There is no doubt that Heston Blumenthal is a genius with his food. Like the imagery conveyed through a writer’s prose, Heston narrates his stories with his culinary quill. Ranking number two in the world after Ferran Adria’s elBulli for numerous years makes no indication that Heston is second best. Awarded with three Michelin stars since 2004, it has been amongst the very highest ranked restaurants on the Top 50 list.
What sets him aside from the rest of the three Michelin starred chefs is that Heston was completely self taught. He was inspired during the age of 16 after a visit to a French restaurant (L’Oustau de Baumaniere) and he had an epiphany – he wanted to devote his life to gastronomy. With a copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and spending every last penny dining at Michelin starred restaurants, he especially took a keen interest in the technique of cooking and the science behind how flavour is produced, and it was only a natural progression that he began to explore molecular gastronomy.
After the recent debacles The Fat Duck restaurant experienced, I thought it would be easier to secure a table. Boy was I wrong! It was booked out for the next two months, so I was on a waiting list for a 2PAX at any time during my three week stay in London. Luckily, reservations emailed me days before, and I had secured a table for two on a Tuesday night.
Unlike elBulli, dining at The Fat Duck was not one of those trips where I spent months and months anticipating for, as I probably spent more time worrying how to get out of central London during peak hour traffic after work. I also missed out on tickets to Heston’s talks during last year’s Melbourne food festival, so I’m not as familiar with his concepts as I had hoped for. It was probably a blessing in disguise, because sometimes when you read too much into the chef and his creations, the meal itself is like watching a Harry Potter movie – you’ve read all the books, everything looks great, but you inevitably know what is going to happen next.
The Fat Duck is located just outside of London in Bray, under an hour’s drive from the city. It is near Berkshire, where Heston grew up and still resides with his wife and three children. The restaurant is a humble, cosy Tudor styled building with low ceilings and exposed timber beams, around 15 tables or so occupying the living room sized space. It seats a maximum of 45 people, and there is almost a one staff to one diner ratio.
“I love what I do,” Heston laughs. “I do think that it doesn’t matter how gastronomic food is or it can be. I think you should be able to have fun. If one word that a customer could say to me to describe the experience of the restaurant it would be fun, to have a sense of fun.”
Heston was right. It was indeed the most “fun” I’ve ever had during a meal, where he doesn’t miss a single detail of the story that unfolds through my palate during my 18 course tasting menu. To transcend diners as the role of Alice in Wonderland (and you’ll see the references he makes to that story later) and having tea with the Mad Hatter was all part of his charm. Perhaps, with his whimsical approach to cooking, he relates to the role of the Mad Hatter, only to swap the top hat for a chef’s hat?
The 18 course tasting menu (the only option for dinner – he had recently removed the a la carte menu) plays with every theory he’s found from scientific studies of how to trigger memories through smell, taste, touch and sounds. Once it was combined into a multi-sensory affair, we add in all our own memories and experiences to the table, giggling and interacting with the ’story’ our own way, from the prologue right down to the appendix. Every dish was inviting and had its own unique comfort zone, and I can’t really imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I did.
(click on any photos to see a detailed, full-sized zoom)
After settling wth some olives and vintage Rose champagne, our meal begins with a spectacle of liquid nitrogen, like a magician’s grand entrance, followed by a spritz of fresh lime perfume in the air amongst us that lingered and refreshed our senses. The waiter “poached” the lime mousse inside the liquid nitrogen until it resembled a very cold piece of meringue, sprinkled it with green tea powder using a powder puff and asked that we eat it straight away with our fingers.
We were first presented with a bed of moss on a wooden box, with two packets of what resembled Listerine Strips with the label “Fat Duck Films”. We let the thin clear strip dissolve on our tongue, immersing it with flavours of wooden oak undertones, while our server poured a liquid onto the moss that turned our dining table into a mystic forest.
Quail jelly, langoustine cream, foie gras parfait and pea puree – such a perfect combination, the truffle toast with just the right amount of crisp and dark truffle notes that complimented so well the oak.
ROAST FOIE GRAS
Gooseberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
This is possibly the best foie gras dish I’ve ever had, blended with flavours of soy and konbu (the thin membrane on the bottom is also a slice of konbu), crisp crab biscuit and the sweetness of the gooseberry puree.
MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850) “Mad Hatter Tea”
“Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”
“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”
“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,”
It was served with a miniature terrine of calf’s tongue, Colonnata lardo with a Mock Turtle egg, which is a turnip mousse with a swede puree, and little enochi mushrooms to signify the Caterpillar’s toadstool that was reminiscent of a storybook scene.
Using our ‘teapot’, we were instructed to pour hot water over our golden pocket watch.
The gold started to magically float away while the ‘pocket watch’ (a stock cube) dissolved into a fragrant veal consomme. Poured over the main dish, it was such a beautiful dish when the baby herbs floated with the gold flecks shining under the softly lit dining room.
“SOUND OF THE SEA”
Presented with a large sea conch and an iPod tucked inside, we were encouraged to immerse ourselves with the sounds of the sea. The use of the word “sounds” was probably inadequate as Heston wanted to engage all the senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. While listening to waves crashing and seagulls squawking and reliving a ‘Lord of the Flies’ moment, a glass plate of malty tapioca “sand” made from dried eel, sashimi, samphire and different textures of seaweed, with a “sea” foam is served.
There were no shellfish (razorclams being part of the ingredients) as this was the infamous dish that caused the food poisoning scare.
SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE
Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil
I never thought salmon, liquorice, vanilla and roe would complement each other so well. This dish was another one of my favorites – the salmon was poached to such perfection it’s hard to describe how smooth and tender it was.
THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST (1 of 3)
Our server walks up to us and said “Good Morning” with a smile, “We will be preparing some breakfast for you today”. We were given a small box of cereals with milk on the side.
They were small flakes of parsnip which were pressed to look a little like rolled oats or mini cornflakes. Milk was then poured on top, very cute.
This was the part I was waiting for, the infamous smoked bacon and egg ice cream! Our waiter wheels a trolley next to our table with eggs and a frying pan atop a cooper burner. She breaks an egg into the frying pan, pours in liquid nitrogen and stirs with a wooden spoon and says “They’re cooked!”.
I later found out that The ice cream custard is injected into an empty egg shell, which is then cracked at your table and ‘cooked’ or frozen with liquid nitrogen into clumps of scrambled egg like ice cream.
THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST
Hot & Iced Tea (3 of 3)
I was told that the hot and cold tea is made by removing the ions from water, which turns it into a fluid gel. With a partition down the middle of the glass, hot gel down is poured down one side and cold gel down the other side, and the the partition is removed while the gel stays still. An interesting characteristic with de–ionised water is that when it is standing on the table it is somewhat solid like jelly, but when tipped on an angle (while drinking) it turns to a liquid. The two different temperatures swirling in your mouth is a very unexpected sensation.
CHOCOLATE WINE “SLUSH” (c.1660)
Another old recipe – this one from the 17th Century, an ice slush that tasted of red wine and chocolate, and went amazing well with the Millionaire shortbread, which was soft oozing toffee in between two thin layers of chocolate.
Historic Trade Routes of Britain
I love this concept! A picture frame arrives, with an old map and gummies stuck to the surface of the glass.
The gummies tasted exactly of Mead, Cognac, Madiera, Sherry and Rum. It’s amazing how the flavour of each is captured so well in a gummy.
“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”
Heston makes sure we do not leave empty handed, so we are given a bag of ‘goodies’ to bring home. My favorite part was the “Queen of hearts” which was in a tiny envelope sealed with wax. It looked just like a playing card, but it is actually a flat piece of white chocolate with the pattern printed on both sides, and in the centre was filled with a fresh berry compote, which was quite amazing – Another Alice in Wonderland moment.
At a mere £130 per head, it’s of extreme good value compared to a degustation at a 3 hatted restaurant in Sydney, in my honest opinion.
If I were to describe a meal at The Fat Duck in one word, it would be memorable. The sheer theatrics and the presentation alone is sure to impress. Save this one for a special occasion!
To make a reservation please call +44 (0) 1628 580 333 between 10am and 5pm Monday to Friday (including bank holidays).
We accept reservations as far as two calendar months in advance and the restaurant is closed on Sunday evening and all day Monday.