Purslane, 6 Rodney Rd, Cheltenham GL50 1JJ
Purslane: Surgical precision with soul and absolute marksmanship
What is essentially a diorama of particular areas of affluence in and around London, Cheltenham, to my mind, has only ever been synonymous with horse racing. Not quite Ascott but perhaps equally if not more annoying, as both events seem to be all champagne and fascinators- waistcoats and cocaine.
Getting out of the car, as if on cue, a young lady leaves her modern flat with her shoulder raised to her head to steady her iPhone whilst wrangling one of the minuscule dogs that appear to be bred solely for handbags. After calling the bank to remortgage so we could pay the parking, we’re finally here after months of phone tennis with my chauffeur.
Purslane chooses to operate in a way that makes itself irresistible to me- they under-promise and over-deliver with the menu allowing for five or seven courses for which there can only be one reasonable answer.
First out the gate is the snacks round. A tartlet of white crab dressed with elderflower, dots of gooseberry gel, caviar and fronds of dill. Little did I know, but it would encapsulate the philosophy of courses to come; razor-sharp precision, playfulness and spotless execution. There’s something very ‘of the moment’ about the dishes and the plating in particular- as if each course is exactly what Masterchef Professionals or GBM judges have in the mind’s eye for a winning dish. Every time.
One particularly good thing about going to eat with Chris, apart from the lift, is that he gets just as amped-up about bread and butter as I do. And Purslane offers three different kinds- brioche, sourdough and malted oat along with seaweed butter and whipped smoked cod's roe that’s topped with puffed rice rolled in paprika. It’s the mis-en-scene that’s nigh-on enchanting; the individual mini loaves that aren’t quite buns- there’s something very Sylvanian Families about it.
Still on the snack courses, which I have a lot of time for, by the way, is their ‘fish and chips’. Mounded onto what I think is hake that’s pooled in pea purée are unfurlings of shoestring fries, nuggets of scraps- a lovely working-class touch to a dish in a restaurant and town which is not. But it’s the salt and vinegar that is absolutely bang on- reminding you of exactly how the chippy did it: flailing those big translucent bottles vaguely in the direction of your chips with every arcing rope of vinegar and grain of salt finding their way to the target and being evenly distributed, unaccountably. It absolutely sparks with the stuff, complete with all those sensations of an entire fish and chips distilled down to just a couple of bites, as any course like this should be.
A notably stellar dish is the citrus-cured Scottish halibut that’s served in a balled-out granny smith as a vessel. Layered with brown shrimps and chunks of halibut that’s an Old Cotswold Egg blue, pockets of labneh and apple gel that, with the chilled slap of the granny smith make this refreshing, cooling and nourishing all at once. As if this wasn’t enough skill and thought, it’s pocketed with clusters of tobiko caviar- bright green with their wasabi infusion that seasons the dish so brilliantly.
The stone bass with heritage tomatoes, monksbeard, wild garlic and topped with a black olive crumb is a locally-sourced tribute to the classic sauce vierge. The skin on the fish is crisp, bronzed with butter and flakes tenderly into its pearly segments, with pops of salty fingers and weaves of monksbeard seasoning the dish from the depths. It’s yet more classic cookery brought freshly into the modern age, without breaking a sweat.
My pupils will always dilate at the mention of guanciale as the utter Stan I’ve become for proper carbonara. Equally undying is the pleasure I take in eating a protein that’s surrounded by elements of its natural habitat- the deep forest autumnal hues of the Caesar mushroom finding shade under lightly charred grelot onions. The broad beans lazing in a jus underneath with mousey drifts of summer truffle at the canopy. Hearty and light, it speaks to the lovingly rendered piece of pig that gives a smoky note to the otherwise showcase of freshness.
This following course plays the only flat note of the night and it’s the jus. It’s bitter, as if the fond has burnt just before deglazing for which I’m upset for the kitchen itself- the jus being the culmination of the pans work up until the last moment. That aside, the veal is an absolute pushover in succulence, the Jersey Royal sheened in butter and cooked to the best version of its creamy self and draped with a hay emulsion that once again unknowingly satisfies me on a very fundamental level.
Among all this, sitting quietly, under the ribbons of Evesham asparagus, is a deep-fried sweetbread that’s quite literally flawless. The seasoning to the coating, the temperature to the texture- it’s masterful and another dish exemplifying how Purslane approaches the plate. Marco Pierre White said that “perfection is a lot of little things done well” and although I’m reticent to use the word 'perfection' in anything I write, Purslane definitely operates in this way. Plus how much faith can you place in a man that’s become a hype man for Knorr stock pots anyhow?
Another exuberant entry is the English classic of strawberries and cream. Unadulterated fresh strawberries surround the most skillfully deployed dollop of ricotta you’ve ever seen, barnacled with shortbread crumb, flecked with the sweet heat of pink peppercorns. Crowning this are shards of dehydrated strawberry glass, secured by a 'strawbet' that’s been finished with dried lemon verbena. It’s a trichotomy of attitudes that further encapsulate exactly what it is to eat here: deftness, restraint and flair that takes classical cooking to task and asks more of it for the modern era.
Again this is true of the following dessert of Valrhona Chocolate, hazelnut, Jersey milk, honeycomb, salted caramel, Pedro Ximenez. The chocolate is somewhere between a mousse and ganache which washes with the Jersey milk ice cream to balance itself into an exquisite chocolate milk, the hazelnut is lightly roasted and with that aerated crunch of honeycomb riffs on a praline or indeed Crunchie bar. There’s a brittle of caramelised chocolate and that’s been sprayed gold in a way that almost makes it kitsch and is yet again a cheeky giggle from the kitchen, almost poking fun at the old ‘gold leaf’ days which have always made me cringe when used seriously, even today. Nothing says ‘what cost of living? LOL’ like gold leaf.
The salted caramel sauce is on the grinning-side of buttery and employs the right amount of salt to talk back to all the heft and richness that’s mustered in this bowl. Served with a Pedro Ximenez, Chris is in actual heaven and I’m admittedly not far behind.
Lastly, is a little bung of rum-infused sponge, topped with a chocolate cream and populated with white and milk chocolate-covered crispy bits, just like the kind you'd eat first in a Muller Crunch Corner before dutifully discarding the yoghurt. Kittenish and confidently discrete, Purslane has kept the momentum up until the very end- the tempo and intensity ebbing and flowing to create that experience you want from a tasting menu. It's the kind of excitement that puts you on the edge of your seat for what’s in front of you and what’s to come, eluding your guesswork and dumbfounding it instead.
Sod the horses, this is my sort of gamble.