Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The 40th Challenge: Challenge Number 8 – Dine In a 2-Michelin Star Restaurant

This has to be the ultimate in greedy challenges. If you recall, I said right at the start of the challenge year that I hoped this would be my birthday present from Dave. This meant that my 40 challenges had to be called 39 steps, as the 40th would have to happen after the completion of the others and therefore probably after my birthday. Dining in a two-Michelin star restaurant was a crazy ambition given our circumstances and finances, but I just hoped that somehow we would pull it off.

I have eaten in four one-Michelin star restaurants. Three of them were in Edinburgh, where Dave and I used to spend my birthday every year after we moved to York, at a time when we were still tinkies (two incomes, no kids) and had money for luxuries. All three (Tom Kitchin’s The Kitchin in Leith, Number One at the Balmoral Hotel, and Martin Wishart’s in Leith) were superb. Unfortunately, I only went to the latter two while pregnant, which meant that nearly all the starters (raw fish, pâté, mouldy cheese) and desserts (raw egg, booze, mouldy cheese) were off the menu, and certain foods were still making me a tad queasy, resulting in me having to make a hurried swap of one of my main courses. The fourth Michelin-starred restaurant we went to was The Star Inn at Harome in Yorkshire, which was thoroughly disappointing for the price, gave me a migraine, and subsequently lost its star.

So even though any sort of meal in a restaurant is a huge and rare treat these days, posh or otherwise, I still felt that now it was time to up our experience, and our bill, and try out the next level. I always had Le Manoir Aux Quatr’ Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire in mind as my two-Michelin starred restaurant of choice. Naturally, its reputation went before it. I’ve also found Raymond Blanc’s slight eccentricity but thoroughly decent charm and expertise very entertaining on television over the years, and have even read his autobiography. And also my aunt happens to live half an hour’s drive away, and she is the one member of my family from that generation who offers to baby-sit Charlotte.

You can only book a table at Le Manoir three months in advance, and lunch is much easier to get into than dinner (where overnight guests at the hotel always have priority). But alas, lunch isn’t cheaper than dinner on a weekend. Nevertheless, on December 9th, we rang to secure our table for the Saturday after my birthday, and got in to the 12.15pm sitting without difficulty. I then just had to wait, and hope that we would all be well enough on the day for the meal to go ahead. (These things are never a given with a near permanently germ-infested toddler in tow.) I didn’t even dare let myself get excited about it.

We travelled down on the Thursday, as there was another birthday treat in store for me during our trip. My family had all clubbed together to give me the very special gift of a pamper day at historic health farm and spa Champneys in Tring. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What a place. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so grand and luxurious. (It brands itself these days as a health "resort" rather than "farm" and its vast size alone makes that a fairly apt description.) It’s amazing how quickly just a few minutes in a Jacuzzi can make you feel better, let alone a Jacuzzi outside under a canopy in beautiful gardens in front of a Rothschild mansion. And this before you start on the sauna, steam room, plunge pool, thalassotherapy pool, platters of fresh fruit in the drawing room, and darkened quiet zone full of twinkly lights, recliner chairs, whale music and duvets. Included in my day were a facial and manicure, which served to remind me just how little time I get to care for my appearance these days. But they felt so good. My skin was visibly glowing afterwards. My aunt came along too, just to check it was all OK for me. This was only my second ever full day away from Charlotte. Dave took her to the model village of Bekonscot in the morning and to a soft play centre in Aylesbury after lunch, as it was chucking it down. And he was absolutely shattered by the time the rejuvenated me breezed in just before Charlotte’s bedtime.

Then it was the day of the lunch. And despite all my fears, it all worked out magnificently. We explained to Charlotte (very unused to being looked after by other people) that Mummy and Daddy were going out for a special lunch, and that she would stay with Auntie Shirley, and she could play with her trains, go to the park, eat baked beans, watch CBeebies as much as she wanted, and that we would be back after her nap, and she was perfectly accepting of the whole arrangement. If we’d left out the CBeebies part, she might not have been so complacent.

And then we drove off to paradise. A lot of the Michelin star grading system is based on the hospitality and ambience of a place, rather than the food. As you will see, the food was of course without exception exquisite, but what was so striking was the warm welcome we received from the moment we arrived, and the absolute comfort of our surroundings. The manor house dates from the 14th century and was built by a Frenchman, which explains its architectural style of Loire chateau meets Cotswold cottage. Inside is full of pale wood panelling and beams, and it manages to be light and airy despite its small medieval windows. There are huge fireplaces and cuddly sofas everywhere. Everyone greets you with a friendly smile. There is a lot of French spoken, and we became “madame” and “monsieur” to all. But all the staff seem genuinely pleased about your visit. There is not the slightest trace of snootiness about the place. There is no judgment made about your appearance, despite my aunt insisting on brushing off encrusted rice cake from my tatty old coat before we left. Nothing is too much trouble for anyone. The toilets are so spacious and luxurious I laughed.

We had arrived early and had planned to spend a little time wandering around the beautiful grounds before lunch, but the heavens opened as we pulled into the car park, so we just went straight inside and opted for a post-prandial stroll instead. The gardens are lovely at any time of year – the earth of the vegetable patches was mostly bare, but there were still interesting statues and sculptures everywhere, small ponds and secret paths, as well as a Japanese garden and tea house.

We were shown into a lounge and we just sat back and let it all happen. Snuggled up in front of the fire, we perused the menu and tried not to panic over the prices on the wine list, which often ran into hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Thankfully there were plenty of by the glass options (and this was only lunchtime after all, with one of us driving), even if a single glass cost more than we might hope to pay for a whole bottle elsewhere. But there’s no point going somewhere like that to then have to be entirely abstemious. You have to just go with the flow and worry about the credit card repayments another time. We ordered non-alcoholic cocktails as an aperitif – a virgin mojito for me, and a camparino for Dave, both refreshing palate cleansers. Then a plate of canapés arrived, and our mouths began to warm up to the gastronomic experience of a lifetime.
Canapes and menus on a cuddly sofa in front of the fire

There was an article in the Guardian this week about whether or not it is bad manners to photograph your food in a restaurant. Well, it probably is, but I had my blog post and you, dear readers, in mind. But I switched the camera flash off, and took just one shot as quickly as possible so that I would minimise disturbance to other diners. For some of the courses you will see that I forgot about taking a photo until I had already eaten some of it, as my senses were just too keen to jump in.

Our meal ran as follows:

The canapés – smoked salmon on toast, caraway pie, salt cod potato and ham balls on red pepper ketchup, goats curd with manuka honey on an oat cake.
The salmon is missing

Chosen from the bread basket - beer and mashed potato bread, sundried tomato ciabatta, raisin and pecan loaf, and a miniature French baguette, with a choice of salted or unsalted butter.

Washed down with - one glass of a Southern French Sauvignon Blanc, one glass of a Chassagne Montrachet, one glass of a Burgundy Pinot Noir at £22 (the waiter neglected to mention the price when he recommended it just before the main courses arrived) and half a glass of an English wine which was a bad choice of my own just before dessert.

The dishes of the Les Saveurs de Mars seven-course tasting menu (cue Masterchef style voiceover):

1. Ceviche de noix de St-Jacques, caviar et orange de Séville
(That’s raw scallops and something normally only in marmalade to you, on radish and fennel)

2. Saumon fumé mi-cuit, raifort et concombre
(Warm oak-smoked salmon, horseradish and what Charlotte pronounces cucumbugger)

3. Oeuf de poule, purée de cresson, jambon de jabugo, noisettes grillés
(Posh ham and eggs with hazelnuts and watercress slop)

4. Caille des dombes rôtie, chou rouge, vin rouge et canella
(Quail with red cabbage, red wine and cinnamon gravy, plus butternut squash two ways, turnip, onion and chestnut)

5. Fromage bleu Crozier, noix de pecan, gelée aux baies de genievre
(Irish blue cheese, cheese mousse, roasted pecans and juniper jelly on wafer-thin deep-fried bread)
Half the cheese has already vanished

6. Gelée de fruits exotiques, jus de noix de coco et feuille de kaffir
(An unbelievably clever ravioli with a shell of tropical fruit gel, with kaffir lime and coconut sorbet)

7. “Citrus”
(Lemon custard encased in lemon white chocolate on a lemon biscuit, with lemon and basil sorbet, grapefruit jellies and lime marshmallows and an added birthday touch)
Candle already extinguished

Happy diner

Rounded off with: peppermint tea (or coffee for Dave) and a plate of petits fours – a licorice mini-Magnum, lemon macaroon, chocolate and marmalade biscuit, mini brownie, pistachio and lavender nougat, rhubarb and ginger jelly, and a nut caramel cream.

Licorice mini-Magnum and lemon macaroon no longer in view

What can I say? It was all perfect. Even flavours that I don’t normally much care for, like horseradish, were in flawless balance and proportions. Everything melted away in our mouths, allowing us to taste every single ingredient whilst leaving us with a unique and complete overall flavour too. The textures of the baked produce (breads, pastry etc) were simply incredible. Nothing could compare.

The bill? £335. Ouch. Plus a new mobile phone for Dave, since his - rather worryingly - went missing while we were there, even though the staff did their utmost to help us find it. Without a doubt, my most extravagant birthday present ever.

I would give anything to go back, stay the night, live the dream one more time. But it will no doubt be at least a decade before I do.

Charlotte went down with a streaming cold just as we arrived back at my aunt’s. For once, her timing was truly impeccable.

Et voila. I'm done. 40 challenges for 40 years. My journey is complete.

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