For our birthdays this year, our families had bought us both a voucher for lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. At the time we were in the depths of moving house and when we booked, August seemed like ages away, but all of a sudden the day was here and we found ourselves starched and pressed and on the long drive to Oxfordshire.
I was in charge of timing and route planning, which meant we arrived an extremely excessive 1 hour early (I can’t help it – it’s some kind of OCD…). It did however give us plenty of time to look round the stunning grounds while we sharpened our appetites. There were some beautiful sculptures dotted around by Lloyd Le Blanc and Judith Holmes Drewry, but the real jewel in the crown was the magnificent kitchen garden.
After such a hideous year of rain, we’ve been feeling pretty dejected about the allotment, so it was a real inspiration to see the sheer scale and variety of crops being grown. We counted 13 different types of red beetroot alone and there were some herbs that we haven’t seen outside of Vietnam. Admittedly, Le Manoir has a dedicated team of expert gardeners, but I think it’s given us the boost we need to tackle the weeds back home, scrap the failed crops and get ready for next year.
It was soon time to take our place in the drawing room to look through the menu. We sipped on beautifully made virgin cocktails – a virgin mojito and an iced tea – and nibbled tiny nicoise olives. Canapes came prettily arranged on varnished slate with the stand-out being whipped goats cheese with tapenade.
We made our way to the main restaurant in l’orangerie, a lovely light open space to lunch in. We chose to order wine by the glass and I started with an Alsatian riesling which was vibrant and rounded with a refreshingly dry finish. Bread at Le Manoir is pretty legendary and it didn’t disappoint. Our favourites included the bacon roll and a surprisingly light and airy slice of sourdough, though I think we managed to try pretty much all of the 7 varieties between us throughout the course of the meal.
Our first course was a chilled escabeche of vegetables with yellowfin tartare and caviar. The escabeche was a great combination of silky and crunchy with a refreshing orange dressing. Perhaps it was a tiny bit dominant for the delicate tuna – when eaten separately the fish melted in the mouth and tasted of buttery sea.
The next course was possibly my favourite of the day: an incredible loin of confit cod atop smooth garlicky brandade, dressed with crisp slivers of chorizo, fresh cocoa beans and olive oil gel. I could have eaten a vat of that brandade…
The third course sounded perhaps the least exciting on paper, but was a real joy to eat. I think the egg had been poached and then deep-fried, giving a slightly crispy outside and rich runny yolk within. It was nestled on a bed of wilted watercress in a puddle of velvety watercress volute, topped with crisp slivers of cured ham and toasted hazelnuts.
The final savoury course was an assiette of Cornish lamb, the loin a triumph of pink-centred sous vide cookery and the shoulder slow-cooked and sticky. The new season garlic puree was as faultless as the braised greens and peas were perfectly cooked. It gave the cod very close competition for favourite dish. I had a glass of delicious Wild Earth pinot which was a great accompaniment to the lamb: velvety smooth, intensely flavoured and just a hint of that train set/Kenwood mixer flavour that I love in a good Kiwi pinot.
We were sorely tempted by the cheese course and looked longingly at the heavily laden trolley as it trundled back and forth, but at £24 a head, we just couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do it. I appreciate the fact that they are seriously good cheeses and have been well kept to the point of absolute ripeness, but I felt that it might perhaps be better to indulge in a £48 cheese spree in a decent cheesemonger’s another time…
At this point I’d either had too much pinot or was just so excited about dessert that I forgot to take a picture, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was a very pretty plate of food. Chewy-centred meringue was topped with an intense blackcurrant sorbet, drizzled with vanilla cream and surrounded by little cubes of blackcurrant jelly and marshmallow. I loved the sharpness of the blackcurrant and the mix of textures.
We went back to the lounge for coffee and petit fours. It was quite amusing trying to divide up the little works of art with the stick from the chocolate-coated ice cream (how do you choose between them otherwise?!). I think my favourite was the tiny anise and raspberry macaroon, though the miniature slice of chocolate tart was very cute.
The staff from beginning to end were wonderfully warm and welcoming and really added to the whole experience. They even took the time to show us the kitchen after a busy lunch service – one of the biggest and well-staffed I’ve seen. At close to £250, it was certainly one of the more expensive meals we’ve had, but you get a lot of luxury for your money. We had another walk round the kitchen garden and daydreamed that it was our allotment…
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