Food & Whine
Two from a series published in London for American readers...
According to M Magazine, it's "probably the hottest restaurant in England today." Michelin gave it two stars even before its doors opened. Its owner - whose cooking has been described as "the work of sustained genius" - was named The Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year.The feet at which these bouquets have been heaped are Raymond Blanc's. Only 35 years old and almost fully self-taught, Blanc is chef-proprietor of LE MANOIR AUX QUAT' SAISONS, located on a 27-acre estate in Great Milton. I recently lunched at Le Manoir and, not incidentally, met Monsieur Blanc. It's always chancy to term anything an ultimate experience, but I suspect I had one here. The least I can do is devote this entire column to it.
The rich may be different from you
and me, but the gulf doesn't seem wide when you're at Raymond’s. Sure, the rich can drop in by air (atop the helipad). And the rich can stay over if they want, for as long as they
want (in one of 10 lavishly appointed guest rooms priced to include what's bound to be a memorable breakfast). But here the discrepancy ends: From the moment when we walked in the door until we waddled out
again, my companions and I were cosseted like visiting royalty. You owe yourself a meal here, at least once.
The manor house is an attraction
in itself, parts of it dating from the 15th century.
Blanc and his wife, with the backing of customers and friends,
spent nearly $l.5 million to acquire and fluff up the property -- and
they want even their mealtime guests to enjoy more of the place than a
mere dining room. Aperitifs
and postprandial coffee and sweets are served in an elegant, apricot-
and lemon-toned drawing room with silk-clad walls, French antiques,
mullioned windows, original art and masses of fresh flowers.
After a leisurely round of drinks here, we adjourned to one of
three eating chambers, a chintz-curtained bower of rose and white,
with a rather low bark-beamed ceiling and widely spaced tables clad in
embroidered pink linen. Attending
the nine people seated in this room, including my party of three, were
no fewer than four exceedingly capable waiters plus a sommalier.
Nine chefs, I'm told, are usually on simultaneous duty in the
kitchen. Hot and cold
running staff, as they say, and instantly run to us were hot and cold
complimentary appetizers. With
baby quiches, savory mini-kebabs and sharply cheesy pastry fingers at
hand, we studied the bills of fare: four different cartes,
including a gourmand, a du jour and both regular and seasonal (du printemps) a la carte menus, accompanied by a predictably worthy wine
list. To tide us over
until the main event, yet another round of nibbles next rolled in: tiny filets of red mullet in herbed tomato sauce -- delicious
and not a bit fishy. Malvern water -- the only sort drunk by the Queen, it's said
-- was poured during the two preliminary courses and Jenny Blanc's
delectable rolls were passed. (Her
bakery/patisserie supplies not only the Blanc restaurants but
also clients like the Ritz and the Connaught.)
What sweet agony it was to choose from among so many ravishing
possibilities only one starter, one main course, one dessert.
(Desserts are ordered at the outset to allow time for
souffle-ing and such.) There
was aid for the indecisive in the form of set menus. The chef's gourmand selection of six courses offered in sampling-sized
portions was a real temptation at L35 person. The set lunch of the day looked interesting, too, and was
certainly a value at L19.50, but my companions and I elected to stick
with the regular listings and spring specialties.
I began with one of the latter, advised by a server than the
season's first morels had arrived from France that very morning. Halved and filled with delicate chicken quenelles, these
came arranged on wild mushroom sauce in a crescent shape, from which
half a dozen tender asparagus stalks fanned gracefully over bits of
broccoli. My companions
started with Nage de Homard au Cumin (lobster medallions and quenelles
poached in a caraway seed-scented fumet) and Pate de Foie
Gras Truffe aux Poireaux Confits Gelee au Cerfeuil, Brioche Mouselline
(pate, for short). The
lobster meat was presented in the form of a miniature lobster, while
the pate was molded in two layers, each "iced" with truffle
slices and baby leeks, and served with a chervil-scented jelly. Very showy. All
tasters voted the pate best of the lot.
With our starters, we drank a demi of the house
champagne -- a pleasing bridge between the kir Royales with which we opened and our main course
wine, a Sancerre blanc.
As my main course, I chose Pigeonneau
de Bresse en Croute de Sel (young Bresse pigeon baked in a salt
crust and served with a fumet of truffles). The crust was a
work of art: a bird
sculpted in dough, complete in every particular (beak, wings, clove
eyes). Ten seconds after
being shown to me (on a beautifully flower-bedecked tray), this
gorgeous creation had been carved away and discarded
Other main courses, requiring no
tableside surgery, came out under high silver domes.
These dishes were Poulet Fermier de Landes aux Saveurs de
Sous-Bois Timbale de Riz Creme (hereafter to be called "the
chicken") and Filet de Boeuf au Jus et Beurre d'Herbes
(hereafter to be called "the beef.")
The chicken -- corn-fed, free-range and imported from France --
consisted of a leg and breast, boned, filled with quenelles, uniformly
sliced and served with Madeira sauce, morels and rice.
The beef -- mature Scottish Aberdeen -- was topped with a great
blob of herbed butter and floated on its juices along with lovely
caramelized shallots. The
day's medley of vegetables (organically grown on Le Manoir's home
farm) included a scrumptious semi-crunchy Bouquet de Legumes
(limas and peas); exquisitely cooked French beans; gratineed potatoes,
a dollop of spinach; and a dainty perfect carrot.
Our Sancerre, at L15, was superior to most house wines and a
good match for poultry. (My
beef-eating tablemate, at age 17, had no say in wine selection.)
Desserts were equally remarkable. My Calvados souffle, baked inside an apple and served with cidery sorbet and thick apricot coulis, tasted every bit as good as it sounds. One of my companions had the "Swan Lake" -- breathtaking pastry swans filled with vanilla cream, which swam with caramel-encrusted meringues and slices of strawberry and kiwi on a "lake" of almond/vanilla sauce -- while the other indulged in puff pastry lined with lime ice cream, topped with a caramelized Comice pear roasted in ginger butter.
Sated but unready to give up, we returned to the drawing room for espresso, which was served with a dozen or more tartlets and cookies. As if this weren't enough, a silver tray of luscious hand-dipped chocolates was trotted round. While we lingered, eavesdropping on "foodie" patrons discussing the relative merits of hand-ground, as opposed to electrically-ground coffee beans, Monsieur Blanc came in to chat. He's cute, charming and -- surprisingly -- skinny. We talked extensively about his farm and livestock; he's already producing his own eggs and will soon have his own poultry on the table, all in the interest of ensuring freshness. Freshness is crucial to his kind of cuisine, since Blanc doesn't believe in heavy saucing. "Things should taste of themselves" is his cardinal principle.
Blanc's personal history is something of an inspiration: He tried graphic design, nursing and watchmaking before realizing, at age 20, that he wanted to cook. Rejected as too old to start in the kitchen, he became a waiter while teaching himself to be a chef. His first chance to cook professionally arose with the unexpected mass exodus of the staff from his father-in-law's inn (The Rose Revived in Berkshire). After success there, he and Jenny opened Le Quat' Saisons -- now Le Petit Blanc -- in Oxford. Michelin stars have been sparkling since.
From literature in the lobby, we
learned that Waddesdon Manor wasn't far way, so rounded out our
Saturday with a visit to that palatial dwelling. It seemed right after lunching like a Rothschild to visit one
of their grand former homes.
It's hearts and flowers time again, the season for dining a deux with your
CIBOURE is a spot with style. Asparkle
with retro elegance, this Belgravia charmer would be creditable as a
set for a Fitzgerald novel -- and its food and service would do credit
to any number of eateries offering less finesse but charging more.
The restaurant with the scandalous name -- MENAGE
A TROIS -- flouts old-fashioned eating conventions totally
by offering only starters and desserts. There's no
"main course" in sight, which makes this Knightsbridge
high-flier less than perfectly right for just everyone. Patronized by
the trendy gentry (even Princess Di), Menage is in a lovely old
building on fashionable Beauchamp Place.
Waiting for a table is half (well, a third) of the fun of
dining at THE MONTCALM HOTEL. Arrive in time to relax in the cushy, squooshily furnished,
stay-a-while bar. American
standards of comfort and luxury are fully met by this modish
brown-on-brown lounge, designed with contemporary curves and luscious
with leathers. The drinks
are fine and piano music provides a quietly delightful backdrop for
adjoining dining room is tempting as a bonbon: Flatteringly rosy, it's saved from being too feminine and
"pretty-pretty" by strong accents of chocolate against the
dominant pink. The cuisine is international and the menu's extensive enough to please
anyone, including all the predictable basics plus some inventive
dishes featuring varicolored peppercorns and the like. This is not typical "hotel food" by any means.