A number of years ago, I accompanied my family to lunch at Riverbend Lodge just outside Port Elizabeth, in the Addo Elephant Park. By the time we drew up outside the front door, my brother’s car license plates were completely obscured by mud and we’d seen a few wild animals already – and then you walked into the oasis of luxury that is Riverbend Lodge. We were the only people there that Saturday and we reclined on squishy sofas in the lounge as if it were our private home. The food was outstanding (I remember the dessert included lavender which was a revelation to me in 2001) and after lunch we lounged on the verandah sipping our coffee and staring into the calm and vast open veld that surrounded us. We felt like privileged landowners in a bygone era of luxury – heavenly. And I have to say that these are very much the feelings engendered by my recent visit to Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons near Oxford, minus perhaps the muddy track to get there, the surrounding African veld and the sightings of wild animals – but inclusive of a welcoming South African staff member at the door
Why did we end up at Le Manoir? Let’s just say I never thought my 29th birthday would come around again so soon… But a quick glance at the calendar revealed that it had in fact sneaked up on me. And with a birthday, of course, comes the big decision of how to celebrate. Last year, I set somewhat of a precedent in this regard by miraculously securing a table at the Fat Duck for the day before my birthday. But where does one go from there?? We toyed with the idea of Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, but that I was rather keen on the idea of a day outing, rather than just a meal. So based on this and the fact that loads of people have recommended it to me over the past 18 months or so, I opted for lunch at Le Manoir.
Le Manoir is owned by renowned French chef Raymond Blanc. Born in in Bresancon in 1949, Blanc came to Britain in 1972 to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived restaurant but had to take over the kitchen when the chef fell ill. Two years later the restaurant was featured in the Michelin Guide for the first time and a star was born. Le Manoir opened in 1984 and was the fulfilment of Monsieur Blanc’s personal dream of a restaurant in harmony with its surroundings. Much of the fresh produce is grown in the manor’s kitchen garden and there is a constant supply of fresh seasonal ingredients to help the restaurant to live up to its name. It attained and has held two Michelin stars for the past 19 years, which is no mean feat in the fickle world of restaurants.
If you love good food but also want to feel cosseted for your money, this is definitely the place to go. You pull up outside a stately home, you are effusively welcomed by the staff and escorted through to the lounge that’s all buttery yellow walls and big squishy sofas. Here you recline while your aperitif is brought to you, together with and olives & smoked almonds. Then the menu is brought for you to make the tough decision between the a la carte, the 6-course and the 10-course tasting menus. The decision-making process is eased somewhat by the arrival of canapes of such loveliness that I am led to believe there is an entire staff of nimble-fingered elves hidden somewhere in the bowels of the house, spending their elvish days churning out canapes. We had:
* foie gras mousse with chutney on a mini cracker;
* a morsel of sweet pear and Spanish ham on a toothpick skewer;
* a deconstructed pizza made up of a herby mini-cracker topped with mozzarella and tomato; and
* in the middle of the plate, a snowball of crispy grated parmesan. Gorgeous. We also discussed our menu choice with the very helpful sommelier – we opted for a glass each of red and white and asked him to make recommendations to match the tasting menu. For the white, we had a 2005 Les Grands Chaillees Condrieu. Although this was indeed a lovely and spicy wine, I found it to have neither the sweetness to work with the foie gras, nor the freshness to work with the fish. But I guess if you are pairing one wine with four or five courses this is bound to happen. For the red, Johanna opted for a Pinot Noir to match her pork, while I had a glass of 2004 Domaine Saint Antonin Faugeres from the Languedoc. Now this was lovely – rounded and spicy and intense. Not to mention relatively affordable at £7 per glass! On that topic, although the wine list is impressively comprehensive (with a heavy leaning towards French wines) and has some terrifyingly expensive wines, there was also a good selection that was relatively affordable (under £35), particularly if you stayed away from Champagne and Boredeaux! And I was inordinately proud to see not one but THREE vintages of Klein Constantia‘s Vin de Constance on the menu, all hovering around the £100 mark.
Having completed the onerous task of selecting food and wine, and nibbling on canapes, you are ushered through to the rather lovely dining room. The entire dining room is situated in a large conservatory off to the side of the house, making the most of the views across the garden. The room is light and airy with tranquil neutral colours, the warmth of exposed stone walls where it adjoins the house, and beautiful carved African stone statues. I was also thrilled to discover where we had been seated – not at the made-for-two banquettes along the wall (which could be annoyingly close to one’s neighbours) but at one of a series of round tables laid for two so that both of you can face the room. This makes a nice change from the usual treatment that couples get in the overall plan of restaurant seating! I was also pleased to find that there was no muzak as this is often the single element to which not enough attention has been paid, and it can drastically lower the tone of a restaurant. The service was friendly and excellent throughout the meal.
Shredded fresh crab with pink grapefruit and mango, served on a mango puree This was a lovely start to the meal. It was light and fresh and the grapefruit really lifted the taste – a nice riff on the usual lemon accompaniment for seafood. The mango puree was hidden in the bottom of the little bowl and partnered well with the crab meat which has an inherent swetness anyway. And I loved the textural contrast of the bread, which was (in texture anyway!) a giant crouton. A lovely start to the meal.
Up next was confit of Landais foie gras with rhubarb three ways (poached in ginger; a compote; and a jelly) served with toasted sourdough Although not a huge portion, the foie gras was excellent – unctuous, creamy-textured and decadent. I dread the day that the food Nazis cross the Atlantic and it starts to disappear off menus in this country. That may well be the day I emigrate to France As for the rhubarb pairing, I thought this was a mized success. Both Johanna and I agreed that although the rhubarb poached in ginger was absolutely delicious (and gorgous – that really was the colour!), it was too tart and too overwhelming with the foie gras. The puree worked better, but I would have preferred a triple helping of the jelly, which was the perfect marriage of sweetness and tartness. I also found the rustic sourdough to be an odd choice to serve with a dish this delicate – surely classic brioche would have been a better option? Overall, although lovely to look at, I’m not sure this course really worked for me – but that’s not to say I didn’t savour every last morsel of the excellent quality foie!
The next two course were the stunners as far as I was concerned, both visually and taste-wise. First, we were presented with an oeuf en cocotte with new season garlic soup, topped with slivers of salt cod and Jabugo ham. For a start, how can I resist cooing over an egg served in crockery that resembles half an eggshell? Just the visuals had me grinning! The soup was beautifully foamed so there was no sign of the egg when the dish arrived. It was only after you had taken a tentative spoonful that the golden yolk peeked out shyly. And although this may sound like sacrilege, I think I preferred these flavours to Joel Robuchon’s take on oeufs en cocotte - probably because the Manoir’s version included some salty elements, and I’m just a girl who thinks eggs need salt. I loved everything about this dish, including the little toast soldier that accompanied it for nostalgic childhood dipping. But there was nothing childish about the flavours – the heady garlic flavour and the little nuggets of salty goodness lifted this particular egg into the realms of the extraordinary.
And then there appeared another vision of loveliness: a perfectly seared scallop on a sliver of roasted cauliflower served with cauliflower puree and curry oil. Wow. Seriously – wow. For a start, this was the textbook seared scallop. It actually had a crispy crust on the outside and the inside was the consistency of butter, plus it was packed with the sweetest flavour. But the real genius was pairing it with cauliflower – the nuttiness in the cauliflower brought out the sweeteness in the scallops and both were married happily together by the slight tang of the curry oil. And cauliflower puree is definitely going on my list of things to try – step aside pommes puree, your day has come and gone! Everything about this dish worked for me, including how it looked: I loved the way that the cauliflower had been sliced to look like a tree. I could probably have eaten half a dozen plates just like this one.
Staying in the ocean, our next course was pan-fried sea bass with smoked mashed potatoes and a star anise jus, as well as a juicy skewered prawn. This made for a very interesting plating – kind of like an edible Rorschach test! The fish was beautifully cooked (i.e. barely) and we won’t even go into just how fat and juicy that prawn was. The star anise flavour was not overpowering, but ultimately not that exciting either. My favourite thing in the plate (apart from therawn!) was the little scoop of smoked mashed potato which was intriguing and delicious. I think we decided in the end that it was the mil that had been infused with a smoky flavour in order to flavour the mash. But overall this course didn’t knock my socks off.
The final savoury course was asiette of lamb with onion puree (2 pieces, not sure which cuts) which was served on a roast potato with wilted spring onions. I must say that for this course, Johanna asked for a dish from another menu to be substituted in – ths asiette of pork – and when I saw her plate full of porky delicacies and crackly skin, I immediately regretted having stuck wth the lamb… but it only took one bite to change my mind. The lamb was exactly as lamb should be – pink and yielding and just fatty enough. Although I’m usually one for mint sauce with my lamb, I found that the little scoop of onion puree was a perfect sweet partner to the meat. Really good ingredients that weren’t fussed with too much – simply delicious.
From there we moved into dessert territory, which kicked off with a wake-up call to our palates. The beautifully presented carpaccio of blood orange with a blood orange sorbet was as fresh-tasting as it was beautiful. The carpaccio itself seemed to be chunks of fruit cells in a matrix that was somewhere between a sorbet and a jelly, and had been frozen solid for the slicing process. It was such a clever presentation, playing up the unique colour of the fruit, and made a great palate cleanser.
The penultimate dessert was a deconstructed tiramisu. What do I mean by that? Well, all the requisite flavours were there but looking a little different to your usual tiramisu! At the base, there was a cocoa-dusted biscuit, topped with a scoop of coffee-bean ice cream and surrounded by a swirl of sweet (also coffee-flavoured?) mascarpone. On top of the ice cream was a ribbon of chocolate tuille and on the mascarpone was a cocoa sauce and an adorable amber square of Amaretto-flavoured jelly. It looked just gorgeous and the contrasting textures made for a very interesting take on a classic dessert – the decadent mascarpone, the crispy tuillle and the surprising jelly cube. A great example of a dessert that manages to be decadent and light at the same time.
And finally, we were presented with a Valrhona 72% chocolate mousse in a chocolate tuille tube on a caramel base, with lemon butterscotch sauce and almond milk creme glacee. This was also just so pretty that you felt vaguely guilty about destroying it to take a bite, but I valiantly fought and overcame the guilt The tuille was paper thin in contrast to the rich gooeyness of the mousse and the burnt sugar flavour of the caramel below was the perfect foil for all that sweetness. I didn’t get too excited about the almond milk ice cream – the flavour just was not intense enough for me. But the lemon butterscotch sauce (which I ate separately in the end) had a fresh intensity that made for a perfect end to the desserts.
From there you are offered the option of returning to the lounge where you can languish on the sofas while coffee with petit fours are brought to you. Like the canapes, they were also little edible works of art. A chocolate with chocolate ganache filling; a passionfruit-filled white chocolate truffle on a stick; a square of pistachio nougat; what looked like a candied hazelnut but was actually hazelnut mousse covered in hard caramel; a teensy little flavourful lemon macaroon; and a glazed strawberry slice on a teensy piece of sponge. Just marvellous. I think my favourites were the hazelnut mousse and the mini macaroon, and Johanna swooned over the passion fruit in white chocolate.
As we lounged in their beautiful sitting room, I could quite see the attraction of living in a stately home with pots of money and a huge kitchen staff to produce food like this. Unlike other restaurants, restaurants with accommodation allow you to suspend your disbelief for a while and dream that you have entered the lifestyles of the rich and famous – it feels more like you are at a friend’s country house than a restaurant. If the weather were nicer, we could also have strolled in "our" garden to complete this illusion, but as it was, sitting by the cosy fireplace worked just fine for me.
The obvious question for most of my friends was how Le Manoir compares with last year’s experience at The Fat Duck. Interesting question. I found both places to be unfussy while maintaining excellent levels of service, and I liked the lightness of both dining rooms. Where the Fat Duck has the edge is obviously in Heston Blumenthal’s innovative cooking. The safe choice is never an option and for those of you who are not interested in broadening your culinary horizons, I would recommend Le Manoir over The Fat Duck. Although the cooking is excellent, it is a far more traditional affair and not in any way challenging. But the attention to detail in sourcing the ingredients, preparing the dishes and plating can’t be faulted, so the entire experience is very impressive. If you want to feel cossetted, Le Manoir is definitely the place for you. From your warm welcome to your eventual sad departure, you feel like a houseguest rather than a diner and so the whole experience is more of an exercise in old-world luxury. I do have to say that the price you pay for this luxury was substantial. With the tasting menu at £110, a fino to start, two glasses of wine, water and service, it came to £150 per person. Gulp. That would be, erm, somewhat more than groceries for an entire week for me and Nick. Probably less terrifying if you break it down over the four hours we spent there and say it was less than £40 per hour
Overall, I would say it was worth the money as I certainly felt my birthday had been well and properly celebrated by the time we left. If you want to give yourself a special treat, you could do a lot worse than a meal at Le Manoir – just be sure to pack your credit card!
Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons
Tel: +44 (0)1844 278881
Fax: +44 (0)1844 278847