After working my butt off for Edexcel doing some extra marking this term, I decided the time had come to spend a proportion of it on something really cool. And that something was a meal for two at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred establishment in rural Oxfordshire. When I say rural, I really do mean it: you either have to drive there yourself (and eschew the drink – which may not be a bad thing, as I’ll go on to explain), fork out the necessary £60 for the taxi round trip between Oxford railway station and the restaurant (adds expense to an already expensive day), or get the bus from Oxford town centre to the Manoir (which only runs once an hour, and not even from Oxford station, so is most inconvenient time-wise). The most expensive option would be to stay at the Manoir itself (having driven yourself there) to give yourself a chance to sleep off the various excesses that you’re about to indulge in. Luckily, an alternative was available to us: the mothership always enjoys shopping at Bicester, which is about a forty-minute drive from where she lives, and as we were staying with her, she offered to drive us there and entertain herself at the shopping village until we were done. GOOD TIMES.
(Sorry for the preamble, but getting yourself there really is a faff and is something you need to consider.)
Getting the actual reservation itself was not difficult (perhaps because of the difficulty of getting to the location, fewer people want to go there). We rang up a mere 2-3 weeks before wanting to go there and were able to get a table easily, even though we were going at the end of July, at what I thought would be high season (surely more people want to enjoy the Manoir’s beautiful gardens in July than they do in February?). Anyway, this is reassuring for potential diners.
Staff behaviour was virtually impeccable throughout proceedings – from the friendly yet professional way with which they took our reservation and directed us around the grounds and restaurant, to the flawlessly formal service with which they served us on the day. The only slight letdown was that my (French) husband overheard some of the waiting staff insulting a couple of the diners once away from them (in French). WHOOPS. Never assume when working in service that the general public will not be able to hear your comments, even if you make them in another language.
The staff also put up with my enquiries as to whether Monsieur Blanc was in the house that day – a question they must get all the time. (I asked twice – once at the beginning of the meal and once at the end, to two different members of staff – just to be sure.) Sadly, he wasn’t – but this will be just one reason to go back another time, I’m sure, to try my luck again.
However, I don’t only suggest a return visit in order to try to meet Raymond Blanc (or even his long-suffering associate, ADAM!). The food was quite simply beyond reproach – which you’d expect after paying £79 per person for 5 courses (plus cheese, for an extra £24 per person – so make that £103 per person). The menu changes monthly thanks to its seasonality, and as a result the fresh flavours of the ingredients used simply burst onto your tongue. This extended equally to the canapés (taken outside prior to the meal) and to the petits fours (taken with coffee at the end). There is of course the opportunity to sample the drinks menu before eating, but we chose to just have tap water. And to be honest? The staff seemed fine with that. There’s no feeling of being looked down upon because you’ve effectively ordered something that’s free. And frankly, when you’re paying that much, you ought to be able to squeeze out every free thing you can get :p
The first course took the form of a stunning gazpacho, made using Blanc’s method of hanging cherry tomatoes in a muslin sheet to extract the juice. We’ve seen him do this on TV, and not only is it time-consuming (it takes around 3-4 hours for every 2kg of tomatoes used), but it’s also expensive (only cherry tomatoes are used). However, I’m happy to report that you get what you pay for. IT WAS DIVINE – beautifully clear and providing an intense hit of flavour.
The next course promised two things that I don’t normally enjoy: salt cod (which to me tastes of nothing) and octopus (whose texture I often find rubbery and displeasing). However, experience of other Michelin-starred establishments tells me that you sometimes just have to put yourself in the hands of the chef, even if you don’t usually ‘like’ a particular food. Was I ever glad I did when I saw and tasted this…
…which, needless to say, provided a delightful combination of flavours and textures thanks to the firm yet NOT rubbery octopus, the reliable neutral background of the salt cod, the sheer variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, and the innovative addition of the olive oil jelly. Quite simply a revelation.
This was followed by something arguably more prosaic: a poached egg on a bed of spinach. Nonetheless, it was simplicity done well, with arguably the most notable aspect being the preparation of the spinach itself. This green leafy vegetable can so easily be stringy or gritty, but thanks to it being so finely chopped and beautifully cooked, it was the best spinach I’ve ever eaten.
We consumed all of this with a bottle of Fleur de Savagnin, which is a white wine from the Jura region of France. While it was a high-quality wine with an intense, oaky, mineral-like flavour, it seems a bit cheeky to charge £75 in the restaurant for a wine that can be bought for £15 online (yes, we checked). A 50% markup is normal – so it would have been perfectly usual to have been charged, say, £30 for the wine. Sadly, the price tag of £75 reflects the high markup that Le Manoir imposes on all of its wines. However, recognising that it wouldn’t go brilliantly with the meat course, we chose a glass each of a red wine from Tuscany, which we enjoyed slightly less than the white (which was just as well, I suppose). As for the meat course itself:
This lamb, on a bed of vegetables, was the ultimate in freshness, seasonality and technique. The mixed vegetables were beautifully crisp, and the lamb was perfectly cooked (you can see it’s quite pink) according to the French style of cooking. Much is made in the restaurant of the general Frenchness of the outfit, which fits in well with the whole Raymond/Maman Blanc story that the place is constructed around. By this I don’t mean that the waiting staff wear berets and your food is brought out to the tune of La Marseillaise, but more that the menu is written bilingually, your food is introduced with a polite “Madame, Monsieur…” and the waiting staff even at times speak to each other in French (even when it is clear that they are not French), which all means that formality has a slight edge over friendliness. A few baby roast potatoes, or even a miniature Yorkshire pudding, would have completed the Anglo-French fusion of this dish.
We also added cheese to our menu, and while £24 seems like a lot to pay for a plate of cheese (and I didn’t even photograph it, because cheese just looks like cheese, right?), what you pay for is the knowledge of the maître fromager, and the sheer selection of cheese on offer. Naturally there was more of a leaning towards French cheeses, but there were English ones on offer too, and the range was sufficiently vast as to cater for every taste under the sun: whether you like your cheeses strong, oozy, mild, hard, peppery, fruity or whatever else, it was all there. And of course, everything we chose was delicious.
After this came dessert. And WHAT a dessert: chocolate for luxury, and raspberry to cleanse:
While I don’t like the combination of chocolate and raspberry itself much (in the left-hand picture), it proved an excellent complement the opulence of the dark chocolate (Blanc, like Blumenthal and several other top chefs, uses Valrhona). The crisp chocolate disc contrasted the soft mousse and crunchy base brilliantly, while the raspberry sorbet was impossibly smooth, with not a hint of graininess, served atop fresh raspberries.
I chose hot chocolate to end my meal, but delicious though it is, I wouldn’t recommend this: you’ve already eaten a large meal and the hot choc is a bit too rich as a follow-up (not helped by the fact that you literally get enough for 2-4 people when you order just one). Definitely go for coffee afterwards – it’s of good quality (although still not the best we’ve tasted) and you’ll enjoy the petits fours it comes with so much more:
(Him indoors says the lavender nougat that you can just about see at the back of the tray was DIVINE. He snaffled it while I was using the toilet facilities, which are all very nicely furnished. Use the disabled toilet downstairs if all the vino is getting the better of you.)
All of this set us back a little over £300, and despite the expense, we would revisit, although we would probably just have two separate glasses of wine each, rather than a whole bottle between us plus an extra glass each. It is, after all, Le Manoir aux QUAT’Saisons…which means that while visiting in the summer is worthwhile just for scenes like this: