Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is the two Michelin starred gem in Oxford’s dining crown. Raymond Blanc (him off the telly) has turned an old manor house into one of the most comfortable and luxurious restaurants in the country.
We had a selection of exquisitely delicate canapes at the bar while waiting for our table.
I’ve gotten really into seeing what kind of bread a restaurant offers its diners. Le Manoir’s bread basket, even by the standard of fine dining restaurants, is absolutely stunning. I went for the beer and mashed potato bread. I think it looked really cute!
The first course on the menu was a butternut squash soup that might be the nicest soup I’ve ever had. The little blue cheese and seed crostini was no slouch either.
The second course was a Cornish crab with a passionfruit coulis and a coconut and kaffir lime leaf sorbet. Passionfruit is one of the few things in season in January, and can make everything taste a bit like a Solero if you’re not careful. But here it’s sweet-and-sharp nature was an excellent foil to the crab.
This beetroot terrine was the alternative course for a non-crustacean eating member of our party. It came with a horseradish sorbet and all those little pieces of multicoloured beetroot. One of my veg suppliers told me once that Le Manoir had come to them asking them to grow micro sorrel and a couple of tonnes of beetroot about the size of a pound coin – I guess this is the dish those ended up on.
The truffled and poached hen’s egg gets doused with a mushroom tea from a miniature glass teapot in a very Alice-in-Wonderland touch. Sealing an egg in a box with a white truffle and leaving it for a few days allows the aromatic truffle to penetrate the shell of the egg and delicately flavour the yolks and whites.
Here’s a better look at the dish. I popped the yolk of my egg and let it mingle with the mushroom tea.
The main course at Le Manoir was suckling pig, celeriac puree, apple, walnut and plum sauce. This is a dish that let me know I’m working in the same tradition that Le Manoir is – apples and celeriac with pork are a very familiar and comforting flavour combination for me. There’s two kinds of pork on this dish – the slices of loin at the back (tender, probably roasted carefully before being carved and anointed in gravy) and the slow cooked pressed shoulder at the front. The little cubes of apple were absolutely the most apple-y thing I’ve ever tasted. I suspect but could not confirm they may have been prepared by vacuum sealing them in a bag with apple juice – the vacuum bursts the cell walls and allows the apple to soak up the liquid like a sponge.
First dessert at Le Manoir was cappuccino-inspired coffee and cream creation with a hazelnut biscuit. For me, this course didn’t work… until I tasted it with the wine pairing. At that point, it was probably my favourite course of the whole meal.
Second dessert was a very sharp citrus dessert featuring lemongrass and lemon basil sorbet atop a Linzer sable. Out of everything I had at Le Manoir, this is the only thing I can say didn’t really work for me – it would have been the perfect palate cleanser but as a second dessert it left me craving something sweet and chocolatey.
I was not left craving for long however – a tray of petit fours came out to finish our meal. The cep-dusted truffle was the most unusual one – the mushroom powder added an earthy/savoury/umami note that was a very interesting compliment to the chocolate and creaminess. I also loved the little choux pastry balls; I think mastering choux may now be on my list for this year.
We were much too full to manage any cheese, but I took a photo anyway because, much like the bread basket, the cheese trolley at Le Manoir was truly something to behold. One of our party compared it to seeing Lenin in his glass coffin at Red Square. No comparison in terms of smell however.
After lunch, we took a walk through the grounds. The kitchen gardens at Le Manoir were beautiful, albeit a little stark in January. Most of the manor estate has been made to serve the restaurant in some form or another, often with whimsical sculptures that hint at their uses – like this gigantic pestle and mortar in the herb garden.
There is also Japanese tea garden and a spot on the map entitled “La vallée des Champigions Sauvage” – Wild Mushroom Valley.
The experience of eating at Le Manoir is a little like coming across the theistic pocket watch on the beach. The charm is not that the thing itself is something you have never seen before, but you are impressed by the amount of thought and design and care that has so clearly gone into the thing. Here it is, fully formed, and it just works.
I recommend you check it out (just as long as you find someone else to pick up the cheque).