New vow. Even if the year is hurtling past at a rate that has me convinced the Tories are nicking an hour of every day under some spurious "Big Society" plan, I will blog more regularly. I simply have no idea where June went. Still, Mr Whittaker and myself have decided to nag one another to write more often, particularly as we've got a few blog-related obligations to fulfill. And yes, by that I do mean free stuff I've promised to write about.
I've also got a stack of great meals - and otherwise - to reminisce - and otherwise - over and, given that July has been earmarked, somewhat inevitably, as a month of eating sensibly and very little alcohol, I'll appreciate the food porn pics even more.
With that stack of great meals in mind, I figured start with the best: Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Raymond Blanc's two Michelin starred Oxfordshire outpost. Before going there, my impression was of something undoubtedly lovely but: a) expensive; and b) "safe". It's certainly the former but, on balance and if I win tonight's Euromillions, I'd be back like a shot.
M. Blanc is something of a legend, but not necessarily always for the right reasons. He is the only person I know of to get more French the longer he stays in the UK. I once saw him speak at the launch of The Real Food Festival where he blamed "Essex" for the UK's poor reputation for food. Hmm, we thought, it's true that outside of London things get a little patchier, but it seems harsh to single out just the one county... About five minutes later, we realised he was discussing "ethics". I've also heard someone refer to that speech with the comment "you'd have thought he'd have spoken in English" who then took considerable persuading that, actually, Raymond was talking in English.
The thing is though, the man can cook. As in REALLY cook. The hugely enjoyable Kitchen Secrets programme was a perfectly timed reminder of just why Raymond is famous, and the accompanying book is terrific, a collection of recipes (with regular nods to Maman Blanc) that you can't help but read and think "yep, I'm going to make that" with instructions that are clear and concise: I predict it's going to end up at least as stained as my Simon Hopkinson.
The man can also run a hotel. As in REALLY run a hotel. As for any suggestion that Raymond is a control freak? He clearly is, but for the best possible reasons. You don't get a hotel / restaurant / cooking school running with the apparently effortless efficiency of Le Manoir without someone obsessing about every detail. Le Manoir is a swan: what you see above the surface is smooth and graceful, but to get that effect something out of sight is clearly going like the clappers. Over the last two years, I've been lucky to stay in some glorious places and Le Manoir is up there with the best. There are so many little stories I could tell you about the quality of the service but this post is already threatening to expand to Biblical levels. I'll drop a couple as a separate post later in the week then and, instead, focus here on the dinner.
I was expecting something traditional, a crowd-pleasing tasting menu that wouldn't scare the (mostly) Mercedes-driving clientele. To some extent, that's what you get, albeit with some dazzling wine matches and a sense of playfulness that I hadn't predicted. At a technical level, it's faultless. To take that and make it creative and fun, is something else entirely. I've often argued - and no doubt will again - that it's not just about what's on the plate. It's the company, the room, the service, the mood, those little flashes of nostalgia that certain flavours can bring... So, without further ado, and in the manner of the Le Bernardin post earlier this year, I'll shut up and let the pictures do the talking. Well, with the odd bit of annotation.
Over a glass of champagne in the lounge, you get to peruse the menu. A friend and recent guest had told us to "go decouverte and let them do the wine" so we did. Things kicked off with some very good olives and popcorn - rapidly becoming a bit of a cliche but I still like it - and a plate of amuses, the best of which was the tuna and sesame...
Best thing about French-led places? Bread. Lots and lots of bread. The one slathered in butter is studded with bits of bacon. The other is flavoured with beer and mash potato. Exactly.
First course "proper": escabeche of vegetables and tuna. Pretty huh? All the flowers - like most of the vegetables, in fact - come from Le Manoir's exquisite gardens. The liquid is a slow-drained essence of tomato and one of the most intensely flavoured spoonfuls I've ever tasted. If anything, it was better than it looked and that's saying something. It was paired - beautifully / simply - with a Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes le Soula 2006.
This delightful little block of salmon is from Loch Duart and served with elderflower, radish and, for a slight alternative to the usual citrus pairing, a yuzu cream - with a divine salty note from that little mound of Oscietra. A knockout.
Course three then and, to my mind, a small misfire, relatively-speaking. It's a slow cooked egg, with watercress puree and smoked bacon - and a great, nutty and seedy, biscotti-like slice. It was accomplished, the textures pleasing but I think egg dishes have recently had the bar raised by the simple joys of Spuntino's truffled egg toast. After the eye rolling that had gone before, maybe this should just be considered a palate refresher? Pleasant but... Still, it was paired, if my notes are correct (and by this point that's highly unlikely) with a Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Gauby 2008. The following wine notes may be slightly patchy but that was part of a conscious decision to kick back and enjoy rather than be totally anal.
Any sense of "disappointment" - and it was only in light of what had gone before anyway - was soon forgotten by this little beauty. Pan-fried Cornish sea bass, creel-caught langoustine, smoked mash and star anise jus. Just contemplate that for a few seconds, the textures, the mix of flavours, the varying degrees of richness. Then imagine it even better than it sounds. This, for me, was about as good as food gets. I think this also came with a generous glass of Montrachet. Or possibly something else delicious. Look, it's dinner not an exam...
Assiette of Rhug Estate lamb, peas, broad beans, baby onions. Until a recent meal in Estonia of all places (and I'll get to that one day soon, really I will), this was probably the best bit of lamb I'd ever eaten. It was just really, well, lamb-y. You know that taste you can imagine when you think about lamb, the taste that all too many shoulders don't quite deliver? It was here in one tiny, powerful bundle. That onion was stupidly good too, a nice burst of acid to cut through the fatty richness, and so beautifully soft and opaque. Genius. Similar words apply to the Au Bon Climat 2008, a Pinot Noir - with that sort of slight earthy, damp edge I love in a PN - from California.
Want to hear something scary? There are still four courses to go, five if you include coffee and petit fours. Oof. Well, it should be very oof but, as is so often the case with a tasting menu of this quality, the portion control and planning left you feeling sated but not stuffed. The palate certainly got a reboot with this - fresh goat's cheese, kalamata olive, olive oil jelly and Acacia honey - and more generous pours, this time a Tinto Pesquera 2006. I think.
This is billed as "Raspberry and strawberry soup with fresh mint and basil". That doesn't tell the whole story. That cube is an incredibly sour-dusted marshmallow on an edible sugar stick. The basil and mint, as you can squint and see, comes as a cube of jelly. The whole thing revived memories of childhood sherberts and made me giggle.
No such giggling with the more serious desserts. This is billed, simply, as "Citrus" which is a bit like renaming War & Peace "Book": it's an accurate description but doesn't really describe the work that's gone into it. It's very impressive and refreshing, a perfect interim before the final course...
Chocolate. But of course. Manjari and cinnamon crumble, passion fruit and Alphonso mango to be precise, with the fruit and spice of the chocolate neatly underlined and teased by the cinnamon and tropical flavours. Maculan Torcolato 2007, a Sauterne-esque wine from Italy, did everything a sticky should and then some. I'm not a big fan of dessert wines generally (unless it's against a slab of foie gras or something a little more medicinal, like the Elysium) but this was delightful.
And then came the petit fours. There was a photo but, like the cameraman by this point, it was a bit fuzzy: pleasantly so, in my case. The only thing left was to retire, prepare for the following morning's patisserie class (post to follow) and hope that one day those numbers come up.