This article was also published in the Financial Times.
in Gloucestershire, 90 miles north west of London, has long presented two very
different faces to its visitors.
first, and more sedate as befits a Regency town, is as a spa, home to the
famous Ladies College and as the centre of intelligence gathering for Britain’s
second, and more raucous, is as home to its annual jazz and literary festivals.
And, most exuberantly of all, as the location for the National Hunt Festival
that brings thousands of hungry and thirsty punters, particularly from Ireland,
to its famous racecourse in the middle of March.
November the opening of the Montpellier Chapter Hotel near the Ladies College
marked another attraction for a town that has been a popular tourist
destination for over 200 years. But this development has in fact less to do
with what this is – a chic hotel with a bustling restaurant and bar attached –
as much as with who is responsible for Chapter Hotels.
company is a new division of the Swire Group, the major Hong Kong company who
run Cathay Pacific inter alia, and this is their first British hote. Others are
planned to open in Bristol, Brighton and Exeter over the next year.
determination to carve a particular niche for themselves was underlined by the
appointment as MD of Brian Williams, for many years with Mandarin Oriental in
Asia, and his subsequent recruitment of Simon Hopkinson as consultant on the
menu. Hopkinson is the chef who made Bibendum restaurant in London’s Fulham
Road famous and then wrote the best selling cookbook Roast Chicken and Other
we arrived in Montpellier Street at 7.30 on a Saturday night, the Regency
terraces resembled London’s West End, with taxis dropping off women in
staggeringly high heels outside bars and restaurants. This may have been the
reason I forgot to turn left by the Montpellier Wine Bar (whose vertical
banners proclaim ‘Eat Well, Enjoy Wine,
Love Life’) in time to reach the hotel.
the Montpellier Chapter Hotel the juxtaposition of the old and the modern are
immediately apparent. The glass entrance doors are exquisite, having been
carefully renovated by the new owners, with the initials SH engraved into them.
This building first opened as the Savoy Hotel in 1847.
there is no reception desk but rather a large piece of sculpted wood,
potentially back breaking home to a couple of iPads and two young women whose
enthusiasm for the hotel seems unbridled. This was the first indication of
benign Asian influence on service, an impression that remained undimmed
throughout our stay.
were led away from the sounds of the busy bar and restaurant, past an open,
modern glassed-in courtyard, to our bedroom at the rear, and for what proved to
be an innocuous reminder of my advancing years.
came not from the sight of the bath and shower as part of the room, separated from
the bed only by a curtain (see picture), but by a comment from the receptionist. Having shown
us how to work the lights and given us the wireless network password, she
pointed to the iPhone on the desk that was at our disposal for our stay, and
asked, 'You do know how to use an iPhone, don’t you?'
stint in the corner of the bar accompanied by a dish of Parmesan biscuits and
the menu involved another piece of gadgetry, this time an iPad wine list. This
combination brought both pleasure and frustration.
pleasure came immediately from the large format menu that bears on its reverse
a stunning aerial colour photo of the racecourse and the surrounding
countryside. The dishes on the flipside resonate with Hopkinson’s principles. This means correct English, so it is crisp
duck with a watercress and radish salad rather than crispy duck as it is so
frequently written. There is the juxtaposition of British, French and Italian
dishes that have stood the test of time and exude good taste. Hence potted
shrimps next to a terrine de campagne before a butternut squash risotto and a
fillet steak au poivre. The grill section prompted me to order the lamb cutlets
almost as much for the promised mint béarnaise as the meat itself.
frustration began with the iPad and had nothing to do with my age. The way the
wines had been listed, spelt, inputted and categorised was chaotic and littered
with typos. [For Purple pagers' opinions on iPad wine lists, see iPad for restaurant wine lists? and also Jancis's Recommended iPad wine lists.]
restaurant with two bay windows and high ceilings must have witnessed some
rather grand parties and dances over the years but it has been sympathetically
modernised, the inclusion of some extremely comfortable dining chairs being an
open kitchen has been given great prominence too, occupying the entire far wall
with passages on either side to the main kitchen and a gas oven at the front in
which the waiting staff warm the bread before serving it. But it was this very
openness that bothered me.
I kept seeing was too many young, anxious cooks, doing their utmost to serve
their customers quickly enough but never seeming to stop to taste whether what
was being sent out was good enough. The crisp duck salad and marinated salmon
with white crab meat were reasonable. But the lamb cutlets were under-seasoned;
the mint béarnaise tasted as though it depended heavily on commercial mint
sauce; and the fishcakes were amateurish and flabby. The desserts are
will envy the exuberance Williams has instilled in his team. But it is a
restaurateur’s touch - with the wine list and ensuring that these relatively
simple dishes taste consistently as well as they should - that this otherwise
sensitive renovation still lacks.
Chapter, Cheltenham, www.chapterhotels.com