Sam’s Montpellier, Cheltenham: ‘Dishes that deserve our attention’ – restaurant review

<span>Small wonders: Sam’s Montpellier, Cheltenham.</span><span>Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer</span>
Small wonders: Sam’s Montpellier, Cheltenham.Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

Sam’s Montpellier, Montpellier Courtyard, Montpellier Street, Cheltenham GL50 1SR (01242 252752). Earth £7.50-£10.50, Land £11-£15.50, Sea £12-£13, Heaven £8, wines from £25

At the start, our delightful waiter announces that the menu here at Sam’s Montpellier is “a little bit different”. That’s a four-word phrase guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of, well, me. What in God’s name is going to happen in this sharp-edged restaurant in Cheltenham, where life is meant to be as unchallenging as an episode of Countryfile? Am I going to have to lick a black pudding espuma from a plaster cast of the chef’s lips? Will each dish be spoon fed to me while I’m forced to wear headphones and listen to a soundtrack of Jacob Collier telling me which key I’m masticating in? It’s the middle of the jazz festival. It could happen. Oh no. It’s worse than that, isn’t it? It’s going to be starters in a dog bowl and desserts off a trowel. I just know it.

She smiles broadly. “Here at Sam’s, we have…” Pause. “A small plates concept. A bit like tapas.” You do? Oh, you marvellous, dear, young person. And if that sounds like I’m being patronising all I can say is, how clever of you to notice. In this job you see things. Granted, restaurant reviewing isn’t all attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, but it can be challenging. So when someone threatens profound difference, sweaty-palmed trepidation is reasonable. And when that difference turns out to be something achingly familiar, so is relief.

Some of you, of course, are very much over small plates. We’ve talked about this, haven’t we? In detail. You’ve had enough of a bit of this and that. Please can you have one of those main courses like restaurants used to do? So let’s get the other infuriating details out of the way quickly. The hard grey walls of the various dining spaces combined with the thrumming soundtrack create an acoustic friendly only to younger ears. Naturally, the dishes turn up when they’re ready, rather than in any particular order, like your spouse has said they’ll make you a sandwich and a cuppa but only when they’ve finished what they’re doing. Be grateful. Or be cross.

The rest of you, pay attention. Because if you let any of that put you off, you’d miss out on some larky, excitable and very jolly cooking. For many years Sam Price headed up the kitchen at a pub just outside Cheltenham, serving what was by all accounts good, reliable pub food. Nobody had to give speeches about things being a bit different because they weren’t. Here, Price is having lots of fun. He’s painting into the corners of the canvas; filling every frame of the movie. And it works.

The menu is divided into “Earth” for plant-based, “Land” for meat and “Sea” for fish. At each stage something will be offered up deep-fried. What matters is how the fried thing is accessorised. There’s popcorn fried chicken with chipotle ketchup from the land list, and from the sea section, monkfish “bites” with crushed peas and curried sauce. It’s a dish for the middle classes, eager to signal they know what it is to be queueing up at the chippy, drunk and hungry after the pubs have chucked out. The earth section gets beetroot arancini with a light grassy poke of dill. Cut through the golden exterior and you’ll find something brilliantly Hammer House crimson, like the very ground has bled for you. There’s a lime mayo, to beat the beetroot sweetness into submission, and a huge grating of parmesan to remind you that these are balls of deep-fried risotto. Follow that with florets of cauliflower, bashed about with smoked paprika and caramelised, before being dressed in a buttery mess of pine nuts and fresh red chilli.

Meat dishes demand a cooking process. Fat pebbles of pig cheek are first braised until spoonable, then placed on a face-cream-soft purée of cannellini beans. There are generous dribbles of a jammy madeira sauce and, on top for crunch, fragments of puffy crackling. Lamb shoulder has also been braised, this time until it can be shredded, then formed into a fat cake, to go with a golden block of rösti, because fried potato is always a good thing. There are crushed peas, a roasted carrot and good gravy. Small-plate refuseniks might squint at this dish and recognise, in its parts, a grown-up main course that has been tailored down to its £15 price tag. It’s a fair point. It applies equally to a precise slice of smoked duck breast served pink, but with crisped skin, alongside charred broccoli. This could indeed be a main course if it was allowed to escape adolescence. By this point, however, we have given ourselves fully to the parade of the small but perfectly formed.

Here comes a tart of crumbly pastry filled with a hot-smoked salmon mousse and topped with shiny ribbons of cucumber. Here, too, is a sensitively cooked piece of hake smothered by a bisque which has been put through a nitrous gun, so it’s all foamy and light. Now you’re cross again, because you’re also over foams. What matters is the underlying sauce, and this one is a belter. It’s big on anise and the whack of fat, roasted prawn head. The only misfire is a pistachio parfait. It is the thrilling green of a pool table baize and it’s deeply savoury, but my companions struggle to identify the key ingredient. Is it peas or avocado or blitzed Kermit? It’s a pistachio parfait that doesn’t taste of pistachio, but there’s a pleasingly smoky char to the oily toast.

The dessert section is called “Heaven”. You’re not at all surprised by that, are you? A custard tart topped with a puffed rice “granola”, which you’ll spend the night picking out of your teeth, is not quite divine but it very much does the job. A light jelly full of plump berries is a palate cleanser. A dense rectangle of intense chocolate torte topped with an orange gel is a palate coater. Choose the order in which you eat those carefully. They have an enormous gin list, because it’s Cheltenham and they like that sort of thing here, alongside a strong choice of unchallenging wines by the glass. Passing by you could mistake Sam’s for one of those all-day brasseries, good for avocado on toast, stupid cocktails and an emotional best-friend debrief. But behind the high street crowd-pleaser vibe, behind the clatter and the groove, is a place serving dishes that deserve our attention, whatever the portion size.

News bites

Let’s begin with a thank you to chef Victor Garvey of Soho restaurant Sola for pointing me in the direction of probably the most expensive dining experience currently available on Deliveroo in the UK: Londoners can now order in from Nusr-Et, the steakhouse of ludicrous Turkish-born seasoning monger Salt Bea. This includes a large tomahawk at £630, and a wagyu striploin for £680. You may wish to add a bottle of Domaine Faiveley Bienvenues Batard Montrachet Grand Cru 2020 which can be bought retail for £370, but which via Deliveroo will cost you £1,650. Plus £1.99 delivery.

A Bristol pub has introduced a new pricing strategy that will doubtless be a source of outrage for certain customers, and of interest to the wider hospitality business. Customers at the Coronation pub in Southville will be charged 30p extra per drink if they order them in person at the bar, as against ordering via a QR code and having them delivered to their table. Landlord Ben Cheshire explained to the Telegraph that it was better for his staff. ‘This takes the stress away rather than having to constantly interact with different people for eight hours straight,’ he said.

The Indian restaurant group Dishoom has gone to court to have another business’s trademark in the name Ruby Murray struck out. The late Belfast-born singer’s name has long been rhyming slang for a curry and Dishoom uses it as a catch-all for theirs. However, five years ago company director Tariq Aziz trademarked the name for various commercial ventures. Dishoom claims he has never actually used it; Aziz says this is not the case. Dishoom says they are not looking to trademark the title for themselves, only to make the term free for everyone to use.

Email Jay at or follow him on X @jayrayner1