Christ, what a miserable day, damp, dank, grey, chill. Then, lights gleaming through the murk, there is the Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saison, warm, welcoming, smooth and civilised, a refuge from gloom and despondency.
‘Let me take the keys to your car, sir/‘
‘Take a seat, sir. You’re the first to arrive. Can I get you drink?’
Indeed you can. Manzanilla, please. Yes, the Lustau Papirusa will do very nicely. So I settle into the salon of subdued good taste, where a cosmopolitan mix of younger couples, older groups of men with bald pates and women with white, marcelled waves like Trechikov’s white horses, are marshalled before being released to their tables, to meditate on the menu and wait for Tom Parker Bowles to roll in. The service comes and goes with quiet efficiency, attentive but not effusive.
The menu has the splendour and heft that you’d expect of a grand, fine dining establishment that Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons has become. It’s early, light-footed, occasionally haphazard, often inspired days are behind it now. The name Belmond has been added before Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, which tells you something about its current pedigree. It’s the epitome of swish luxury. The food and the gardens that provide many of the ingredients in season, remain central glories. Around them have gathered layers of luxury, without which no hotel of ambition can survive in this day and age, particularly in the countryside.
‘What’s it to be, Tom,’ I ask, when the fellow bounces down the steps ‘Les Saveurs du Marché, five courses at £95? The Vegetarian Menu, 5 courses at £95? Or the Specialitiés du Moments, the À la Carte three courses at £135?’
‘Oh, the À la Carte. Definitely.’
Is it the langoustine with Jerusalem artichoke and winter truffle? Or the crab with Kaffir lime, coconut and passion fruit? Or the ris de veau, roast onion and pickled shallot? And then brill with oyster, wasabi and seaweed ? Or sole, cauliflower, bacon and scallop? Or roast loin of venison with celeriac, chicory and truffle? Or woodcock with quince, bacon and wild mushroom. Oh heavens.
My heart yearns for the sweetbread because I can never eat enough of them. And then the woodcock, I think. You see it so rarely on menus these days. Perhaps not the best balanced of meals, rather old fashioned, but, well, promising the ballast of pleasure against the dreariness pressing up agains the window. While I go gland and game, Tom goes all fish, the crab and then the brill.
As it turns out, we get a few extras as well, a hen’s egg with wild mushroom tea and truffle kicking off proceedings. It may not reek of novelty, but it’s still a star, what with the unctuous, creamy yolk, musky with truffle and the brisk freshness of the mushroom tea, with a little pyre of crisp fried carrot shreds on top, earthy, sensuous and sophisticated at the same time.
The sweetbread steps back into Raymond Blanc’s rustic French past. It’s an unrepentant celebration of old fashioned flavours, with the sweetbread’s delicate, nutty sweetness, a rich rollicking veal reduction by way of sauce, lovely squelchy roasted onion slivers with pickled shallots adding just the right spike of acidity.
Woodcock has a refined elegance with skirl of wildness about it that no other game quite possesses. The fine brocade of flavour is made finer by a sauce of such resonance, such courtliness, such beautifully judged balance that I would gladly drink a jug of the stuff. Although the breasts and legs have been deconstructed for ease of eating, the head of the bird has been correctly split, and the two beak of each half stuck into a sleeper of celeriac (dusted with more truffle) like a slightly macabre headstone, so that I can scoop out the brains.
Both my dishes look back to times when French cooking held unchallenged pre-eminence. Tom’s dishes have some of the dash of contemporary cooking, even if they aren’t exactly of the moment. The combination of crab and coconut may not be new, but it has the brightness and freshness that we expect these days; the turbot with oyster, wasabi and seaweed even more so. The fish has that balance between muscular tension and gelatinous slipperiness of perfect cooking (in a water bath, I suspect), and the sauce, almost a soup, a clarity and sparkle.
We move on to cheese and finally, rather bizarrely, to Millionaire’s Shortbread. It seems an odd choice for the culinary sophisticates of Le Manoir’s kitchen to come up with, but maybe they’ve come up with some way of refreshing this hoary old favourite. Their brilliant idea, well, is to stick with classic Millionaire’s Shortbread – shortbread, chocolate and toffee – all made with expertise and polish and decked out with a little gold leaf here and there. It appeals to my basest gastronomic instincts, and there’s nothing wrong about that.
From being the sprightly, rock ’n’ roll youngster if its early years, Le Manoir has become a grand older man (dame?), precisely geared to give its its guests the soothing, pleasing, luxurious time for which they pay handsomely. It dolls out comfort rather than excitement and produces carefully considered, beautifully crafted dishes rather showcase the culinary fireworks. It’s easy to be a bit snooty, to moan that it’s out of touch with contemporary gastronomic values, but that’s to miss the point. Le Manoir offers an immensely civilised escape from humdrum, daily realities that clearly appeals to many of all ages and backgrounds. And, on this day of peculiar British dreariness, its warmth, lustre, and culinary sureness of touch appealed to me.
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD, UK
Phone · +44 (0) 1844 278 881
Email · firstname.lastname@example.org
Reservations · +44 (0) 1844 278 881