We always end up doing something special for our wedding anniversary – it’s kind of the law. Last year we dined in Knightsbridge at Koffmann’s owned by chef Pierre Koffmann, a legend of the cookery scene. Sadly Koffmann’s is no more due to the expansion of The Berkeley Hotel which is a shame as Koffmann’s was a real homage to traditional French dining with a nod to the Michelin guide. We set our sights elsewhere for this years celebration but staying with a chef who has been around since Koffmann’s time….
Raymond Blanc’s story is an incredible one. Arriving in England back in the 1970’s with the aid of a notepad for communication he went from the position of a waiter to covering the kitchen of a hotel, due to staff shortage, leading him into a career as a chef. A few years down the line Blanc opened his own place below the Oxfam HQ in Oxford winning two Michelin stars in the process before securing Le Manoir in 1983 – retaining the two stars before even opening the doors to customers.
The drive down to Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons is a beautiful one. Rolling through the English countryside into Great Milton it’s beauty doesn’t go unnoticed. There’s money here – and heritage. Grand mansions in stark similarity to the venue we were heading towards line the streets of this small village and almost build the anticipation for what you are about to drive into.
We couldn’t have had it any better – the weather was just perfect. The sun was out and Le Manoir stood in front of us, it knocked us for six. As first impressions go this was up there with the best. A beautiful house with well-kept gardens and a sense of something really special. Complete with French tricolore flag flying proudly above its entrance, this really is one of the most breathtaking venues we have ever had the pleasure to visit.
Once inside a mix of French and English staff were there to welcome us and see us through to the garden area for an aperitif and a browse of the menu. As the occasion called for it we opted for two glasses of Champagne at £16 ($21.14 US) each. Having had problems with wasps while eating outside at Il Palagio in Florence things were about to take a similar turn. The kind waitress had barely left the table when a wasp decided to dunk itself in my glass and sit there laughing at me as it got drunk on Laurent Perrier’s finest.
Again, as in Florence, we got to head inside to the sitting area which is no bad thing. A fresh glass of bubbly came my way and we sat in the quiet lounge admiring the beauty of the mansion. Canapes were then served – Steak Tartare on Parmesan Shortbread, Goats Cheese Mousse, Curry Croquettes and Roasted Apricot presented on a slate – all were very tasty and visually enticing.
Soon after, the sommelier dropped by to take our order for drinks. We decided to go a little different by ordering a non-alcoholic cocktail each called ‘Camparinio’ – a blend of cranberry, lime and soda which would be waiting at our table. I must say at this point we were loving the way Le Manoir sets up its service so the guest can just relax and everything seems to take care of itself without intrusion.
Prised from our comfy sofa we were lead to the dining room – which happens to be two different rooms. A dimly lit dining room and a little further on there is a conservatory dining room. We were glad to be in the conservatory due to the air conditioning on what was turning out to be a scorching hot day. Our fellow diners were at various stages of their meals with the five course tasting menu at £85 ($112.31 US) becoming a popular choice. We decided to go with just that.
Sourdough bread here is superb and tap water is supplied without even asking, everything is just smooth and really allows the guest to chill and take their time to enjoy the experience. The menu card (a free sample to take home with you) details Raymond Blanc’s philosophy on minimal intrusion from the waiting staff – a policy we praise him highly for adopting.
We began with a Chilled Gazpacho with Olive and Cherry Tomato. Visually the dish looked fresh with a vibrant tomato colour and a foam essence on top of the liquid gazpacho. Tasting each element individually impressed me no end, such fresh and strong flavours but all together the dish was very sharp – almost too sharp. Great if you are a tomato fan but a little on the acidic side for me.
I was looking forward to the second course – The Sea Trout Confit with Wasabi, Cucumber and Horseradish. Similar to the salmon confit in the ‘Kitchen Secret’s’ book by Raymond Blanc where a fillet of salmon is poached in either olive oil or a water bath until just cooked but still remaining as pink as a raw salmon. The wait was quite a long one but well worth it. Amazing texture on the trout along with the luminous green cucumber and creme fraiche all of which worked perfectly on the plate. A spoon of caviar on the top just sealed the deal for me.
By now we were beginning to see the benefit of Le Manoir growing their herbs and vegetables ten paces from our table in the gardens. This is by far the freshest food we have ever had and also the lightest which is Blanc’s style all over. You would do well to find another restaurant in the country that operates in this way.
Next course arrived looking just as stunning as its predecessors. Courgette Flower Stuffed with Crab. Accompanied by crab bisque and ginger this looked relatively simple until you prise open the head of the flower and inside sits a crab mousse with a feather-light texture. Chef’s at Le Manoir aren’t afraid of seasoning and although we had salt and pepper on the table they weren’t needed at any point.
We enjoyed our cocktails so much that we ordered another round – to be bemusement of the other tables who had made good use of the wine list. The drinks arrived just in time for the main dish. A rather nice sounding plate of Duck with Cherries and Almonds. Presentation once again was beautiful yet simple with no lines or squiggles just clean and elegant. The maitre D added a Madeira sauce over the duck and gave the signal to tuck in.
I love my duck pink and this was perfect. Vegetables from the garden by way of baby leaves went superbly with the smooth cherry gel, fresh cherries, farro and almond cream. Classic combinations of flavour and a joy to eat – it’s that straightforward. We loved it.
Moving onto dessert we had seen the tables before us served a perfect quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet on a soft meringue so naturally we couldn’t wait for our turn. The kitchen kindly included a ‘Happy Anniversary’ placard on the plate when it arrived which was a nice touch.
This dessert on paper was pretty much a who’s who of my favourite things – blackcurrant sorbet, blackcurrant marshmallows, blackcurrant gel (spotting a theme here?) meringue and vanilla cream. Much like the first course everything in its individual form was superb but together it was too much. Far too acidic and not enough sugar to just balance the dish. This surprised me with pastry chef Benoit Blin being a stickler for detail as a judge on Bake Off Creme de la Creme.
As we sipped on our filter coffee and Le Manoir hot chocolate while enjoying a selection of delicate petit fours we recounted our experience. The food here is probably the lightest we have come across, neither of us had to take our belt down a notch or invest in new undergarments. The food is also a pleasure to eat for the most part with only slight criticisms towards the sharpness of some dishes. The staff also are easy going and professional who go about their job with a smile.
Our final bill rolled in at £264 ($348.66 US) which we thought was overall very good value for a top quality experience. Afterwards we took a stroll around Le Manoirs impressive grounds. There’s even a lawn where you can enjoy a game of croquet. It’s hard in fact to remember that you are in England when the weather is perfect and the scenery breathtaking. Very few restaurants offer you the chance to look at where your lunch came from as we perused the allotments and herb gardens as well as the beautiful ponds bearing statues and waterfalls.
This may just be the most prestigious venue for a meal anywhere in the U.K. If indeed you are lucky enough to be a guest at Le Manoir you can take your time wandering around this beautiful estate and dining in it’s fantastic restaurant. Thoughts came to me throughout my time walking the grounds of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons of just how Raymond Blanc had the balls to do all this – but i’m glad he did.