This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, 90 miles north west of London, has long presented two very different faces to its visitors.
The 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 spymasters.
The 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.
Last 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.
This 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.
Their 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 Stories.
As 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.
At 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.
Inside 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.
We 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.
This 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?'
A 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.
The 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.
The 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.]
The 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 important element.
The 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.
All 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 impossibly large.
Restaurateurs 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.
Montpellier Chapter, Cheltenham, www.chapterhotels.com