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Archive for August 3rd, 2010

Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, or The Rise And Fall Of French Cuisine

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For the last couple of years I’ve been a regular visitor to Stadhampton and every time I drove down the A329 through Little Milton I would a) start whistling this and b) promise myself I would one day take the turning for Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons. So a couple of weeks ago I did.

I was slightly nervous beforehand. A colleague had been there for lunch not long before and had found it very fussy. I don’t like fuss. Or rather, I didn’t think I liked fuss; it turns out that actually I like a very specific type of fuss. The fuss of the rich. Even before you step through the door of Le Manoir you are in the embrace of a machine of quite awesome precision. You are greeted by half dozen staff within moments, everybody knows your name, formalities are effortlessly dealt with, you are guided through to a lounge where a succession staff ensure all your needs are seen to. You are coccooned. I can see why some might find it stiffling but I found it utterly relaxing: the luxury of putting yourself in someone else’s hands and knowing they will deliver.

Because sometimes it is nice to be guided. It is an issue I ran into last year when buying my suit for my wedding. I don’t know much about suits but I’ve got strong aesthetic preferences and I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted. So I would go into a department store and articulate my half-formed desire at which point the assistant would inevitably gesture to the suits all around us and say “well, we’ve got these”. Thanks, I am capable of browsing myself. Now, what I should have done was go to a proper tailor and get a bespoke suit but then we fall back to the problem of my lack of knowledge. How do I know which tailor to go into in the first place? And there is also the question of money. It is all very well placing yourself in the hands of a profession but what happens when you have to settle up?

Such concerns didn’t apply at Le Manoir: its two Michelin stars are endorsement enough and, although it was by some margin the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten, the bill was always going to be manageable. (If we’d stayed the night there, on the other hand…) So when we wonder if we can swap the only item on the set menu which contains meat, the head waiter has already anticipated this*. And when the only advice I can offer the sommelier is that we would like a glass with the first and third courses, this is more than enough. Likewise when I ask for a dessert wine that isn’t too much like a dessert wine, he returns with a glass of Coteaux du Layon Rabley 2008 which is simply perfect.

In contrast, the food was merely very good. Our table was for half eight so and instead went for Les Classiques which, as you would imagine, is classic French cooking. Which brings us to Stephen Shapin’s review of Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger. The title is fairly self-explanatory but her is the argument:

The basic cause of France’s falling behind is a failure to innovate. For Gopnik, ‘one of the principles of high French cooking’ is a commitment not just to intensity but to innovation, making things ‘far more original than anyone can imagine’. Combinations, preparations, tastes which are not just very good but very new – things to eat that expand your vocabulary of tastes. That’s why high cooking is supposed to be an art, like a painting that shows you a horse in a way you’ve never thought to look at a horse before and changes your subsequent perceptions of horses. And French haute cuisine was long supposed to be like the winner of a horse race, not to be the fastest, but to be the most innovative.

That’s pretty much Steinberger’s position too. Haute cuisine once sat at the global top table and now it’s been pushed aside by other nations. The new tastes, new combinations and new presentations come from Spain, Japan, the United States and the changed beyond recognition restaurant scene in Britain. Au Revoir to All That argues that French cuisine got complacent, smug in its historical supremacy; its chefs paid little attention to what was happening in what had been the culinary provinces. As one French chef acknowledged: ‘People didn’t really cook; they just practised a cuisine,’ and French cuisine, Steinberger says, got stuck ‘in a sort of time warp’.

There is definitely something to this. The risotto I ate at Le Manoir was the best I had ever eaten but it was still a risotto and hard to get too excited about. It was also just on the tipping point: the freshness of the summer vegetables and the extraordinary intensity of the tomato essence just on the cusp of being overwhelmed by those old French favourites, butter and cheese. As the review continues:

While Escoffier had once said ‘faites simple,’ classic French haute cuisine had evolved into a practice bound by rigid rules, based on heavy sauces, oceans of cream and butter, and all-day reductions. The chefs of nouvelle cuisine wanted to make it simpler, lighter, fresher, prettier, healthier, at once more artistic and more ‘natural’, more open to foreign inspirations, especially from Japan.

It was notable that most exciting dish on the menu was the fish course which paired Cornish brill and Scottish scallop with a lemongrass braisage. This hit all these latter adjectives and is the sort of food that would I would more usually chose a restaurant on the basis of. It brought the palette alive rather than mugging. It stood in stark contrast to the meat course which came with its own jug of chicken liver sauce which was delicious but delicious to the point of nausea.

£150 a head, worth every penny for the experience and one day I will return. But I think I will be having the discovery menu.

* He wasn’t a mind reader, I’d mentioned dietary requirements when I booked but that was back in January As an aside, whilst it is welcome that they offer a full vegetarian equivalent of each of the menu, they are rather pedestarian alternatives (even taking into account the fact the whole menu relatively staid). It is also a bit cheeky that both of the set vegetarian menus are the same price as the standard menus, given than an a la carte main is about twenty quid less.

Written by Martin

3 August 2010 at 08:39