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Saturday, 19 October 2013
Words & Photography by Felicity Spector
It was a day of decadent and unexpected delights: put simply, probably the best Sunday lunch of my life. The day had not begun well - a distressing hospital visit, leaden skies, the icy chill of driving rain. But just a few miles from Bicester station - a more perfect Sunday beckoned. A 900 year old manor house with a pair of topiary sheep flanking the door and a welcoming fire that promised warmth and hospitality, the smoking embers mixed with heady scent of mulled wine. It boded well.
The Manor at Weston-on-the-Green is undergoing something of a transformation. Rooms are being revamped and redecorated, and there’s a new executive chef who hails from Sri Lanka by way of Le Manoir aux Quatr’Saison and Marcus Wareing’s Berkeley, who’s creating a magical kind of alchemy in the kitchen.
We’d been invited for a taste of Christmas, a chance to try the winter menu that chef Larry Jayasekara has been dreaming up, so it was fitting to begin with mugs of Glogg, a Swedish style mulled wine spiked with plump raisins and almonds, rich with spices - with a basket of home made gingersnaps for good measure.
Next the canapés: beautiful mouthfuls of arancini with truffle mayonnaise, crab and avocado tartlet, quenelles of goats cheese with olive, salmon with crème fraiche.
We tore ourselves away from the fireplace and followed general manager Christian Kaberg to the galleried private dining room above the main restaurant, an amazing Tudor hall with beams and stained glass windows and a magnificent two-tiered chandelier: the table laid for Christmas complete with festive centrepiece and crackers.
Larry came in to explain the first course: a smooth, velvety chestnut veloute with a crisply fried sphere of confit duck cut with nuggets of dried apricot which was delicious - rich without being heavy.
Bowls were whisked away, a new wine came for the others, and the next course arrived. Pheasant cooked two ways - confit leg and roasted breast, the bird carefully brined first to make sure it would be served perfectly moist. It came with a beetroot mayonnaise and roasted chunks of beetroot in three colours: a combination which I’d never tried before but which totally worked.
The fish course was intended as a palate cleanser: scallop ceviche, with blobs of apple puree, an apple veloute, the thinnest slices of radish, scattered with a brunoise of shallot which Larry explained he’d blanched for just a few seconds to remove any harshness, and - why not - a spoonful of caviar.
Every dish offered a dizzying succession of flavours and textures and layers of taste - clever, inventive, beautifully judged. And we hadn’t even had the main course yet. More plates were whisked in by waiters who seemed to be choreographed with military precision: while the others had venison, very kindly they’d arranged for me to have chicken - and it was my favourite dish so far: an incredibly smooth swede puree (who knew swede could taste so luxe?) wild mushrooms, poached plum, a dark and glossy juniper jus.
As if this wasn’t already the most luxurious not-really-Christmas lunch ever, in came Larry wielding a couple of large truffles which he proceeded to grate generously on top. It was as incredible as it sounds. I don’t think I left a single schmear on the plate.
After all that we took a bit of a stroll round the hotel, taking in the sunken garden, the eclectic display of topiary, and a haunted bedroom or two, before it was time for dessert.
Before pudding proper, though, in came a pre-dessert. I like the idea of pre-desserts. I plan to incorporate more of them into my daily routine. This one was pretty exemplary: a shot glass of passion fruit curd and crunchy crumble and diced mango with lime granita. Others might have been flagging at this stage, but a glance at the menu showed there was chocolate to come: a cylinder of soft cremeaux on top of some crunchy chocolate crumb, topped with figs poached in a sticky port reduction - and some buttermilk ice cream for good measure. Phenomenal. I think there was another shot glass which appeared at some stage, with a whisper of vanilla milkshake foam and some raspberry essence.
Somehow there was still room for coffee and petit fours, which were really too good to miss: chocolates filled with caramel and miniature brownies with pistachio. It was a tour de force. A lunch that ended fully five hours after we arrived. And all this, from a kitchen which is about to be completely updated in a complicated six week overhaul, hopefully finished in time for the Christmas rush.
The plan, according to Christan Kaberg, is to give Larry the kind of kitchen he needs to showcase the full range of his talents. “If you hire someone great, you need to give them the tools to realise their potential”, he said - although even without state of the art new facilities, the quality of the Manor’s cooking was sublime. Incredibly, their 6 course Autumn tasting menu is just £60 per head (£95 with matching wines) and it’s possible to hire the private dining area above the main ‘Baron’s Hall’ which we were treated to for an extra amount, but then you are guaranteed your own personal waiters.
But the Manor is setting out to offer a whole season of gourmet treats in the run up to Christmas, with a whole series of feasts and festive events - from a four course seasonal lunch for £45 to the full blown Christmas day extravaganza for £160 per person.
Christian Kaberg really wants to put the hotel on the gastronomic map. “This isn’t a hidden gem”, he insisted: “it deserves to be shared”. Guests come from all over the UK, from America and China - lured by the dreaming spires of Oxford, the Cotswolds, or the consumer-frenzy of nearby Bicester Village. There’s space for four helicopters to land in the grounds, in case you were wondering.
The epic five hour lunch was over: but I didn’t want to leave. I sank into the huge sofa, unwilling to leave the warm embrace of that huge fireplace in the entrance hall for the train back to London. The Manor at Weston-on-the-Green a splendid place for a really memorable lunch, or a special celebration with some fine English countryside thrown in. Those newly decorated rooms are light and bright and comfortable, without sacrificing any of the glorious history of a stately home that dates back to Henry VIII.
And, of course, there’s the helipad. All bases covered, then: a gem that certainly does deserve to be shared.
The Manor at Weston-on-the Green
Weston on the Green
Oxfordshire OX25 3QL
01869 350 621
Rooms start at £180 a night including breakfast