Raymond Blanc's two Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
It is part of Orient-Express Hotels – which will change its name to Belmond next month (see news, February 24) and is also a Relais and Chateaux member.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Staying at Le Manoir is a pure pleasure. The property manages to be both highly luxurious and very homely; the service simultaneously friendly and incredibly professional. Every step of your visit was tended to carefully.
Parking up and walking towards the main building – a beautifully kept 15th-century manor house – we were met by a welcoming member of staff who took our bags and rang ahead to advise of our imminent arrival, so that by the time we reached reception the team member there was able to greet us by name and tell us whether our room was ready. It wasn't, quite, as we had got there early, so we were invited to take tea (and some delicious lemon cake) in the warm, comfortable lounge while it was being prepared.
We were then brought to our suite when we were ready, shown all of its features, and were invited to come back to the lounge half an hour prior to our dinner sitting so we could enjoy a preprandial drink. When we called to request more tea later in the day (no kettle, tea bag and UHT milk here), it was brought up swiftly (with some more delicious lemon cake).
When we went down for dinner, a sofa and table had been reserved for us in the lounge and we perused the menu over a cocktail and intricate amuse-bouches — another member of staff talking us through the options, having already been made aware of our dietary requirements — before being brought through to our table in the restaurant for our meal, service for which was friendly and flawless. Perfectly, effortlessly executed – although, of course, at these prices it really should be.
WHERE IS IT?
In the village of Great Milton, about 16km from Oxford and just off the M40. The church it is next to — St Mary's — was built in the 12th century.
Great Milton's high street has a pub and a general store — expect neither to be open if you're here on a Sunday afternoon between lunch and dinner. But then, if you are staying at Le Manoir, you have little reason to leave the property anyway.
There is a helipad, however, should you wish to drop in in style. Heathrow Airport is 62km away.
The property's 32 rooms are split across the main house and the courtyard buildings, and all are individually shaped and styled.
The hotel was fully booked when I stayed so I only got to see my own, the 60 sqm Arabesque, a luxuriously appointed one-bedroom suite with glossy dark-glass furniture pieces designed by Blanc himself, a huge, gorgeous marble bathroom with a free-standing tub and walk-in rainshower (my only quibble being that the pressure and temperature of the water wasn't always constant), and a wonderfully comfortable king-size bed.
It also had a living area with a cream leather sofa, dining table and an attractive bookcase with sculptures and all manner of tomes, including the autobiography of Terry Wogan, a photograph of whom with Blanc sits on the window ledge of the main lounge.
Other categories range from 36 sqm Superior rooms — these include Bluebell, with Toile de Jouy wallpaper and window seats overlooking the courtyard, and Passion Flower, with "bold stripes" and dark-wood antique furniture — to the 70 sqm all-white Blanc de Blanc with a private garden.
All come with free wifi, writing desks, LCD TVs, DVD players and iPod docks.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Dining, of course, is what stays at Le Manoir are all about. The restaurant is one of the few in the world to have held two Michelin stars for 29 consecutive years. It has been led by executive head chef Gary Jones, a Blanc protege, since 1999. It is set across two rooms in the manor house, and an adjoining light-filled conservatory.
Menus are seasonal with dishes fine-tuned depending on the produce to hand. Up to 15 per cent of ingredients come from the two-acre kitchen garden itself, in which 90 types of vegetables and more than 70 varieties of herbs are grown. Tours of both the kitchen and garden can be arranged.
Guests can choose from an a la carte menu (hor d'oeuvres priced at £40-44 and plats principaux £48-£54), the five-course "menu d'automne" (£79) or seven-course "parfums et texture d’automne" (£124) for lunch, or the five-course "diner d'hiver" (£134) or seven-course "dining experience" (£154).
A cheese plate is an extra £24 and wine pairings are £89 for traditional or £199 for prestige vintages (the wine list has about 1,000 labels, about 60 per cent of which are French).
We had the seven-course dinner, each stage of which was a delight. The meal started with a delicately spiced cauliflower veloute with curry oil (it can also come with a plancha-seared scallop), served in a shot glass. This was followed by a wonderfully fresh and flavoursome terrine of beetroot from the garden, beautifully presented and balanced by the accompanying horseradish sorbet.
Next was my favourite, pumpkin ravioli served in an amaretto-flavoured broth with deliciously potent nuggets of Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese, crispy sage, butternut squash, chopped chestnuts and pumpkin seeds.
After that was finely spiced Cornish monkfish with mussels, saffron and gewurztraminer, and then perfectly pink loin of roasted Shropshire venison with cranberry, chestnut puree, earthy root vegetables and Grand Veneur sauce.
A refreshing, wafer-sliced blood orange carpaccio and sorbet then prepared us perfectly for the decadent, lip-smacking "millionaire shortbread" with soft toffee, bitter chocolate and salted butter ice cream. For good measure, we also enjoyed an excellent selection of French and British soft, hard, blue and goats' cheeses (the French cheeses won for us, but only marginally).
This was all accompanied by some excellent wine pairings, the lovely Westhofener Riesling 2012, Weingut Wittmann, Rheinhessen joining four well-chosen French wines — Viognier 2012, Yves Cuilleron, Vallee du Rhone; Chablis Les Serres 2010, Domaine Oudin, Bourgogne; Cote-Rotie "Les Triotes" 2009, Domaine Garon, Vallee du Rhone; and Sauternes 2009, Chateaux Lions de Suduiraut, Bordeaux.
Should you have room after all that for a nightcap, there is an inviting bar in the main house. The restaurant is open for breakfast 0730-1000 (an excellent continental buffet and hot dishes to order), lunch 1145-1415 and dinner 1845-2130.
BUSINESS AND MEETING FACILITIES
Wood-panelled private dining room La Belle Epoque can accommodate 50 guests and opens on to a walled garden. A new conservatory area is set to be completed by April.
The Raymond Blanc Cookery School is a great option for incentive groups — a wide range of courses lasting from a few hours to four days can be booked, including "Garden to Plate", dinner party cooking, artisan bread making, fish, patisserie, "Chocolate Heaven", "Food, Body and Mind" and "The Hungry Frenchman". Up to ten delegates can be accommodated in the homely school kitchen.
Available to groups of up to eight people, the Wine and Dine package comprises wine tasting in the cellar, a demo in the cookery school and a four-course dinner. Exclusive use of the whole property is possible.
Off-site activities such as golf, horse riding, fishing, hot air ballooning and clay pigeon shooting can also be organised.
In-room beauty treatments and massages can be arranged. The property's gardens are lovely for a stroll and, as well as the kitchen garden (presided over by a bronze scarecrow modelled on Blanc himself), they encompass a mushroom valley, cloche tunnels, wildflower meadow, apple orchard, croquet lawn, English water garden and Japanese tea garden. Bikes can be borrowed.
There is a children's library, toys, puzzles, Wiis and kids' menus for younger guests.
Legendary dining, top-class service and luxurious surroundings make Le Manoir an exquisite, indulgent treat for any foodie.
- PRICE Internet rates for an overnight "Dining Experience" package in March – to include a stay in a Superior room, welcome amenities, breakfast and a choice of dinner menu for two – started from £890.
- CONTACT Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford; tel +44 (0)1844 278 881; manoir.com