Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons opened in 1984. It was the second restaurant that Raymond Blanc had created, having previously opened Quat’ Saisons in Oxford on the site of a Greek taverna and earned two Michelin stars, its first in 1979 and the second in 1982. The current Manoir is an altogether grander affair, a 15th century manor house in the Oxfordshire countryside, now with 32 suites to stay overnight and a culinary school as well as the restaurant. This in itself has grown over the years, with a conservatory and ever more tables. Le Manoir has extensive gardens (eleven separate ones at present) and a lot of produce is grown there for the restaurant.
The Manoir is now owned by the LVMH luxury brands group. Although Raymond is still involved, the person in charge of the kitchen is Gary Jones, who trained at The Waterside Inn before moving to Le Manoir in 1990. Gary started here as chef de partie, and then gained a Michelin star for Homeward Park in Bath in 1998, and headed the kitchen at Waldos at Cliveden before returning to Le Manoir in 1999 as executive chef. The tasting menu only format was £220 for seven courses at dinner and £190 for six courses at lunch. Full vegetarian and vegan tasting menus were available too, at the same price. The restaurant has had two Michelin stars for over three decades, gaining this accolade just after it opened.
The wine list had 587 labels and ranged in price from £39 to £25,000, with a median price of £150 and an average markup to retail price of 3.7 times. By comparison a markup of about 2.7 times is normal outside London, with 3.3 times being stiff even for Mayfair, so this is one of the priciest wine lists you are ever likely to see. There were no fewer than 86 wines at more than five times their retail price, and seven wines at over eight times their retail price. If you looked closely, as I did, then you could find four wines below retail that presumably eluded the sommelier. 27% of the list was priced at under £100, though a mere five labels were under £50, but for the seriously rich there were 67 wines over £1,000, and ten wines over £5,000. Although the list was 57% French there were plenty of options from elsewhere, with wines from as far afield as Japan, Canada, Switzerland and Wales. Sample references were Mas de Libian Bout d'Zan 2019 at £50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £13, Populis Carignan 2014 at £75 compared to its retail price of £19, and the very enjoyable Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2020 at £96 for a wine that will set you back £32 in the high street. For those with the means there was Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2019 at £240 compared to its retail price of £76, and the lovely Marchesi Antinori Tignanello Marchesi Di Antinori 1995 at £749 for a wine whose current market value is £185. Wine pairings were available at £95, £239 or £799 per person with increasingly grand wines as you climb the price levels. The grandest actually works out at three times retail price, so is in a relative sense better value than the average of the wine list itself.
After some (unmemorable) olives and toasted almonds with initial drinks on the terrace, the meal in the main dining room started with a pair of canapes. An oyster leaf with dashi was good, the dressing providing some sharpness to balance the dashi. The main canape was a fried sphere of crab with some salad elements and a little caviar garnish; this had quite a bold seasoning of pepper and worked well (16/20). An impressive basket of bread included excellent beer and mash potato roll, fig and raisin bread, bacon bread, sourdough, baguette and a sun-dried tomato bread. All the bread was made from scratch in the kitchen.
The first course used five different varieties of tomatoes (from the south of France) with burrata, basil foam and a few slivers of olive. This was simple but very good, the tomatoes having plenty of flavour and the burrata of good quality (16/20). My meal continued with beetroot terrine, the red beetroot marinated with red wine, port and rice vinegar, topped with horseradish ice cream and accompanied by several different beetroots. This was excellent, the horseradish ice cream particularly good, its spicy bite really lifting the flavour of the excellent beetroot (17/20).
This was followed by summer vegetable risotto. This simple description does not really do justice to the lovely dish that appeared, arborio rice infused with tomato essence and having gorgeous texture, topped with a selection of micro vegetables including peas, broad beans, courgettes and carrots. The vegetables were classy, tender and having deep flavour, grown in the grounds of the restaurant (18/20). An alternative was agnolotti, the Piedmontese pasta, filled with ricotta cheese and tomato essence, with herb jus and some cherry tomatoes. This was lovely, the pasta top notch and the flavours coming through well (17/20).
Cotswold chicken breast was carefully cooked and came with morels and locally grown asparagus. Although this bird lacked the depth of flavour of a top quality chicken from the Landes or Bresse it was certainly pleasant, and the morels and asparagus were excellent (16/20). I actually preferred the vegetarian alternative of spiced aubergine with baba ganoush, the roasted aubergine having lovely flavour, combined with chickpeas and Medjool dates (17/20).
The first of two desserts was chocolate from Madagascar with coconut marshmallow. This was excellent, with deeply flavoured chocolate balanced nicely by the lighter flavour of coconut (17/20). The main dessert was strawberries with Chantilly cream, featuring strawberry jelly, pistachio sponge and more strawberries. The fruit had plenty of flavour and their natural acidity nicely balanced the richness of the Chantilly, the pistachios adding an extra layer of flavour (18/20).
Coffee was from Drury, which was drinkable but rather a down-market choice for a two-star restaurant. Service was genuinely good throughout, the staff enthusiastic and engaged, the wine topping up flawless. The bill, with a bottle of Hamilton Russel Chardonnay plus a few additional glasses of wine, came to £341 each. With the vegetarian lunch also at £190, even if you shared a very modest bottle of wine then it would be hard to get a bill much less than £250 a head. This is without doubt a lot of money, and indeed value is the main issue here. For £190 a head for the food it would have nice to see something resembling luxury ingredients, although I certainly cannot criticise the quality of the vegetables. Still, Cotswold chicken and chalk stream trout (I substituted the beetroot dish for this) are a far cry from the scallops, langoustines and turbot that you might expect to see at least some of on a menu at this price level. Nonetheless I enjoyed the meal, and the quality of the vegetables and the cooking technique was undeniable, finishing with very good desserts. Le Manoir is a beautiful spot, and given the almost industrial scale of the restaurant these days this was a very good meal.Book