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Food & Whine
Restaurant Reviews by Katherine (Erin) Harris

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 -- except for its tiny head, used as plate garnish That such workmanship went into an inedible crust, used strictly to enhance the flavor of the meat, is the kind of touch that makes dining at Le Manoir worth every penny. Served with the pigeon was a crusty cake of potato rounds, topped with a slab of foie gras trimmed to the shape of a mushroom slice. The accompanying truffle fumet was warm and woodsy.

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.

Our luxurious meal -- including aperitifs, wines and service -- came to L180. Any time you're in the mood to spend L60 per person for lunch, I encourage you to spend them here. Book by phoning (08446) 8881/2/3. You'll find Le Manoir about a mile south of the M-40's Exit 7. Go left to Great Milton (not right to Thame) and make the second right turn after crossing the overpass. The drive takes about fifty minutes from north London.

It's hearts and flowers time again, the season for dining a deux with your Valentine.
Consider these three rather special restaurants, if you two crave a taste of romance...

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.

Bright lights and lavish mirroring animate Ciboure's smart black and white decor with an air of summery brilliance, underscored by vases of fresh yellow flowers and radiant pastel drawings with a sun-warmed Riviera look. Our reception was equally warm: The owners and their staff are very French but very friendly. After seating us, our waiter deftly flicked out napkins from their Bird of Paradise folds onto laps, then presented amuses geules almost as promptly as menus. As complimentary "gullet ticklers," Ciboure served nibbles of crusty choux with subtly herbed fillings. The menu is entirely in French, but personnel are happy to translate when asked and will describe the preparation of each dish in loving detail.

To begin, my dining companion chose a mushroom and leek "royale" in sunny cream and wine sauce, while I indulged in a headily cassis-spiked duck liver mousse with thick raspberry sauce. A Pouilly-Fume, selected from the short but carefully considered wine list, accompanied these dishes. It arrived ideally chilled and our main course wine, a Chateauneuf-de-Pape, was uncorked at the same time, to start breathing.

As the main course, we both enjoyed beef filets, superbly tender and sauced with a flavorful persillade.Ciboure's kitchen also worked wonders with our vegetables. The French beans were triumphant; the new potatoes with bacon were likewise scrumptious; and for the first time in my life, I ate zucchini and liked it. Veggies are served in a quarter moon-shaped side dish, which fits to spillproof perfection against the dinner plate. Nice touch. So was the butter crock and so was the basket of very fresh bread, passed often.

For dessert, I had a slice of ultra-lemony tart, heavily powdered with sugar. Its crust was exquisite and unusual: nearly cakelike. My companion favored the pistachio-garnished Bavarian cream, floated on fruit sauce and artfully molded in two tiers -- one chocolate, one vanilla. Sweets were followed by fabulous coffee, dark-roasted arabica, and a small tray of prettily decorated chocolates was presented, too: a pleasant surprise. The bill was another pleasant surprise: Prices at Ciboure are very restrained for this level of successfully ambitious gastronomy and polished service.

At 21 Eccleston Street, Ciboure is near Victoria Station. Call 01-730-2505 to book, because the space is tres intimate, seating just 36, and there's no waiting area.

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.

With colorfully patterned fabrics and a big homey fireplace, the decor has an upscale "country cozy" feeling. The fare is far from homey, though. It's been described in Bon Appetit as "cuisine eclectique," but "cuisine esoterique" (or even "eccentrique") would be closer to the mark! This menu isn’t merely imaginative; it's very strange. Fortunately, it's also very lengthy, so I managed to find quite a few irresistibles tucked in among other listings which combine ingredients in such novel ways that the results sound questionably palatable. For my dinner partner, who doesn't agree with me that snacks and sweets are the best bits, choosing a meal was a process of picking least-worst. Incredulous and aghast, he paged the menu front to back and back to front, twice over, before noting two seemingly straightfoward options: a mushroom and egg concoction and a quail dish.

After admittedly overpriced but soul-satisfying aperitifs, I began with Menage's namesake starter. Menages a trois, flaky pastry parcels served hot in groups of three, are available in two variations: filled predominantly with seafood or with various cheeses. I ordered the latter. My favorite of the three held delicate melted white cheese (a breathtakingly fresh Montrachet), cranberry sauce and chicken. Next came a brilliantly seasoned hot salad of winter vegetables, parts of which were too charred to eat. Cross that my veggies were burnt, I nonetheless left with a good taste in my mouth after shamelessly consuming a slab of the justly renowned chocolate and cherry terrine, served cold with an ample pitcher of hot fudge sauce. With the sweet, I had a cappuccino as good as any drunk while living in Italy.

My companion detested his egg and mushroom dish, which proved only semi-solid. Tasting it, I found it heavily herbed and yummy, but it wasn't at all what he'd anticipated. His quail, presented inside leaves of indeterminate provenance, consisted of boned meat filled with a mousse and a tiny boiled quail egg. He felt there was far too little of this dish and turned surly enough to decline dessert. Even in retrospect, the most favorable remark he's been able to muster is, "Maybe if I'd been less hungry or in a better mood…"). I truly think his disappointment was due to mistaken expectations.DO NOT GO TO MENAGE FOR A "NORMAL" MEAL. Go prepared to make gastronomic whoopee. I heartily recommend the spot to hard-core "foodies," adventurous spirits and those with a terrific sense of humor. If you excel in one (or more) of these categories but your Valentine doesn't, visit with a like-minded friend, perhaps for lunch. It tends to spoil the ambience when your tablemate is glowering at you over his dinky serving of quail (and 200% markup wine).

At 14-15 Beauchamp Place, Menage is nearest to Knightsbridge Station (but not very near). Call 01-589-9350 to book, and reserve late for evening; early diners seem to be rushed in the interest of turnover. Advance booking's a must, both because of popularity and because there's no space for waiting.

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 conversation. The 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.

If the beef is a sound indication of quality -- and, in London, it usually is -- everything here is up to high standards. The filet with wine, peppercorn and cream sauce is juicy and mouth-meltingly tender. I can also vouch for the succulent chunk chicken starter served with sundry sauces (gourmet "McNuggets"). Vegetables and sweets are handled pleasingly, service is gracious and professional and there's a nice wine list. For this level of appeal, prices are reasonable: Set meals are available at under L15.

The Montcalm is no Ciboure -- few places are -- but worth considering when you'll be in the neighborhood of Marble Arch. It's slightly north of the station at the corner of Park Lane and Upper Berkeley. Since the dining room is fairly sizeable, I expect you could get in without booking, especially if you can wait a bit -- a far from uninviting prospect. My experience of The Montcalm was calming, but I understand there's a lively disco hidden somewhere in the hotel. Why not search it out, if you feel like dancing? On these nasty winter nights, there's a lot to be said for centralizing evening activities under one roof.

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