For all the superlatives I can offer Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – and there are plenty to use and choose from – I’ll avoid them and simply say that it’s the experience this Oxfordshire hotel offers aside from dinner at Raymond Blanc’s venerable two Michelin star restaurant that will stay with me for a generous time to come. From the moment we parked up at the main entrance, we were blanketed in opulence and half-cut until the moment I had to stop drinking in order to be able to drive home sober.
It was Boxing Day, and therefore The European’s birthday. I owed her a good time, as my bout of Covid on her special day last year meant that we had to stay in, binging Netflix. So this year, we had a one-night stay reserved at Le Manoir that included breakfast and, most importantly, the restaurant’s seven course tasting menu dinner. We made sure to check in hungry, and make short work of the champagne on arrival, as well as the freshly baked lemon cake left for us as a welcome gift in the room. We were a little unsettled that the Vettriano Suite, decorated by and named for the Scottish artist and one of Blanc’s personal acquaintances, hosted a Christmas tree far, far superior to the one standing in our living room, unloved and unlit, eighty miles away.
After moist cake and dry bubbles, we went for a walk in the expansive grounds of this Fifteenth Century repurposed manor house. As dusk gave way to darkness, we were mesmerised by the manicured Japanese tea garden (complete with a chashitsu overlooking the pond) and meandering pathways sparkling with Christmas lights. Nevertheless, it was cold, and the prospect of good old fashion French fine dining was near. Inspired by our time in the tea garden, we headed inside to the bar for a couple of glasses of a fantastic Japanese white wine led by notes of pear and sake, a Grace Koshu Kayagatake (2021) (find it, try it, you’ll never look back). Here, I encountered a painfully first-world challenge that is cracking nuts graciously and discreetly in a hushed, five-star smoking room. With some practice, and a bit of trial and error, I expertly began to time my cracking to the few moments where the harpist turned it up to a (quietish) eleven.
After drinks, it was time for a cellar tour. This was the low point of the trip. Hardly worth the £fifty per head, it was expertly led by the sommelier, and you got to drink more bubbles, but the cellar itself was pokey and had a dingy vibe, the kind of place a serial killer for the seventies might feel right at home. We headed back to the land of nuts and harpists for a round of cocktails before dinner.
Whisked to our table as we finished the final slurp, we found ourselves welcomingly seated in the section of dining room in the original manor, rather than the larger conservatory next door. Here, lights are dimmed, and ceiling beams hang low, and you’re one of only five tables. It’s intimate, with understated décor and that simultaneously hushed yet frantic atmosphere that I love so much about such restaurants. The waiter guided us through the menu and the sommelier cast us off on our journey through the wine pairing, a comparatively meagre five glasses for the seven courses. All paired well, and empty glasses were liberally and swiftly topped up for subsequent courses).
There was nothing wrong with the food at all; I would expect nothing else. That said, I can’t understand why I do not find it more memorable writing about it today. Certain moments of the meal will stay with me for ever. One of the amuse bouches, a choux bun stuffed with crab, offered a startlingly rich bomb of flavour. The first starter, tuna with pickled turnip and sesame, was the first time I have genuinely enjoyed kimchi.
The absolute highlight of the meal was the risotto of wild mushrooms (foraged from the grounds), cordycepes, and truffle ketchup. As is the case with top-draw mushroom risottos, I fought with both arms to keep The European away from mine (she won a spoonful in the end). ‘Le Café’, a dessert of coffee and cardamom meringue, yuzu curd, and hazelnut, was a creamy, chocolatey and coffee(-e-ey) lipsmacker that had me eating only the tiniest mouthfuls at a time, to prolong the pleasure. I got all The European’s; she was long done with the meal by now. This was partly due to a cheeseboard, taken as an optional eight course. This was a proper cheeseboard, the trolley creaking on its way tableside, the waiter taking you on a tour through all manner of soft, hard, stinky, goaty, sheepy and cow(wy) options, before arranging them on your plate in order in which they must be consumed (I ignored their instructions, naturally).
All well and good so far, but as mentioned, so much of this very expensive meal has bitterly faded into obscurity. I remembered the sea bass and langoustine to be lovely, but it was forgotten by the morning. The same could be said of the second starter of scallop ceviche, of which only my only recall is of trippy, salty explosions caused by a liberal garnish of Oscietra caviar. There was a duck course, apparently. Who could say? The pre-dessert of kaffir line and coconut was consumed in a panic as we debated whether the preceding cheese course was one rich thing too many. That moment, for the European, was somewhere between the duck and the lime. For me, I soldered on to the petit fours, before waddling back to the Vettriano suite and its boastful tree.
The following morning, we took breakfast in the suite. It was eating for the sake of eating, our stomachs still swollen from dinner. Nevertheless, we enjoyed mimosas, a small but perfectly balanced full English, eggs Benedict that The European praised for a good ten minutes as the best she’s ever eaten, and two the most perfect pains au chocolat you ever did see. I stared at them for a long time, genuinely wondering if they were table decorations. They tasted as good as they looked.
Who could ask for a better Boxing Day staycation? We loved every moment of our time at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. I will forever wonder why the dinner – the reason for us visiting above anything else – didn’t make more of an impact. For the price we paid, I wanted memories etched in granite, ones that scream of the good times and remain with me for life. Where did that duck go? Was the ceviche cut too thin? Or did the sheer spectacle and perfection of all that Belmond offer their guests here simply dilute the tasting menu, or scrub a layer of fine off fine dining? Either way, I didn’t care then and don’t care now.
Visited on 26th December 2022.
Seven course tasting menu and wines taken as part of the ‘Oxford Indulgence’ package that includes room and breakfast; rates vary.