A few months ago in the dark month of January I began planning an Easter-weekend trip to Oxford and London. Budgets are always stretched thin in January, so instead of dining out, I read restaurant reviews, travel articles, and menus online that all convinced me this Easter trip could also be a foodie-getaway.
As the snow and wind lashed outside my window, I envisioned an afternoon spent cycling to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in the British countryside outside Oxford, for a spring treat. The reality was a bit less romantic. Although spring has arrived to these isles, a wind from the north made both Oxford and London feel like winter again over Easter weekend. Luckily, it was as cozy as ever inside Raymond Blanc‘s two-Michelin star restaurant.
Our anticipation of the meal was heightened in weeks leading up to the reservation by a TV show featuring Raymond Blanc called ‘Kitchen Secrets’. As winter turned to spring, we watched the French chef make an exquisite apple tart, pasta, and breads. There was even an entire episode devoted to chocolate. By the time we walked through the door of Le Manoir, I was ready to see if Raymond Blanc’s food tasted as delicious as it looks.
We decided for the ultimate foodie-indulgence (in my opinion): the long, lingering lunch. Our reservation was for 2:30, arriving at 2pm for aperitifs. In the sitting room, we started with a glass of rosé and an appetizer plate full of little treats. Each bite-sized piece was full of fresh flavors: herbs, lemon, apple. From the variety of menus available, we choose the ‘menu du jour’ a 3-course option with 2 choices for each course.
The service at Le Manoir was in a league of its own. After being escorted to our table in the dining room, a series of sharply dressed waiters poured sparkling water, brought over glasses of white wine (paired by the sommelier for our individual first courses) and the most impressive bread basket I’ve ever seen was displayed with a smile. I opted for the ‘country roll’ – but other choices included beer bread, tomato, and traditional french baguette.
My first course was a slow-cooked free-range hen’s egg, confit of chicken wings, with toasted hazelnuts and poultry jus. My dining companions both had the parfait of Landais duck liver with crumble, rhubarb, and sour dough toast. The colors on the plate were as bright as the spring flowers in the garden.
Our main courses were equally as impressive: wild Cornish red mullet with jig-caught squid, saffron rouille, and bouillabaisse jus was the favorite of the afternoon – but my organic piglet with white cabbage, sage and turnip gratin, and onion and garlic puree was impressive as well.
Once the plates were cleared, a friendly French waiter asked if we were interested in a cheese course, or wanted to go on to dessert. Watching the theater of the cheese cart at other tables, we thought it might be an experience to see what was on offer. When we enquired if one of us could replace their dessert with cheese, the waiter responded with, ‘anything is possible at Le Manoir.‘
My chocolate crumble with coffee bean ice cream was exactly the sweet finish I desired for the meal. We moved back into the sitting room for coffeee and petit fours, and after a stroll in the gardens, left a shocking 5 hours after arrival, at 7.00pm when groups were beginning to arrive for dinner.
One mantra of Le Manoir is ‘everything as it should be.’ In my experience, this couldn’t have been more true. Raymond Blanc’s country estate has an old-world charm that is magnified by excellent service. He grows many of the ingredients for his dishes right on the estate, and offers classes for those who are interested in learning more about the art of cooking.
Sometimes, the things we wait for are the most satisfying. We may not have gotten to cycle to the country manor, but everything else about the menu du jour exceeded my expectations. If you’re interested in trying some of Raymond Blanc’s recipes at home, check out recent recipes from his show ‘Kitchen Secrets’.