Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Fat Duck: a rich experience

And here we have.......?

The pub
You may have heard of of Heston Blumenthal You may have heard of his restaurant called The Fat Duck  in the village of Bray in Berkshire. You may have heard of a British food magazine that rates the world's 50 best restaurants , and that The Fat Duck has consistently shown in the Top 10, and often in the Top 5. It made No.1 in 2005. It’s currently No. 5. They’re pretty good credentials.

Regular readers may recall the exciting occasion of a visit to el Bulli  in Spain, a restaurant which held No. 1 spot for a few years (though recently Noma in Copenhagan - with an El Bulli-trained chef - has held that coveted position). What is all the fuss about? Something called “molecular gastronomy” (by anyone who wants to sound smart). Certainly, what these restaurants do with food is unusual - sometimes strange. Don’t try this at home.

Heston kills a red rose....
The Fat Duck experience began with a train from London to Maidenhead (45 minutes), checking in at a charming Thames-side B&B, then a five-minute taxi ride to the village of Bray. There, champagne was served upstairs in a charming old pub called The Hind's Head (and you needed to mind your head on the low beams - the building was built in the 15th century and has been a pub for over 400 years.) Heston Blumenthal owns this pub, and another in the village, as well as The Fat Duck. Rather an important local rate payer, one assumes.

At an appointed time, and in small groups, the dinner guests were escorted across the road to visit Blumenthal’s “experimental kitchen”, and meet the great man himself. Half-a-dozen acolytes in white chefs' coats stood about and handed him containers and utensils and so on, while he chatted amiably and did a couple of demonstrations. These all involved liquid nitrogen or dry ice. Heston seemed rather taken with these, er, things, like a boy with new toys, though he has been using them for years. By way of demonstration of the freezing power of liquid nitrogen, he grabbed a red rose from an artfully placed vase and stuck it in head first for a minute. When it emerged, Heston cracked the petals into crisp splinters. We ooh’d and aah’d. The ability of dry ice to bring out aromas was illustrated by pouring it into a bowl of oranges - another spectacular effect. To wind up, we each ate a tiny deconstructed and reconstructed icecream cone, made out of icecream whipped from custard with dry ice (pretty damn yummy). Heston is a charismatic man, clearly as cheerful as can be to be messing around with things in his experimental kitchen.

The Fat Duck interior
Back to the Hind’s Head for more champagne, before being escorted next door to our table in The Fat Duck - an unassuming, low-ceilinged space, white washed with old beams showing, and a few artful abstract colour swatches on the walls. This is the same space that Heston began in - he opened it as a pub-food bistro years ago, and here he is today!

Our dinner was 12 courses, one of which I can’t remember (hey, it was late in the evening) and another of which wasn’t listed on our printed menu, so I’m not entirely sure what it was. But here’s the list:

Aerated Beetroot

These tasted like, er, beetroot x 100

Nitro Poached Aperitifs - vodka & lime sour, or gin & tonic (my choice), or Campari soda

You had to eat them really fast or they melted

Nitro-poaching my G&T
Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream

Intense, very intense
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait; with Oak Moss & Truffle Toast

Possibly the richest dish of the evening....
Snail Porridge with Iberico Bellota Ham (which we failed to identify) & Shaved Fennel

Yep, there's snails in there
Roast Foie Gras with Barberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit

No, wait, this was the richest dish....

...A Japanese sashimi thing involving moss.....and dry ice

Looks good, sounds good....

Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel with Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise & Golden Trout Roe

Not totally sure about the liquorice...

Lamb with Cucumber (marked “c.1805”), with Onion and Dill Fluid Gel

Roast lamb, Heston-style
Looks great, can't remember what it was...
Hot & Iced Tea (can’t remember this one)
The “BFG” - Black Forest Gateau

“Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop”: a bag of four sweets - Aerated Chocolate with Mandarin Jelly; Coconut Baccy - Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco; Apple Pie Caramel with an edible wrapper; ‘The Queen of Hearts’ chocolate.

The Goodie Bag
This exquisite thing was made of chocolate

And possibly you would like the wine list too?

2009 Waterkloof, Semillon, Circle of Life, Stellenbosch (South Africa)
2006 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes, Le Soula, gerard Bauby, Roussillon (France)
2010 Pinot Gris, Signature, Rene Mure, Alsace (France)
....An extremely good saki with the Japanese interloper dish....
2008 Veronese, La Grola, Allegrini, Veneto (Italy)
2001 Yalumba, The reserve, Barossa Valley (Australia)
2009 Alella, Dolc Mataro, Alta Alella, Catalonia (Spain)

Sounds of the sea
And my opinion of it all, you ask? A quite unique experience. When the Japanese seafood arrived, it came with a large seashell for each diner, inside of which was an iPod Nano and headphones. These, when used, gave us all the sound of waves washing on the shore and seagulls calling......One dish was accompanied by a spray of fragrance over the table. The dry ice made periodic appearances, adding drama and excitement to an otherwise ordinary dinner table for six. All the sense were called upon. The dish with the moss included a small piece of moss-flavoured film to be eaten first. 

I have many accolades for the evening: unique, exciting, innovative (and that’s just the food). I would suggest that a bit more information about what exactly we were served (from the servers) would have been nice. Sometimes we diners found ourselves comparing guesses; sometimes we were never able to make a positive identification.

It seems silly to even compare this food with anything else I’ve ever eaten, but it was indeed very rich, to my taste. The Jelly of Quail and Crayfish Cream and the Roasted Foie Gras were extremely so. It was almost too much for my tum. But I did eat the snails. They tasted a little like bits of chicken. The saki was very good indeed; but raw fish is not for me. The Japanese dish, whatever it was, became my only reject.

I do think I can compare this food with that I ate at el Bulli, though, and inevitably those of us who had eaten at both had this particular discussion. I come down on the side of el Bulli, principally because one of the things I liked best of all about the food there was the simplicity of ingredients. Each dish had only one or two ingredients in it, intensely flavoured. Heston Blumenthal’s food was similarly intensely flavoured (whatever these molecular gastrologicsts do very much heightens the food flavours) but many dishes had a plethora of flavours in it. I found this obscuring and style-wise I prefer the simpler approach. But the debate was fairly evenly split amongst the diners. Some speculated that your preference would depend upon which you experienced first.

There was talk of a similar get-together at Noma later in the year. What are they thinking? My stomach can only take a dinner like that about once a year. 

Mi amigo y yo, mas tarde en la noche

1 comment:

  1. Article in today's Guardian.