Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons. Nestling in the Oxfordshire countryside is a manor house with a mixture of old and new in architectural style but all very tastefully done. Quick to reach via the M40 from London, once there you are transported into a little piece of France. Before we start let's just say it is expensive - there is no getting out of that. But if you have something to celebrate or you really want to show someone you cherish how much you mean to them then this is the place for you. You can choose to have a tasting menu or choose a la carte. Although I eat meat I chose the vegetarian menu. It was fantastic with vegetables picked from the kitchen garden on site it was filled with home made pasta, risottos and using exquisite wild mushrooms. Weirdly one the main things i remember was the wonderful home made bread that comes to you in all swirly shapes and flavoured with ingredients like lardons or tomatoes. Normally something I would run away from but these were small and flavourful. We also had a plate of frozen very thinly sliced carpaccio of pineapple - it was a great palate cleanser. Of course all the courses were exceptional and even the coffee and petit fours were elegant and delicious. We were made to feel very welcome and the reception was warm throughout the evening - despite being a very formal restaurant.
I have eaten at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons twice now, both for special Birthdays in my Family. Yes, it is very expensive, but it is worth every penny. The service is fabulous, the food exquisite, and the atmosphere is unbeatable.
You can eat at Le Manoir for lunch or for dinner. I have only eaten there for dinner, so I can only comment on this.
When you arrive you are taken through to the lounge where you can look at the menu, whilst nibbling on absolutely exquisite canapés, and enjoying a pre-meal drink. Sommeliers are on hand to advise you on the best possible wine to go with your meal from their extensive wine list. (All wines are kept in the Manoir wine cellar.) As for the menu, it's fabulous! You can order plates individually, or chose from two set menus. One of these is the menu 'découverte', which is a tasting menu, consisting of nine plates. This is a fabulous menu to chose; although quite expensive, you can sample many different foods, rather than have to pick only one!
Le Manoir has its own gardens, and the vegetables and herbs are straight from there, fresh and seasonal.
Once you have ordered, you are taken to your table, where you are offered freshly baked bread from a vast selection. The thing I love most about Le Manoir, aside, of course, from the excellent food, is the service and the timing. Between the courses, they wait the perfect amount of time before bringing you the next course, so you have time to rest a little, but you never feel like you have been waiting too long.
When you have finished your meal, you are taken through to the lounge for coffee, liqueurs, and petits fours.
Last time I went, which was in August, we had the menu decouverte, which is the tasting menu consisting of nine plates, and then coffee at the end. The cost of this menu is £119 per person, which I know is very expensive, but for a special occasion, it's worth every penny. I can't remember all the plates, but I will try my best to say most of them!
> Essence of tomato
> Scallops with avocado puree
> poached quails egg
> lamb sweetbreads
> fillet of lamb
> dark chocolate mousse
> Summer fruits Jelly
I'm afraid I can't remember many details-or the ninth plate. I'm not really doing them justice by my description, but if you look on le Manoir website which is:
You can find details of all the current menus and prices.
The whole atmosphere of le Manoir is fabulous; I wouldn't do it justice describing it, but you don't feel like you are at a restaurant, it is almost like you have been invited into someone's house. (Who just happens to be an amazing cook!) Because of this, you are almost shocked when you realise you have to pay the bill. It's Just the most wonderful experience; if you want to go, do! You won't be disappointed!
Personally, I think it's the only really good French restaurant in Oxford.
The only thing I would say is that if you want to go, you do have to book a long time in advance (but that is to be expected really). The other thing is that it is very expensive, and you really can't skimp if you are going to go there. If you are anxious about how much you are spending, you won't enjoy it. You're better of saving for a bit longer, and then when you go, just let go and go the whole hog (although, a £500 bottle of wine may be taking it too far!). It really is a wonderful experience, and a real treat to go there.
If you read many of my reviews you will see that I like to cook. As well as experimenting in the kitchen, I love to dine out. I have my list of both local and national restaurants that I want to visit and I have been fortunate enough to dine at restaurants owned by Rick Stein, Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsey. All of these I might add have been to celebrate special occasions. Long on my list has been Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons, Raymond Blanc's place just outside Oxford. It is a modern French restaurant and has two michelin stars. In April last year I tried to book a table for my husband's birthday in September but the restaurant was fully booked. I did managed however to make a reservation for our anniversary six months later in November.
I had read numerous reviews over the years and I always remembered one critic referring to the place as "The cream of Oxford". I visited Le Manoirs website several times on the run up to our visit to keep up to date with the changing menus. This is a good tip especially when the menu is extensive. I find that if I study the menu beforehand, I rarely make a bad choice. I hate feeling rushed when trying to decide what to have. The website address is simply, manoir.com. The site includes both lunch and dinner a la carte menus plus a Menu Gourmand. We knew exactly how much we would be spending - starters average at a costly £32.00, the same price as the main courses. The wine list is the most extensive I have ever seen, twenty five pages of French wines alone and taken region by region and diving the categories into red, white and rose. Finally a couple of pages of champagne. Onto pages of European wines ending with New world. Wine started at £22 per bottle rising to £260.
We took a short taxi ride from our guesthouse. Le Manoir itself is a large country house situated in wonderful grounds and has two acres of gardens. We were informed that the gardens supplied ninety types of vegetables and seventy varieties of herbs, all organic. These were picked fresh every day for use in the kitchen. On a cold November evening, the open log fire at reception was a welcoming sight. After taking our names we were shown into the lounge and given the menus. We ordered two glasses of the house champagne at a price of £12 per glass. It was our anniversary and the champagne was how we like it nice and dry. We knew that we were both starting with fish followed by chicken and decided on a bottle of muscadet. We chose this for two reasons, when drinking white wine we both prefer it dry and secondly at £22 a bottle, it was the cheapest on the wine list. We were served with a selection of wonderful canapes while we waited. The wine waiter returned to inform us that the wine we had chosen was out of stock and suggested another, which he said, was very similar. Similar it might have been but the price was £33. We decided to go ahead.
We were shown to our table in the conservatory area of the restaurant. The tables were nicely decorated with elaborate cream drapes and were well spaced. The atmosphere was humming and we didn't feel the need to whisper as you do in some well known places. There were three sommeliers on hand to taste the wines. My husband decided that he could cope with a job like that. Nevertheless, a group of people on the next table sent their bottle back. When our wine arrived, it wasn't as dry as I would have liked and looking back, I wished we had said so. We were given the opportunity and we didn't take it.
Samples of the starters were: -
Cannelloni of langoustines, herbs puree and roasted scallop;lemon sabayon . £36
Salad of fresh Cornish crab, citrus dressing: natural yoghurt, curry and Osieta caviar. £34
Ceviche of sea scallop and tuna; shaved fennel salad; Oscienta caviar and lime dressing. £34
My husband chose the crab, which he said was delicious and the presentation was superb. I was not so lucky. I love scallops and expected those tasty little round things. When my dish came it was served on a square plate and resembled a flag. The scallops and tuna and been presented in alternate strips topped with caviar and was cold. I had expected it hot and furthermore both scallops and tuna had been marinated, not cooked and tasted rather like sushi, which I don't like. On an occasion like this, my husband would have swapped but unfortunately I don't like crab. I managed to eat about half and hubby finished off the rest.
Samples of the main courses: -
Roasted loin and braised cheek of suckling pig, plum compote with crispy Asian pork belly. £38
New season milk fed Devonshire lamb, caramelised sweetbreads with a sweet garlic puree. £36
Truffled chicken breast steamed in a papillote with port wine and truffle sauce. £38 (for 2 guests only)
We decided on the chicken. I had looked up the word papilotte which was described as a foil parcel, but this dish which was served at the table appeared to have been cooked in some kind of see through balloon. The chicken was tasty and the sauce delicious but I can't say that it was worth £38. I have had better and for far less.
Samples of desserts: -
Three little desserts made with chocolate. £19
A vanilla panna cotta with warm raspberries in a caramelised pastry case. £19
Farmhouse cheeses from France and Great Britain made in the traditional way. £17
Normally I don't go for a third course but because I had had such a disappointing starter, I was still somewhat hungry. We decided to share the cheese course. It is always a good idea to share the cheese course. We have found that the waiter will serve as many of the cheeses you ask for and that was certainly the case at Le Manoir. We chose around a dozen, mainly French and unusual cheeses that were served with home made biscuits and a variety of home made bread and chutneys. This for me was the best part of the meal.
We skipped coffee but were served with delicious petit fours to finish of the evening.
Our total bill £206! I'll just add here that this was our anniversary present to each other.
After such a long wait, I was disappointed overall. I got off to a bad start with my first course and I wouldn't say that the main course had the wow factor. I wouldn't normally write a place off after a first visit but at these kind of prices, I couldn't give Le Manoir another chance. I can't honestly justify paying what we did. The scenario with the wine was also a let down. On a recent visit to a restaurant in the Lake District, when our chosen wine wasn't available we were given a similar but more expensive one for the same price. Other than that the staff were efficient and pleasant.
By comparison we dined the following night at Loch Fyne in the heart of Jerico and enjoyed a super two course meal with wine for just under £60. We are also frequent diners at Raymond Blanc's "Le Petit Blanc" in Manchester, which is an excellent all round bistro and we have never had a bed meal there.
Although we had a disappointing experience, I have to be fair in saying that the restaurant is not only booked up months in advance but people return time after time.The restaurant also has a string of awards including: -
AA Chef of the year 2005.
It has had 2 Michelin stars for the last 21 years.
The Good Food Guide has given it 9 out of 10.
And the Good Housekeeping Awards nominated it the best restaurant for 2005.
or, This is the style to which I'd very much like to become accustomed.
The Whats, Whys and Wheres
Sometimes, good things can come from sad events. A few years ago, my in-laws died. It was a sad time for the family, and my sister-in-law in particular found clearing and selling the house difficult, as these things often are.
As well as emotionally difficult, selling the house took some time, for a variety of reasons that are unimportant now. However, once the house was sold, we felt a celebration was in order.
Phone calls were made (back in January), and a reservation was procured (for April 20) at Ramond Blanc's famous hotel and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. We also turned this into a celebration of my brother-in-law's successful completion of the London Marathon in 4 hours and 37 minutes (good on him!)
Yes, I know...
...that Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons is a hotel. However, the restaurant is promoted for non-residents, and is rightly renowned for its food and ambience. You do not need to be a guest in the hotel to dine there (which is just as well. Otherwise, you may as well sell all your belongings now).
My sister-in-law had booked a package which included a tour of the gardens, a glass of Kir, a three course meal, coffee and petit fours. We set off from Shepperton at around 8.45 in the morning (as my in-laws like to take scenic routes - they avoid motorways when they can), and arrived in Great Milton (with a side trip through Bray just to have a look) at around 10.30. We were early, so we decided to have tea. Tea at Le Manoir isn't just a cup of the old PG tips!
We were served tea and delicious home made biscuits in one of the lounges (and yes, we did pay extra for the tea, it was not part of the package) - we sat by a bay window. There are three or four rooms (maybe even five) that serve as lounges - some are smoking, some are non-smoking, but they all have fire places, comfortable sofas and chairs, Bang and Olfson sound systems (you can see them dotted about - I believe Le Manoir has a deal with them.
The tea was...well...tea - nice. The biscuits were heavenly - none of the cautiously flavourful English Rich Tea or digestives here - whilst I didn't ask what kind exactly we had, they were sweet (though not cloying), buttery and very light in texture. Yummy!
A Wee Aside
After all that tea, a trip to the loo was in order. I know that sounds like way too much information, but trust me, it's worth it. The room is HUGE, and traditionally decorated, with old fashioned taps, mirrors and chairs. As well as the facial tissues you might expect dotted about, there were also cotton wool balls and cotton pads (for make up touching up). In a discreet padded box, there were also...shall I say...women's items - wrapped and colour co-ordinated. Again I know that doesn't sound impressive, but really, it can be (though if you're not nosy as I am, I don't know how you'd know they are there...). Needless to say, the toilets and the room were both immaculate.
Back to the Main Event - The Tour
After finishing our tea, the official part of the day began with a tour of the grounds and gardens. The assistant head gardener (a very nice young man called Luke) took a group of around 19 of us (there were supposed to be 19, but I think around two were no-shows). Although it is still early in the Spring, the tour was still worthwhile (even if my feet did get cold). The vegetable garden was fairly barren (both because of the time of year and because much of the gardeners' efforts are going towards the Chelsea Flower Show), but the herb garden was lovely, and the Japanese Garden sublime. Luke was very knowledgeable both about the gardens and plants themselves (as you'd expect) but also about Raymond Blanc's likes and dislikes (apparently, he loves purple but isn't so keen on yellow - so there are far more purple flowers in the grounds than yellow ones!) There are no off-limits areas in the gardens, so you could even visit the poly-tunnels where they were cultivating the plants for Chelsea (which we did - they plants were still very young, so not much yet to look at). The garden tour was interesting and enjoyable, even for a non-gardener like me (my brother in law is into gardening in a big way, so he especially enjoyed this section of the day). My feet got cold, but I won't blame Le Manoir for that.
The Experience - Lunch
After the tour, we went back into the main building, for a glass of Kir in the lounge (a different bay window this time!), where we ordered from a set menu (there were two choices each for starter, main and desert). Whilst we were waiting, they brought little canapés - there was a half a quail's egg on a sort of biscuit type thing, smoked salmon on an itty bitty pancake, a risotto ball, bitty anchovy pieces on a potato pancake thingy...and more! Again, they were superb - I especially like the anchovy bits on the potato...thing.
We were then taken into the dining room, after ordering lunch and wine (a muscadet, from the lower price end of the wine menu!). Before our 'official' starter came, they brought little esspresso cups in. These contained a very intense soup of foie gras, parsley and crème frésh. It was extraordinarily green, entirely due to the parsley. This too was lovely (though admittedly slightly odd).
I had as a starter the foie Gras (sorry, can't spell French) - I know it's cruel, but hell, the goose is already cooked! The rest of the family had the same, except my sister in law, who had a very sweet looking roasted vegetable risotto (by sweet I mean cute!). The foie gras was very light and almost fluffy. There was also a bit of paté (a compote of some description) and something that I think may have been pickled ginger. This was all serviced with very light toast (not like melba toast at all) and lashings of bread.
For the main course, we had a choice of roast lamb or a fish dish. I chose the fish which was brill served over crushed jersey potatoes and Kamala olives with a smattering of veg (as an aside - I was still recovering from a cold, which had migrated into a cough. I had a coughing fit, and so left the table just after the mains were served. I spent a couple of minutes in the frankly sumptuous ladies room to calm the coughing down. Upon my return, I discover they'd covered my plate with a metal cover, refolded my napkin and replaced my cutlery)! The fish was perfectly cooked. It was neither slimely undercooked, nor dry and overdone. It melted in the mouth - it was buttery, amazingly fresh, and lovely.
What I didn't realise, was the best was yet to come. For dessert, I (in fact, all four of us) had a chocolate heavenly concoction served with coffee bean ice cream. The chocolate was not too sweet, and had a sort of crisp topping (like caramelised sugar) - I can truly say it was the best chocolate desert I have ever had.
We then retired back into the lounge for coffee and petit fours (more heaven) - when we were asked if we wanted after dinner drinks, I asked for a brandy - at which point I was presented with a brandy menu! I let the waiter decide, and whatever it was I had - it was lovely - very smooth.
Having finished our coffees and drinks, we paid the bill. This was the most painful part of the day. For the four of us, including the tea at the beginning, an extra glass of Kir (one came with the package), a bottle of modestly priced wine, two or three bottles of sparkling mineral water, one brandy and a Grand Marnier (my sister-in-law had that), the bill came to around £350. Ouch!
To recover from our wallet attack, we wandered around the gardens a bit more, and had a look inside the poly-tunnels - where they are growing plants to exhibit at the Chelsea flower show.
Then...off home. Back to the real world. My daughter was MOST miffed that she didn't come - on the way home, my husband spoke to darling daughter and offered to pick her up saveloy and chips - Saz agreed, but said "make it an EXPENSIVE" sausage!
Wow, but I'd love to stay in the hotel. Clearly, I need to become a lot richer before that happens. I had a look around the website (www.manoir.com) - rooms start at £275 per night, and go up rapidly and astronomically from there (but they are "per room for one or two guests and include Le Manoir's French breakfast, fresh fruit and flowers, Madeira, a daily newspaper and VAT at 17.5%." So that's OK then!).
All in all, I highly recommend it...at least once. And I hope that one day, just once, I can afford to stay the night in the beautiful surroundings of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Just once. Well...maybe twice. It would be nice....