Editor's note: Postcards is an ongoing series that shares CL food critic Jon Palmer Claridge's culinary adventures outside Tampa Bay.
As we travel down the M40 motorway (Britain's answer to I-4) from Warwickshire to Oxford, I'm happy to be a passenger — never having mastered driving on the opposite side of the road. Hurdling south at 70 miles per hour in the left front passenger seat without a steering wheel is an odd experience. However, it provides me with a startling perspective on a unique phenomenon, one that doesn't exist in the states, at least in my experience.
Though the ground is mostly clear, thick fog fills the sky so it appears to be a contiguous, unvaried light gray blanket. There are no clouds to block out the sun, rather it is plainly visible, but as a shimmering silver full-moon-like disc. It peers through the engulfing mist without a corona. If you didn't know better and wanted to burn out your retinas, you could stare directly at it indefinitely.
It's fascinating to observe as we head south to celebrate the joint birthdays of two English friends at one of England's great stately homes, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons — another stunning example of how great chefs create magic. In this case, celebrated chef Raymond Blanc, who has held two Michelin stars for 30-plus years, knocks us out as only these kinds of experiences can.
We opt for a five-course lunch instead of seven and include the superb wine pairings. While we're sitting in lovely overstuffed wing chairs in the lush parlor decked out for the holidays (with my guests enjoying a cocktail), the kitchen delivers a small slate board with four diminutive amuse-bouches to whet our appetite.
Each is a work of art: smoked salmon with a bit of lemon and dill, Stilton mousse with cranberry on a brandy snap, a trimmed daikon radish flavored like gin and tonic, and sweet grilled pineapple with bacon. They're all clearly assembled with tweezers, each one yummier than the one that came before it. Michelin doesn't pass out stars lightly.
We're smiling like giddy idiots even as we take our seats, then the bread service arrives. It's a basket of thrilling artisan creations. Crisp mini baguettes with pointed ends, bacon boules, potato and ale rolls, and slices of whole grain rife with airy holes from bubbling natural yeast. Of course, the basket's served with the freshest, creamiest butter. The bread is so exquisite that one friend manages to eat five servings.
Our meal begins with a shot of roasted pumpkin and butternut squash soup with a base of chicken stock, which has a depth of flavor only time delivers. It's accompanied by a tiny biscotti piped with pumpkin purée that's dotted with tiny bits of Irish Cashel Blue cheese. Divine.
The next three courses are a lesson in sous vide, the relatively new method of cooking vacuum-sealed food in a precise, temperature-controlled water bath. This enables the chef to produce unbelievably lush textures.
Course two is a salmon confit like no salmon I've ever tasted. It's soft like butter and utterly seductive. The chef serves it with a long slice of cucumber dotted with coarse, yet mild, whole-grain mustard. The fillet itself is surrounded with tiny cubes of lightly dressed potato with fresh bits of chive and parsley oil. There are also accents of watercress and leaves of arugula.
Next, a jumbo sous-vide poached hen's egg arrives on a bed of watercress and squares of Ibérico ham. The dish is sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts, and it's a most sumptuous way to celebrate the "incredible edible egg" that's so often taken for granted.
Our last savory course is a chunk of braised boneless beef short rib. Because the protein's cooked sous vide at a low temperature, it's fall-apart tender, but still medium rare. I've had 96-hour short ribs before that were very similar. The beef is on a bed of creamy smoked mashed potatoes and winter greens, with pieces of carrot, turnip, red onion, morels, caramelized shallot, and a charred scallion. The plate's finished with a luscious red-wine reduction and micro greens.
The kitchen finishes with a flourish. A caramel-poached pear half with a licorice stem is topped with vanilla crème chiboust (think creamy meringue). Tiny squares of ripe pear surround a quenelle of citrus sorbet garnished with wisps of lime zest. Simply sensational.
When we retire to the parlor for tea and coffee, there's one final culinary blow. A rectangular clear glass platter is overflowing with a cornucopia of delicate mignardises: tiny macarons, chocolates, fruit jellies, nougat and candy pops to assure we exit into the winter fog as happy campers.
Alas, our ride back to Stratford-upon-Avon is indeed a white-knuckled trek that's foggy and dark (sunset is at 4 p.m. in England as we cross into a new year). Luckily, a two-star Michelin lunch is a peak experience not to be forgotten.