Hotel Hit Squad: Raymond Blanc has reopened Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons – and it’s great to be back

Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Le Manoir is a survivor on numerous scores: It received two Michelin stars when it opened in 1984, and has kept them ever since Credit: Copyright (c) Paul Wilkinson 2015/Paul Wilkinson

French cooking is just an excuse to eat French bread. Country pâté? Goes on bread. Escargots with parsley butter? It’s a dip. The bread is everything.

During the hottest, sunniest, darkest days of the 2020 lockdown, word reached me of a Parisian hairdresser in Hackney, east London, who had filled a salon-shaped void with a side hustle in boulangerie. You could summon him by bike via a DM on Instagram, with as many loaves as your heart desired. I had a pannier full of crisply fired, soft and floury baguettes delivered to my house twice a week, smothered them in creamy Saint Félicien from La Fromagerie, and sat around wondering why I was fat.

When the best French chef in the UK puts his name to baked goods, you expect even greater perfection. And the petit pain that lands as part of Raymond Blanc’s seven-course tasting menu at Le Manoir is sublime, and all the better for you having to make the journey for it. The rest of Blanc’s food matches up. While many of my favourite restaurants are disappearing into a vortex of penury, Blanc has reopened his mother-ship-with-rooms in the Oxfordshire countryside after a pause. 

Le Manoir is a survivor on numerous scores: It received two Michelin stars when it opened in 1984, and has kept them ever since. The 15th-century manor is a landmark of modern gastronomy, from the orchards and greenhouses to the cookery school. As you walk through the gardens full of towering purple artichoke thistles, past throngs of bees feasting on lavishly arranged graphic beds of lavender, there’s a feeling of perpetual summer. A Frenchman has created one of the most beautiful country gardens in England. Sitting on the terrace, drinking a Lost Orchard cocktail with amaretto and calvados, garnished with meticulously sliced apple, is transporting. 

Le Manoir is expensive, but has zero profit margin right now. Guest capacity has been axed (10 bedrooms are unavailable) and tables lost and spaced out. Whether Le Manoir is an experience for you or not will depend on how you feel about a room service menu with a £25 egg mayo sandwich on it. Yes, that’s ridiculous. But steel yourself: dinner costs £194 a head before wine (there’s an entry-level pairing at £125 a head, while the Sélection Exceptionnelle is £899). 

L’Orangerie is perpetually infused with neroli, has a rural French and boudoir style with upholstered wrought-iron garden furniture, faux patina mirroring and miniature potted orange trees Credit: Adrian Houston Limited/Adrian Houston

Is it worth it? Well, go quantify “value”. It’s not just a meal, it’s an outlandish escapist luxury. In a climate of social inequality where food banks keep 1.6 million people from starving, you might see it as distasteful. But Le Manoir is part of a delicate ecosystem of farmers, suppliers and the many others employed by the Blanc dynasty.

Dinner is hit after hit, ferried from the kitchen under Covid-era transparent domes for fear of anyone breathing near the artfully arranged ingredients. A scallop dish comes with iced dashi and yuzu – citrus of the gods. A risotto of garden vegetables is elevated, cooked in tomato essence, and finished with mascarpone, which improves everything it touches. (Pro tip: add it to porridge in winter.) 

Every plate is remarkable. If you’re the sort of person who snipes in comments below restaurant reviews because you can knock up good spag bol at home for under a fiver, don’t come. You have to understand the difficulty, and potential, of great cooking to enjoy it.

A Frenchman has created one of the most beautiful country gardens in England Credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd

The flora, fragrances and luxury of Le Manoir create a flawless bubble of ease and escapism. But there’s a tingle to the balm: there are branded gift sets in the bedrooms with hand sanitiser and rubber gloves, and the waiters’ visors are slightly nightmarish. Less Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head video, more a Terry Gilliam-esque dystopian dining room – as if they might be splattered with blood at any second. Such is 2020. Anxiety hangs in the air like the lingering aroma of ethanol when you’re hung-over.

Each bedroom has a different theme inspired by Raymond’s travels. All are lavish. I stayed in L’Orangerie (from £1,330 B&B), which is perpetually infused with neroli, has a rural French and boudoir style with upholstered wrought-iron garden furniture, faux patina mirroring and miniature potted orange trees. The bed is on wheels, creating sporadic unwanted mobility. The bath oil left me so lubricated that I skidded across the room and sent the bed off towards the terrace. 

As I finished dinner, my attention turned to croissants. If the bread was superb, the pastries should be too. And they were: small, buttery, shiny, meticulously shaped. Moreish but filling, a world away from the horrible margarine versions on the counters of sandwich shops. But then Le Manoir isn’t the real world. Thank god. If you can afford it, go. And maybe make a welcome donation to a food bank when you return. Eat out and help out. It’s 2020. Bread for all, and roses too.

Double rooms cost from £695. There is one accessible suite.

Read the full review: Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons