Published 11 April 1999 Style Magazine 300th article
Chef wish: Michael Winner and Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
We arrived at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire at 4.20pm. We were very well greeted. There were a lot of customers in every public room. It was absolutely crowded. "Who we these people?" I asked the lady showing us round. "They've stayed for lunch," she said "They're making a day of it." Personally I like to see one old colonel asleep in the corner.
Our rooms were in a kind of unused stable block, except that it was purpose-built, adjacent to the 15th-century manor house, to accommodate new suites. Mine was called Opium. It was Japanese with huge, beige, suede sofa cushions on the floor, Japanese-style trellis work and, outside, a little walled garden with a pond and a Buddha. Rain was pouring down.
Vanessa said: "It's a sexy bed." "Deep red ceiling, wood with red lights, endless cushions on the bed," I dictated. The final touch was a bunch of twigs standing 6ft high against the wall. I'd ordered tea and sandwiches as soon as we arrived. Twenty-three minutes later, the tea arrived. Normally the tea and sandwiches come together, so I said: "Take the tea away and when the sandwiches are ready bring it again." An extremely snooty French waiter departed grumpily. At 4.55, I rang reception and said: "What's going on? We came here 35 minutes ago and we haven't got anything." At 4.59, tea and sandwiches arrived. A lady appeared and said; "I'm the duty manageress. We normally send the tea a few minutes before the sandwiches." I said: "This wasn't a few minutes before. The idea is you have the tea and the sandwiches together." I paused. "They meld," I added.
"That's a sandwich!" said Vanessa appreciatively as the management team departed. She was right. The sandwiches were as good as you could get. There were 32 of them on two plates, one vegetarian, one not vegetarian. They were totally fresh. They didn't have that frozen or slightly moist-from-a-cloth-feel that you get even at Claridge's. But Claridge's does boast a sensational four-piece girl orchestra at Sunday teatime. When I first heard them they were not all playing the same melody and, if they were, they were not all in tune. They have become immaculate, but not better. They are a great draw. The place was packed when I went. This is still the best tea in London. The scones are exceptional. But Raymond Blanc's sandwiches beat theirs by far. If only he'd thrown in some twanging Japanese instruments plucked by costumed orientals sitting on the floor.
There were no tissues in my bathroom and no shampoo. Hearing me dictate this, Vanessa looked at a sachet of "Bath Soak". On the back it said it was Body Wash and Bath Soak. It also said in tiny letters that it was "A mild moisturising shower gel for body and hair care". Which could mean it was a shampoo. In the old days shampoo was labelled shampoo and was better for it.
On this occasion we didn't have dinner at Le Manoir, although I have eaten many main meals there before. They were never less than good and, on occasion, historic. I particularly enjoyed the time Raymond had a crying baby removed for me and wheeled endlessly round the garden by a liveried waiter.
Breakfast was superb. Amazingly fresh and tasty croissants; brilliant eggs; sausages and mushrooms perfect; Vanessa's poached eggs excellent. Three delicious home-made jams in open bowls with spoons. Vanessa tried a chocolate croissant and thought it was wonderful. Beautiful crockery. This was legendary.
Later, as he was showing us his cookery school at Le Manoir, Raymond said: "You'd expect the French to understand breakfast." I failed to grasp that. The French are not famous for their cooked breakfasts. Raymond took us on a tour of the rooms. One, near ours, called Snow Queen, had tissues. "Not like in my bathroom," I said snottily. "There is no question your room has tissues," said Raymond and insisted on going in. "Oh no!" he said, finding none there.
The variety of rooms, all incredibly well done, is extraordinary. One had romantic murals with two baths facing each other like a love seat; others matched names on the doors. Raymond has, with great devotion and pride of ownership, turned Le Manoir into an extraordinary, really pleasant, eating and living experience. As we went back to collect our bags, the rain still pouring down, I saw a row of umbrellas in motion on the other side of my little garden's brick wall. No people could be observed. Just umbrellas going right to left. As if invisible men were holding them. They'd have liked the breakfast, too.
In a recent column (Style, March 28), you say that you own a Leica Summarit camera. Leica never made a Summarit camera. I know: I have a formidable Leica collection.
Anthony North, London SW7
It's a Leica Minilux with Summarit lens. MW
On a visit to a branch of Yo! Sushi in Selfridges with a friend, I was pleasantly surprised to discover no queue. But when I approached the young lady at the desk, she said that there were no vacant seats and waiting time would be about 10 minutes. When I pointed out that there were, in fact, some vacant seats and that the conveyor belt carrying food to the customers was still running, I received the same answer. I then asked if I could go to the ladies, to which the young girl said: "I can't keep your seats. First come, first served I'm afraid." This was my friend's first experience of Japanese food - and I can't help feeling that it will be her last.
Norah Mohsen, London NW6
After reading one of your articles, a dear friend decided to take me to Zamoyski Restaurant and Vodka Bar. We had a memorable evening, some wonderful food, and, of course, sampled quite a few of the many different vodkas on offer. Thank you for recommending this delightful restaurant. It will certainly be on our list of places to visit in future.
RT, Dagenham, Essex
Send letters to Style, or e-mail: michael.winnersunday-times.co.uk