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Go forth by all means, Raymond, but don't multiply

Published 15 February 2004
News Review
553rd article

Michael Winner and Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

"I'm a control freak," said Raymond Blanc, boss of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford. "I do everything. Every beam of light. Everything in the hotel." "Then why is the TV in the living room of my suite not working?" I asked. "It has no remote control and the picture's absolutely dreadful.

"It's a Sharp television. The one thing it isn't is sharp. Every single channel is grainy. It looks like you can't afford to put up an aerial to get proper reception."

Our little chat was just before dinner. When I went back to the suite later there was a new TV with a remote control. They both worked. There's an example to thwart those of you who say when I turn up, establishments are on red alert.

If Le Manoir had been on even pale pink alert, the general manager, Philip Newman-Hall, would have checked my accommodation out carefully. He's not there any more. His successor should read this and makes notes for my next visit.

Return I will, because Le Manoir is an immense credit to Raymond Blanc. It's a beautifully run hotel, set in lovely grounds and with a two-Michelin-starred restaurant.

It used to be part of Richard Bransoifs hotel group, now it's with the Orient-Express people for whom I have immense admiration. Except for their Reid's Palace hotel in Madeira, which is where Raymond will open a restaurant later this year. That's a pity.

The more our superb chefs diversify and multiply the more they embark on a slippery slope. Instead of one magnificently run place they end up putting their name to many - none of which means much.

This year Raymond lost the Michelin's Bib Gourmand, an accolade representing "Good food at moderate prices" from his restaurants in Birmingham and Oxford. There’s a moral around somewhere.

I greatly admire people who persevere relentlessly and make sure their enterprise works. So when I said to one of my all-time favourite restaurateurs, Eric Garnier of Racine on Brompton Road, "I suppose you'll be opening more places", and he replied, "I only want one restaurant", my reaction was "Bravo!"

There's no dress code in Raymond's dining room. It was full. "Don't forget to mention it's the busiest Michelin-starred restaurant in Great Britain - 78,000 people a year," said Raymond. I dictated this on my tape. Raymond said, as if I was revealing a major secret, "I will say nothing to you any more!"

He's eccentric. That's one of his good points. Later I got a press cutting from a Raymond Blanc interview. He was asked, "Don't you think children can be disruptive or disturbing to people without kids?" Raymond replied, "They only make a noise when Michael Winner comes in. And I do as well."

He was probably referring to a visit when a child ran round the dining room screaming, opening service doors and slamming them and generally destroying the relaxed atmosphere Raymond had created.

The next time I came in some kid was wheeled endlessly round the gardens in his chair to keep him out of my way. If only all restaurants did that!

Here's some of the superb food I stuffed down at Le Manoir. A starter of braised veal sweetbreads, cauliflower puree, wild mushrooms and truffles. Then grouse in a blackberries and red wine St Emilion sauce. They were both delicious. Although I didn't get all the grouse, just the breasts. Raymond said I didn’t have the legs because they were too bitter and too stringy. Who am I to argue! Especially as he did multi-historic pommes souffles.

These are blown-up fried potato balloons of which I'm inordinately fond. They're very difficult and time consuming for the kitchen staff. "They're a great classic dish," Raymond explained. He's a man of taste.

My dessert was ice orgeat parfait and lemon confit in fine biscuit leaves, warm cherries. More enjoyable to eat than to read. "What's this blobby red stuff underneath?" I asked. "It's the cherries, darling," said Geraldine patiently.

There was a mini disaster with the tea. I asked for mint tea, fresh green mint leaves in hot water. Their leaves looked dried. It was apparently peppemint tea. "It's the most pungent leaf you can get," explained Raymond. That may be, but I didn't order it.

To add insult to injury I'd asked for all the Sunday newspapers and the next morning there was no Independent. I did get the Sport and the Star. That shows what they thought of me.

Oh well, at least I got The Sunday Times so I could read myself. A delight only exceeded by the pleasure of your letters, praising me or otherwise.

Winner's letters

For reasons which elude me, the attention of the nation appears to be equally divided between your gastronomic memories and Jordan's mammaries. The similarities are uncanny. You've both got a lot of front, insist on hogging the camera, have succumbed to cosmetic intervention and regularly hide behind a barrage of drivel. However, I can't help thinking there's significantly more to you than meets the eye. Which is more than can be said of your doppelganger.
Dr Ian Murphy, Essex

As penance for being rude about noisy children on his first-class BA flight, we urge all young readers to vote unanimously for Mr Winner to be Father Christmas at the Sandy Lane hotel this year. He has all the physical attributes. The only ingredients missing are patience and a sense of humour.
Oscar (14), Aimee (12), Pidgeon, Surrey

Chris Morgan asked last week why the Mighty Winner wears his shirt outside his trousers in a common and ridiculous way. I recently saw a photograph of the mighty one completely shirtless and paddling in the sea in some exotic location. His belly was the size of a small elephant and together with his spindly legs he looked like a two-pinned plug. I doubt this truth will be printed, but leave him alone. He looks much better with the shirt out.
Robert Walsh-Taylor Hampshire

Last week Anthony Rogers offered his solution to unruly children on aircraft. In my experience children only misbehave if the parents didn't discipline them properly. Mr Rogers was obviously not a child at some time in his life. I think he should be put in the cargo hold, but not resuscitated at all!
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

Thank you very much (I don't think!) for last week telling the whole world and the Sandy Lane cognoscenti about Groots. The reason we like it is that you don't get people there who stay at Sandy Lane. Like my ex and her husband who's considerably richer than you - and In double glazing.
Marvin Pryce-Jones, Solihull

While I enjoy your restaurant reviews, I find the reader's letters even more entertaining. So, I suppose, a double winner.
Michael Knight, Surrey

Send letters to Winners Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk