Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, this place has a reputation, and a fabulous one at that; a bastion of classic, elegant cooking that seems to be timeless and treasured.
It is not your everyday food nor does it come with your everyday price tag but if you venture out into the glorious Oxfordshire countryside to dine at Le Manoir for a special occasion or other, you just have to surrender to the moment and worry about the bill later. You’re not buying food, you’re buying memories.
I had the wonderful fortune of being invited for a special occasion so was not footing the bill myself for which I am extremely grateful and count myself very lucky.
The building is graceful and aged just enough around the edges to hint at the history; a little elegant idyl wrapped in honey-coloured stone.
The service is outstanding. ‘Reading glasses for the menu, Sir? Absolutely.’ The staff are unflappable, I imagine no request would be too unusual but what’s more they’re amiable rather than austere. It’s like you’re in on the secret together, this is silly money, that you would never normally spend but they will help you do it all the same. ‘I recommend the Pinot Noir Reserve, Sir, it will complement both the sea bass and the veal nicely Sir’.
We started with some beautifully crafted nibbles followed by a bread basket fit for the fussiest of Frenchmen. The amuse buche of butternut velouté was light as a feather and served with a blue cheese and butternut toast and scallop.
My starter was a soft silken wild mushroom risotto with alba truffle. Quite apart from the theatre of its dinky cloche, the risotto itself was smooth and earthy. The mushrooms sang all on their own and, in truth, the king of the forest, the truffle served more as a justification of the price than a necessary edition, it was perfect comfort food already.
Mains all round were spectacular. Nothing on the plate was revolutionary; the food at Le Manoir isn’t controversial just impeccably executed. The reverent hush that fell as plates were swept clean paid testament to that.
Soft bass, more flavoursome than I have ever eaten topped citrus soaked carrots and golden scallops. The mash was light and smooth but seductively smoked and the sauce, glossy goodness that held everything together.
Desserts were works of art. I would expect nothing less in a French kitchen. Monuments to patisserie, worthy of admiration but none of us had the will power to for long before we dug our spoons in and gaily licked them clean. The millionaire’s shortbread lived up to its name; layers of heart-stopping chocolate, sticky caramel and gold leaf no less, with salted butter ice cream were the ultimate indulgence and for a moment we all shared in the collective delusion, we were all millionaires together.
Coffee came with delicate, delicious petits fours, as if we had room to spare. Needless to say, we ate every one.
Upon presenting the bill, the waiter asked, ‘Did you enjoy everything?’ to which we replied with unanimous praise but asked, ‘Has anyone ever said no?’
A knowing smile across his face he replied, ‘Not yet, Sir.’