Surprising things on your doorstep

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It’s a strange phenomena that I find myself assuming things that need a little effort to achieve must somehow be better than things I can find right on my doorstep. So in general I expect to travel to get the best.  This covers a whole range of things. I remember when I first moved to my current location I wanted to find a ‘natural’ dentist. Someone who wasn’t going to fill my teeth with toxic mercury. I assumed it would be necessary to travel up to London to achieve this. I was surprised and delighted to find that the very next village had a very prominent dentist in the wholistic dentistry field. Over the years this trait of looking further afield for things I need has continued.

Dining out is one of those areas. For everyday eating we are very well serviced. All the usual places and then some very good gastro pubs and independent restaurants. But if it’s a special occasion I would normally look further afield. Which really doesn’t make any sense at all as where I live is someone else’s ‘further afield’.

Anyway I recently had a birthday and my husband asked if I would like to have lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. Now we have had quite a few amazing lunches at Raymond Blanc’s beautiful restaurant over the years. The food, service and surroundings are stunning. Once, about 12 years ago we turned up for lunch with our 7 month old son. The staff didn’t turn a hair. The most fabulous high chair was swiftly brought to our table and a magnificent lunch was enjoyed by us all. Thankfully our baby son was impeccably behaved. So ‘Le Manoir’ remains a firm favourite of ours to this day. Not least because despite being very French it caters magnificently for vegetarians. Had I mentioned we are all vegetarians? Well I have now.

For some reason I decided I would like to buck my usual trend and try something a little closer to home. So we opted for The Artichoke in Old Amersham. Just a stones throw from our door – well almost. It was difficult to get a table at short notice due to its popularity so we had a booking for 9.15pm.

The first challenge is always to scan the menu for the veggie options. Often very disappointing. The current favourite in most places being a butternut squash risotto. At least it has mostly replaced the goat’s cheese tart. Anyway, having mentioned to the waiting staff that we were all vegetarian a completely separate menu was produced. It’s one of those establishments that has menus without prices. The menu with prices being kept for whoever is deemed to be the host of the meal and will therefore be paying the bill. In our case we all got the menus without prices! As it was my birthday we decided to go for their 5 course taster menu which was quite a leap of faith as we had no idea how much it would be! We enjoyed the guessing game that ensued round the table about how much the bill would be at the end.

The food was spectacular. We kicked off with Wye valley asparagus, morels, parmesan custard with a tarragon dressing and croutons. A beetroot sorbet was a delicious surprise in another course and parsnip bark had us all raising our eyebrows in wonder. The wild garlic gnocchi with a fried quails egg was a triumph.

We had our son in tow again this time not needing a high chair as he nears the start of his teenage years.  He found the sophistication of the food a bit surprising but it certainly didn’t stop him from clearing all 5 plates, amuse bouches and sorbets. I have to say that the food really rivals anything that we would have received at Raymond’s. So just a little lesson to myself not to assume the best is always further afield.  By the way the price was half of what my husband had guessed and less than my guess too. So a very happy end to the evening and just a few minutes drive home afterwards.

Now I must start working on my ‘more expensive must be better’ mind set.

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