City Guides: We’re stuck in traffic. It’s a dreary, dark Friday night. We have an evening booked at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons – where we should have arrived about now. Instead, my fiancé and I are bickering about whether or not he went into the wrong lane (he did) which led us to grind to a halt alongside the rest of the M25 traffic heading out of London to Oxfordshire. We wait patiently for a further 25 minutes – watching the vehicles not in a cordoned-off single lane moving freely – before the traffic starts to move again. “The SatNav says we’ll be there in nine minutes,” he offers. Although, as we’re still on a motorway, I find this hard to believe. But, the technology is right. We get off the M40 and just a few roads later we – thankfully - arrive. Pulling into the grounds of world-renowned chef Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir has a memory-wiping effect.
Gone are the past two hours of nightmare journey. Instead, the only thought in my mind is: “Wow.” The 15th century Chiltern manor house is simply breathtaking. We pull alongside the entrance to the stunning building – over which hangs three flags, the Union Jack, France’s Tricolore and Le Manoir’s very own emblem – where we’re greeted by a smiling face. It’s valet parking, so we hand the keys to the trusty Renault to a member of staff before checking in and heading to our room. Le Manoir – Mr Blanc’s vision so that his guests could “find perfection” in both food and accommodation – is nestled into the Oxfordshire countryside. It intimately has just 32 individually designed rooms – no two are alike – and we find ours, Provence, overlooking the garden courtyard.
The high ceilings expose the original beams of the property, adding a depth of character. There’s also a door leading to a private terrace, and an open, wood-burning fireplace. Double doors from the sitting area open to reveal the bedroom – a magnificent space finished in deep and light shades of aubergine dominated by a king size bed on a raised platform. The spacious marble bathroom is beautiful. There’s a huge walk-in shower as well as a indulgently large bath dotted with organic Branche d’Olive toiletries.
We’re already running late, so just have enough time to freshen up before making our way through the maze-like gardens of preened bushes and artistic statues to head to the restaurant.Having retained its two Michelin stars for 25 years – and having won a string of awards – our expectations for dinner are naturally high.
We peruse the menu – the choices are limitless: a 10-course discovery option, a la carte, and –what we ultimately go for– Les Classiques du Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. It’s a compilation of five larger courses “representing the best dishes” of the restaurant. (Before ordering, I inform the waitress that I am vegetarian. Rather than tell me the ‘token’ dishes that are on offer, she brings me the vegetarian menu. It’s impressive move to cater just as well for non meat-eaters – something which so many eateries fail to do.)
For wine, we leave ourselves in the hands of the expert sommelier, and sit back to enjoy what we anticipate will be a culinary journey. Of course, each of our dishes is presented as delicate works of art. It seems almost a shame to destroy them, but we do. I begin with Soupe D’Oignons, Pommes De Terre Et D’ail. It’s a white onion, potato and garlic soup - gentle flavours expertly combined. A good start. The Tartare De Saumon, Salade De Concombre, Creme Au Raifort, Caviar D’Oscietra all delight as well. Our courses are washed down perfectly with a glass of the Viognier Les Contours De Deponcins 2008.
The dishes are announced by our waiter – who is there to do as little or as much as diners require. There is also a small menu left on the table should you want no distractions other than food to be served.
My third – and favourite - course is the Poivron Doux Roti, Taboule, Artichauts Confits, Sauce Epicee. It’s an impressive combination of the sweetest roasted Romano pepper stuffed with soft tabbouleh, artichoke confit and spiced pepper jus. It’s an assiette of tender, succulent hay-smoked Pyrenees lamb, tangy new season garlic puree and soft, tender leeks, with which he has a glass of the smooth Benjamin David Duclaux Cote-Rotie 2004. We finish with Le Cafe Creme. An espresso parfait served in a wafer thin bitter chocolate cup, topped with a Kirsch sabayon– simply divine!
The inventiveness of the dishes is daring but Blanc uses his wealth of experience to make sure his bold moves are expertly delivered. The freshness of the ingredients is thanks to the chef’s innovative use of his land. Le Manoir’s two-acre kitchen garden produces 90 types of vegetable and 70 varieties of herbs.
We stroll around the vast gardens the next day – there’s also a lake, with a picturesque bridge running over the top. The country house, situated in the tiny village of Great Milton, is surrounded by lush lawns, pretty flower borders and blossoming orchards. It’s an idyllic setting and is the type of place where it always seems to be springtime, regardless of what the weather is doing around the rest of the country – making it a stunning setting for a wedding.
Our time here has been faultless – from the intimate location, the attention to detail and the professionalism and friendliness of the staff to the sublime cuisine, incomparable wines and relaxed atmosphere.
However, there is one downfall when staying at Le Manoir – and that is having to leave.
Stay at Le Manoir: Bed & Breakfast - from £460 per room. The Les Classiques du Manoir aux Quat' Saisons menu from £95 per person.
Carol Driver is a journalist with more than 13 years' experience writing, subbing and editing at national and regional publications and websites in the UK. Carol is currently the group editor at TNT Multimedia, which has magazines in London, Australia and New Zealand. She previously worked at national newspaper website the Mail Online well as writing for a host of other publications. She has also ...(Read More)