Magazine article The Spectator

Restaurant as Theatre: Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons

Magazine article The Spectator

Restaurant as Theatre: Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons

Article excerpt

MY MOTHER sounded bewildered. `This is not a stag night,' she said. `It's our ruby wedding anniversary.' But the receptionist at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons was firm. `We don't like rowdy groups. And certainly not children,' he said. `The children are all in their thirties and very well behaved,' my mother explained. `We can give you two tables of five, but not next to each other,' the man said grudgingly. `No speeches or cakes, you must order from the set menu and arrive by midday for lunch.'

My mother rang me, distraught. She had set her heart on going to the Quat' Saisons which sounds like a pizza topping but is in fact a shrine to the gastronomic arts. `Why are these restaurants so snooty?' she asked. Complain to the manager, I suggested. The whole point about an astronomically expensive restaurant is that it should make you feel pampered, from the moment you book the table until long after you have paid the bill. So my father rang the manager. He was charming. `I'm so sorry, sir, we hadn't realised it was your fortieth wedding anniversary. We thought you said ruddy,' he claimed.

The day before our visit, the grandchildren organised a ruby tea. Pink egg sandwiches, a scarlet cake and red jellies were replaced by smoked salmon and claret as the evening wore on. By the time we drove through the electronic gates to Le Manoir we were wondering how we could eat anything else.

Our procession of ancient Volvos, Porsches and Austin Princesses crunched up the gravel driveway, past the black limousines and the helipad. We parked outside a honey-stoned Cotswold house, built by a Frenchman in the 15th century.

The house now belongs to another Frenchman, Raymond Blanc, who arrived in Britain unable to speak any English and took a job as a waiter. One day the chef fell ill and he took over the cooking. In 1984, in an attempt to bring Gallic civilisation to his adopted home, he gave the British Le Manoir, previously known as Great Milton Manor, which dripped foie gras over English chintz and brought pasta edged with truffles to Oxfordshire.

Of course, he couldn't expect the Ribenaand Marmite-soldier-loving British public to swallow pig's trotters immediately. So he adapted his cooking to the English palate. Instead of the self-referential, sophisticated, spatula-sauced Parisian cooking, he developed simple dishes whose careful preparation enhanced and emphasised their natural flavours.

The risk paid off. His house is always full. We were greeted by staff so numerous that they came not singly, but in clusters. A man scanned his clipboard for our names as we waited outside the front door. `Please come in,' he finally smiled. We felt as though we had been squeezed on to the last flight out of the Home Counties.

Le Manoir is a Frenchman's dream of an English country house. There are no dog hairs on the sofas, no grimy Agas or wellies; just acres of dead-salmon pink, cookingapple green and Indian yellow, culled from the National Trust paint charts. The gardens are equally Gallic. At first you are deceived by the clematis and wistaria. But what other English house has pristine white chairs and umbrellas scattered over cobbles? …

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