise studded with fragrant rosemary, root veg, and a thin, crisp pastry basket filled with chopped sprout and courgette.
Dessert (£6.95 each) was a rich, silky chocolate fondant with silky homemade vanilla ice cream, which The Nurse was delighted she’d shunned her usual creme brûlée for. There was also a fun-looking plate of three large macaron-style numbers – chocolate, pistachio and praline. A lot firmer than traditional macarons, they were really quite tough to cut, the filling oozing out of the edges when I bit into them, but the flavours were there and the crunchiness contrasted with the texture of the sweet cinnamon ice cream and swirls of whipped cream.
L’Artisan is all about real, unpretentious French home cooking, the food prepared with care and sentiment by hosts who genuinely want to put a smile on your face.