Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
French name, restaurant in Oxfordshire, Britain.
So what’s so special about Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons?
Reportedly, it’s Britain’s most expensive restaurant set in a 15th-century stone manor house.
In his quest to find superb cooking, Jay is prepared to go where most of us can’t afford to – Britain’s priciest restaurant
Meal for two, including wine and service £400 (yes, really)
I once claimed I ate in lousy restaurants so you wouldn’t have to. The circumstances today are subtly different. I ate at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons because you never will. Granted, that’s less selfless, but it is realistic. Look at the price: £400 for two. And that’s without shaking down the excruciating wine list – we had a few by the glass – or choosing the nine-course tasting menu at £154. Add the premium wine flight to that at £299, plus 10% service and – bingo! – it’s a grand for two. Is Le Manoir the most expensive restaurant in Britain? How about “yeah”? I think “yeah” covers it nicely.
Cue outbreaks of words like “obscenity” and “shameless”, and that’s from my own family. To which I can only say go get angry about something that really matters, which does not include the way those lucky enough to have the surplus income choose to spend it. At this level Le Manoir’s customers are buying memories, not a cure for rickets. The memories they are buying may not be those that you seek, but they suit others. Nobody chastises the bloke who, say, spends £500 on a weekend in Paris merely to watch the rugby. This is no different.
All of which is, of course, an endless apologia for one fact. I was gagging to eat at Le Manoir. I have been in this gig for nearly 15 years and yet I had never been there – which is like being a trainspotter who’s never been to Crewe. I’m also a big fan of late-career television-friendly Blanc. It’s not just that he punctuates his BBC2 series by barking “Ooh la la” like it’s normal (it isn’t). It’s also his refusal to compromise. Many TV cooks try to claim that preparing great food is a piece of piss. That’s a big filthy lie. Blanc doesn’t pretend. He shows you that great cooking isn’t easy. It’s complicated and takes not just great taste, but oceans of experience and hard graft. Plus, killer ingredients, which is the point of Le Manoir’s kitchen, led these days by head chef Gary Jones, with Blanc never far away. To understand it you need, before dinner, to take a stroll across lawns which haven’t so much been manicured as trimmed with nail clippers, through the doorway in the old red-brick wall, and into the glorious Narnia of the kitchen garden beyond.
Pitch perfect: roasted scallop and langoustine. Photograph: John Lawrence
Many restaurants big up garden plots which rarely amount to more than an old bath planted with some knackered chives and rocket that bolted three weeks ago. Le Manoir’s is a Kitchen Garden with a capital K and G. Here are artichokes and fennel, beans and salad leaves many and various. There is a mushroom valley, a plot of micro herbs and a brass scarecrow modelled on Blanc himself. Why, of course. Here is everything any serious cook could ever want and a bunch of other stuff they never knew they needed.
The food served in the honey-coloured stone house with its thick-carpeted, softly lit dining room, is an expression of this garden. No single dish will astonish you through inventiveness. The food at Le Manoir isn’t clever. It’s just bloody nice. Nothing is gelled or squirted through a nitrous gun to look like fairy spit or dehydrated and reformed into the shape of the Ruins of Antioch. The killer ingredients are simply allowed to be themselves.
So we take our seats, along with the extended family celebrating a milestone and the gay couple and the elderly pair from Yorkshire, he with his napkin suspended on a gold chain and clip affair that I covet.
We start with a pitch-perfect terrine of humble beetroot with a quenelle of horseradish sorbet. It tastes like that Jewish condiment, chrain. It is indeed that flavour, but re-presented in bespoke Armani. It is both itself and so much more. It is earth and sweet and a hint of fire. There is a risotto of summer vegetables with the lightest of chervil creams, that herb hinged deftly between tarragon and parsley. Of course the rice is bang on, each grain separate but clinging to its neighbour. What matters is the crunch and sweetness of the vegetables within. The garden returns to the table once more in a salad accompanying roasted scallops and langoustine. Both dishes are riffs on Le Manoir’s horticulture.
Veal kidneys, a blush of taffeta pink at their heart, come with half the contents of the allium section – baby leeks roasted just so, the soft hit of onion so many ways – all brought together by a red-wine sauce that has me mopping (with their own sour dough) at the plate until the glaze risks wearing thin. Sea bass and more langoustine turn up with lightly smoked mashed potatoes that have you tapping your wrists to check the blood can still push through the narrowed arteries.