Monday 9 January 2012

Oh, Fat Duck!

Some time ago I won dinner for two at Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin starred restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray. I decided to save the meal up as a birthday treat for my husband Mark, so we went there on the weekend of his birthday in March.  The prize consisted of the famous tasting menu, with specially selected wines to match each course.

When the taxi stopped outside a row of terraced cottages, we had to ask the driver where the restaurant was – it turned out to be one of the cottages, opening directly on to the street with hardly anything other than a small brass plaque to show that it wasn’t just a private home.

Inside, the restaurant was small too – probably only seating 50 people at the most, but with a very calm and stylish atmosphere. There was no bar or seating area – we were taken straight to our table and offered champagne from the “champagne trolley” but we decided instead to start with the sherry that was to accompany the first stage of the meal, a lovely crisp Manzanilla that went beautifully with the olives that were waiting for us on the table.

The tasting menu started with a palate cleanser of Nitro green tea and lime mousse. A trolley came to the table with a steaming bowl of liquid nitrogen on it, and an egg white and green tea mixture was squirted into it from a contraption a bit like a squirty cream dispenser. The little ball of iced meringue that formed was dusted with lime zest and had to be eaten in one mouthful, while lime oil was sprayed into the air in front of us. It was like eating a mouthful of cold, fresh mountain air!

Next came a plate with two tiny squares of jelly, one red and one orange. The waiter told us one was beetroot and the other orange, and we should eat the orange one first. So of course we duly started with the orange coloured one, and were surprised to find it tasted of beetroot.  It had been made from golden beetroot and the second deliciously tangy jelly from blood oranges – the first of many confusing experiences for our taste buds.

The next course was a single rock oyster, with a little passionfruit jelly in the shell, stylishly presented on a black wooden block with a sprig of lavender. I’m trying hard to learn to love oysters, but I still think they feel like snot, and I’m afraid the passion fruit jelly just emphasised that texture for me. My husband doesn’t eat any fish or shellfish, so his dish was a mixture of Puy lentils and mint on a peach jelly – I think I would have preferred that!

Then we moved on to ice cream – mustard ice cream! It was served with a sauce of red cabbage gazpacho. The quantities were tiny – about a heaped teaspoonful of ice cream and a tablespoonful of gazpacho, but the flavours so intense it was if they had taken a normal full sized portion and condensed it into a thimbleful.

Another odd experience followed – a rectangular basket of moss was brought to the table with two little plastic boxes nestling on top. We were given a box each and instructed to take out of the box a thin film and allow it to dissolve on our tongues. It was oak-moss flavoured, and while it was dissolving, something (more liquid nitrogen, I think) was poured over the basket of moss so that moss scented smoke spilled over the table and wafted around us. Immediately, we were given a tiny finger of toast to eat, topped with an oak moss and truffle mixture and slices of the tiniest radish I have ever seen.  On the same plate was our next dish, an interesting swivelling cup filled with layers (starting from the bottom) of pea purée, quail jelly, langoustine cream (beetroot cream for Mark) and a tiny scoop of parfait of foie gras. I found every one of the layers delicious but I have to say I didn’t think they went well together, apart from the pea purée which worked with all the other layers.

Phew! With all the pre-dinner nibbles out of the way, and our half-bottle of sherry finished, it was time to start the meal, so the bread basket arrived with some of the creamiest, most delicious butter I have ever tasted – I wonder whether they have found a way to concentrate the flavour of that too?

Our first “real” course was the famous snail porridge. We had been expecting something grey and slimy, rather like Chinese congee, so were pleasantly surprised to find the oats had been made into something the texture of risotto, bright green with parsley, with the snails – not at all tough or chewy – nestling on top and a topping of very finely shredded, intensely flavoured dried ham and delicate shavings of fennel. It was served with a French red vin de pays – the wine waiter was excellent, very knowledgeable yet able to talk about the wines in real English  rather than “winespeak”.

Next came roast foie gras. It was served with tiny dice of an almond jelly, a bitter cherry sauce and a chamomile flavoured froth with a bitter cherry in it, and accompanied by a New Zealand Gewurztraminer. The foie gras had been poached very slowly – one of Blumenthal’s signature cooking techniques – which left it very light and tender, and the bitterness of the cherries and slight sweetness of the wine made this an amazing combination and one of the high spots of the meal, despite our objections to the production methods of foie gras (I think I’m going to have to do the foodie equivalent of carbon offsetting now) and the fact that Mark had never enjoyed it when he had tried it before.

Then there was a sardine on toast sorbet for me,  served with a slice of dried mackerel and a salad of shredded seaweed. My husband was given a velouté soup with black truffles. Sake was served with this course. I’m afraid I really didn’t like the sorbet and mackerel at all – the smell and taste were too strong, reminding me of the dried fish shops that I used to avoid in Chinese markets when I lived in the far East. But the waiter cleared my unfinished dish away with a cheerful “Thank you for trying it.”

Salmon, again slow cooked, wrapped in a liquorice jelly, was my next course. There were two pieces of roast artichoke on the plate, and the rest of it was spectacularly decorated with tiny dots of olive oil and tiny individual cells of pink grapefruit. It was a work of art both on the plate and in the mouth. Mark’s non-fish dish was slow roasted belly pork  on a bed of Savoy cabbage  with truffled macaroni. A Portuguese red wine, very smooth and deeply flavoured, was served with this – I think it went better with the pork than the salmon.

The main course came next – a lamb cutlet, again slowly cooked, so it was meltingly tender. The waiter said it was sealed in a plastic bag, then poached in a warm water bath – just a boil-in-a-bag meal then! The onion and thyme purée and roast shallot perfectly complemented the meltingly tender meat, as did the Valpolicella served with it.

Before moving on to the desserts, we were served a cup of tea to refresh our palates. But it was no ordinary cup of tea – at one side of the cup, the tea was scalding hot and at the other it was ice cold. It created the most peculiar sensation in the mouth – and stranger still, the hot and cold sides stayed hot and cold for the whole time it took to drink the tea, rather than mixing together as they ought to have done.

At this stage we were offered cheese as an optional extra. We had drooled over the sight and smell of the cheese trolley visiting other tables, with a vast selection of cheeses all offered at the peak of perfection,  but despite the tiny portions we were already beginning to feel pretty full so decided to stick with the set menu.

Tiny, tiny individual ice cream cornets were brought to us next. Still in a bit of a mental whirl over the tea, I can’t remember what the first flavour of ice cream was, but there were two layers in the cornet and the second was a wonderfully intense fresh ginger ice cream. I could have happily devoured a whole bowl of it.

Then we were brought miniature sherbet fountains. Just like a small version of the yellow ones we all enjoyed as kids, except instead of a liquorice stick to eat it with, there was a hollowed out twig of Douglas Fir. This helped to prepare us for the pine-resin flavour of the mango and fir purée which accompanied the first dessert, a bavarios of lychee and mango. On the same plate there was a tiny scoop of blackcurrant sorbet, which once again seemed to have all the flavour of a much larger helping condensed into it. This explosion of flavour was perfectly complemented by the Austrian Riesling Eiswein that accompanied it.

Having had our sherbet fountains, another nostalgic sweetie appeared – a lollipop. But this one was a wafer thin sheet of a crunchy carrot and orange tuile.  At the same time we were given what looked like a fruit pastille, but was another beetroot jelly, this time a sweet one.

To our surprise (if anything could surprise us by now) a waiter then said to us, “Good morning – it’s time for breakfast!” and placed cereal bowls in front of us containing what looked like individual packets of breakfast cereal, and a jug of milk between us. The contents of the packets certainly looked like tiny cornflakes – but they were actually little flakes of dried parsnip, and the ‘milk’ was also made from parsnip. A very unexpected – and utterly delicious – treat.

Then a waitress wheeled up a trolley with an old fashioned copper chafing dish on it. She said she was going to give us our cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs. First she placed plates in front of us with a hot, sticky piece of French Toast and a paper thin rasher of bacon on them (Mark’s plate had “Happy Birthday” painted around the rim in cocoa dust) , then she cracked an egg into the chafing dish to scramble it – but instead of lighting the burner under the dish, she poured a jugful of liquid nitrogen into the pan and scrambled the egg in the icy fumes. I don’t know how it happened, but it produced perfect light, fluffy scrambled egg – but ice cold! Served with our bacon and French toast, it was a perfect ending to a meal that had been a series of surprises from beginning to end, and went beautifully with the rich, sweet sticky Australian Rutherglen Muscat wine that came with it.

Finally as we sipped the last of our wine we were brought a plate of whisky wine gums, flavoured with a strong, smoky single malt, and 10p-sized tartlets filled with violet jelly, and some chocolate truffles, served inside a cocoa pod.  By the time we got up to leave, we had spent almost four hours eating and drinking, and yet didn’t feel overstuffed or bloated, and didn’t have a trace of indigestion (although we were a bit wobbly on our feet after all that sherry and wine).

We saw the bill that The Times was footing - £465 for the two of us (this was five years ago - I expect it is even more now) . Was it worth it? It is a lot of money for a meal out, but this was so much more than a meal out – it was entertainment, theatre, education, involvement, an exploration of the effects of the senses on eating, and such a workout for the tastebuds we fully expected them to ache the next day.

One thing that particularly impressed me was the quality of the staff – with such an international reputation,  they get customers from all over the world and we heard waiters chatting to customers in at least three languages. The staff were also very knowledgeable and could answer every question we asked about the dishes. One waiter explained to us that every few weeks each waiter is expected to leave his front-of-house duties and spend a week working with the chefs in the kitchen, so they know exactly how each dish is prepared.

I’d been a little worried that the other customers would all be members of the ‘glitterati’, dripping with diamonds and designer frocks, but in fact apart from one small party who looked like footballers and their WAGs (one of whom proposed to his girlfriend –and was accepted – during the course of the meal….. aaaah…..) they all seemed to be ordinary people who had gone along to try out the ultimate foodie experience – and they all seemed to be as delighted with it as we were.


  1. Are you sure you don't want to be a food critic? That was beautifully detailed and I swear I tasted each combination as you described it. I really enjoyed reading that and am very envious. How expensive though!!!! We could eat for weeks on that much - but as you say, it's not just food, it's an experience isn't it. I'd so love to go one day, although I never will unless I get a comp win. Which reminds me.... New Year, New Comps. I need to get on the case and thanks for inspiring me :O) x

  2. Thanks Kay. It's so much more than just a posh meal out - we felt afterwards that we had taken part in a piece of performance art that had involved all our senses. And that's what I'd expect for that price- not just a nice dinner!


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