As I mentioned recently, one of my ’40 Days of Fun’ to celebrate this landmark birthday took place last weekend, when 4 of us went to dine at Raymond Blanc’s wonderful Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire. We took the only option suitable for true gastronomes and plunged headlong into the 10-course Menu Decouverte…
(those of you who get bored easily by descriptions of a fabulous meal might as well pack up now – apologies if I run out of adjectives)
The amuse-bouche was a tartare of wild salmon in a chilled escabeche salad. This was fresh, light and tangy: the soft flesh of the salmon contrasted with crunchy julienne vegetables.
Then perhaps came the most conventional plate – a disc of duck liver confit, whose accompaniments were intriguing: wonderful toasted sourdough, a mango chutney spiced with cinnamon (not sweet at all), fresh, raw almonds and terrific soused cherries.
The most surprising course read very simply: a salad of tomatoes, basil, anchovy and buffalo mozzarella. A fleshy disc of beefsteak tomato sat on top of and surrounded by wonderfully a rich and aromatic basil oil dressing. Perched on top was a small egg of what looked like mozzarella, but was in fact an astonishing tomato sorbet. Perfect in texture, utterly surprising and pure concentrated tomato flavours. It almost moved me to tears. Honestly.
We has chosen the sommelier’s recommendation for white wine – something from the Languedoc. Served very cold alongside the salad, its fresh acidity married perfectly with the tomato. As it warmed up in the decanter and in the glass, its character changed, became richer, more perfumed and oily. Which was the perfect partner to the subsequent dishes…
The tremendous staff brought us a small bowl, in which was nestled a courgette flower, stuffed with crab meat, almost in the form of a mousse. They then poured into the bowl a splash of lemongrass consomme – which was itself like a crabshell stock and brought out the crab meat’s flavour wonderfully. All this was on top of shredded and pickled mouli, which added bite and texture.
Then came a small fillet of pan-fried lemon sole, wonderfully browned on top, served with a dash of intense cauliflower puree and beautiful whole girolle mushrooms. Again, as ever, combinations of flavours and textures that went together wonderfully, and which separately were amazingly potent.
The only meat course was melt-in-the-mouth roasted lamb – loin, shoulder and a kidney – served with a coco bean sauce (not unlike cassoulet) and another wonderful puree of aubergine. As we had fancied some red wine (a terrific St Julien), it felt only appropriate that we tackle the wonders of le chariot de fromages…
…or, as it became known, the course too far. The cheese is an optional extra, but our eyes were a-poppin’… But (and it shames me to say it) we couldn’t finish them. We had three desserts ahead of us. And a glass of wonderful Loire dessert wine – not too sweet, again the perfect recommendation from the sommelier.
The first was a ‘raviole’ of apricot with almond jelly, peach and lavender. It was as though the chefs had poached an apricot, then scraped out most of the flesh, leaving a thin ‘skin’ behind, which was then stuffed with the most fragrant jelly. That doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It was exquisite.
Then came a ‘rose and raspberry soft meringue’, which was just as it sounded. A beautiful, soft, creamy meringue filled with a rose scented puree that oozed out as you broke into the meringue, surrounded with jellied cubes of raspberry, a soft vanilla cream and chunks of marshmallow.
By this stage we were truly struggling, and cursing the long-anticipated petits fours. The final dessert was a cup of rich chocolate creme topped with a powerful coffee foam. And it was fabulous, like everything else. At this point we staggered gratefully from the table to the lounge, where the petits fours were served alongside our coffee. They were fantastic.
Apologies if this is over-indulgent – what do you expect? We spent a lot of money and we got terrific value for money. If I seem in awe of Le Manoir, it’s probably because I am. If you appreciate fine dining and wonderful service, I urge you to go. Save up the money if you need to, but go.