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