We were so excited when we had our reservation at Blumenthal's iconic restaurant The Fat Duck confirmed. The reservation line receives over 30,000 phone calls a day - the restaurant seats 42. It was so strange to be walking through the door months after making our reservation, having travelled thousands of kilometers from Australia to England to experience The Fat Duck first hand. Excited doesn't begin to cover it!
The Fat Duck is located in the high street of the tiny village of Bray in Berkshire - far away from the hustle and bustle of London. At first glance the building is just a simple country cottage and the very subtle signage means that you could easily walk right past the place - which we did about four times! It was only when I recognised the Fat Duck logo hanging above the door that I realised that we were in the right place.
The Fat Duck Restaurant in the village of Bray
The light filled dining room is extremely simple and lacking in any kind of over the top decoraton - just a few abstract paintings, good quality linen, glasswear, cutlery and flatwear and very comfortable chairs (a must, as the tasting menu takes just over 4 hours to enjoy) The place is not large - seating 42 diners (with 50 staff to look after those diners) The atmosphere is super relaxed - it reminded me a lot of Blumenthal's other restaurant in London, "Dinner" - ultra professional, stylish and very friendly but without a hint of stuffiness. This is not a place where gentlemen need to wear a tie or ladies have to wear a tiara - in fact, I felt so relaxed that I kicked off my shoes under the table! It is clear that at The Fat Duck, it is ALL about the food, not mere window dressing.
The dining room at The Fat Duck
We were escorted to our table by Dimitri, the restaurant manager - who immediately made us feel welcome and knew that we had come from Australia and were on our honeymoon. The Fat Duck clearly pays attention to detail when it's guests make a booking! We were thrilled to be shown to what was easily the best table in the place. I'm not ashamed to admit that I had butterflies as I sat down. This was one of my "list of things to do before I die" items about to be realised. I was also a little scared - what if it was a let down? What if my adoration of Heston Blumenthal's approach to food was about to be proven to be completely hyped and misguided? It was a long weekend, so Heston was in London having a break with his family - no chance of a sighting - although I have been told that he is one of the few famous chefs who does still actually cook in his own kitchen and not just consult.
Let's just say from the start that things began well - very well indeed. Chatting to Dimitri we were astounded when he asked if we would like a tour of the kitchen, as he had identified us as cooks ourselves and big fans of Heston's work. Ok, if truth be told, I may have hyperventilated a bit when he invited us to see the kitchen! Walking into the space, I was amazed to see how small it was - and how calm all of the chefs were. They all smiled and welcomed us as they went about their tasks. Proof that great food does not need hysteria and agro in it's production.
But our tour didn't end there - who comes out from behind his workbench but Johhny Lake, Heston's Head Chef who had recently been in Australia with Heston when we saw him at the State Theatre in Sydney. Heston's talented right hand man and partner in experimentation then happily took time out to welcome us to the restaurant as well as chat about his recent visit to Sydney. We actually hit it off and ended up discussing Australian ingredients and even compared notes about the menu at Tetsuya! It was so generous for him to take the time to spend with us right in the middle of service. A completely lovely bloke.
And so to the meal. There is only one menu at this restaurant - a 14 course tasting menu (that in our case, turned into 15 - thanks to Johnny - more on that later) We enjoyed a couple of celebratory glasses of Taittinger in honour of the fact that we had finally made it to The Fat Duck - then, the meal commenced.
The meal began with a pre dinner aperitif - nothing unusual about that - but this was an aperitif Heston style. We were offered the choice of vodka and lime, gin and tonic or Campari and soda. The aperitifs are made at the table - an aerated mixture of the advertised ingredients with the addition of egg white, which are then poached in liquid nitrogen to make an icy meringue, dusted with concentrated flavours to compliment the dish. I chose the Campari - adorned with a vibrant powder of blood orange - that cracked in your mouth like a meringue and then evaporated in an flavoursome icy vapour. It was such a strange sensation - that awakened all of your senses for the meal ahead. Andrew chose the vodka and lime aperitif. As he cracked into his aperitif, the waiter sprayed an atomiser of tangy natural lime fragrance over his head. A super fresh and zingy beginning.
NITRO POACHED APERITIFS
Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Campari Soda (pictured)
Next came a beautiful royal purple chilled soup of red cabbage served with a super creamy mustard icecream that had a lovely tangy kick to it that worked beautifully with the cabbage. The flavour of the soup was very pure, with a slight astringency that made your tastebuds gear up for what was coming next.
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
And the next course proved to be one of my favourites of the whole meal - a delectable quail jelly teamed with a crayfish cream (like a super smooth mousse) and an airy light chicken liver parfait. But that wasn't all - when the dish was brought to the table we were presented with a slab of real moss, contained in a wooden box. Sitting on top of the box was two little gel strips that were popped on the tongue as the waiter poured water on the moss - to produce a rolling mist that drifted over the table as the gel strip exuded the taste and aroma of an oak forest. It made us squeal with glee when the accompanying truffle toast was nibbled with a spoonful of the quail jelly and you were experiencing what can only be described as a magical multi sensory buzz. Breathtakingly good.
JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM
Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
Next course was one of Heston's signature dishes - his famous snail porridge. Succulent, herbaceous and frankly just delicious. The addition of shaved fennel and Iberico Bellota Ham was just the perfect with the kick ass flavour of the greenest of green porridge. I can understand why people go crazy for this dish. I am a fan of snails, and these snails were easily the best I have ever eaten - tender and gorgeous.
with Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel
Course number five was a beautifully prepared piece of ethical Foie Gras, seared and served with a drool worthy combination of rhubarb and a savoury combo of crispy crab biscuit and braised Kombu seaweed. Every bite elicited a sigh of delight - decadent, delicious and perfectly presented.
ROAST FOIE GRAS
with Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
Blumenthal's love of "Alice in Wonderland" was the inspiration for the next dish. Some of you may recall it from his TV series "Heston's Feasts". I think Heston's own words describe this dish best -
"I love this dish because you're lifting something out of a fairytale but it's also got a bit of recipe history in there.
In the Victorian times, turtle soup was very popular. It fell out of favour for cost reasons and was replaced with mock turtle soup. This was a consomme with a calf's head, maybe a calf's foot, and root vegetables like turnips, swede and carrots. That's why in the Alice in Wonderland illustrations the Mock Turtle has a calf's head and feet.
At the time, the French nicked it and it became very fashionable in Paris. It's best described as a light, meaty, fragrant broth. You can see why it caught on.
In Alice, the Mad Hatter dunks his fob watch in the tea. So at the Fat Duck we made a fob watch from freeze dried, reduced, concentrated stock and wrapped it in gold fleck. It comes with a teapot and when you pour hot water on, it dissolves into this beautiful clear brown consomme with gold leaf. We serve it with a Mock Turtle egg, which is a turnip mousse with a swede puree, and little enochi mushrooms to signify the Caterpillar's toadstool.
Alice has been a favourite book of mine for a while. I love the way she makes reason in a completely unreasonable world. I think cooking is like going down a rabbit hole into a wonderland - the sense of discovery, the way that things are not quite as they seem. "
MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)
with "Mad Hatter Tea" - before infusion
The flavours in this dish, particularly the amazing concentrated broth just blew me away. I loved the presentation and the interactive element of making your "tea" in the cup and then pouring over the gold leaf strewn liquid over the bowl. It was whimsical and definitely had the wow factor.
MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)
with "Mad Hatter Tea" - after infusion
Course number seven - the dish I had come thousands of miles to eat and that was at the top of my "dishes I want to eat before I die" list. To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive. A hell of a build up - and what if it didn't deliver? The Sound of the Sea is one of Blumenthal's most famous dishes. A multi sensory experience designed to activate memory and to transport you to another time, another place. The course begins when a waiter brings you a large seashell, into which is place a small ipod and a set of earphones.
Next, comes the dish itself - the seashore on a plate (edible "sand", sea foam, sea creatures, seaweed and all!) On go the earphones and the soundtrack begins - the sound of the ocean, the wind, the sea birds, the waves crashing. From the first mouthful, this dish takes you to another dimension of dining. The fish is so fresh it tastes as if it just jumped from the sea onto the plate - the different textures are thrilling to the palate - the crunch of the seaweed, the salty foam that has not just the aroma, but the taste of sea air, the delicious "sand" that makes you want to lick the plate.
"SOUND OF THE SEA"
The sound aspect of the dish is not just some theatrical affectation. It places you in a different headspace, where all of your senses are heightened. You find your own seaside memories flowing through, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia - extremely emotional actually (my husband Andrew also felt this strong emotional reaction and said later that you forgot that you were seated at a dining table altogether, so strong was the response to the dish) The Sound of the Sea was more than I could have wished for.
Served with SOUND OF THE SEA
- sea soundscapes to put you right there!
Staying with the seafood theme, our next course was a beautifully presented and decadently unctuous dish of salmon in a stunning liqurice gel that worked superbly with the fish. The vanilla mayonnaise had me immediately deciding to attempt to make my own at some point - the vanilla lifted it out of the ordinary - so fragrant and lovely.
SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL
with Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe
Course number nine - a swoon worthy concoction of pigeon - cooked superbly and teamed with a blood pudding that was as smooth and rich as a chocolate ganache. Add some pigeon "crackling" to add yet another texture and the serve it with a lip smackingly savoury creamy risotto of spelt and umbles (the liver, heart and kidneys of the bird) risotto and you have a dish to savour.
Blood pudding, Risotto of Spelt and Umbles, pigeon crackling
Blood pudding, Risotto of Spelt and Umbles, pigeon crackling
After consuming courses with such complex flavours and textures, we assumed we were being given a bit of a break when we were presented with a simple unadorned glass of tea. But this is Heston Blumenthal we are talking about and all is never as it seems. As we took the first sip of tea, something bizzare happens - is this tea hot? is this tea cold? Why is one side of my mouth warm and the other cold? Slowly it dawns on you that the tea is both - in the same cup. And it is divided vertically. One half of the cup is hot and one half is cold. We both start giggling with delight and can't wait for the next sip to feel the sensation again.
HOT AND ICED TEA
a little something to totally mess with your head - and your tastebuds!
Now for something sweet - Heston's take on a recipe from 1660 - Taffety Tart. Impossibly thin layers of puff pastry with a rich caramelised apple through the layers and the addition of a very aromatic mixture of fennel, rose and lemon. Add an intensely flavoured and velvety blackberry sorbet and you have a dessert to die for.
TAFFETY TART (c.1660)
Caramelised Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon, Blackberry Sorbet
Caramelised Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon, Blackberry Sorbet
The next dessert dish I remember from the series "The Search for Perfection". In this case, the perfect Black Forest Gateau. (Note the addition of a wedding congratulations message from the kitchen!) Technically, this dish is very complicated - the perfect layers, the refined flavours - I remember seeing Heston prepare this on the show. As you relish each bite, with a gorgeous Kirsch icecream, a waiter sprays the air with the aroma of The Black Forest. Magic.
Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest
- note the wedding congratulations
At this point, Dimitri the restaurant manager arrives at our table to inform us that Johnny (Head Chef) wanted to do something extra just for us as a treat. We are to have an additional dessert course, comprising of a dish that has only just recently been taken off the menu after a long period as one of The Fat Duck's signature dishes. I was thrilled when I learned that we were about to experience Heston's Bacon and Egg Icecream! Made by Dimitri at our table, the process begins with the breaking of special labelled "Fat Duck" eggs into a copper pan (the original egg contents have been removed from the shells and then replaced with the egg and bacon icecream mixture - but they look like standard eggs) The eggs are broken into the pan and then liquid nitrogen is added to "cook" the icecream. All very dramatic - lots of icy "smoke" and a crackling sound that really does sound like eggs frying. It is then served on a tiny caramelised piece of Brioche and maple cured crispy bacon. Bacon. Eggs. Dessert! Delicious, sweet, smoky, crispy, creamy. Yum.
EGG AND BACON ICECREAM
Compliments of The Fat Duck and made at our table just for us!
Next we have Heston's twist on the classic lolly - Wine Gums. This time however, he takes some of the finest whiskies in the world to create a tasting selection of Whiskey Gums. Presented on a standing framed map of their origins and stuck onto the glass, you peel them off and enjoy. Admittedly, I'm not a huge whiskey fan, but I loved these gums and the very different character of each of the whiskies. Some tasted almost sweet, like honey, some of peat moss or heather - all delicious.
WHISKY WINE GUMS
And to our final dish - we were presented with a pink and white candy striped bag, containing our final course - "Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop". To me, this dish really embodies Heston's personality - full of childlike wonder and enthusiasm and that sense of nostalgia.
"LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP"
Inside the sweet bag - a delectable apple pie caramel with the Alice in Wonderland-esque tag - "Eat Me" - which you do, edible wrapper and all! The wrapper is laced with malic acid that generates saliva and heightens the apple flavor. A pouch of coconut "tobacco" (a very English sweet that I don't remember having when I was growing up in Australia) infused with real Black Cavendish Tobacco. Then, a superb aerated chocolate containing an intensely flavoured manadarin gel and then finally, my favourite - the Queen of Hearts Tart. Another Alice reference and a feat of technical precision. A paper thin playing card, containing a fine layer of sweet tart pastry and strawberry jam, then coated in white chocolate and painted with the Queen of Hearts herself. The Queen comes in her own wax sealed envelope.
THE QUEEN OF HEARTS
and the kid in a sweet shop menu
I have heard some critics say that Heston Blumenthal is a bit too clever for his own good, that his obsessive experimentation and unconventional ways are just a kind of affectation. It is true that his food is not going to appeal to everyone. However, his multi sensory and interactive approach is not just showmanship or smoke and mirrors. It is based on the very solid foundations of old school flawless technique, as much as it is scientific knowlege and a fearless spirit of exploration. There is simply no-one like him and his food is like none that I have ever experienced.
I have always believed that food is more than what we eat to stay alive. It is our history, it is a form of art, it is infused with our culture and our relationships. It is a clue to how we experience the world and what we hold sacred or taboo. It is science and alchemy and sensuality and sometimes, it can be magical. My meal at The Fat Duck was all of these things - yes, it tasted incredible, but it also made me laugh, made me almost ache with nostalgia, heightened my senses and transported me to misty forests, glistening foam edged seashores, childhood sweet shops and Mad Hatter's tea parties. An experience that I will never forget.
For more information on the restaurant how to get reservations (good luck!) visit The Fat Duck website: http://www.thefatduck.co.uk/