An interesting thing about Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a Belmond hotel, is that it isn’t really a hotel at all – it’s one of the UK’s best restaurants with some very nice rooms attached. There’s no spa, no pool and no gym (although rooms come equipped with yoga gear), but it doesn’t matter – the allure of Raymond Blanc is enough to tempt guests year in, year out.
A picture-perfect snapshot of rural England with an impossibly pretty, honey-bricked, 15th-century manor house sitting amid preened grounds, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons opened in 1984. Shortly after, the restaurant went straight in with a two-Michelin-star accreditation which it has retained ever since – an impressive feat.
What really set – and continues to set – Le Manoir aside, though, is not just the restaurant itself but the grounds that surround it. The gardens started out as a potager created by Blanc and his father, but through the years, and with a lot of careful tending at the hands of Blanc and head gardener Anne Marie Owens, they have flourished into a bountiful kitchen garden and more.
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Now, guests can explore a total of 11 interconnecting gardens. Right by the main building is the quaint croquet lawn and outdoor terrace for afternoon tea; beyond is the gentle wildflower meadow, buzzing with the hum of bees.
Further away, on the borders of the property’s grounds, is the French/British heritage orchard, and elsewhere are the brimming vegetable beds. In total, the gardens produce over 250 varieties of organic fruit and vegetables – Blanc was pioneering farm-to-table dining way before it was en vogue.
Le Manoir might not be a hotel in the typical sense of the word (it would probably lose the majority of its charm if it ever did expand its offering anyway), but it makes the absolute most of what it’s got. There are immersive Gardening School classes led by head tutor August Bernstein, lessons at the famous Raymond Blanc Cookery School, cocktail masterclasses or in-room beauty treatments; you’d struggle to want for anything, really.
Blanc may be the big name on the bill, but manning the day-to-day running of the kitchen is Luke Selby, who joined as executive chef earlier this year, taking over from Gary Jones who had held the position for over two decades.
In a satisfyingly full-circle turn of events, Selby actually began his culinary career at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as a commis chef in 2009. Following his departure, he headed for the bright lights of London where he worked at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay as well as under Ollie Dabbous as head chef at both Dabbous London and HIDE.
In December 2019, Selby, alongside his brothers Nathaniel and Theo, took on his most ambitious project yet: Evelyn’s Table. Tucked away in the cellar of an 18th-century pub in the center of London, the restaurant seats just 12 guests for a completely intimate, fully immersive dining experience. Under the lead of the Selby brothers and their steadfast commitment to British produce, Evelyn’s Table became one of the city’s hottest tickets and was awarded one Michelin star.
Now onto pastures new (or old, depending on how you look at it), Selby and his brothers are back in Oxfordshire, where they work closely with Blanc to craft menus that not only show off their impressive culinary prowess and inject a touch of modernity into an icon, but also translate the ingredients growing outside into a surprising dining experience.
As should come as little surprise for a restaurant so dictated by seasonal ingredient availability, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’s menu changes monthly. The dining room essentially acts as a seamless extension of the immaculate gardens that surround it, after all.
Our visit on a sunny, then rainy, then sunny-again Easter weekend marked the start of the April menu. An English spring is always a beautiful one, but after a cold and seemingly never-ending winter, this year’s feels even sweeter – and Le Manoir wanted to prove it.
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First, a trio of bite-sized snacks: sweet goat’s curd wrapped in a delicately crispy beetroot tuille; cured trout with caviar; and a teeny-tiny pea tart. Next the bread, a course some dub a stomach-filler but I see as one of the most important courses of the whole dinner. Le Manoir’s hit the mark with a smoky bacon roll, sweet fig and raisin cobs or, of course, a classic French baguette in miniature form.
While Blanc is French and his ingredients (mostly) British, his culinary inspirations are clearly more widespread. A delicate plate of scorched mackerel with a fiery horseradish sorbet, drizzles of dill oil and minute slices of apple, for example, felt more Nordic in its composition, while a rich, buttery crab ravioli swimming in lemongrass bisque takes you to the shores of Italy.
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The one meat dish came in the form of melt-in-the-mouth Pyrenean lamb (rack, shoulder and neck, no less) and Pertuis asparagus, with a brilliantly pungent wild garlic puree and sour milk curd, dotted with tiny flecks of mint gel. Perfectly apt for an Easter weekend dinner and with a presentation worthy of framing, this went down as the star of the show – but did beg the question of what’s wrong with local lamb and asparagus?
A final hurrah, desserts are no afterthought. Of the two, a poached Yorkshire rhubarb accompanied by a soaked French baba and a generous dollop of vanilla custard piqued the top spot. If you have the room for it, don’t miss the cheese, either. Wheeled around the restaurant on a trolley, the offering showcases the finest artisanal French and British fromages.
Accompanying the multi-course extravaganza is, of course, some excellent wines. Carefully paired by head sommelier Louis Wilde, virtually all bottles are French and most are organic or biodynamic. The more entry-level Selection Classique is an easy crowd-pleaser but guests with the means to do so might want to go wild with the Selection Exceptionelle, coming in just shy of £1,000 ($1,250) per person.
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Rooms at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
While many hotels are trying to achieve that “staying at a friend’s county house” vibe, Le Manoir executes it perfectly with a cheery welcome complete with a glass of champagne (or an English sparkling, if you prefer) and a roaring fire. Rooms are an intriguing mix, with each reflecting a portion of Blanc’s travels; 10 are found in the main house, with a further 22 dotted around the neighboring courtyard.
Some are dark and sumptuous (the Rouge et Noir garden junior suite instantly comes to mind) while others are light and airy (we’re thinking of the elegant L’Orangerie suite here). Amenities are aplenty – expect a welcome platter of fruit (or an indulgent selection of chocolates if you’re lucky), fluffy robes and eco-conscious toiletries. Even the in-room sewing set was one of the best I’d ever seen.
Of them all though, the one-bed Blanc de Blanc suite is an easy winner and a popular new fixture in our annual Top Suites ranking. The favored accommodation of Blanc himself when he’s in town (fortunately he was out when we stayed, so we could enjoy it for ourselves), the Blanc de Blanc suite is, as you’d expect, decked head to toe in gleaming white, from the princess-worthy four poster bed to the sofas in the adjoining lounge area.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, UK, OX44 7PD, belmond.com