No pictures for this one, I was far too shy!
On Sunday we took my mum to Raymond Blanc's Oxfordshire restaurant Le Manoir. I was in a filthy temper because our inconsiderate neighbours let someone park across our garage - so we couldn't get the car out and had a mad panic to get a minicab; then the driver turned out to be a complete lunatic who swerved all over the road and certainly couldn't interpret the SatNav. When we arrived I was stressed, anxious and not at all the sophisticated elegant creature that would complement Le Manoir's surroundings.
I've never been to a Michelin starred restaurant before. I was a bit apprehensive that it wouldn't be that much better than the usual places we go to. But being shown to a luxurious lounge and handed the menu made those fears subside. The glass of champagne (not sure what their house champagne was, but it was beautifully toasty and yeasty and just what I needed) continued the cure.
I found it slightly odd that we were given 2 rectangular, slate slabs of canapes between the 3 of us - so my mum got hers to herself and my husband and I shared. The spoonful of tuna tartare wrapped in some sort of fishy elastic aspic was good, but the aspic was too strongly flavoured. The parmesan crisp was just astonishing - it tasted like straight, melted parmesan but somehow it had been extruded into a flat ribbon so it looked like a bundle of tagliatelle. The melon and proscuitto skewer was a melon and proscuitto skewer. My husband had something with a little foie gras parfait on the end, and something with a bit of goats cheese mousse, but he was far too engrossed in the winelist to actually tell me what they tasted like and what the other elements were.
The idea of ordering from a comfy chair and reclining with a drink, and only being led to the dining room when they are almost ready to serve really is the essence of civilisation, I think. The dining room that we were in was quite a contrast to the lounge. I wouldn't say "rustic", because that really is not the word for any aspect of this operation, but certainly "country-style". Naive art pastoral paintings and shelves of preserves (more artlessly arranged than the ones in the produce tent at the Royal Easter Show) line the walls.
If I hadn't been aware of the 5 courses to follow, I would have made an entire meal from the bread. As it was, I settled for one mashed potato sourdough roll. We'd ordered a half bottle of Hugel et Fils riesling to go with the early courses, and it was a good choice, though I say it myself.
As tempting as the Menu Decouverte sounded, my husband isn't much of a dessert fan and really couldn't face up to 4 courses of pudding so we felt that the Les Classiques du Manoir aux Quat'Saisons was a more balanced option.
Firstly, carpaccio and terrine of beetroot. This was such an elegant plate! A tiny triangle of beetroot layers pressed into a terrine, a little curl of pale pink raw beetroot, a pair of baby beet leaves, a smear of horseradish cream and a couple of toasted hazelnuts. It was all so pretty and all very cleanly flavoured, even my non-beetroot-loving husband seemed to enjoy it.
At about this point the shrieking baby in the corner finally penetrated his parents' lack of consideration for fellow diners and was taken out for the first of many soothing walks by his mother, leaving his father and the rest of us to eat in blissful quiet.
Summer vegetable risotto didn't suggest anything exciting to me, but when the dishes were uncovered at the table it both looked and smelled amazing. A scoop of curd cheese was melting into the creaminess and some slivers of black olive provided a sharp counterpoint.
The baby was brought back into the room and again shrieked like an air-raid siren.
Cornish seabass with Orkney scallops and cauliflower puree were dressed at the table with what I think the waiter said was a madeira jus. An unexpected addition but very good. By this time we'd finished the riesling and opened a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion Graves, and the dark jus went very well with the red wine. My only complaint was that the smear of cauliflower puree wasn't quite big enough - it is one of my favourite things with scallops.
The large group at the table next to us asked if they could have their dessert elsewhere so as to be away from the air-raid siren, who was working himself to fever pitch while his parents bounced, cajoled and ultimately ignored.
Our wine came into its own with the squab. Served on a bed of savoy cabbage with a dark sauce and a trail of fat, creamy white beans, it was tender and pink; entirely savoury and delicious. I thought the menu and the waiter said they were Coca beans but since the only references I can find on the net to coca beans involve cash crops in Columbia, I don't think that can be what it was.
The cheese is offered before the dessert, and we asked the waiter to choose us a selection. The Pont l'Eveque really didn't deserve to be called a "very pungent" cheese, but it was delicious. The Roquefort was as delicious as ever. The Brillat-Savarin was unbelievably rich and creamy. The goat cheese wasn't strongly goaty, but was creamy and very pleasant, and the Beaufort was like a very good Emmental, but better. All accompanied by wonderful husky oatcakes and grapes. Totally unnecessary to have the extra course in such a rich meal, but some times indulgence is required.
The pudding course was poached William pears, encased in the most delicate layer of brioche paste, and served with scoops of cinnamon and vanilla icecream. Very clever in the context of the meal - I think a lesser restaurant would have gone for the cheap thrill and produced something chocolatey - the textures and flavours were just what was wanted. With the dessert my mother and I had glasses of muscat de lunel, which was perfect for it. My husband had a sauternes, which I would have thought was too sweet, but he enjoyed it.
Finally we were able to escape the still-screaming baby and returned to the lounge for coffee and petits fours. I was too full to do more than admire most of the beautiful little cakes, but I did have a tiny little lemon macaroon and a square of delectable bitter dark chocolate truffle.
Along with the bill we were given a card advertising the Christmas celebrations at Le Manoir. I am commencing my campaign ASAP.