There is little I can add to what’s already been written about Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Au Quat’Saisons and yet I feel compelled to share our experiences nonetheless. Having dreamed of visiting the two Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel for over two decades, our stay was every bit as wonderful as we hoped–it did not disappoint!
Housed in a grand country manor house in Great Milton in rural Oxfordshire, Le Manoir was launched as a hotel-restaurant by Raymond Blanc OBE back in 1984. Today, it is part of the Belmond hotel group owned by LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton), and is known as Belmond Le Manoir.
The History of Le Manoir
Reading more of the back story to Raymond Blanc’s career, and how he came to create Le Manoir, I was fascinated that Blanc came to be a restaurateur only after a couple of failed starts as a draughtsman and a nurse. His eureka moment came whilst walking past Michelin-starred restaurant Le Palais de la Bière, and witnessing the ballet-like performance of waiters theatrically flambeeing crêpes Suzette to eager customers. He asked for a job, which he started on the bottom rung of the kitchen ladder but quickly worked his way up to the role of a waiter. With the deep and abiding love for and knowledge of food instilled by his parents but no formal training or experience as a kitchen chef, Blanc’s suggestions to the head chef on how to improve the food fell on increasingly enraged ears, culminating in a fight that left Blanc with a broken jaw and no job. It was at this point, once his jaw had healed, that Blanc hopped the channel to England. Taking a job as a waiter in an Oxfordshire pub, he eventually got an opportunity to take over the kitchen when the head chef was off sick, and there it began. Drawing on recipes learned from his mother, Blanc’s cooking delighted the pub’s guests. A few years later, having married the pub owner’s daughter, the couple left the pub to launch their own restaurant in Oxford, called Les Quat’Saisons. That was in 1977, and it didn’t take long for the restaurant to gain recognition and two Michelin stars. His next ambition was to be chef patron of a small country house restaurant with a dedicated potager (kitchen garden) and a few rooms for guests. In 1983, he spotted a country manor for sale and fell in love with it, though it was larger than he’d envisaged and far more than he could afford. Luckily for Blanc, when he went to see the house and met its recently widowed owner, Lady Cromwell, he found a huge fan of his cooking and much enthusiasm for his dream. With her support, and that of friends and loyal customers, Blanc was able to raise enough to buy the property and transform it into Le Manoir. The rest, as they say, is history.
Le Manoir Service
What sets a stay at Le Manoir apart is the attention to detail and the focus on service. From the moment we pull in to the car park to be met by a member of staff who greets us by name, to the moment we leave clutching a gift bag of water and homemade biscuits for the road, we feel taken care of.
We booked a deluxe room in the main building, but I am thrown when we are taken to the beautiful Boticelli room in which the bathroom is accessed via a spiral staircase up from the bedroom. With my dodgy hips, poor sense of balance and fear of open-tread stairs, I tentatively express my concern and without even a heartbeat’s hesitation, the staff member immediately shows us an alternative room.
Our Bedroom at Le Manoir
We quickly settle in to Orchid, a bright and sunny room in subtle yellows, golds and beiges. As well as the large bed, our room has a comfortable baby-blue sofa with a polished wooden chest coffee table, a small dressing table-come-desk, and a table with two chairs, at which an in-room meal could be served, should you wish. The bathroom is small but attractive, with a marble bath with shower tucked to one side.
On the coffee table are some books and magazines to read including a shiny new copy of Blanc’s Cooking For Friends cookery book. We are told specifically that it’s for us to take home with us after our stay – a lovely touch. I ask if I can get it signed, and as the great man isn’t on site during our visit, the staff at the front desk take the book, promising to post it back to me signed. It arrives in the post a few days later, personally dedicated and signed.
On another table sits a dish full of immaculate fresh fruit, protected under a net cover. Next to is an elegant paper carton and a note that guests should please take any fruit they don’t eat during their stay to enjoy later. Since uneaten fresh fruit can not hygienically be shared with others, this is another thoughtful gesture.
Likewise, guests are encouraged to support the hotel’s policy to reduce wastage by taking home partially used soaps. Lots of small details that add up to make a great impression.
The Gardens at Le Manoir
One of the pleasures of visiting Le Manoir is exploring the extensive gardens, which guests are encouraged to do. A map is available from reception, or guided tours lead by the gardeners are also available. There are decorative garden areas, including a wildlfower meadow, a croquet lawn and a patio area of seating where you can enjoy a drink or afternoon tea. The Japanese area features a beautiful pond, complete with small wooden tea house to one side. Throughout the garden are beautiful sculptures, many in bronze by Lloyd Le Blanc (a flock of birds taking flight, giant artichokes, a lifesize scarecrow, and animals such as dogs and deer) and Judith Holmes Drewry (Mother of the Garden, The Letter) plus others in woven wicker.
We are particularly excited to see the kitchen garden, with its tidy rows of herbs and vegetables, and a large orchard of fruit trees. There’s also a beautiful herb garden, a shaded mushroom valley, and a large space that’s on its way to becoming an even bigger kitchen garden.
For those with time, inclination and finances, Le Manoir has both a cookery school (courses range from half to a full day and cost from £185 to £375) and a gardening school (with full day classes starting at £205).
Dinner at Le Manoir | The Tasting Menu
Guests of the restaurant are first invited to review the menu, order drinks, and enjoy a bar snack of olives and almonds in the lounge before being shown to the dining room. The drinks menu deserves a mention as the only poor experience of our stay – loaded onto an interactive tablet, we quickly realise why staff leave guests alone for several minutes to review the drinks list as we try with some frustration to navigate through it. Whilst it makes sense to list wines by continent and then by country, that same interface makes absolutely no sense for beers (when there’s such a small number available), or for soft drinks like cola and fruit juice. You can’t simply swipe from one country to the next, you have to drill back up and down between each one, often through countries that have no products in them at all! I recommend a consultancy from a User Experience expert to streamline and redesign the drinks menu or switch back to a printed paper format.
As we are shown our table in the restaurant, I find a card wishing me a happy birthday my booking having initially been made several months previously, but rescheduled twice due to pandemic lockdowns. We notice similar cards on several nearby tables, with many guests here to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays too.
All guests are asked for allergies, intolerances and dietary preferences on booking, and any changes from the day’s tasting menu are mentioned whilst ordering drinks, when guests are given a printed copy of the menu. Nominally described as a seven course tasting menu, Les Saveurs du Manoir (£170 per guest) also includes a couple of amuse bouche as well as an optional cheese course (at a supplement). The printed menu wishes guests Bon Appetit from Raymond Blanc, Gary Jones, Benoit Blin and their team.
Two amuse-bouche are served together before the tasting menu proper begins.
A deeply savoury tuna tartare with fresh cherries, cherry gel, lime est and pickled mooli on a seaweed cracker combines the buttery soft umami of raw tuna with the bright fruitiness of cherry and lime zest.
Served as a pair are cantaloupe melon compressed in its own juice with lemon verbena, and a glass of melon juice lemon verbena infusion. Intense, sweet, and fascinating to try two textural presentations of the same flavours.
As expected, the bread basket is magnificent. Between us we try spiced fig raisin bread, beer and mash potato bread, a bacon roll and a mini baguette. These are served with two different butters, an unsalted English one and a Brittany salted. Flawless; we have to resist when offered more to ensure we can enjoy the many courses still to come.
La Tomate – a theme on tomato, basil & olive. This salad of five varieties of heritage tomato with English burrata (made daily in North Acton) is dressed with pesto, tomato foam and olive oil jelly. I’ll likely repeat this a lot, but strikes us very forcefully is how perfectly every element is balanced, not just in terms of flavours but also in textures andbin the ratios of each element to the others.
Le Crabe – Cornish crab, coconut, chilli & lime. Fresh white crab bound in mayonnaise is topped with French Ossetra caviar and served with coconut gel, coconut sorbet, mango and passion fruit jelly, and succulent salty fingers (aka sea beans). The combination sounds odd on paper but again, each part complements the rest whilst also surprising the palate – I especially love the cold, sweet coconut sorbet with the rich crab meat.
As I let them know on booking that Pete doesn’t enjoy shellfish or crustaceans, they switch his crab course out for Theme of Beetroot. What a stunning dish this is to look at! And it’s just as good to eat; pickled baby beetroots sit alongside an ancient grain salad, avocado sorbet and yuzu gel. The citrus gel is the perfect foil to the beetroot and oh my goodness the avocado sorbet gives the beetroot a run for its money on best element on the plate!
La Truffe – truffled hen’s egg, girolles, mushroom tea. At the centre of this dish as a slow-cooked hen’s egg finished by pan-searing in turkus jus,generously covering with Australian black truffle and topped with parmesan, mushroom ketchup and sweet potato crisps . Around the egg is a wild mushroom fricasee and wilted spinach over which a mushroom tea is poured, at the table. The flavours in this dish are, as expected, wonderful – earthiness from truffle and mushrooms, and saltiness from parmesan buttress the silky egg. My only criticism of this dish is that the truffle feels a little gritty in the mouth.
Le Turbot – turbot, cucumber & wasabi. I adore this dish of poached Cornish turbot, pressed cucumber and pickled cucumber, fresh seaweed and oyster leaves, green beans, wasabi foam and wasabi beurre blanc, garnished with Ossetra caviar. Butter and wasabi make a perfect sauce for this subtle white fish, providing both creaminess in the mouth and a subtle pungency on the nose. The texture and flavours from the fresh and pickled cucumbers tie in beautifully.
L’agneau – new season lamb, garden courgette flower, pea and mint. I’m not entirely convinced by the upward thrusting placement of the spinach and parmesan-stuffed, tempura-battered courgette flower, but aside from that, this is another stunner of a dish. The Rhug Estate lamb loin is so incredibly tender and with really great flavour, and each bite is different paired with the various elements on the plate – spinach, fresh peas and broad beans, pea shoots, charred baby gem lettuce, a natural yoghurt and lemon gel, and a light well-flavoured roasting jus.
La Pêche – peach and our garden lavender. This dish is a perfect showcase of Blanc’s commitment to seeking out the very best quality produce. Poached Corsican peaches are complimented by a vanilla set cream (underneath), raspberry and lavender sorbet and peach foam. This is somehow both light but robustly full-flavoured, and wonderfully summery – a perfect antidote to the rainy weather outside.
Le Cerise & Le Chocolat – crunchy chocolate, Alsace kirsch, spiced cherries. The second dessert, and last course of the meal, is this beautifully presented cherry and chocolate affair of spiced poached cherries, cherry and chocolate sorbet and a marshmallow-like aerated vanilla creme fraiche. And a crunchy thin wafer of chocolate under the creme fraiche too. The spicing of the cherries and richness of the sorbet are what make this dish so much more elegant and complex than the usual chocolate cherry combo.
Such a feast takes time to enjoy, and we both sleep deeply in the aftermath!
Le Manoir’s Breakfast
I wondered if we’d feel too full for breakfast after such a big meal the night before, but the opposite is true – perhaps that old adage about a big meal stretching your belly holds some truth after all!
Coffee, tea and fruit juice are offered and served first.
Instead of a buffet, everything is on a menu and we are invited to order from both the cold items and the hot. We start with a range from the cold – pastries, cheese and charcuterie, bread and jam, and some fresh fruit. After, something hot: eggs Benedict for Pete and a perfect omelette aux fines herbes for me, though most fellow guests around us opt for the full English breakfast.
Don’t be shy about ordering multiple items; portions are small which means it’s easy to try different things – and you can always ask for more of something if you would like. I hate waste, so really appreciate this approach.
Everything we are served is absolutely spot on; and we linger over breakfast, happy that coffee and fruit juice are topped up as needed. This is one of the best hotel breakfasts we’ve ever enjoyed.
The £ Sign
Prices for a stay at Le Manoir Au Quat’Saisons vary according to the room type, day of the week and season. A deluxe room for two with breakfast currently starts at a little over £700 (if booking now for a midweek night in January). On a dinner, bed and breakfast basis (including the seven course tasting menu) you are looking at around about £1000 upwards. For those who want to enjoy the meal without an overnight stay, the seven course tasting menu is currently £170 per person, plus service. Please note that these are indicative of lowest prices available at time of publication, and you must check the website directly for actual prices and availability.