Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

While leafing through the proofs for the Telegraph last week, I came across a gardening supplement about Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Raymond Blanc’s flagship restaurant; the jewel in his culinary crown.

Gardening isn’t a foremost interest of mine – don’t get me wrong, I like a good garden – I’m just not likely to be found shovelling soil, or laying down turf. But the article got me thinking, or rather reminiscing about my time spent in the chef’s backyard.

It was three years ago. My family (well four out of the six of us – mother conveniently forgot to invite the other two; to avoid denting the bank balance too much) journeyed down to Oxfordshire for lunch at the double Michelin-starred restaurant to celebrate my 21st Birthday. And what a way to celebrate it was.

21075_1201872499567_253939_n

Dressed in all my finery, determined to look like I belonged and frequented similar establishments regularly, I entered the mansion of a maison at approximately 12.30 pm. We were shown through to a sitting room, offered some canapés and given both the menu and the wine list to peruse at our leisure.

It didn’t take us long to decide upon the ‘tasting menu’, and then to my delight the father passed me the wine list and said, “Now Alice, as it’s your birthday you can pick the wine, but please, be sensible.”

Figures of £200, £750, £1,750 met my eyes and, contrary to the lyrics of Jessie J, I could not ‘forget about the price tag’. I flicked through some more and landed on a more reasonable £40 bottle. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘that’ll do.’ I turned and smiled at the sommelier, who came over immediately and bowed ready for the order.

“Yes, please may I have a bottle of the…(something French)?”

He looked at me, almost embarrassed on my behalf, and said: “Ummmn zeeees is a pudding wine.”

I flushed bright red and, let’s be honest, after that there was no point keeping up my pretentious pretence; I was out of my depth – an outsider, a visitor – I didn’t belong. But this, in actual fact, worked out for the best, for as a tourist I had no problem whipping out my trusty canon and photographically documenting the incredible meal. So here, better late than never, is the tasting menu from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons on the 8th of February 2010:

21075_1201875619645_7220112_n

Confit of ‘Landais’ duck liver with rhubarb compote; sour dough toast

21075_1201875659646_6131661_n

Plancha-seared hand-dived ‘Loch Levern’ Scottish scallop, sea kale, cauliflower puree, curry oil

21075_1201875699647_5046882_n

Wytham farm free-range hen’s egg, garden Jerusalem artichoke, pickled mushrooms, winter truffle

21075_1201875739648_4381523_n

Wild Cornish gill-netted red mullet, chorizo; coriander ravioli, saffron tapioca; bouillabaisse consomme

21075_1201875779649_5384392_n

Boned quail filled with liver pate; pink grapefruit zests, turnip gratin and Pineau des Charentes sauce

21075_1201876019655_2376030_n

‘Coeur de Guanaja’ chocolate cremeux, cocoa ‘grue’ nougatine and coffee foam…(with gold leaf)

Food: ***** Wine: (post ‘pudding’ faux pas) ***** Price: £££££

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Rd, Great Milton, Oxford

01844 278881

Balthazar – you mousse go!

Its consistency changes with each mouthful; it gets smoother and smoother until it clings to the sourdough like melted butter. Running my knife across the crisp toast, I lather layer upon layer and take bite after bite.  Arousing my palate to an irrepressible culinary climax, I take a deep breath, turn to my dining companion and say: “This is, without doubt, the best mousse that I have ever had.”

balthazar foie gras smooth

This was Thursday night. I was in Covent Garden at new restaurant Balthazar and I was tucking into their chicken liver and foie gras mousse. Opening in the heart of the West End just last month, the restaurant has already gained an army of fans, and arriving at 7.30 p.m I was faced with an hour wait.

Well we were faced with an hour wait. I was out with cityboy again (my dinner date for that notorious Hakkasan meal last year), but this time I got to choose the restaurant and after slating his choice so publicly, the pressure was on! Balthazar, thank goodness, did not let me down.

Though new to London, another Balthazar exists across the Atlantic. The chain (well now a chain) was set up by Keith McNally 16 years ago in New York. Inspired by the food of French Brasseries, Balthazar’s menu features the staple classics Coq au Vin and Moules Frites as well as more experimental dishes such as Ox cheek bourguignon and Duck Shepherd’s Pie. 

I chose the aforementioned chicken liver and foie gras mousse followed by a starter size portion of the Lobster and Black Truffle Risotto served with cauliflower cream and black truffle butter. Cityboy went for the Balthazar salad – haricots verts, asparagus, fennel, ricotta salata and truffle vinaigrette followed by Duck Confit with roasted potatoes, cipollini onions, wild mushrooms and frisée salad.

This was after we had been seated. The hour before was spent conversing at the jam-packed bar and drinking Moscow Mules which were made – to my delight – with Fever Tree ginger beer. I was in an exceptionally good mood even before I’d tried the world’s best mousse, not only due to the drink but also due to the fabulous atmosphere. Waiters do loops round the restaurant floor carrying plate upon plate of exceptionally presented dishes, sounds of laughter and jovial shouts pump through the air and warm lighting makes everyone look radiant.

balthazar

We had a bar table and were the magma of the operation rather than the core, but even though we were on the peripheral, we were still absorbed in the buzz of the place. It was the perfect place for a date; loud enough to drone out any potential awkward silences, quiet enough to allow for deep discussion – a fine balance not often achieved by restaurants.

On past the mousse,ah the mousse of dreams, the mousse of Mt Olympus…

balthazar fois gras

Enough, on to the main – or rather the starter that was my main, the Lobster and Black Truffle Risotto. 

balthazar risottoAs you can see from the portion choosing a starter was a wise decision – a main would have pushed the food coma.  Once adjusted to the strength of the Lobster this dish just kept giving, rich and filling, though perhaps slightly over-sauced, it was the epitome of indulgence.

Cityboy said his Balthazar Salad was good and a bite of his Duck Confit, which fell perfectly off the bone, assured me that it wasn’t just the rich and indulgent dishes that they could execute brilliantly.

balthazar duck confitPuddings included  Crème BrûléeBaked Cheesecake with a warm cinnamon and apple doughnut and Apple Tart Tatin with butterscotch sauce and Calvados crème fraîche, but rather full and conscious of our triathlon and bikini bod (respectively) we opted rather to round of the meal with a pudding wine.

Narrowly pipping La Sophia in my personal best restaurant of the year 2013 (so far) competition (not on the food front but overall), Balthazar has both great food and an atmosphere so brilliant that it could save even the worst date. What’s more, you can also – unlike so many restaurants of the moment – book! And that my friends, is just what you should do, for this restaurant is getting deservedly more popular by the day.

Food **** Drink **** Atmosphere ***** Price £££

BALTHAZAR, 4-6 RUSSELL STREET, LONDON WC2B 5HZ

balthazar muleMake sure to get a Moscow Mule

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

La Sophia – The best food of 2013 (so far)

Pulling up onto the nondescript Golborne road, my expectations plummeted and I wished we’d asked the taxi driver to stop five minutes earlier – in Notting Hill. As it was, we hadn’t; we had carried on North-West and we were in Westbourne Park.  A few could-be-anywhere shops were peppered around us and the droning sound of engines from the nearby Westway A40 were still audible. We should have gone to the Gilgamesh after all.

“What’s this place called again?” I asked my elder sister as my younger sister walked off in, what turned out to be, completely the wrong direction.

“La Sophia,” she replied.

“Ah there it is!” I said and pointed across the road.

IMG_1249With its black and gold tipped exterior combined with a February evening’s natural light, La Sophia didn’t jump out at us. This isn’t a restaurant that you would wander into from the street, rather like the Harry Potter Room of Requirement, you have to be seeking it out to find it.

When taking this photo, I still wasn’t convinced, but on entering my spirits lifted. The interior of La Sophia, with its antique mirrors, smooth dark beams and mood lighting, provided the perfect dining aesthetic.

A warm, friendly and slightly nervous (it was only his third week) waiter approached and handed us the menus.

“Oh my god,” my elder sister gasped, her face contorted with angst.

“What? What?” I asked.

“They only serve non-alcoholic wine.”

This news really was concerning. But looking left towards the kitchen there was shelf upon shelf of spirits; why would they display it and then not serve it? What type of sick joke was this? I took the menu from my sister, who was sinking further and further into the midst of an anxiety episode, and leafed through as she called the waiter back over and started quizzing him on where the nearest off-license was.

“Laura!”

“Yes.”

“You were on the non-alcoholic page. There’s loads of wine.”

Awash with relief, but nervous that this news wasn’t going to last, she quickly ordered a bottle of Argentinian Malbec and slowly regained a normal breathing pattern. The wine arrived and was fantastically rich, full and spicy. With it safely on the table, we allowed ourselves to look at the food options – after I had taken this artistic shot.

mirrorThe only French restaurant in London to have a completely Halal menu, we were torn between having starters and mains, or mains and puddings. We were heading onward to SupperClub to watch our brother box and after a few minutes of deliberation we decided that for this we really needed to line our stomachs – so we went for all three. And each of these three courses were absolutely – I had completely and utterly the wrong first impression about this place – fantastic.

Starter: (Laura, Bex and Claudia)

hal

Oven-roasted aubergine with fried halloumi, chilli, lemon garlic & mixed baby leaf salad(£6.95)

Starter: (Me)

cal

Fried calamari with lemon & chilli tartar sauce (£6.95)

Main: (Laura, Bex and Claudia)

chipFlame-grilled ribeye steak with Cafe de Paris butter & hand cut chips (£21.95)

Main: (Me)

chickenStuffed free range chicken breast with mushroom duxelles, creamy mash potato & truffle veloute (£14.95)

Pudding: (Laura)

apple

Apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream (£7)

Pudding: (Bex)

bexMarinated pineapple with sweet spice, coconut sorbet & passion fruit (£5.50)

Pudding: (Claudia and I)

choc

Warm chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream (£5.50)

And one more snap that would make fondant maker extraordinaire Raymond Blanc proud:

choc 2

Absolutely out of this world good

Undoubtedly the best meal I have had so far this year, La Sophia may be slightly off the beaten track, but it is a track that is well worth getting to. In London affordable fine-dining is a rare commodity, so get down to La Sophia while it lasts, because once the crowds hear about this, prices will rocket.

Food: ***** Service **** Wine **** Price ££

46 Golborne Road, London W10 5PR (off Portobello Rd)
Telephone 020 8968 2200

http://La Sophia on Urbanspoon

http://Square Meal

A ‘wet’ January/Bistro de luxe

Yep, I’m afraid January’s wet, January has become very, very wet. In my defence – when offered to sample the cocktails and review the new bar-about town, what can you do?

That is exactly what I had to do last night. My magazine (The Upcoming) sent me to the depths of Mayfair, to the Marriott Hotel and to the three-week-old Luggage Room. 

Link to review (coming):

After sampling a fabulous array of ‘heritage-with-a-twist’ cocktails in this decadent establishment, I felt that the night needed to be rounded off in equal glamour. I needed a fantastic restaurant. With my phone battery dead and thus no internet connection, I felt slightly lost. Should I wander the streets until I found something that looked alright? I didn’t want to risk it, the evening had started off so well and I wanted it to end well too.

As my heels clipped along the pavement and my fingers began to feel the cold, my mind jogged and I suddenly remembered. Thrusting my hands into my bag, I pulled it out. The Tuesday 8th January edition of the Evening Standard. Flicking through, scanning the columns I found the extract that I was looking for – the same extract that had been in the Financial Times the day before – the extract from Phaidon Press’s new book: Where Chef’s Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favourite Restaurants.

Twenty minutes later I had met up with my dining companion and we found ourselves outside number 66 Baker Street at chef Omar Allibhoy’s recommendation:

GALVIN

(Galvin’s Bistro de Luxe)

And this is what awaited us:

SALAD

Salad of endive, Roquefort and caramelised walnuts

SOUPSoup de poisson, rouille & gruyere

SEA BASSFillet of sea bream, caramelised endive, raisin and caper dressing

STEAK TARTARESteak tartare & toasted sourdough

SORBET SELECTIONPear, Mandarin & Blackberry sorbet with warm shortbread

Served by a young Indian man who was the most delightful waiter that I have ever come across, the service was impeccable, the food very good and the experience excellent. Categorised under the ‘Regular neighbourhood’ and described as “A proper Parisian Bistro” chef Omar Allibhoy got it right and I would not hesitate to trust his judgment again.

I will also definitely be buying the book – which you can order from Amazon here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Where-Chefs-Eat-Favourite-Restaurants/dp/0714865419/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357736580&sr=8-1

The Luggage Room & Bistro de Luxe = a very good Tuesday night, a very good Tuesday night indeed.

Dans Le Noir

Dans Le Noir?

I knew they said it was going to be dark, but I didn’t realise it was going to be this dark,” Tom whispered as we were led through a set of curtains and to our seats. It sounds rather stupid – I mean the whole concept of the restaurant was that we would be eating in the dark – but I had to agree, I hadn’t realised just how dark it would be. Dans le Noir? was ‘literally’ pitch black.

Created by Edouard de Broglie and Etienne Boisrond, the first Dans le Noir? was opened in Paris in 2004. Designed to promote awareness of the blind and disabilities within France, the project was an instantaneous success. Eight years later, there are now restaurants where you dine in complete darkness in Switzerland, Germany, Finland, America and England.

After a bit of a detour – courtesy of Tom following the wrong dot on his I-phone sat-nav – we had made it to Farringdon, London, just in time for our 7 pm reservation. Asked to remove our coats, we put them and our other belongings into a locker in the reception (no phones or electronic devices are allowed into the restaurant). We were then shown a choice of four set menus: vegetarian, fish, meat or the chef’s surprise. No surprises, we went for the surprise.

You know I have a bit of a phobia of the dark,” Tom continued as Asher, our personal waiter for the night, placed our hands on the back of our chairs and left to get our starters.

Are you kidding me?” I replied, groping my way around the chair.

No, at school we did this pitch black Fire and Rescue practice and I had to be dragged out of the building because I thought I was having an asthma attack.”

That’s not a phobia of the dark you idiot, you probably did have an asthma attack with all that smoke.”

That’s the thing, there was no smoke.”

I laughed and accidentally swung my hand into my drink; it toppled over but didn’t smash. I’d really thought that my hand was no-where near the table and I determined to be more careful as I picked the empty glass back up.

Asher announced his return and told us to pick up our knife and fork. I managed this quite quickly and was rather impressed with myself (my spacial-awareness was back on track). He placed the starters in front of us and a glass of wine to the right – these were in regular tumblers; a wine glass, we later decided, would have probably been a bit ambitious.

The plate was cold; I grasped it with my right hand and prodded my fork around until I felt a lump of something solid attached to it. I brought it to my mouth.

Yuck!’ It was cold, slimy, bitty and tasted of salty water. I took another mouthful, ‘yuck,’ it was raw salmon and fish eggs. A saumon tartare, fish egg mix. I was sure of it, just as I was sure that I loathed it. I prodded around a bit more and felt something harder on the plate. ‘Mmmmn,’ this was warm and crispy, a cheddar and spinach mini-quiche perhaps. I found another. The pastry was light – filo, I decided.

What do you think?”

It’s a Tartare,” Tom replied assuredly.

I felt around the plate, there weren’t any mini-quiches left, but there was a lot of cold, minced up fish left. I put my knife and fork down and found the wine glass. It was white and distinctly average but I’d finished the tumbler by the time Asher brought the main course and the next tumbler of wine – this time red.

The plate was hot, verging on scalding – so touching it wasn’t really a good decision. I found my knife and fork and began the prodding process. It was lamb and it was fine; it wasn’t overly fatty and had a tasty seasoning. I went back for more. The fork was heavy – I’d got a big mouthful (I didn’t need to look lady-like after all) and squished it inelegantly in. I’d obviously prodded a different part of the plate – this wasn’t lamb, it was fish. It was Monkfish.

Fish and lamb, my instinct was not to like it, fish and lamb don’t go together. Hang on though, I did like it. It worked weirdly well; the saltiness of the lamb was balanced by the freshness and the simplicity of the fish and the combination was rather enjoyable. A few more mouthfuls, from the left and the right of the plate: fish, lamb, fish, lamb. And then a bite of cabbage.

That cabbage is insane! The monkfish and lamb together is a bit weird, but I quite like it.’

Monkfish? I think it’s swordfish,’ Tom replied. He was right, it was definitely swordfish. ‘All of this stuff is probably made to taste like other stuff though- I reckon that this lamb is actually chicken coated in lamb stock.’

Chicken? No way. It’s lamb, it’s 100% lamb.’

Well I’m throwing it out there, chicken and average chicken at that. I wonder how many other people are in here.’

I hadn’t really thought about it. I’d heard people talking and laughing but I couldn’t distinguish where all the sounds were all coming from. I just knew that they weren’t close. We were in our own little bubble of darkness.

Asher arrived with a surprise cocktail (a watery pinacolada) and another cold plate – pudding. The spoon, we were told was on the plate, but it was only after two insertions into a thick, mousse like substance that my fingers found it. I licked them – chocolate. I dug in and took a large mouthful: it was good; creamy, rich and not too sweet. I took another bite and was happily surprised by a wry raspberry. My spoon attacked the plate until it couldn’t find anything else. Not quite content, I used my fingers just to have a quick check that I hadn’t missed anything and found two squidgy squares of raspberry jelly – they tasted like they were from a packet.

The meal was over and we formed a hand/shoulder line with Asher and were led out to the light. We returned to reception and were handed a menu with pictures and descriptions of what we’d actually just eaten. We’d been right and we’d been wrong, in some cases very wrong. The fish egg mix was actually scallop tartare, the spinach and cheddar quiches – black pudding, the swordfish – blue shark steak, and lamb – Wagyu beef!

I’d had a fantastic time, eating in the pitch black was extraordinary, but when the bill came the night was put into perspective. There is absolutely no way the meal had been worth £134. The food had not been brilliant and for that price, food needs to be brilliant. The experience though had been unforgettable. It’s a tricky one, but I do suggest going to Dans le Noir? be prepared though – that it’s the experience, not the food, that you’re paying for.

Star Rating

Food – 3/5

Experience – 5/5

Dans Le Noir?

30-31 Clerkenwell Green, 

Clerkenwell,

London. EC1R 0DU
020 7253 1100