fine-dining-guide was privileged to meet Raymond Blanc over breakfast, to hear his latest ideas for Le Manoir. Almost breathless with enthusiasm, he tells us of changes to the restaurant seating, redecoration of some of the courtyard rooms, and plans for a spa and a thousand-tree orchard.
Famed for his meticulous attention for detail – “excellence is the accumulation of seemingly inconsequential, minor and weightless details” – he is on his way to London to choose materials for one of his thirty two individually designed rooms. Clearly, his creative genius shows no signs of abating – if anything the reverse. As his vision for Le Manoir nears completion, so a renewed energy and drive are much in evidence.
It is now over twenty five years since Raymond Blanc moved from his small restaurant in a shopping parade in Summertown to this elegant, honey coloured manor house in rural Oxfordshire.
This period has seen major building projects: the magnificent conservatory extension to the restaurant, the private dining room, new kitchens, the Cookery School, the garden wing rooms, and the remodeled entrance and car park. Vegetable, herb and tea gardens, beautiful lawns, and delightful walks, with access to a Japanese tea house and Orangerie, bear witness to the mature development of the estate.
As a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group, Le Manoir combines the traditional with the modern. All the extensions are in harmony with the original house. The masculine exterior is balanced by feminine interior designs, especially in the courtyard wing.
The Anais suite in which I stayed has a romantic feel, with its glass fronted real wood fire, contemporary erotic painting, glass sculpture, female manikin and “do not disturb” red bow. Impeccable attention to detail is shown in the thoughtful additional touches: candles in the marbled bathroom; fruit, water and Madeira; note pads and pens by each telephone. The technically minded are considered too with an iPod docking station and complimentary broadband Wifi access. To ensure maximum comfort, guests are contacted before their stay to express a preference for blankets or duvets, and, in turning down the bed, the maid leaves a small bottle of pillow spray.
Rooms in the main building are decorated and appointed in a more classical design as befits their historical character. The Botticelli room, for instance, has an exquisite bathroom – accessed up a spiral staircase – with two facing Victorian claw footed baths. The Dovecot, once used to store the restaurant’s mineral water, has been converted to a split level suite, complete with oak beams and mirrored views of the croquet lawn.
However, the climax to any visit to Le Manoir must be eating the food that made Raymond Blanc a world renowned chef. This too shows no signs of waning. Over aperitifs and canapés in one of the three luxuriously appointed lounges, the diner can peruse a menu that offers an embarrassment of choice, from the three course menu du jour at week day lunches, through the carte, to the nine course menu decouvérte, which features many of the newer dishes.
The original restaurant comprising two interconnecting rooms has been more than doubled in size by a high pitched conservatory, which exhibits an enchanting glow in the evening and commands a clear view of the gardens during the day. Well spaced tables, excellent acoustics – a boon in a busy restaurant – and helpful, knowledgeable service, also make this the perfect platform for Raymond’s culinary delights.
Freshness and seasonality are enduring hallmarks of Le Manoir’s dishes. The extensive organic vegetable and herb gardens provide most of the kitchen’s needs. The finely tuned cooking is based on classic French techniques, with a lighter, more contemporary touch, whilst revealing elements of fusion in some dishes. Flavours are clean and the presentation is finished with conscious artistry. Luxuries such as caviar, truffles and foie gras often appear, but always to elevate and enhance.
For those opting for the menu découverte, constant interruptions to announce each dish are avoided by an accompanying menu; indeed the diner has to request announcements if they so wish. The sourcing of the top rate ingredients is hugely important to Raymond, so it is no surprise that this is given in detail:
The menu decouverte opens with a tartare of wild yellow fin Indian Ocean tuna with a Japanese savoury custard of exquisite velvety texture which complements the delicate fish perfectly.
A confit and parfait of Landais foie gras has all the richness one would expect, but this is balanced by a pineapple and vanilla chutney, with sour dough toast replacing the more traditional brioche.
Plancha seared hand –dived scallops from Loch Leven arrive with a smoky caramelisation that enhances their taste and texture. Cauliflower puree and curry oil bring the dish together in a trinity of harmonious flavours.
Wytham Farm free range poached hen’s egg is the star of the next course, which shows confidence in the use of an excellent but basic main ingredient. The Jerusalem artichoke foam with pickled mushrooms and winter truffle add elegance and richness.
The sixth course features a stunning fillet of wild Cornish gill-netted brill (above). Braised to a melting tenderness, it is topped with a generous portion of caviar, covering a native oyster which adds a contrasting freshness and texture. The seafood is lifted by a wasabi beurre blanc which stimulates our nasal senses but does not overpower the dish. This was a most refined plate, exciting in its conception and brilliant in its execution.
By comparison, the meat course does not reach such heights, but is still very good. Roasted Goognargh duck breast (above) is perfectly timed to a medium rare to produce a distinct but gentle gaminess. The richness of this dish is moderated by being cooked without the skin, with contrasting accompaniments of caramelised chicory and mandarin curd.
Cheeses are exemplary, as seen in a tasting of brillat-savarin, mont d’or and epoisses, confirmed their perfect condition of ripeness. (This is an optional extra course)
Three desserts demonstrate the excellence of the pastry section. Whilst the exotic fruit “raviole” with kaffir lime leaf and coconut jus shows eastern influences, the pear Almondine , caramel croustillant and ginger reverts to more classical French roots. “Coeur de Guanaja” chocolate cremeux with cocoa “grue” nougatine and coffee foam provides a rich and indulgent finish. Excellent coffee and petit-fours complete an exceptional meal.
The wine list features over a thousand bins, with an abundance of Burgundy and Bordeaux but also featuring many from the New World. The sommelier is also happy to suggest glasses or wine to match as few or as many courses as the diner wishes. For instance, the Riesling Grand Cru from Alsace (2005) proves a perfect accompaniment with brill, whilst the Côte Rôtie from the northern Rhône (2004) stands up well to the robust flavours of the duck. As with all top flight restaurants, but even more so with Le Manoir, this is a total experience which engages all the senses and will be remembered for many years to come. Quality of this level does not come cheap, but the value for money is unquestioned.