[Disclosure: My mum paid for us to have lunch at Le Manoir, which is good, because I very much couldn’t have afforded it]
There are some restaurants that are on pretty much everyone’s list. The names that when you mention you’re going, inevitably elicit responses that are either: “Oh I went there for my ….” (insert big birthday birthday, wedding anniversary, or any other special occasion” or “Oh I’d love to go there”.
Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire is one of those. Opened by the celebrated chef in 1984, it’s had two Michelin stars since then and has become known as so much more than a restaurant.
When we say more than a restaurant, of course it is. There’s the swanky hotel it’s part of, and the kitchen gardens that feature in Blanc’s many TV programmes. But really the ‘more’ lies in its reputation that extends beyond the expensive buildings and the pretty sculptures dotted around the gardens.
It’s in the decades of work and passion that have gone into them, the creativity that springs from them, and of course the many millions of memories that have no doubt been made there. Those are what make it the kind of bucket-list place that people want to go to just once, even if they never get to go again.
I could take you through course by course of the seven-course lunch (eight if you have the extra cheese course, which obviously you could). But the chances are you won’t end up having those courses – maybe one or two but not all of them – given that they change fairly regularly.
Also, more importantly, there are certain meals that are greater than the sum of their parts. Somewhere like this isn’t just about ‘that fish course’, the garnish on the pre-dessert, or the quirky elements in the amuse bouches. It’s about the several hours of unadulterated pleasure, or wow-factor moments, and of attention to detail that make everything pretty much flawless. Which of course it should be given the £205 per person price tag just to get you started.
In Blanc’s own words, he believes excellence “lies in the small details”. I’m inclined to agree, and after nearly 40 years, Le Manoir has got those details right in abundance. The welcome that I can’t be alone in fearing would be stuffy and intimidating yet is somehow as warm as a far less lofty establishment. The well thought-out drinks list that means nobody bats an eyelid when my husband wants a lager instead of a glass of fizz.
The canapes, of course, are works of art, as is pretty much every course. The sommelier has a sense of humour to rival his drinks knowledge, making sure we can navigate our way through the iPad that replaces a weighty tome of a wine list in a reminder that Le Manoir may be an established institution, but also doesn’t mind moving with the times in some ways. (Apparently Raymond drives an electric car these days, though Jamie remains unconvinced after spotting a rather large vehicle that is most definitely not an EV with his initials on the number plate out front).
The dishes, as you’d expect, have all the hallmarks of classic French cooking. Yes, they make the best of British bounty – something Raymond has waxed lyrical on a regular basis about, including on the various times I’ve interviewed him. But the way they’re put together is classical. There’s no tomfoolery with flavours, no mucking about, and no effort to challenge us or fool us.
This is about the old-school way of doing things that made fine dining synonymous with the way the French do it, until us Brits stepped up and are now doing things our own way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s precise, it’s tried-and-tested, it’s old-school and it’s what we’re all here for.
The presentation, as we knew it would be, is flawless. And while some big guns of the cheffing world might not allow you to take photos of your food, in Le Manoir’s dining room it doesn’t seem too frowned on. Neither is having to leave the table for the bathroom – and once I realise it means your meal gets covered with a grand silver cloche I’m tempted to go again.
In case you didn’t read it properly the first time, if you’re pondering on whether adding the cheese course is worth the extra £36 per guest, I’d suggest you throw caution to the wind and just do it. You’re already a few hundred quid down just by going, so why not have the full experience. And the cheese really is that.
On a work trip to France many years ago I was introduced to the ‘Chariot de Fromages’ – the French equivalent to our paltry cheese selections. I loved it so much I dedicated a whole blog post to it appallingly titled ‘A Fromage Fantasy’ and whose date of 2013 is a sad reminder of quite how long I’ve been slogging away at this old blog.
The delight of reliving that moment as the biggest, best ‘Chariot de Fromage’ advanced towards me across Le Manoir’s dining room is one of those special memories that you squirrel away in the ‘favourite food memories’ file – along with the very large bottle of port that your glass is poured from at the table. Yes, that’s another £20-odd quid on your bill but who’s counting at this stage (not me – thanks Mum!)
If it’s not a nostalgia-inducing moment for you, which I appreciate it won’t be for most, then you can simply revel in that first moment of seeing a groaning trolley packed with more cheeses than you can possibly count rumbling across the room in all its pomp and ceremony.
Of course, by this stage you’ve still got the sweets to go and in true French style they’re impeccable. Perfectly-presented, laced with hefty amounts of sugar to counteract the alcohol, cheese and general over-consumption coma you might be about to go into, as well as giving you a pleasant dose of giddiness to ensure you don’t go off the deep end when the bill does arrive.
By the time the coffee’s being poured and the delicate petits fours arrive, we look up to realise the dining room is virtually empty, save us still soldiering on. I’m not sure whether we’re slow, whether we savoured it all too much, or whether we’re the only people who tackled the cheese, but there is no ushering us out, no impatient tutting, and no fussing around.
Just the gentle understanding that when you’re paying this amount to visit a place like this, you’re allowed to linger and be treated like royalty for once. In this way, Le Manoir feels like a restaurant for the diner, not for the chef, and it’s a welcome surprise given its calibre and reputation.
When we do finally leave, there’s the need for one last wander around the gardens. Perhaps it’s to let some of the food go down, or maybe more honestly it’s about eeking out the final moments in a special place. Okay, it might be to ogle some of the people arriving who are actually going to stay here on top of eating here, but that might have been just me being nosy.
As we meander along the pristine pathways, ducking through hedged archways, sun on our faces, there seems little need to say anything. We know it’s special. Everyone said it would be, and as much as we might have liked to disagree, I just don’t think we can.