After finally realising their dream of owning a restaurant in Cheltenham, Gareth and Helena Fulford and Stephanie Ronssin have been making waves with Purslane's bold seafood offering. Tom Vaughan reports
Desperate for some time to open his own restaurant in Cheltenham, chef Gareth Fulford felt everything was right about the town, bar the lack of a site.
When a site became available early last year, Fulford jumped at it. The result is Purslane Restaurant, a 34-cover operation in Cheltenham centre that is swiftly picking up fans for its modern British menu and emphasis on sustainable seafood.
Fulford, whose CV includes stints as an events chef for Sodexo Prestige before five years as head chef at the Kingham Plough in Chipping Norton, opened the restaurant in July last year with wife, Helena, and business partner and restaurant manager Stephanie Ronssin, whom the couple met at the Plough. Newly done-up interiors give off that feel of upper-mid dining; a suggestion of informality coupled with a touch of class. Here, it's dark wood floors and furniture, bare grey walls and, of course, not a table cloth in sight.
Fulford's Á la carte menu bears all the hallmarks of modern British cooking: unflinching seasonality, simplicity and the embrace of latest techniques. His sea kale starter is a perfect example - the first batches of the coastal plant have recently arrived from supplier Chef Direct, and are served warm with another January treat, blood orange, as well as spelt and a duck egg yolk cooked in a water bath at 62ÂºC . With just Fulford and an apprentice in the kitchen, assistance from the likes of a sous vide machine is essential if they are to turn out a menu of six starters, six mains and five desserts with any level of speed and consistency.
Seafood is a big part of the menu - hand-line, day-boat caught fish arrives daily from Flying Fish Seafood and New Wave Seafood to form three out of the six mains.
At the moment, line-caught cod is in good supply, and like all the fish it is started off in the water bath before being flash fried, and is served with braised white beans, pancetta from nearby Lydney, cockles, clams and some seashore vegetables. Another treat arriving from the day-boats is wild sea bass. Accompanying it come chanterelle mushrooms, winter truffle and a flourless Jerusalem artichoke soufflé. "We get quite a high percentage of coeliacs and dietary requirements. So we've made sure that 90% of what we do is suitable for those requests," says Fulford.
As with all the main courses, the bass and cod dishes are on at £16, while starters all sit at £8 and desserts at £6. The menu changes wholesale on a monthly basis, and as with the preceding two courses, desserts are dictated almost entirely by what is in season.
A sea buckthorn crème brÁ»lée with natural yogurt sorbet and clementines was a particularly resourceful pre-Christmas hit, while the first of the Yorkshire rhubarb has gone into an Eton-mess-style dessert with rhubarb ice-cream.
Business is slowly building at the restaurant, with weekly covers around the 120 mark. And despite being pitched for informality, the pair have been surprised by customers' willingness to spend. "We were aiming at getting customers to go for two courses and a drink for around £28, but the average spend has been more like £38," says Fulford.
It's heartening it see a small independent embrace seasonality and sustainability, marry it with ambition and - most importantly - pull in the punters, and for Fulford, this remains the priority. Accolades - and the spot is surely deserving of some - come second.
"First and foremost, I want a successful restaurant and happy customers," insists Fulford. "Hopefully the cooking is worthy of accolades and hopefully in time they might come."
Sample dishes from the menu
Starters Beetroot-cured Loch Duart Salmon, roasted heritage beetroots, horseradish â¨sauce £8
Crisp cod cheek, St Austell Bay mussels and sea purslane â¨stew £8
Grilled Cornish mackerel, confit alexanders, Yorkshire rhubarb, mackerel brandade £8
Main courses Breast of Wye valley duck, braised red cabbage, roasted parsnips, duck leg pie £16
Cornish Lemon sole, sea kale, preserved lemon, spinach, Yukon gold potato gnocchi £16
Windrush goats' cheese, grilled leeks, heritage potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms £16
Desserts Baked dark Chocolate and salted caramel mousse, Brazil nut ice-cream £6
Selection of home-made ice-creams with white chocolate cookie £6
Local artisan cheese with damson jelly, celery, wheat wafers, fig and walnut bread £6
16 Rodney Road, Cheltenham