This was the life I dreamed for myself. When I lived in Oxford in a bedsit with icicles and without central heating, I'd cycle numbly down the Woodstock Road sure that I'd be Mrs Junior Fellow at St Anywhere College, and the kids would go to the Squirrel School, or the Dragon, and life would be warm/italics/. Plentiful and warm. No more meringues and yolkless omelettes from the bottle of egg whites in our communal fridge, unwittingly donated by Ms Raymond Blanc at the Quat' Saisons, then in Summertown, and laundered through my housemate Alison who was the pastry chef. No more squishy exotic fruit bought on the reduced shelf from Sainsbury's. I'd have an anglicised husband, difficult since I didn't go out with anyone who lived closer than Athens, and sleep with all my husband's graduate students. (It was/italics/ fantasy, for God's sake).
Naturally, it hasn't worked out that way. But when my friend Delphine was delivering her son to the Dragon, I came over all house mother and bun breaks. I looked at all the pretty, drab, clever mummies, with their children called things like Boadicea and Mungo, and thought, this was my life. How did you/italics/ get it?
So, for consolation, we had lunch. We had hoped to try La Gousse D'Ail, owned by Jonathan Wright who was previously chef de Cuisine at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and had a brief stint as Executive chef at The Great Eastern Hotel. He has now moved to North Oxford where he hopes to persuade Oxfordians to lavish the same amount of money on fine dining as they do on their libraries. Sadly, it was closed for a private function that day, so we went to Le Manoir itself, to enjoy two Michelin star, bucolic splendour in nearby Great Milton.
Surprisingly, the dining room, situated in a pleasant, expansive conservatory annex behind a fairly provincial buttery yellow dining room, was dominated by women. Rather large ladies who lunch, and whose numbers we swelled satisfactorily. We planned to skimp on the set menu - 3 courses at £45 but it was stunningly boring and the a la carte proved difficult to ignore. It's hard to settle for ordinary roast cod with mustard sauce at any price - no matter how many stars it has after its name. Especially when in London you can have three courses from the a la carte for a few pounds more at the similarly 2 Michelin starred Square or Gordon Ramsay.
A compromise was reached. From the set menu we had the quail salad on a bed of leaves which, as you might expect, was little different from any other quail salad (though how different could/italics/ it be - it's not as though it would be wearing Raybans and a Jackie O headscarf), and the daube de boeuf a la bourguignonne with potato puree to follow. Now the daube did melt in the mouth like an icicle in hell, with a flavour to die for if you had done everything else in life you wished to achieve, but yes - I know - I'm a stingy misery guts, I still thought it too much to pay for stew.
Of course, you're not paying for stew, you're paying for fantastic attention to detail, rigorous and passionate mastery in the kitchen, and the beautiful surroundings. You're paying for the whole experience - the man who cuts the lawn, the chap in the gazebo by the car park wielding a logo-ed umbrella lest your helmet hairdo gets drizzled on during the walk through the luxurious gardens. The diffused sunshine illuminating the raindrops, God gives you for free.
The a la carte raised much more enthusiasm. Black truffle risotto with Jabugo ham, monkfish with wild rice, almonds and cinnamon - lots of citrus everywhere, with elegance and restraint in the pairing of ingredients. Main courses would be the usual upmarket food critic's wet dream. Boned Oxtail or pigs trotters with sweetbread, veal tongue kidneys and foie gras. A spleen short of a Damien Hurst exhibit.
This sort of internalising just brings out my shallow side. I'm much more concerned with the superficialities of the food world. Please, don't tell me your innermost secrets, and keep your braised heart to yourself. I had the divine soft-quail egg ravioli with spinach, parmesan and black Perigord truffles - a mini egg Florentine snuggled inside a cushion of pasta. Truly splendid. The roasted turbot, fragrant with herbs and rosemary butter was invigorating and loin of venison with bitter chocolate and braised celery hearts thankfully had dark earthy tones and not a hint of Dairy Milk.
Dessert was disappointing. The set menu's orange gratin was reminiscent of invalid food and the £18 pineapple sunflower resembled two beach parasols on the Costa del Sol with less texture and no taste. Neither were bad/italics/, just not the triumphant finale heralded by the preceding fanfare. A compensation was the tiny coffee ice cream amongst the petit fours, eaten in the log-fired lounge, completing a perfect day.
Sometimes, the life you end up with isn't half bad. Though I'd still like the other half if you're leaving it.