We were very fortunate to share an incredible meal at the Fat Duck while we were visiting London. Heston Blumenthal’s eponymous restaurant in Bray (about 40km from London) is known for its whimsical dishes and focus on molecular gastronomy. The restaurant has received a slew of awards over the years – it was named the world’s best restaurant in 2005 (before handing on the mantle to elBulli and in the last two years, Noma) and it now sits at the still rather fantastic spot of number 5, it has 3 Michelin stars and was recently named best restaurant in the UK by the Good Food Guide, scoring a perfect score of 10 out of 10.
The restaurant only offers a tasting menu (£160 per person, to increase to £180 per person from September), dietary requirements are catered for. Reservations can only be made as far as 2 months in advance – a requirement that meant Mr M and I spent a solid 1.5 hours redialling the restaurant on the appointed day. Some 300 phone calls later (I’m not exaggerating) we snagged the coveted reservation.
With all that anticipation, it’s a lot of pressure on a meal! But the Fat Duck really did deliver. In comparison to any other fine dining restaurants I’ve eaten in, there really was an emphasis on theatre and ritual – the theatre of a waiter getting the liquid nitrogen out at the table to make an aperitif or pouring liquid over a patch of grass to create an oak smoke. The ritualistic element of taking a ‘watch’ from the waiter, dunking it into ‘tea’ to make the broth for the Mad Hatter’s mock turtle soup or choosing a tiny ice-cream cone from a tray proffered by the wait staff. The other notable aspect of eating at the Fat Duck was the deliberate engagement of all of the senses - smelling fresh citrus notes while enjoying a campari, listening to waves crash and birds squall while eating a beachside scene, being encouraged to touch the food – picking up a tiny film canister, unwrapping the sweets.
The sense of playfulness in the meal was lovely too. While you expect the unexpected at the Fat Duck, there was a sense of childlike wonder when something was not as it appeared. Many of the dishes just made me smile, and (most importantly) they tasted good too.
Yes it’s a splurge (Mr M described the bill for our lunch as equivalent to an iPad) but it was spectacular and I thoroughly recommend it. One small way to reduce the bill would be to forego the matched wines, we opted for the cheapest wine match available at £90 per person (the most expensive option is north of £300 per person, just for wine), but I think it was probably unnecessary…
So on to the food! Our first bite was a little amuse bouche of aerated beetroot with horseradish cream:
The dehydrated beetroot had a lovely crunchy texture akin to honeycomb and I enjoyed the slight heat from the horseradish cream. It was a powerfully savoury, earthy bite, even though it looked like it could be a petit four.
Next was nitro poached aperitifs, a waiter set up a station next to our table and offered a vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or campari soda. The waiter squeezed the foam aperitif from the pressurised canister and then rolled it in liquid nitrogen, dusted it in a dehydrated powder, spritzed the air with a citrus vapouriser and instructed us to eat it immediately, in a single bite. My campari soda was pleasantly tart and the texture was almost meringue-like on the exterior, with a soft molten centre.
The first course arrived, red cabbage gazpacho with pommery grain mustard ice-cream:
Despite the startling colour of the gazpacho this was one of the least memorable dishes of the meal for me. My main recollection was the tang of the red cabbage and that the ice-cream had a nice balance between sweet and savoury.
In contrast, the next dish jelly of quail with crayfish cream really wowed. A grass covered board was placed in front of us and inside the little box marked ‘Fat Duck Films’ was a thin edible film. The film melted on the tongue and had a subtle, savoury woodsy flavour. Next the waiter poured water on the grass, which set-off the dry ice and an oak smoke covered the table.
The bowl contained several layers of flavours - lurid pea puree at the bottom, dark, gamey quail jelly, salty-sweet crayfish cream and the perfect quenelle of chicken liver parfait. The punches of flavour, separately and mixed together really were extraordinary. On the side was a very thin truffle toast with radish which worked as a nice textural counterpoint. The toast added a simultaneously earthy and fresh bite to the richness of the rest of the dish. Amazing.
On to one of Heston’s signature dishes – snail porridge. I was amazed at the colour of the dish – incredibly bright green from the parsley. I expected the consistency of the dish to be of a thick porridge but I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a thinner, more soup-like broth which contained the segments of oats and the snails. I loved the aniseed hit of the fennel against the saltiness of the snails and the little chunks of Iberico Bellota ham.
In eating this dish I was struck by how well seasoned it was – this dish had a good kick of salt to it, but was not too salty. This dish (and actually every savoury dish we ate) was seasoned right to the point that the food was very flavourful and where a touch more salt or pepper would probably take it over the edge. The restraint shown by the kitchen and the ability to walk that fine line was really impressive.
Next up, and pictured to the right of the snail porridge, is the roast foie gras. I am not ashamed to admit that foie gras is not usually a favourite of mine – I often find its richness a little hard to handle. No such problem here. The seared outer edges of the foie gras added a textural counterpoint to the soft interior and the dish was brightened by the braised konbu. The other element of the dish which saved the foie from being too much was the barberry puree which added a lovely sweet tartness to cut through all that fat.
The next dish was a lot of fun – Mock turtle soup (c.1850) a dish immortalised in his television show Heston’s Feasts. The dish is centred around the scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Mad Hatter dunks his fob watch into a cup of tea.
The waiter brought Mr M a gold fob watch (unfortunately, no watch for me as it was not gluten-free) and instructed him to place the watch in his tea cup and pour the water from the teacup over it. The watch actually consists of freeze dried concentrated stock wrapped in gold leaf, which dissolved in the warm water, producing a broth. The broth is then poured over the dish.
In the bowl was a little mock turtle egg, made from turnip mousse and a silky, creamy swede puree. To the side is the rich ox-tongue terrine and floating in the broth were little batons of black truffle and pickled cucumber. The broth was rich and flavourful. Exquisite.
Another famous dish followed – sound of the sea. The artfully plated seaweed and sashimi of Yellowtail, Mackerel, and Halibut rests on a ‘sand’ of tapioca and baby eels while a konbu and vegetable foam laps over the shore. The dish is served with an iPod which plays the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls chirping.
The dish really did transport me to the seaside and I felt I could almost smell the salty air.
The following dish did not have the ‘wow’ factor of the two preceding dishes, but was nonetheless Mr M’s favourite of the day – salmon poached in a liquorice gel. In eating this dish I was amazed at how a range of seemingly disparate ingredients (salmon, liquorice, vanilla, artichokes, grapefruit and roe) could come together in such a perfect way. The vanilla ‘mayonnaise’ threw me a little, I tasted it on its own and it was sweet enough to be an element on a dessert plate. However, when combined with the salty roe, tart grapefruit and the liquorice scented salmon it just worked.
The final savoury course arrived – lamb with cucumber (c.1805). This was a more straight forward dish of perfectly cooked lamb, with the twist of grilled cucumber wedges, and an intense onion and dill fluid gel on the side, with a selection of sweetbreads and a jammy reduction.
A really special little cup arrived next – hot and iced tea. The tea was a revelation – one side of the glass was warm and the other side was cold. The trick here was that the two were different consistencies, although they were thick enough not to get muddled. I really marvelled at this and loved that you could turn the cup 90 degrees and drink only cold and then only hot tea. Thoroughly bizarre.
Our dessert was preceded by the waiter coming by and offering a tiny, perfectly formed earl grey ice-cream in a cone (mine came in a tiny glass without the cone). Then the plate arrived – macerated strawberries, isn’t it beautiful?
In a long line of gorgeous dishes this really was so pretty. The gingham patterned ‘picnic rug’ was actually a tile of white chocolate. Under the rug was fresh and dehydrated strawberries with a thick balsamic reduction and pistachios. Edible flowers, chamomile and coriander saved this from veering into sickly sweet territory. Really lovely.
The waiter came over and spritzed the air with a musty, earthy scent (the scent of the forest) and brought over a dessert that could bring a chocolate lover (ie, me) to their knees – the “BFG” (black forest gateau):
Look at those layers of goodness! From what I could tell there was a layer of chocolate mousse, drunken cherries, chocolate cake and kirsch mousse. On the side was a quenelle of slightly sour and quite boozy kirsch ice-cream which cut through that richness. Absolutely perfect.
The Whisk(e)y Wine Gums arrived – gorgeous, perfectly formed sweets that were definitely not kids stuff as they were made from a range of aged whiskeys and had a real kick of liquor to them.
Our final course was like a kid in a sweet shop - a bag of sweets to take home, or if you are greedy like we were, gobble at the table. Inside the candy striped bag was a mandarin flavoured aerated chocolate, then pictured below, an apple pie caramel with an edible wrapper, coconut baccy and the queen of hearts:
So all in all it was, well, incredible. Highly, highly recommended.
The Fat Duck
High Street, Bray
SL6 2AQ, Berkshire
Ph: +44 (0) 1628 580 333