Picture the scene: it is Valentine’s Day, the restaurant is booked, you have spent all day getting waxed and preened and look incredible, the LBD is on and Prince Charming is waiting – in an Uber. Bye, bye fairytale coach, hello 20 long minutes in someone else’s estate being told why Brexit is the best/worst thing ever.
Arranging how you’ll travel to and from a night out is always a nightmare. Take the car and you not only have parking to worry about, but your only fizz will come from Diet Coke. Don’t take the car and your choice is Uber, taxi or public transport – a bit like ending a date-night with Timothee Chalamet on a soggy snog.
But help is on hand. Elite chauffeur company iChauffeur offers a VIP service to make sure your romantic rendezvous starts and ends in luxurious style. And after it teamed up with the acclaimed Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, you don’t even have to worry about where to take your loved one.
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My date night starts in a very unromantic South London side street, where I’m working that day. But I feel my heart beat a little faster at the sight of an S-class Mercedes Benz pulling up – that and the admiring (envious) glances it is generating.
Sergio, my driver, is impeccably professional, opening the car door and explaining what controls I need to change my seat position and turn on the heated car seat – no uncomfortable feeling of knowing you’re sitting in the residual warmth of the last commuter here!
Despite being rush hour, Sergio weaves expertly through the traffic, explaining when he changes direction to avoid busy areas and reassuring me of our timings so I can let the rest of our party know when we’re due to arrive.
Inbetween, he is a charming host, happily answering my questions (although he politely declines to divulge when I ask about any famous clients) and chatting when I wish, falling quiet when I have to answer emails or calls.
It is like being driven by a professional friend and I feel relaxed, comfy and safe.
In many ways, the relaxed yet attentive attitude reflects the night ahead. iChauffeur focuses on a friendly, personal approach that offers luxury without pretentiousness, the transport equivalent of Raymond Blanc’s attitude towards dining at Belmond Le Manoir. The French chef famously threw away the rules when it came to fine-dining etiquette, encouraging diners to enjoy the experience as they wish – right down to donning jeans and a T-shirt if they prefer.
Like Sergio, the staff at Belmond Le Manoir are welcoming and attentive, but happily down-to-earth. A restaurant and hotel, it has maintained its two Michelin stars for an incredible 35 years, one less year than it has been open. I ask why Blanc has never tried for a third and the answer is: “He’d rather focus on keeping the standards high.” Having eaten at a restaurant where the chef apologised for missing out on a third Michelin, I found the answer refreshingly assuring: a restaurant happy and assured in what it is doing, rather than chasing a dream.
We sat down to an unforgettable seven-course feast, created from mouth-wateringly fresh ingredients from the restaurant’s own garden. Far from creating complicated foams and dishes disguised to look like other dishes, the chefs here focus on the ingredients and the result is a love story on your tastebuds.
My personal delights are, perhaps, the simplest recipes: chargrilled beetroot with a walnut pesto and lemon confit; a butter-soft roasted loin of Rhug Estate venison, and a selection of squash with ravioli, a dish created especially for me as I have a mushroom allergy (and a dish that quickly wiped away my jealousy at the rest of the group’s truffled hen’s egg and wild mushroom tea). Delicious and my highlight of the meal.
Nobody having to worry about the drive home, we were able to sample Belmond Le Manoir’s delicious wines, too, chosen by the sommelier and from artisan producers who mostly follow organic and biodynamic principles of producing. Of course, iChauffeur can also pick you up the next morning if you wish to stay over.
After a picture-perfect pear almondine and coffee, I head outside where my chariot awaits. It is a long journey for me – around three hours – but the Mercedes feels like my own car (I wish!) and Sergio helps the miles fly by as we chat.
Arriving home, I feel as if I’ve witnessed the start of a beautiful relationship. It has been the perfect first date.
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and iChauffeur offers a dining and return private car experience from £1,321 per person. This includes one-night bed & breakfast and a seven-course tasting menu at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and a return journey from London with iChauffeur based on two people sharing an S or V Class Mercedes. To book or enquire about this experience, please visit iChauffeur or Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
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