Peter James

Charm Central

Peter James gets extravagant as he dines in style at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Fifteen hundred quid can buy you a lot of things.  You could have a fortnight’s beach holiday on a Greek island.  You could buy a fully-loaded brand new Indian car, a Tata, or, if you didn’t go too bonkers on the wine list, you could have one night’s dinner, bed and breakfast at the two-Michelin-starred Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.

I’ve driven a Tata.  It’ll get you from A to B but it won’t ever put a grin on your face, unless you’re unfortunate enough to crash one of these rather flimsy things, in which case you could end up in a box with a rictus smile.

Many of the Greek islands are great, I love them, love the people.  You’ll come back chilled, but the accommodation can be spartan, the food lacking in variety and the wines, too.  Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons will make you – if for one night only – feel like a millionaire – maybe even a billionaire.

The last time I went there was 26 years ago.  I remember it being eye-wateringly expensive then, but at the same time, it was well worth the money – whereas I’ve felt ripped off in other great hotels a quarter of the price.  Just off the M40, in rural Oxfordshire, Le Manoir is within easy striking distance of Brighton.  The house itself is stunningly beautiful, the main and outbuildings all in gorgeous, golden-hued, Cotswold stone.

Last time I was there the great man himself, Raymond Blanc, was present throughout, even dining in the main room with his wife and in-laws.  Now his empire has grown and he wasn’t around on the night we went, but you can feel his overseeing presence.  The sublime hospitality is part of the culture of the Relais Chateaux hotel association, as is the number of staff outnumbering the guests, which remains unchanged.  This place is Charm Central.

Smart, smiling, courteous liveried porters step out of the walls as you drive in, waiters materialise out of the hedgerows as you sit in the heated cigar gazebo – a thoughtful detail, because so many places these days are happy to sell you a thirty-pound Havana and expect you to smoke it outside in the freezing cold and pelting rain.

The abundance of staff continues along the corridors to the point where you almost expect to find a bowing valet in your bathroom, waiting to turn on your taps.

The bedrooms are as sumptuous as it gets and with delightful touches, such as a decanter of madeira for you to help yourself from, and dangerously good nibbles.  But despite its glorious setting, it is the dining experience that is the beating heart – and true point – of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.

I stay regularly at the same hotel in Provence where Raymond Blanc goes on holiday, and the chef there told me he goes into panic mode whenever he arrives – and to dine at Le Manoir is to understand why.

With grand restaurants there’s perfection, there’s over-fussiness, and there’s ridiculous – those establishments I cannot stand, where a flunky interrupts your conversation every three minutes to ask if everything is all right.  They don’t need to ask at Le Manoir, they know.  They have it right.

You almost need an extra day to wade through the wine list of over a thousand offerings which include, as you’d expect, much of the good and great from around the world.  But there are plenty to choose from in the (relatively!) reasonable £45 – £70 range, and there is a sensible, knowledgeable sommelier who doesn’t try to lever you up in price.  I opted instead for a 2002 Gevrey Chambertin, which was on song, and as good as red burgundy gets.

Taking my restaurant critic duties seriously, we had no option but to opt for the signature, seven-course tasting menu, at £154 per head, with cheese an optional £28 extra.  I was duty bound, I felt, to report back to you on all the venerable cheeseboard had to offer, but by the time we got to the end of the seven courses, despite being a trencherman, who once beat Spain’s amateur pelota champion to an eating contest in Madrid, I was, as they say in France, complet!  Fini.  Gloriously replete.  Although I did manage to find room for a digestif, a 1974 bas Armagnac, at £18 a relative bargain.


Normally I avoid tasting menus, as I hate getting one tiny mouthful-sized morsel at a time, having to endure endless elaborate recitals of its constituent parts from a waiter who dreams of being an actor, followed by an interminably delay until the next dish arrives – gobbling down far too much bread in the meantime to soak up the wine.

But this was a wholly different experience.  Each course was a decent size, and the timing between them perfectly judged to the point of slick.

We had already begun with a stunning selection of canapés with our pre-dinner drinks, which included a lobster ball and a lightly curried fish cake, then our grand menu began with a salad of Devonshire crab, grapefruit and celery – the most perfect accompaniments to the finest, tenderest and most delicately seasoned white crab meat I’ve ever eaten.

It was followed by a thick cut of Loch Duart salmon with “orchard apples”.  In my view there is no comparison between fresh and farmed salmon and this was superlative.

Next up came a beautifully presented agnolotti of goat’s cheese, honey artichokes and olives – a rich confection and a perfect contrast to the previous two dishes.  It was followed by a surprise dish that for both of us was the star of them all, beetroot with a horseradish sorbet.  In the words of the late Michael Winner, historic!

Confit of cod, octopus, with heirloom tomatoes and coco beans followed.  I liked it but it was my least favourite, and it was disappointing to see many of its constituent parts reappear at the following course for my partner, instead of beef, as she does not eat meat.

I had the roasted fillet of Aberdeen Angus, in a red wine essence, with watercress and girolle mushrooms, to which I gave another superlative.  Perfectly hung and aged, cooked and presented – and a good sized portion.

Two desert courses followed, one chocolate based, the other, the highlight for both of us, was a peach and apricot ravioli, with lemon verbena.

Breakfast in the morning was everything you’d expect.  I ordered kippers, always a test of a kitchen.  Are you going to get a couple of boil-in the bag fillets, or the real thing?  I got the real thing, cooked to perfection, but still suffered food envy as I saw my partner’s scrambled eggs.

To take the sting off the bill, you are presented with a very attractive canvas bag containing two bottles of mineral water and a packet of little madeleine cakes.  They never survived the journey home…

You can do this place for far less money, with their set lunches a genuine bargain.  But hey, Christmas is coming.  This is the time for extravagance!  Go treat yourselves!