It was on, it was off, it was on again. Le Petit Blanc Cheltenham did not have the easiest of births, but it always had a lot going for it.
Its proposed site was a plum one, within the Georgian elegance of Forte's Queen's Hotel in the smart part of town. Its opening team, all with Oxford battle scars, would ensure that there were no compromises this time. And most importantly, its timing was right - Blanc Restaurants had backers and blueprints in place and was ready to roll out its high-quality brasserie operation as a brand.
Alysoun Stewart, Blanc Restaurants' commercial director, started the ball rolling in September 1996, by preparing plans for review by Raymond Blanc, Simon Rhatigan, general manager of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and Olivier Delaunoy, then general manager of Le Petit Blanc, Oxford. These specified the type of location, the size of unit and the space needed for a new site, so that a skeleton trading forecast could be prepared and all financial implications assessed.
The team were determined that, this time around, the cart would be firmly behind the horse. "We didn't want to land ourselves with operational millstones like lack of space, so early planning was vital," Stewart says.
After mulling over several sites, none of which met all of Blanc Restaurants' requirements, Simon Crighton, Forte's food and catering director, approached the company with a view to putting the Petit Blanc concept into some of its locations.
The team were impressed by one of these, the conference and banqueting suite at the Queen's Hotel in Cheltenham - they visualised a classy brasserie operation there. Better still, local residents wouldn't be a problem (as they have been in Oxford) and nor would parking. But there was to be six months of sometimes frustrating negotiations before the first draft of Heads of Terms were received from the Forte property department.
By August last year, it became obvious that Forte's plans had not moved forward fast enough for an important revenue-generating December, but at least Petit Blanc Number Two was now a reality. A February opening would have to do.
Work started at the site on 22 October, under the project management of Roger Edey of Tilney Lumsden Shane, designers who had been runners-up for the Oxford Petit Blanc project. The company's ideas incorporated lots of dark wood and stainless steel, giving what they saw as a very metropolitan and elegant feel, unlike anything else in Cheltenham.
Delaunoy, now Cheltenham's general manager, and who has worked on the new project full-time for the past three months, has been particularly pleased with Edey's approach.
Central to the design, and dominating the room to the right of the entrance, is a 10.5m-long bar, with black American walnut front and a solid stainless-steel top. This is set off by dramatic black cork flooring throughout the bar and restaurant. The scale is big, as evidenced by a vast hand-painted mural, 5.3m in length and 2.8m high, on the far wall of the bar. Leading on from this is a dramatic three-feet-deep frieze around the entire brasserie. Painted by Ian Harper, this depicts all aspects of the catering industry.
Running the length of the ceiling in the dining area is a massive suspended raft concealing the distribution duct-work for the £135,000 air-conditioning system. This was a major financial headache, but the only solution allowing compliance with Grade II-listed building regulations.
Diners at the steel-topped tables have a vast, Raymond Blanc-specified kitchen to serve them. Entirely equipped by Zanussi, it too is fully air-conditioned.
Executive chef Stephen Nash, previously at Café du Jardin in London's Covent Garden, started work with Blanc Restaurants back in December to work on the launch. His menus have a core Petit Blanc element to them - Blanc himself has devised a selection of dishes that will be common to both Oxford and Cheltenham - but Nash's own mark will come through in the regularly changing menu.
A new feature is the stand-alone pastry area. A pastry chef, a pastry chef de partie and two commis will produce all of the brasserie's requirements on site. Delaunoy accepts that this is a significant investment in space and manpower but suggests there may be room for sales to local restaurants, once everything is up and running to the brasserie's requirements.
"Second time around, we are confident that next week we will be opening a brasserie that has made no operational compromises," says Delaunoy. "We have a restaurant that is as functional for our customers as it is for our waiters and chefs. We can't wait!"
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