I often realise how lucky I am with my family. When I read the articles about ‘preparing’ for Christmas where others talk about throwing ornaments, seating plans and drinking to mask uncle Alfred’s stories, I thank god that my family are rather good company. I have in the past lamented the fact my family are not large enough for my Christmas spread and how much I need some teenage boys to wolf down the 11 side dishes I provide. It is a very small, first world problem I face in my family, but then again not many people have 8 in the extended relations category. Let me introduce them. There’s my grandad, this 93 year old world traveller can proudly claim that he recently flaunted an 80years or over ban on a submarine exhibit (swinging through the port holes), travelled on the train down to visit us on his own and gleefully was in charge of twister spinning last Christmas which got more and moreI agitative as he abandoned the spinner. On the other side of the family is the 93 year old, mildly racist grandma, who recent asked my (happily married) mother if she had a nice young man, said to me ‘you look really good, it’s good you’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m sure it will help you find a boyfriend’ and whilst in hospital for a hip replacement ‘ are you alright? Why am I in bed when it’s you who needs a hip replacement?. There is my aunt and One Direction/Justin Bieber loving cousin. Then we have my mother, fiercely intelligent but constantly busy, my father, with a headmaster’s presence which makes you think he’s a lot taller than his 5″10 height and my sister who is living the city life with a job in property – I still have no idea what she actually does…-.
So it’s rather nice to catch up with more distant relations who we don’t see at christmas and realise that I’m lucky that even my over-extended family are extremely good company. I was not going to turn down the opportunity to go to Le Manoir Quatre Saisons with my grandma’s sister’s grandson and his family. They do do things rather well at Le Manoir. It is the little details, from the fairy light lit drive and impeccable valet service (they even retrieved my bag from the car) to the perfect decor, dietary tailored menus and exemplary level of attention – neither too much nor too little-. I may have got a bit excited when we arrived because Le Manoir is my old stomping ground and first experience of working in a professional kitchen. My time at Le Manoir inspired the realisation I actually wanted a career in food and I haven’t looked back, well except the following year when I went back to do more experience…
I could waffle on for ages about the perfect gin martinis I had pre dinner and the beautifully presented canapés but let’s cut to the chase of the 7 course tasting menu. Our first surprise was the selection of bread on offer. I wish I could remember all the different types but highlights included sun dried tomato ciabatta, pecan and raisin and the intriguing beer and mashed potato bread which the couple of foodies around the table decided to try. Surprisingly light and moreish it has been added to the list of things to attempt.
Our first course was the best butternut squash soup you have ever tasted, displaying what Le Manoir does impeccably, highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients. It was accompanied by a perfectly cooked scallop and blue cheese garnished crouton, which I actually enjoyed despite my normal dislike of blue cheese. The courses just improved with the next being a highlight. A melting salmon confit, topped with a little caviar to enhance the flavour and accompanied with a little potato salad and lemon, apple and cucumber to compliment rather than overwhelm. Then came a perfectly poached duck egg in a round ball (hitting my attempts far far far out of the water) with wild mushroom tea. I’m scraping the barrel for criticisms but I will say I would’ve preferred a slightly richer mushroom flavour in the broth and possibly an individual teapot the customer could pour themselves just to add a little theatre. This is possibly the only area some other restaurants have the edge on Le Manoir. My personal favourite is Midsummer House in Cambridge which for me finds a great balance between the theatricality of The Fat Duck and the simple flavours of Le Manoir. Anyhoo. The next course was, I believe, my favourite, – which when I looked at the menu I wouldn’t have said – but the subtle flavours of cucumber against a poached brill fillet, scallop and a little kick of wasabi was literally heaven in bowl. It was at this point I regretted earlier getting excited about wine after some phenomenal champagne and letting slip about my wine course last summer; as the pressure was on to pick a perfect more floral white. Luckily even the non-white wine drinker enjoyed it, dodged a bullet there. Next was the venison, thin slices of perfectly rare meat with a simple red wine jus and potato cake topped with caviar again, a surprise addition. Another unusual garnish was the chicory leaves and microherbs adding a fresh burst of colour and texture, lifting the dish from a traditional venison, blackberry or like combo, giving Le Manoir the edge.
I would usually judge a restaurant on its desserts as from experience it is sometimes where restaurants try and cut corners, failing to hire specialist pastry chefs. But having been behind the scenes I knew Le Manoir had one of the most exciting pastry kitchens I’ve ever seen. Think Willy Wonka’s workshop. There is a rumour the pastry chef at Le Manoir is judging the upcoming professional take on Great British Bake off and I don’t doubt it, desserts are a serious business at Le Manoir. They didn’t mess around with dessert no.1. It promised apple and it delivered an overwhelmingly intense flavour of apple, unmarred by any others. Layers of compressed apples matched with a highly distinctive apple sorbet which we all agreed we could probably have had a bowl of on its own. The meal ended in style with a beautiful chocolate and coffee concoction. A praline layer, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, even gold leaf and espresso mousse gave an intense hit. Oh and then Raymond Blanc came over to the table to say hi. Even gave me some advice about my chocolate making ambitions, but that would be telling. Not a bad end to the night.
Le Manoir excels at stripping food back to ingredients, generally favouring to streamline one or two flavours rather than wacky combinations or too many. Some chefs should take note of the cooking style: sometimes simplicity is best; the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. What an evening. Good Food, Good Wine, Great Company. As my uncle said, we should live our lives through experiences and I will be dining out (pardon the pun) on and remembering this one for a very long time.