Feed me weird things

(please note, this is not a Squarepusher album review). 

So there we were with a four-day weekend in front of us and nothing better to do, so we thought we’d pop over the channel for dinner. OK, kidding. This weekend had been planned with military precision two months in advance. An account of the entire trip, including trashed hotel rooms, sickness, and a horde of excitable goats, will be posted shortly over at the family blog. Here I will concern myself simply with the food, which, to be honest, was the whole point of the trip. 

The Fat Duck is located in the tiny village of Bray, and the building is almost as unassuming and easy to miss as its surroundings, only the sign outside alerting you to its presence. The interior is similarly modest, both in size and décor, but this works in its favour, creating a cosy, non-intimidating atmosphere.  

For those of you unfamiliar with Heston Blumenthal’s style of cooking, I’d recommend you read the “Philosophy” section of the official website before we begin. 

So, following an aperitif of pink champagne, we ordered the tasting menu. A member of staff positioned a small table next to ours and began to prepare the first amuse-bouche (I love that phrase). From a canister she squirted onto a spoon a ball of whipped egg white flavoured with green tea and vodka. This she then poached in liquid nitrogen, sprinkled with lime dust, and offered to us for immediate consumption. As we ate, she sprayed a lime mist into the air over the table. The ball, freezing cold, crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, melted on the tongue after a few seconds, freshening and cleansing the palate more effectively and pleasantly than any sorbet I’ve ever eaten. (note: This was also the only course I failed to photograph. Fortunately some others have. Photos of all the other courses can be found in my flickr set). 

This was followed by two squares of jelly – one orange, one beetroot. This dish was something of a practical joke designed to play with your expectations (spoiler alert!), as in fact the red one is made from blood orange, and the orange one is a rare type of amber-coloured beetroot.

 fat duck orange & beetroot

Next came an oyster covered in passion fruit jelly and lavender, and I can honestly say that this is the only time I’ve ever enjoyed eating oyster. The sweet tang of the passion fruit and the saltiness of the oyster complemented each other perfectly.

 fat duck passion fruit oyster

Then came the ice cream. Mustard ice cream, to be precise, surrounded by a pool of red cabbage gazpacho. Again, ingredients I wouldn’t normally eat on their own, let alone together, yet they worked brilliantly.  

 fat duck mustard ice cream

The next dish was one of the most theatrical of the evening, and possibly the only one where the special effects somewhat overshadowed the food itself. We were given a small plastic case containing a thin film of moss-flavoured gelatin, which we placed on our tongues. The waitress placed a box containing oak moss in the middle of the table, and poured liquid nitrogen onto it in order to release the odours. Our table now wreathed in vapour, infused with the taste and smell of oak wood we consumed the two items which had been placed before us – truffle toast, and a dish containing layers of pea purée, quail jelly, langoustine cream and foie gras.

 fat duck truffle toast

The snail porridge is one of his attention-grabbing, signature dishes, but more for the idea of it than for the final result, I feel. It sounds like something a schoolboy would come up with when asked to invent the most disgusting-sounding dish he can. In fact it was perfectly pleasant, and the shaved ham and fennel nestled on top set it off perfectly.

 fat duck snail porridge

The following dish of roasted foie gras was pleasant enough, but what made it special were the tiny cubes of amaretto jelly and the cherry sauce. This dish was also acompanied by one of the more unusual wines of the evening: a Gewurtztraminer…from New Zealand. 

 fat duck foie gras

Then came what was, for us, the undoubted highlight of the evening. Again, it was highly theatrical, and I can understand that some may consider it gimmicky and silly, but for me the “Sound of the sea” best demonstrates his philosophy of food which involves all 5 senses. A conch shell was placed on our table. The shell contained a small mp3 player which played the sound of waves crashing on a pebbly shore, with the occasional seagull cry. Alongside a glass of surprisingly quaffable saké was placed a plate containing tapioca “sand”, shellfish juice “foam”, three types of seaweed, baby eels, clams, shrimp and oyster. I felt like I was eating the seaside. This dish not only tastes great, but it stimulates all five senses, and evokes powerful childhood memories (I felt like Anton Ego when he flashes back to his childhood while eating the eponymous ratatouille at the climax of the film). 

 fat duck seafood

More fish now – a square of salmon covered in a thick, gelatinous coating of liquorice, and accompanied by vanilla mayonnaise, artichoke and grapefruit. Initially sceptical, Paola subsequently declared that mayonnaise should always be vanilla-flavoured.

 fat duck liquorice salmon

Then the meat – pigeon with a velvety “black pudding” sauce. 

 fat duck pigeon

And so we moved on to dessert, which was introduced with a cup of tea. But no ordinary cup of tea. This was hot and iced tea. Together. In the same cup. Now you might think that the two would mix to create tepid tea, but somehow, the two stayed separate – even when slurped, the two distinct sensations remained separate on opposite sides of your mouth. How do they do that? Next was the first dish I’ve eaten in a restaurant where I was given homework beforehand. A small leaflet describes the life and work of Mrs. Marshall, a British ice cream pioneer. Once we’d read about her methods, we were given a small but perfectly formed cone containing apple ice cream. This was followed by a small sherbet fountain (pine-flavoured), and then a relatively conventional (but still delicious) combination of mango bavarois and blackcurrant sorbet, accompanied by a very sweet “ice wine” from Canada. 

 fat duck bavarois & sorbet

Then it was back to the fun and games – two desserts inspired by the traditional English breakfast. First up was what looked like a bowl of cornflakes, but which in fact turned out to be parsnip flakes, with parsnip-flavoured milk to match. Then came another little performance piece, as eggs containing a bacon-flavoured cream were “scrambled”  in liquid nitrogen, and the resulting “egg and bacon ice cream” was placed on top of pain perdu. An egg-shaped cup on the side contained tea jelly. 

 fat duck egg & bacon ice cream

Well, that was pretty much it apart from the drinks – a selection of fun whiskey gums and a cup of tea (you can tell this restaurant is in Britain – I’ve never had so much tea with one meal).  

fat duck whisk(e)y gums

Is it the best restaurant in the world? Hard to say. But it was certainly one of the most interesting and revelatory dining experiences I’ve ever had. It could change your idea of what food can be. One of the things that made this meal so enjoyable, apart from the expertly-juxtaposed flavours, innovative preparations and presentation, was the sense of fun, as if we were being entertained by an enthusiastic child playing with his chemistry set. Which, in a way, we were. 

P.S. The following night, since we were in the area, we went to The Waterside Inn, which also holds three Michelin stars (the only other 3-starred restaurant in the UK is Gordon Ramsay’s in London). It was awful. Soggy, uninspired, lacking in atmosphere. Not worthy of one star, let alone three. Maybe we caught them on an off-day, but a restaurant of this supposed calibre shouldn’t have off-days. The meal we had the following day at Gourmet Burger Kitchen was far more enjoyable.

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20 Responses

  1. That’s an awful lot of inert gas for one meal. I like the idea of filling the air with an odo(u)r before consuming an item, since so much of our taste is olfactory.

    Were the whiskey gums alcoholic or all artificially flavored?

    Funny to think of someone crossing the channel in that direction to eat gourmet food.

    Bravo on the header graphic, btw.

  2. Whisk(e)y gums were indeed alcoholic.

  3. Wow. I couldn’t eat a lot of that food for allergy reasons but I am nevertheless jealous. Very cool.

    I also want to commend you on the header graphics.

    (Also, I can’t create a wordpress comment avatar thingy for some reason. I have no idea why. Apologies for denying you an unreasonable facsimile of my aspect with each comment.)

  4. Thanks. Please feel free to use that picture yourself if you want it (it’s over at flickr, but I’m sure you’ve seen that already).
    Shame about the avatar thingy – I wonder what the problem is? Mind you, it took a while for mine to work properly.

  5. The main problem seems to be a complete lack of any way to upload an image on my profile page even though I am *supposed* to be able to do so.

    There’s a picture of me over at Flickr? No way.

  6. “feel free to use that picture yourself”, not “that picture OF yourself”.
    I was referring to the header image.

  7. You should of eaten at Gordon’s Restaurant

  8. Grrr!! “should HAVE eaten!” Arrrrgh!

  9. Thanks for the advice, “What Would Ramsay Do?”, although I’d have to say that you’re not exactly a disinterested party, are you?

    Calm down, Eric. You’ve just come back from your honeymoon and you’re getting all het up again – think of that beach in Barbados. Concentrate on the feel of the soft sand, the sound of the gently lapping of the waves. Take a deep breath and smell the..uh…coconuts.
    Feeling better now?

  10. simon: Durrrrrrr. Sorry.

  11. Also, I resisted watching Gordon Ramsay’s show for a really long time because I assumed it was all bullshit yelling and pithy statements with no real substance. I accidentally watched an episode last week (the BBC version, not the American one) and I love it.

  12. Most importantly, how much was it mate?

  13. Jane: I’ve never seen Ramsay’s tv show. Another chef once referred to him as “a first rate chef but a second rate human being”. No comment.

    Jim: Not the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever eaten in (that would be Pinchiorri in Florence – don’t ask me how much. No, really, you don’t want to know), but in the ballpark you’d expect (three figures per person, sterling).

  14. I love this description. You must have [of] been taking copious notes. It seems like a restaurant review from the Hitchhiker books.

  15. sgazzetti: actually we took no notes. My memory was aided by the scanned souvenir menu and the photos. Plus the unforgettable nature of many of the dishes.
    And comparing it to Douglas Adams is praise indeed, thank you.

  16. Like sgazzetti mentioned, you’re a live gourmet guide in disguise Simon.

    While eating my frozen (well, not anymore) pizza I was devouring your post, word by word, desperately trying to get a taste of each dish. Obviously, I failed.

    Must dash, there might still be a table at Le Petit Zinc, a 1 Michelin * resto nearby ;-)

  17. Another chef once referred to him as “a first rate chef but a second rate human being”.

    Yeah, I can see that. On the other hand, I find his bluntness really appealing. He *seems* completely focused on the success of the restaurant and kitchen staff and isn’t wasting energy on any fluff and niceties.

    It may not surprise you to know that I have been accused of having a similar communication style and been therefore characterized as “abrasive” and an “asshole”. :D

  18. I’m a big fan of Dr. Gregory House, too, Jane. At least as a fictional character. Unfortunately, being blunt and an asshole just because you’re right isn’t the best recipe for success. This is a personality flaw that Mr. Ramsay, you, and I share.

  19. Erik: Heh. Of course you must have guessed I love House too.

    Wait. What was this comment thread about again?

  20. Peter: glad you enjoyed it. Their ratings systems is deeply flawed, and many one-starred (or no-starred) restaurants outstrip their three-starred competition. In the past Michelin have been accused of corruption, favouritism, and a bias towards classical French-style cuisine.

    Jane: Never let is be said that you’re an asshole. At least, not within earshot…;-)
    As for the topic of the thread, it evolves (or sometimes devolves) according to the participants, and the topic of the actual post is usually irrelevant.

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