Patrons can guarantee themselves a cosy and welcoming meal at this new Cheltenham restaurant. Hannah Thompson reports
It's a crisp, bright day in historic Cheltenham and I find chef Chris White's restaurant, the White Spoon, tucked down a cobbled street, a welcoming haven from the cold air. The outside impression is of somewhere small and snug, but once inside, the place is surprisingly expansive, with high ceilings, natural wood, calming colours and wide windows revealing autumn's golden backdrop.
This 38-cover site, which White opened on 14 September with his partner Purdey Spooner (the other half of the restaurant's name) and his brother, Andy, on a budget of £150,000, is his first solo venture in a career that has most notably included Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head pub in Bray, Berkshire.
And yet it would be wrong to suggest that this fine-tuning process is the result of an unsettled approach. Overall, White's ethos is one of balance. Everything is a product of an easy partnership between modernity and tradition; precision and relaxed techniques; personal preference and customer feedback.
Even something as simple as the distinction between meat and fish is carefully considered. The latter is shown to greatest relief in the Kelmscott pork belly and wild seabass (£20), which comes with smoked potato gnocchi and butternut squash, and is one of the site's bestsellers. The pork belly is brined in a saltwater with herbs and spices for 24 hours to draw out excess moisture, and is then cooked sous-vide for 16 hours and pressed. The skin is boiled, poached and dehydrated at 70Â°C for eight hours with the fat scraped off, and lastly, fried. "[They're all] quite long processes," explains White, apologetically. "But I like to mix the old and the new, and have a bit of variety in the kitchen, and really see how people react."
It's not surprising for a chef with experience of one of Blumenthal's sites to favour complex processes, but White is also careful not to over-complicate dishes."It's all very precise with temperatures and time, but ultimately [the pork and seabass is] a take on surf and turf - modern, but still familiar."
So on the one hand there are the strong flavours and techniques of the blackened Gloucester beef rump (£22.50), which is coated in malt extract, seasoned, charred and cooked sous-vide for six hours at 51Â°C. And then, on the other hand, there's the comfortingly familiar dark chocolate custard (£8.50), which tastes much like a mousse, with a hazelnut praline and burned orange sorbet.
White is also keen to stress that his work at Blumenthal's place was less about molecular gastronomy and more about learning from the head chef Clive Dixon, who taught him more about style and attitude.
"It wasn't the snail porridge or the egg and bacon ice-cream that I took away from it," he says. "It was the mentality of working and getting things right."
It's also fair to say that White is still more motivated by giving guests what they want than by presenting some strident magnum opus. "We did change the bavarois thanks to customer feedback," he explains, of the toffee, pear and rum bavarois with walnut crumble (£7). "People didn't seem to be getting the 'punch' I wanted."
And while White is clear he could never compare himself to Le Champignon Sauvage, Purslane and Lumière (also in Cheltenham), he can nevertheless still barely conceal his pride at having his name above the door here.
"I just want to cook for people who quite like my food," he says. "Happy people!" The sense is that the chef is busily creating somewhere that he and his partner would love to eat at, and hopes others feel the same.
Despite his "tweaking" approach, he is also alert to the need for consistency and keen to build on the site's growing reputation.
The leaves may have been red and brown when this site opened, but with bookings coming thick and fast, regulars visiting several times a week and new recipes coming on to the menu all the time, it seems increasingly clear that winter - and beyond - is looking beautifully White.
From the menu
Hay-smoked mackerel £7.50
Warm goats' cheese and beetroot salad £7.50
Cornish plaice fillets, capers, pickled dulse, shrimps, garlic crumb £18.50
Set parsnip tart, roasted cauliflower £15.50
Coconut parfait, ginger ice-cream £8
Dark chocolate fondant, ice-cream £8.50
The White Spoon
8 Royal Well Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3JX
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