Back in the UK on a brief visit from Singapore, we gathered together for a special occasion fam ily dinner. With a convenient location not far from Goddard Senior’s home in Oxfordshire, and a Michelin star proclaiming its quality foodie credentials, L’Ortolan was selected as the venue of choice. It’s dubbed as the ‘second Manoir’ (referencing Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir au Quatre Saisons, also located in Oxfordshire) and whilst we didn’t think it warranted quite such a high accolade, it certainly exceeded our expectations in terms of the superb high quality food and imaginative dishes. And is a fraction of the cost.
Before we get on to the food, the first thing to note is that the venue, whilst a beautiful country manor house from the outside, was a little disappointing on the interior. We were welcomed by very friendly front of house staff into the tiny front bar, which whilst fairly charming, didn’t have enough space for us all. So we were instead ushered into the conservatory which was very much lacking atmosphere, cosiness or ambience. Sadly this was a bit of a theme, as the dining room too when we went through was very formal and quiet, and unremarkable in style (aside from the cute fish tank wall separating the kitchen from the walk to the bathrooms).
But on to the food, where things completely turned a corner. True to celebratory form we went for the tasting menu, which was pretty good value at £75 per head, and we also went for the wine pairing which took it up a notch but still didn’t break the bank. Snacks were served with our aperitifs (an impressive drinks menu which included house gin infused with Manuka honey and served with thyme, and Hampshire vineyard sparkling wine which blew the socks off most champagne I regularly enjoy). From the snacks we knew this was going to be serious food, worthy of that Michelin star. Crispy chicken skin with truffle mayonnaise, delicate nori seaweed cones filled with tuna tartare little goat’s cheese and basil macaroons.
Once settled at our table we enjoyed the amuse bouche of a creamy, salty cauliflower veloute with crispy bacon and curry oil. For the first course, perfectly seared scallops with an unusual but absolutely delicious charred watermelon and wasabi ‘snow’. The wines alongside did indeed pair perfectly, and the charming sommelier (a French lad who must only have been about 21) gave us detailed (but not too pompous) descriptions. Which I’ve forgotten. But bloody nice wine.
Next was the goose liver pate which was rich and creamy and full of flavour as you would expect, served with granola, white chocolate and cherries. I found it a bit on the sweet side, and the pate a little too soft, but the flavor was incredible.
The fish course was next which was unanimously declared the winning dish of the night; a perfect fillet of stone bass with a crisp skin nestled on top of delicate squid ink linguini, enoki mushrooms and a lemongrass foam. Light and absolutely delicious.The almost faultless menu moved onto the main meat course of a wond
erful iron-rich pink duck breast, alongside the leg meat shredded and turned into a crispy croquette, with a fruity accompaniment of grilled peach slices and a peach puree.
Instead of the usual sorbet palate cleanser, our pre dessert was a rich creamy white chocolate mousse with blueberries hidden at the bottom and topped with a pear crisp. I could quite happily have foregone any other sort of pudding and tucked into another big bowl of that. Especially since actually the pudding for me was the weakest course of the menu; a frozen raspberry parfait, vanilla marshmallow and tarragon and raspberry sorbet. For me the parfait and marshmallow were a little bland whilst the tarragon overpowered the whole plate. The dessert wine pairing however was incredible; a pink sparking moscato which tasted a bit like refresher sweets (for anyone who remembers that childhood fizzing sweetness on your tongue) but was still somehow fresh unlike some dessert wines which can be a bit cloying.
As ever, the meal didn’t end there but out came some petit fours; chocolate truffles served in a little treasure box and chunks of Turkish delight. The Bounty-esque coconut chocolate truffle divided the group between the coconut lovers and haters, but were clearly good as the lovers were arguing over who got the last one. Oh and I almost forgot, whilst the rest of us were utterly stuffed, my brother in law could not resist the cheese course on sight of the cheese trolley wheeled in, which was proclaimed to be one of the most magnificent trolleys to date.
All in all, whilst the ambience and venue was fairly unremarkable, the food certainly was not. It might not be up at the dizzying heights of the 3 starred Le Manoir, but it’s certainly a contender.
L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, UK, RG2 9BY