24-Hour Room Service: Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Oxfordshire
A lesson in good taste, both inside and out
Saturday 04 September 2010
It's easy to assume that an operation as distinguished as Le Manoir ticks by while quietly resting on the laurels of the restaurant and the reputation of its proprietor. Especially when that proprietor is Raymond Blanc, who attained the first of his Michelin stars at his original restaurant, Les Quat'Saisons in Oxford back in the late 1970s.
It was at this "rough and ready" restaurant that he honed the skills that propelled him to add a manoir to the quat'saisons in 1984 and win another Michelin star. Here, he was able to offer accommodation to his diners in the smarter surroundings of an Oxfordshire manor house. Inevitably the hotel has a high level of expectation to meet. How does the gastronomic barometer of two Michelin stars translate into bed and, indeed, breakfast?
At any Michelin-starred restaurant, you expect unremitting attention to detail, bold ambition, unexpected delight and enduring memories. The meal will almost inevitably start with an amuse-bouche – an unordered treat to set the bar and kindle your excitement. The hotel at Le Manoir sets the scene with similar flair; the teaser in this instance is a call to request thoughtful details prior to your stay – do you prefer a duvet or blankets? Any allergies? Then, on arrival, a member of the impeccably dressed, impeccably friendly staff warmly welcomes you in, shows you around the main house and then to your room where a personalised welcome note awaits you. It feels a little like home, though looks nothing like it.
Following the preliminaries, there's the approximation of an entremet; the between-course treat here is the gardens surrounding the hotel and restaurant.
They start conservatively with immaculate lawns lined with perfect rows of lavender and scattered with mature trees and croquet paraphernalia. They continue into a walled kitchen garden where rows of vegetables and fruit fold into the distance. Suddenly you are in a Japanese water garden where ducks glide across ponds in the shadow of arching trees and a serene pagoda. In another corner, a mushroom valley is taking shape with a watercress stream channelling through the centre. Further out, an enormous orchard is gradually taking root. It's all part of the Four Seasons motif, where "RB" (as all the staff call him) insists that at any time of the year at least one corner of his kingdom will be thriving and yielding produce.
All of this is a preamble to the main course, which is, of course, the restaurant itself. As sumptuous as the hotel rooms are, the dining room is what Le Manoir is all about. I opted for the Menu Classique on which beetroot, peas, courgettes, herbs and asparagus have made the shortest of journeys from the gardens to the kitchen. The selection is more conservative than the 10-course Menu Découverte, but offers five perfectly pitched courses of both lightness and flavour.
The hotel is in the honey-coloured village of Great Milton, which – Manoir aside – constitutes fingers of pretty cottages (some built for Oxford dons), a thatched pub and the 14th-century church of St Mary the Virgin. Farmland radiates out towards Oxford and the Chilterns.
A taxi from central Oxford takes around 25 minutes and costs about £30. Haddenham and Thame Parkway, 20 minutes away is the closest station.
After a quarter of a century in RB's care, Le Manoir looks as current and fresh as any luxury boutique hotel, with rooms tailored to guests' expectations and embellished with unexpected luxuries, too. There are rooms in the 15th-century manor house that cater to traditionalists: all exposed beams, four-posters and canopies. The brighter contemporary rooms border a courtyard in the old stable block and offer rather more chic styling. Each has its own identity, often created on a whim of Blanc's. Vettriano is named after the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano and is decorated in a style that pays homage to the artist's racy paintings. The Snow Queen room, lined with snowflake wallpaper, boasts a first edition of Hans Christian Andersen's book.
As with the restaurant and gardens, Blanc frequently refreshes the hotel rooms. I was in one of four new suites: Jade, inspired by a love of the Orient. Originally he envisaged the room rising through several levels like a rice terrace, but a sobering builders' quote meant that the plans were revised to two levels. It's none the worse for it, with a spacious sitting room that ascends to a dramatic curtained-off sleeping area. The Asian theme continues with grass-paper wall coverings, a bamboo-effect ceiling, fabrics in shades of lime, grass and jade, and an imitation bonsai tree.
The look is sultry but feminine – Blanc's attempt to counter the masculinity of the building's exterior. The other three suites also bear his stamp. Blanc de Blanc is a pristine haven of white; L'Orangerie uses mirrors, pale stone and potted trees to evoke a French orangery; Lace calls to mind a feminine boudoir.
To round off the experience, the hotel offers its own petits fours – each of the rooms is garnished with a selection of seasonal fruits from the gardens, plus sugared almonds and a decanter of Madeira.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD (01844 278881; manoir.com).
Double rooms start at £460, suites at £920 inc breakfast. Le Classique menu: £95 per person excluding drinks.
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