Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons,
Church Road, Great Milton,
Oxford, OX44 7PD,
Tel. 0184 427 8881
Food type: French
Food rating: 7/10
Nearest tube: –
Website: Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons
Last week I joined Loving Annie (visiting from the Orange County) for a long, casual lunch at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saison. LA had generously offered to have both of us chauffeured up to Oxfordshire. You can find her take of her meal here which is worth reading as she tried the vegetarian menu. Thanks to LA for some of the pictures featured on this review.
Chef patron Raymond Blanc was born in Besacon. His (now legendary) story of how he came to England in 1972 to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived Restaurant before taking over as chef when the head chef was ill has been recounted many times on TV. Before this, at the age of 21, Blanc (English for White) first started as a chef back in his native France. He infamously criticized the head chef’s cooking resulting in a pan being thrown at him and subsequently breaking his nose and jaw.
In 1977, Raymond and his (now divorced) wife put all their savings and mortgaged their house to open their first restaurant in Oxford – an unassuming place called Les Quat’Saisons. The gamble paid off and Blanc’s restaurant was an instant success winning the Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year award and more importantly a Michelin Star amongst other distinctions.
“I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur I am an entrepreneur by accident. I was a craftsman first, a man who had a business vision, but not a businessman. I know who I am: a man who is passionate and loves to work with people. And I am a man who has learnt, because in my early days you could say I was a complete maverick, completely driven by passion and instinct.” – Raymond Blanc, OBE
It was however Blanc’s personal dream to open a hotel and restaurant. In 1984, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons opened its doors to the sleepy village of Great Milton, Oxfordshire. Blanc fell in love with the 15th century manor house while searching through Country Life for a small four-bedroom restaurant with a sizeable garden. Le Manoir was a huge success and has gone from strength to strength garnering two Michelin stars which it has held on to for the past 19 years as well as the maximum of 5 AA rosettes.
A game of croquet perhaps?
In keeping with its success, under the direction of Symm & Company, Le Manoir has undergone expansions and development projects – to add a conservatory, extend the kitchen and transform the Dovecote and stables into bedrooms. The Raymond Blanc Cookery School was added to the portfolio in 1991. Further refurbisments were undertaken in 1998 under interior designer Emily Todhunter with the ultimate goal of achieving a third Michelin star. There are current plans to expand upon the gardens and orchards where Blanc proudly sources a lot of his vegetables from. As it currently stands, the two-acre kitchen garden produces 90 types of vegetables and over 70 varieties of herbs used in Le Manoir’s kitchen.
Head chef Gary Jones has held the position for eight and a half years and leads a brigade of 45 chefs. Gary’s tale of how he ended up as head chef at Le Manoir is one befitting a fairy tale. Jones started of undertaking a general catering course at Carlett Park on the Wirral, Merseyside. He then worked at a small restaurant in Rickmansworth which Jones claims to have given him a good set of basic skills and knowledge. After a spell away at Greece, Jones returned and worked at Mountbatten Hotel in Convent Garden while temping at the Waterside Inn on his days off eventually working his way up to the position of Chef-de-Partie on the sauce (a much revered position). After exactly at year, Jones moved on to Le Manoir as Chef-de-Partie. After three months working there, he was offered the position of sous chef which Jones recalls turning down citing his lack of experience. He finally accepted the position after a year.
At that time, Le Manoir was part owned by Richard Branson who approached Jones to set up training programmes on Necker Island. Gary then returned to England and worked as head chef at Homewood Park, earning his first Michelin star and four AA rosettes. He was then approached by Waldo’s at the Cliveden where Jones again won a solitary star. About eight or nine months into his stint at Waldo’s, an assuming patron by the name of Raymond Blanc came to dinner. Blanc didn’t even make it to his main course before he was there tempting Jones to return back to Le Manoir. So it was that in August 1999, Jones came full circle back to Le Manoir as Executive Head Chef.
“To be back at Le Manoir was a dream come true.” – Gary Jones
Of course, Gary Jones is amongst one of the many names to have graced the star studded kitchen of Le Manoir. Other notable alumnus include John Burton Race, Michael Caines, Eric Chavot, Paul Heathcote, Alan Murchison, Chris Horridge and of course the le enfant terrible himself, Marco Pierre White. Marco Pierre White famously claimed that he would not have achieved three stars were it not for his spell at Le Manoir.
The entrance to the restaurant is located at the side, directly opposite the cookery school. We were then led to one of many lounges, complete with a hearthy fireplace, where we enjoyed an apperitif while perusing the menu.
There are two dining rooms at Le Manoir – a more formal traditional dining room which was the original entrance to the Manoir building as well as the newer, more contemporary conservatory area where we were seated. The conservatory has plenty of windows allowing for plenty of natural lighting (if the dreary English weather permits) as well as a breathtaking view of the garden outside. Floors are wooden with low hanging fans dangling from the ceiling. Tables are sensibly spaced quite far apart.
There was very little sign of the on-going credit crunch judging by the number of patrons visiting for a Friday lunch, although admittedly this was a bank holiday weekend. The menu is certainly not cheap – their 5 course Lunch Menu du Jour is £70 while their 5 course Menu Classique is £95 (in both cases, the amuse bouche counts as one course). A 10 course Menu Découverte (available during weekend lunch and dinner everyday) is a not-so-generous £116. A limited ALC menu is also available. Starters are £36 – £42, Mains £44 – £52 and Desserts £21 – £22. In short, this is the wrong place to be dining at if you are looking for a bargain.
Some canapes were presented to us on a smart black slate tile as is the current trend. These varied in quality. For example a mango, grapefruit and jabugo ham was as exciting as some fruit on the stick while the ham itself was slightly dry and hard. More interesting was a spoonful of scallop carpaccio wrapped in a bit of bonito jelly and sesame seeds and chives – the two ingredients combining very well to bring out the sweetness of the scallops. Choux pastry filled with foie gras mousse had good texture of the pastry but lacking in significant taste of the liver itself. The classic combination of smoked salmon, horseradish cream and blinis has stood the test of time for a reason and here the horseradish was carefully balanced so as not to overpower the fish. A bit of goat’s cheese, tapenade and croutons was also pleasant while I did not get to try the anchovy, smoked potatoes on toast as the bread broke and dropped on the floor before I could put it into my mouth. (6/10)
Bread: Baguette, Brown, Pecan & Raisin, Bacon, Sourdough, White Slice, Country Style
Bread is made fresh twice a day with a huge variety on offer although annoyingly they were served cold. The best of the bunch was a bacon roll with plenty of salty, smoky bacon bits within. Also of note was the French baguette I tried had a good crust with fluffy interior and most importantly was correctly seasoned. (8/10)
Potage de Pommes de Terre ‘Mayan Gold’ et Ail Doux
An amuse bouche of potato and garlic soup made from Mayan Gold potato, prized for having more taste than other potatoes, had good taste and depth in flavour. Served in a small cappucino cup, the soup was at the correct temperature so as to bring out the natural flavour of the soup. A little bit of roasted garlic puree gave the soup some richness although a potato crisp on the side did not do anything for me and could have been better seasoned in the first place. (7/10)
Asperges Blanches, Oeuf de Poule Poche, Jabugo Jambon et Jus de Volaille
White asparagus from France was steamed till tender, served with a perfect poached free-ranged hen’s egg, chicken jus, croutons and a few bits of dehydrated jabugo ham. The restaurant have smartly ditched the Spanish asparagus for the superior French variety and this has made a huge difference. As a result, this was an elegant dish which was perfectly executed allowing the sweetness of the asparagus to shine through. A shaving of parmesan cheese added some saltiness and sharpness to the dish. LA was so impressed with this dish that she had an extra order of this (minus the meat elements). (7/10)
Rouget de Roche, Calamar Grille, Pommes de Terre Confites, Brandade de Morue, Jus de Bouillabaisse
A deconstructed bouillabaise with native red mullet and roasted squid had perfectly timed fish with excellent flavour let down by the bouillabaisse jus which had an almost metallic taste from the saffron. As a simple point of comparison the bouillabaisse sauce that I tried the following day at One-O-One had better flavour even if the fish there was pretty tasteless. Some dehydrated cherry tomatoes and confit artichokes that accompanied this had good flavour. (5/10)
Souffle au ‘Vieux Lille’, Salade de Pommes et Celeri; Vinaigrette a L’huile de Noix
A cheese souffle made from Vieux Lille cheese and rolled with crushed walnuts was incredibly light. Vieux Lille is a ripened Maroilles from Nord-Pas-de-Calais, soaked for three months in brine. This cows milk cheese is also known by the nickname of ‘Puant de Lille’ which means strong smelling and refers to its putrefied smell. The souffle was accompanied by a few thin slices of apple, celery and salad leaves gave a mineral cleanliness to the dish. (8/10)
Supreme de Poulet Poche, Pommes Puree, Poireaux, Morilles et Sauce au Vin du Jura
The word chicken hardly sets my heart racing with excitement and you rarely find chicken on the menus of high-end restaurant simply because it is very hard to make it taste exceptional. As such I find it very brave for them to be serving chicken breast as the main course on their tasting menu. A very juicy poached breast of cotswold chicken was served with served with some flavoursome morels and a morel sauce made from jura wine and madeira accompanied by some excellent leeks and green asparagus (from the Wye Valley). On the side was a roasted roulade of chicken thighs and some pan-fried livers which were timed correctly. This was an enjoyable dish and while executed well it was pleasant rather than memorable. (7/10)
Filet de Turbot Grille, Laitue, Asperges de la Vallee Wye et Sauce Maltaise
An excellent tasting grilled fillet of turbot was served with some fresh pan fried baby gem lettuce and more asparagus spears. The turbot was accompanied by a simple sauce maltaise made with blood orange and true to Escoffier’s guidelines, some orange rind, with a few of the blood orange segments on the side. A quenelle of new season garlic puree on the side another element of freshness. I particularly enjoyed this dish for its simplicity allowing the individual ingredients to stand out. (7/10)
Cheese is sourced from Premier Cheese and from my experience the quality of their cheese can be quite variable. We tried Faugeres, Brie de Meaux, Comte, Tomme de Savoie, Epoisses and Fourme de Ambert served with a few fig cakes, walnuts, grapes, celery and quince jelly. The condition of the cheese tried was a mixed bunch. For example, Brie de Meaux and Epoisses were hardly runny, comte was fresh but hardly interesting (compared to say even the aged comte I purchase from Borough Cheese Company) while Fourme de Ambert was in perfect condition. (5/10)
Blood Orange and Its Own Sorbet
A pre-dessert of blood orange carpaccio and its own sorbet had stunning, high-quality fruit which was full of flavour matched and a sorbet which had good balance of acidity and sweetness. This was an excellent example of a palate cleanser. (9/10)
Un Theme Sur La Fraise Gariguette
Desserts were excellent and probably the highlight of the meal. Have you ever tried smelling your desserts? Nine out of ten times they don’t smell of anything. Hence when our strawberry themed dessert arrived on our table we were greeted with the waft of summer’s impending arrival. The dish, consisting of individual layers of strawberry jelly, shortbread, parfait and a crispy wafer made with kirch highlighted the beauty of the Gariguette strawberry. Every component was flawlessly executed – the shortbread was as short (sorry for the pun) as you wanted and the strawberries oozed flavour. Simply put, this was a triumph both for the eyes as well as the palate. (9/10)
Pomme Souffle au Calvados, Crystalline et Sorbet de Pomme Crue
Equally good was a calvados souffle baked in a cored out ‘Jona Gold’ apple which again was light, airy and fluffy with a good kick of calvados. A scoop of apple sorbet brought some much needed tartness to complement the sweetness of the poached apple balls. A few apple crisps at the side were there to add texture. (8/10)
Petit Fours: Chocolate Truffle, Liquorice ‘Magnum’ Blood Orange Tart, Strawberry & Meringue, Passion Fruit Macaroon, Shortbread & Caramel, Sweet
We moved to another lounge where we enjoyed some tea along with some petit fours which were pleasant enough. (6/10) It is worth mentioning that there is an extensive tea list at Le Manoir with some very fine and rare leaves on offer although these unfortunately come at a hefty price.
Our visit to Le Manoir did not live up to our expectations. My main problem was the service which was strewn full of errors. I am not being picky here about small niggly stuff. It took them a good half an hour from when we were sat at the lounge until someone strolled over to ask us if would like an apperitif. Then for some inexplicable reason they brought LA the wrong starter – a ham hock and foie gras terrine despite her going for the vegetarian menu. What really irked me though was, without being forewarned, they decided to swap the turbot on the tasting menu for red mullet. When challenged about this they claimed that they had given me the yesterday’s menu (but with the correct Bank Holiday Menu du Jour??). At least they were apologetic about this after LA had made a formal complaint to the maitre’d and offered us a few complementary dishes including the missing turbot.
There seemed to be a lack of generosity when it came to the little extras – for example they brought us one plate of petit fours to share while I also noted that other tables had to share their canapes (we were spared the anguish of having to divide our canapes owing to LA having her own plate of vegetarian ones). In my opinion, the cooking here was fine but aside from the desserts there was little else memorable about this meal not to mention some inconsistencies. This barely hit the mark of a 2* restaurant let alone the 3 that Raymond is striving for.
At £95 for (in essence) 4 courses, this raises serious questions about value for money. For the same amount, I could have had a more consistent and enjoyable meal at Le Gavroche or the Square. Gordon Ramsay once sent an invitation (in jest) to Raymond Blanc for Le Manoir to be featured in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Judging by their current performance, perhaps Blanc should reconsider taking him up on that offer before he loses his second star altogether.
p/s Dear Raymond, in case you don’t get it, that was meant to be a joke too.