Dinner at a fine dining restaurant is always an excuse to dress up and, in any town or city, it’s tempting to warm up with a cocktail in a nearby bar or plan to meet friends afterwards for a night out on the town. However, two Michelin starred dining at a country hotel – in this case, Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire – allows you to concentrate on the food without the distraction of other commitments, especially if you also intend to stay overnight. Of course, one still dresses up, but this is not a fashion parade. Guest don’t come to Le Manoir to ‘be seen’ because there aren’t any paparazzi lurking outside or tourists gawping through the windows. People come to Le Manoir for the food, the service and the simplicity of a luxurious home away from home in the countryside.
The eponymous restaurant lies at the back of the building inside a large conservatory overlooking the lawn, with the gardens beyond. The gardens produce 90 types of vegetable and 70 herbs to be used in the restaurant, which is reflected in the seasonality of the menus. When I stayed at Le Manoir, in spring of this year, we spent some time exploring the budding orchard and polytunnels full of micro-herbs and the proximity of the restaurant to the gardens promised a freshness beyond our experience.
We began our evening in the bar, nibbling on canapés that included salt cod with chorizo and seven pepper ketchup, and beef tartare. At the recommendation of the Maitre D’, we ordered a glass of Le Manoir’s own champagne with mango, a sweet yet refreshing aperitif. We had the opportunity to discuss and change the options on the tasting menu, before being led through the corridors of the old house to our seats in the restaurant. The service was immaculate throughout and, with staff doing their best to accommodate the temperature requirements of my increasingly health-challenged dining partner, Charlotte, we ended up sitting some distance away from other guests in the protruding section of the conservatory, with several windows open despite the chill of evening. I had, however, the opportunity of observing that the clientele was a real mixture of people, including couples, groups and families with children, all well-dressed, like us, in preparation for a meeting with a most delectable meal.
Charlotte seemed to perk up considerably at the arrival of our first course, a ceviche of scallops with oyster, yuzu granita and turnip. This was very colourful in appearance and the sharp citrus and delicate scallop flavours were well balanced. Although the kitchen is quite small (the area where Blanc films his television programmes being re-appropriated for making garnishes during service), as much as possible is made on-site. This is fortunate, in that a very high standard is maintained – as monitored by a bronze bust of Blanc in the kitchen – but also unfortunate, in that I will have to wait for my next visit to enjoy the exquisite country bread with bacon bits in it that accompanied the meal.
Our next course was a Devonshire crab salad, with grapefruit and celery. This was another dish of delicate flavours. A sea-salty aroma rose up from the crab and the salty sauce was a great accompaniment to the tangy grapefruit. Sommelier Jeremy’s wine pairings were carefully selected from Le Manoir’s cellar of over 1000 wines and, with this course, he chose a fresh, dry Reisling that gave a brisk twist to this light salad. We continued with a terrine of baby beetroot, which was an intense purple colour and had an earthiness that was contrasted by a sharp horseradish sorbet. This is a very good combination, one that I have never experienced anywhere else, made all the more special by recalling that the ingredients had probably only travelled a few hundred metres from where they had been growing only yesterday!
Moving onto the fish course, we were brought perfectly cooked and tender wild Cornish brill, with rich and creamy mussel and lemongrass bisque. I raved to Charlotte about the bewitching Asian scent of lemongrass in the billowing steam but, sadly, found her less than excited because she was unable to smell a thing!
The main course, roasted loin of Shropshire venison, was probably my favourite dish of the evening. The meat was succulent and accompanied by creamy celeriac, chicory and a slightly sweet but robust Grand Veneur sauce. Tasting menus often have a dish – sometimes two – that one is not quite so excited about, or that turn out to be disappointing. It’s a testament to the dedication and precision work of the kitchens at Le Manoir that there was no such dish on this menu.
After a composed cheese course of salty Ardrahan with pecans and honey, our menus diverged briefly. Charlotte was a served a gelée of exotic fruits with kaffir lime ice cream and coconut jus, while I had Gariguette strawberries with Szechuan pepper, cream cheese and crème glacée. There were soft, pink marshmallows and the dish was very sweet but was followed by a dish called ‘Tastes of Citrus’ that combined a number of tangy fruits to refresh the palate before the finale.
Even though we had been very well fed, I am a confirmed chocoholic and the meal didn’t really feel complete until we tasted the ‘Flavours of Tiramisu’ with a Coeur de Guanaja chocolate cream. This last dish was my idea of food heaven, with the perfect partnership of bitter chocolate and coffee, as well as some cheeky, boozy jellies. One of the delights of staying in the hotel, a mere minute away, was that we could simply wander back to the room to wind down and avoid any temptation to try to extend the evening. This meant that there was nothing to do but sit and discuss the excellent meal but, as passionate foodies, that was the perfect way to end the day.
And there was still Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School patisserie course to enjoy in the morning…
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons
Oxford, OX44 7PD