The Fat Duck is Britain’s most famous restaurant, widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Its owner is the indomitable Heston Blumenthal. A pioneer of the very cutting edge of gastronomy, his name synonymous with perfection. Last weekend, I ate at his three michelin starred restaurant, and this is what I discovered.
Note: Before we begin, you have a choice. Either continue reading in the traditional blog format OR choose to view a full width slideshow (49 images). Or both. Enjoy either way.
It doesn’t look like there is much in Bray. A short taxi ride from Maidenhead station and before that, the Fat Duck express from Paddington. The roads barely wide enough to fit two lanes. As we reached the village of Bray, we were welcomed with a view of the Hind’s Head – the pub that shares talent and resources with the kitchen of the Fat Duck, situated just next door. Heston Blumenthal, surely needs no introduction. A self-taught gastronomist. Winner of three michelin stars. Second best restaurant in the world. Co-ambassador for Waitrose…. with Delia. The only pigeonhole his cuisine seems to fit into is that of perfection. We took a stroll around the neighborhood before lunch. It was uneventful. A village of cottages, at least it was peaceful basking in the sunshine. We did not sit outside for long, even though we arrived half an hour early. Once Charmaine recharged her solar batteries, we decided to check into the Fat Duck.
Time to be dazzled.
Once through the front door, we were immediately greeted by Daniel, the restaurant manager. Prior to entering, Euwen and Charmaine were joking that we might bump into Jack Bauer, we didn’t, although Daniel does share a striking resemblance with the TV star.
I hadn’t seen any photographs which showed the restaurant’s interior design. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised with the politely cramped space. It is a tiny restaurant, very low ceilings, well maintained, beautiful wood beams and pristine white walls. For colour, panels of abstract canvases breathe life to the room. As this is a three michelin starred restaurant, tables and its caretakers are draped in perfectly pressed sheets, no expense wasted in the glassware and cutlery department.
As we became acquainted with the quaint ambiance, Daniel landed two handsome leather bound documents in front of me. The first is a little redundant of course, which described the one hundred and fifty pound taster menu – for the record no a la carte at the Fat Duck – as well as the massive tome that is the wine list. Just to digress a little, I love good stationery, my collection boasts a Graf von Faber-Castell classic ballpoint for practicality, the shaft crafted from Pernambuco wood and a Yehudi Menuhin Mont Blanc. I have also been eyeing a bespoke photography porfolio from Plastic Sandwich, whom in my opinion are the finest leather binders in London. I wish I could have taken away both leather books with me as souvenirs – such is the finesse of a Three michelin starred restaurant, every inch of detail is spellbindingly perfect.
Unfortunately, most of the first hour in the Fat Duck was spent studying the intricate twill patterns of the table cloth, I felt we were a little neglected, with nothing but marinated olives to keep my gastric juices flowing. I charged myself with selecting wine for the table. On the whole, I was surprised to see so many double digit prices on the wine list. Let’s see now, in the £35 – £50 range, I spotted Chilean Rieslings, Italian Barolos and Alsatian Gewurztraminers. My initial choice was an Austrian white – 2006 Gruner Veltliner, Alte Reben Oberfeld, Petra Unger for £46. It was sold out, popular choice then. So instead we settled for 2008 Esporão from Alentijo, Portugal, £48. White, a dense vanilla custard and heavily viscous. Going down it was heavily oaky and it sizzled. About an hour in the air, much of the acidity mellowed into a sharp, citrus sweetness. For me personally, I opted for a glass of Burgundy, 2004, Echezeaux Grand Cru, Lucien Le Moine, £52. I figured as it was The Fat Duck, I may as well splurge on my favourite grapes. I asked for my red to accompany the foie gras course, but I present my notes here in any case: Mineral, I detected mud and peat on the nose – something which I associate with good old Burgundies. Charmaine was getting cherries. Ah and of course, it exhibited the loveliest qualities of burgundies – a finish as fine as silk, very comforting. Medium bodied.
Lime Grove. Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse.
To wipe our palate clean and clear of all nasties we brought with us – a demonstration. Lime flavoured mousse, blasted in liquid nitrogen, which I believe was ‘boiling off’ at -196 °C.
The Heston theatre has begun in earnest! First a squirt onto the spoon. Then as he poaches the mousse, an exposition of what he was attempting. Most of which I ignored, being that I was engrossed with the boiling nitrogen fumes, which technically speaking, is just very cold air.
Finally, green tea powder to finish, voila – recreating a Lime Grove, for the senses. As we cleansed our palate with the frozen whiff of lime, he squeezed off lime perfume into our atmosphere – sniff. Refreshing. It felt a little bit like shopping in Selfridges – nibbling on free chocolate samples, and having sales assistants squirt perfume at you. Yeah, fun, what’s next. Solid food come on.
From this point on, the pacing really picks up. I think it is about a 5 to 7 minute wait in between courses.
Red Cabbage Gazpacho. Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream.
More nitro blasted cold stuff, the effect on my tongue is more fleeting than the constant tingling of ice. The razor cold soup cuts like a knife through my palate, very refreshing. Also micro cubes of what I believe were cucumber and onion. So I am led to believe this is a sort of deconstructed ‘cook in your mouth’ gazpacho. Stylized yes, but also delish. It is a micro portion however. Five spoonfuls at most.
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream. Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel)
Yes, it could easily have been cinema. The film in this case, is an edible strip, not dissimilar to listerine strips. Breath fresheners are replaced with oak flavour film, as the waiter explains, is suppose to prepare us for the forest of flavours to come..
… An oak moss is placed in front of us, the reason (if I recall correctly) is to match the smell of truffle, which is usually found at the base of oak trees. Magically, the waiter pours out a clear liquid from a tea pot and it covers our table in a bed of smoke – with fragrances of forest oak.
Now that the scene is set, and our senses are completely engaged, we are allowed to start munching. To start, the tiniest truffle toast. I breathe in as much of the oak aromas as I possibly can as I gobble up the toast. It has wonderful truffle flavours, which I gather has much to do with the smell from the smoke tickling my olfactory receptors. I am uncertain as to which part is a homage to Alain Chapel, perhaps there are elements of his genius in this dish. Chapel was of course, one of the finest French chefs of his time, three michelin stars no less. Amongst his most famous dishes was calves’ ears with fried parsley, truffle-stuffed chicken, in a pork bladder and chicken broth (Source: New York Times). He passed away in 1990.
Generally speaking, I felt that the cooking was on a higher plane altogether when compared to other Michelin starred restaurant, technically faultless. For instance, I get the impression that the kitchen pays particular attention to temperature – an important variable that affects flavour, something that is at times neglected. The crayfish cream was served cold and it had an ethereal consistency. The jelly of quail had an equally consistent texture, as if the chef had managed to untangle the concotion on a molecular level then found a way to align them into a regular repeating pattern. The result was a colorful attack on the senses – a livery jelly with an intense crayfish cream, dare I use the word : Umami.
Snail Porridge. Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel.
I’ve read so much about the leaf coloured porridge that I had huge expectations when this arrived. Again, miniscule portions, no more than five spoonfuls. Oh gosh. This dish blew my mind. There were about four whole snails, seemingly poached but which took on this beautiful texture – it melted with the slightest jaw motion, simply amazing, garnished with Jabugo ham shavings, every bite releasing intense seasoning. The porridge itself was masterful, it was the right temperature, warm enough to be wholesome, but not overly so that it was runny – it was the right temperature to maintain the perfect muddiness. I believe the fibrous porridge itself was made with oats. Finished with a zesty shaved fennel. Four courses in, the build up was slow but steely, at this point, I began to understand that this was a show, not just a meal. Theatre not just cinema. And you know what – it was living up to the hype – something which it must be commended for.
Roast Foie gras. Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit.
Aside from truffle, foie gras is the only other premium ingredient on the menu – no lobster tail, or beef from the middle-ages. This course felt a little necessary to tick the boxes. It was a well-cooked foie gras, a lively texture with a seeded crust that reminded me of baked cheese corn snacks – Twisties. I actually failed to lap up the pink rhubarb gel, at this level, I thought this dish was forgettable and disconnected from the rest of the choreography.
Mock Turtle Soup (c. 1850) “Mad Hatter Tea”
Oh now I see. The foie gras was intermission. As they cleared our table, a bookmark was placed in front of us, describing the myth of the Mad Hatter…
At first, the dish is served soupless, very beautifully arranged. The ‘mock turtle’ is based on the character of a calf headed turtle in Alice in Wonderland. Anyway, because proper turtle meat was prohibitively pricy back in the day, calves head and feet were used as replacements. I’ve had real turtle soup before, albeit a Chinese double boiled soup as opposed to a British version, complete with jelly-like soft shell and braised turtle flesh. So that is my benchmark. (note: I had three terrapins growing up whom I loved to bits, and believe me, eating turtle soup gave me the creeps when I was a kid. My mum made me do it.)
I find this next bit of show and tell mind numbingly childish. He opens a lacquered chest of gold watches, which are meant to resemble the Mad Hatter’s pocket watch. Roll eyes.
Dip it into the tea – just like the Hatter – and stir and watch the watch dissolve. Quickly now.
Total waste of time. This glorified piece of nonsense is nothing but egg tofu and spam. Its only saving grace are the glittering gold leaves, which I’d much rather have pocketed than eaten. Alright, perhaps I was a little harsh, the broth it swam in was good, the result of the melted watch and all… Full marks for style, zero for substance. I was expecting a replication of an ancient delicacy, in the same vein as the snail porridge, which was a piece of fine cooking; this dish was anything but. Sorry Heston, I was not impressed by this.
Sound of the Sea.
Otherwise known as the ‘Look! It’s an iPod in a shell’. I plugged in straight away, drowning out Euwen’s voice. The girls were amused – I felt like a comic book character for a moment, and I did wear a purple tie with a doggie pattern to this meal, Paul Smith mind you. Anyway, I approached this dish with much apprehension, any chef who makes me listen to the sound of seagulls and breaking waves, surely must be the Mad Hatter himself, in disguise.
Surprise, surprise. I liked this. I suppose this dish is meant to replicate sitting on the sand, and picking up bits of raw fish to eat… or something like that. I’m sure I didn’t do that in my childhood. For a moment, I did reminisce about growing up in Brunei, which is mostly a seaside country. Tapioca and eel were used to make the sand and I have to hand it to Heston – this stank of sandy beaches, it even tasted like salty sand in my mouth. Yummy. Ice lettuce, lily bulb and jelly bean – all of which are sea plants added to the facade. To finish, mackerel, yellowtail and halibut sitting on a bed of seaweed – I hazard a guess that these were either raw or gently smoked. Either way, it was a stupendous sashimi platter. The bubbles of the sea were salty like the real thing, a vegetable and seaweed stock. When I lived by the sea, we barbecued lamb chops and steaks, breathed in the sea salt in the wind, chased miniature crabs with translucent shells and picked sea shells, especially the oddest looking ones to keep as a collectible. The iPod track didn’t remind me of the sea, but the salty sands sure did. Anyway, this dish, I loved.
Salmon poached in Liquorice. Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil.
We are into the second arc of the adventure – you still with me? Like a broken record – this dish was characteristically tiny as is the rest of the menu, but boy did it look resplendent. Let’s just take a moment to admire the food styling here. The drops of mayonnaise, with visible vanilla beans. The tightly packed roe sitting on the cute parcel of salmon. And last but not least, the trails of artichokes, as I twist and turn the plate, I noted all the perfectly placed elements, visually it is accomplished.
I dip my nose in first – a bouquet of orange, vanilla and perhaps pink grapefruit. Cutting into it, one can see the evenness in the way it has been poached – the pink was beyond wonderful. I never thought sweet liquorice would ever work with salmon – but this one did. The texture was amazing, it was in between that of being raw and being pink, I think it was close to the consistency of say, tuna belly. On the palate, it was different – sweetness from the liqourice meeting with creaminess of the fish, heightened by vanilla. It was like filling one’s mouth with clotted cream, I don’t know what it was, I am probably failing to describe the seemingly indescribable. As I allowed the fish to sit on my tongue, an exploding bouquet of flavours started to unravel. I really enjoyed this, this is the kind of stuff you pay good money to sample – highly strange, but also strangely satisfying.
Powdered Anjou Pigeon (c 1720) Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles
I supposed the powdered bit of the bird was in fact the crackers. On the side was a thick blood pudding sauce, which looked abit like curdled blood – not that I know what that is or if that sentence even makes actual sense – and finally the ‘umble’ : my first experience of eating the heart of any animal. It had a hugely smokey taste, a robustly bloody texture of rare meat, and a little reminiscent of very good smoked duck. Interesting and I am glad the offal was not overpoweringly gamey, it was arresting, but restraint. I knew it, I was never a fan of overly gamey dishes which some chefs seem to use as an excuse for being daring.
Hot & Iced Tea
We began the final descent with this lovely palate cleanser, the genius is that there are two distinct liquids which did not mix, in the same glass. The hot layer floated atop an icy and more viscous liquid underneath. One could actually ‘hold’ the two layers in the mouth, yeah happy days, and a very nice trick indeed. Basically, this was hot lemon tea, with ice, but with a very good twist. I liked this.
Taffety Tart (c. 1660) Caramalised Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon
A very accomplished piece of pudding. The complex layering of perfumed cream, pureed apple stood next to an cassis sorbet, with what appears to be fennel intricately rolled into the shape of roses. The palate was largely dominated by citrus fruits – an apple tart to be exact, and a deeply concentrated blackcurrant sorbet. Judging this purely as a pudding – it was the best apple tart I’d ever had. Judging this as a piece of art – the most beautiful piece of edible artwork I have ever photographed.
The “BFG” Black Forest Gateau.
When I purchased Heston’s first book – In Search of Perfection – three years ago, I read it cover to cover. I was enamored with his journey to strip joints in New York to find the perfect steak; his meticulous testing of potatoes to discover the best chip and he made me look at roast chicken in a totally different angle and to identify great poultry by the blue feet of a Besse. Most of all, I was gobsmacked with his meticulous instructions of building the individual layers of the perfect black forest gateau. Aerated chocolate, flourless chocolate sponge, chocolate ganache, kirsh cream, madeleine biscuit base and finally vanilla pods as edible cherry stalks.
I remember watching the TV show which the book supplemented, the way he constructed this BFG is simply awe-inspiring. Folks, this is from a few years back but it is definitely worth watching. This is what I came to the Fat Duck for.
Apologies for the uneven mess my fork has caused, but you get what Im trying to do with the cross section. You can almost make out most of the individual layers. Firstly the white kirsch cream, the flourless chocolate sponge, sour cheries & chocolate ganache, the aerated chocolate bubbles and finally the biscuit base. After shedding three tears, I proceeded to finish off what was the best black forest gateau I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
As I finished my meal, feelings of elation, confusion and contemplation crossed my mind, the burning question remained – was this meal worth the price of entry?
As we descended down to planet earth again, shaking loose the trance we were previously engaged in, I looked over my shoulder to glance at the rest of our 38 dining companions. Famously of course, it takes 47 chefs to cook for the 42 covers over a four and a half hour lunch service. The person behind me was a course a head of me, so he was well into his wine gums as I caught this moment from him. His smile pretty much echoed throughout the room, including on our table.
Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
For the sake of completeness I’ll just go through the last two items on the menu, starting with this whiskey map presented as a photo frame. Each whiskey gum is made with a whiskey that varied with strength. Progressively stronger as one went through the regions. I suppose this is cheaper than actually serving five shots of whiskey at the end of the meal? Personally, I would have preferred a traditional whiskey flight, that would have really rounded out what was already an epic meal.
“Like a kid in a sweet shop.”
Edible Queen of Hearts playing card made from white chocolate, with a raspberry centre; aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly; apple pie caramel and coconut baccy – The fantasy does not ever stop, even down to the final course.
So back to the burning question, was it all worth it? The final bill came to £796 for four. My answer is an emphatic and unequivocal yes. It was worth every penny. But never again. This was a gastronomical journey that was unnervingly climatic. This was a story so tightly edited, so painstakingly rehearsed that it brought all manner of closure to match my expectations, satisfyingly so. Returning from the Fat Duck, felt much like boarding the final train back from a short holiday. The memories of those five hours, sat inside a tiny cottage in Bray, equivalent to days spent foraging in a fantasy world, tap tap with the red boots. I have locked away this experience and thrown away the key. The memento we received, a copy of the menu wrapped in a felt-like envelope sealed with a fat duck wax stamp – now a permanent feature on my bookshelf. One simply cannot measure this restaurant on the same scale as other restaurants. In that the experience – holistically – was simply peerless. Nothing in London is like this. It is the only restaurant I have visited which has left me with the annoyance, nay the feeling of unfulfillment, in that I felt as if I hadn’t chewed enough to justify a full meal, but at the same time, feeling utterly satisfied. It is a restaurant I wouldn’t want to go back, a restaurant that I could not go back to, in order to preserve the mystery, the wonder and the excitement of the first and only visit. This is what – in my humble opinion – makes The Fat Duck experience so special.
The staff were of course, hardworking, passionate and charming from start to finish. They even do that thing, where they fold your napkins as you are away to the loo. I have my nagging doubts of course, such as the micro portions, as well as certain overly stylized dishes. Otherwise, cooking was of a high order – flavours were exceptionally well balanced, food impeccably presented and the innovation behind the recipes, suitably modern and complex. Addressing the lack of a three course a la carte, let me put it this way – if Heston decides on one for his Mandarin Oriental project come this summer, it will have the potential of blowing every London based Michelin starred restaurant out of the water. Just think: Proper British portions of snail porridge, followed by the excellent poached salmon. And then, a perfect 8oz rib eye with blue cheese butter and mushroom ketchup (just like in his book); finished off with a BFG, or perhaps even two. Serve it at fifty pounds. I’m dreaming.
In the end, the only thing I regret was not having a photograph taken with Daniel, the restaurant manager and our gracious host. I did bring my copy of ‘In Search of Perfection‘ to get some autographs, hoping to have the entire kitchen sign it for me which of course didn’t happen. In the end, I was perfectly happy to have received two signatures: Daniel’s and Head Chef Jonny Lake’s. I asked him to leave me any message he wanted and Daniel wrote “Dear Kang, hope you had a wonderful afternoon at the Fat Duck.”. Well, I did, Jack. I sure did.
See The Fat Duck Slideshow here.
The Gist of It
The Fat Duck Official Site
One Hundred and Fifty Pounds per person, British.
High Street, Bray SL6 2AQ
Tel: +44 (0) 1628 580 333