Unsurprisingly we didn’t make it to Gibraltar this past Christmas. It’s now January ,and we’ve just driven down the M1. I must qualify the ‘we’, for I’ve let the car do its own thing. Its driven us impeccably down the busy motorway for the last three hours. All I’ve had to do is keep my hand on the steering wheel, feeling the car guide us round the gentle curves of the road or violently breaking when a white van careers on to our path. Spooky, but eventually the car deposits us at one of the best-known establishments in England. Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford.
The building itself, lying at the end of a short gravel driveway, is an architectural gem – very English looking, the French flag flying over the main entrance doing nothing to detract from its Elizabethan feel.
Other than a red Ferrari and a couple of high-end Mercs, the rest of the cars in the car park are family cars which comes as no surprise having been told most the clientele go there on a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. Perhaps a milestone birthday or wedding anniversary, sufficiently important to justify the £1800 per night per couple for dinner, bed and breakfast (plus wine and a 12.5% service charge).
In our case, its neither a birthday nor anniversary ,simply an innate curiosity if all the fuss about the hotel with its apple orchards, vegetable gardens and two-Michelin-star restaurant is all its cracked up to be.
Having arrived too early, the room is not ready, and we kill time walking round the extensive gardens. Its bitterly cold and the gardens slumber under a blanket of winter bleakness. It’s not difficult to imagine how the place will feel on an English summer’s days with its ponds and beautiful sculptures. Easy to picture extensive rows of succulent vegetables picked by chefs in their impeccable white uniforms.
Our room turns out to be very pretty, very English like out of a Jane Austen novel. A bright yellow, hand painted cast iron bath lies just behind an impossibly heavy curtain. What is one to do with so many towels, we wonder. (They are changed twice a day.) On a table, a complimentary bottle of madeira accompanies some fresh fruit. Like the towels, we wonder why one would need so many linen napkins and cutlery to tackle some apples and pears.
Later we find out the hotel has thirty-two rooms and 220 employees. No wonder the service is impeccable and the prices eye watering. Its difficult to reserve a table for lunch or dinner unless you’re staying overnight. Lunch is booked months in advance, perhaps because at £210 per head, excluding wine, it’s a relative bargain by Manoir standards. The man himself is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps not surprising having sold out to Belmond Hotels some time ago, though their website still places him as the ‘chef patron’.
Our table has been reserved for 7:30pm. We are led into a comfortable sitting room with a blazing log fire. Large gin and tonics later we are perusing the tasting menu. They already know our eating foibles for we were asked to fill a questionnaire weeks before our arrival. Would we prefer a traditional or modern room? Did we want Duvets or blankets?
What about a turn down?
Once at the table, it’s not long before the dishes start to arrive. The service is brisk but not overpowering and the seven-course menu is printed on small cards, so we are not subjected to interminable descriptions of the dishes by waiting staff, one of the scourges of fine dining!
The food turns out to be as you would expect. Very good indeed. The quality of the Scottish Langoustines with miso superb. So is the is the John Dory and the tiny morsels of raw sea bass. A simple dish of baby carrots and parsnips turns out be not simple but a masterpiece of vegetarian cooking. The venison main is outstanding. Regretfully, we are too full to tackle the cheeses. Perhaps the best meal we’ve ever had.
The wine list as you’d expect is extensive. From £55 a bottle right through to £25,000.00 for the 1993 Chambertin made by Lalou Leroy! (She loves vines more than people; see The Gibraltar Magazine March 2018.) We had a Veuve Cliquot 2012 champagne which by Manoir standards was reasonably priced. A 2011 Alter Ego Palmer (the second wine of Ch Palmer) should have been ready to drink but its tannins were still wild and overpowering.
For a special occasion le Manoir would be difficult to beat. The service is beyond excellent, the food outstanding and our Italian waiter Valentino couldn’t have been friendlier nor more professional. Just before leaving we asked for some of their famous scones to take away. They didn’t have any, but their pastry chef would bake some for us if didn’t mind waiting. It was not long before we were handed a lovely box of beautiful warm scones which at £2.50 each turned out to be the bargain of the weekend.