UK: The Fat Duck

November 10, 2014

High Street, Bray, Berkshire
NOTE: I ate at the Fat Duck before I started writing this blog, so I hardly took any photos of the meal. Credit for most photos in this post goes to London Eater, who has been kind enough to let me use them. Many thanks to Kang.
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Credit London Eater

Ok, this is it: the big one. The Fat Duck. 3 Michelin Star restaurant, headed by Heston Blumenthal in Bray, West of London. I ate here in September 2010 with Mum, on our way from London to Bristol. It was my “goodbye” meal, since I was going to be away from home on exchange for six months. I can now say, having written a food blog for almost four years, that this was the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. It will likely remain so, if only because this meal came at such a pivotal point in my gastronomic education, when I was travelling, trying new foods, reading blogs, about to start my own blog, and generally thinking about food in a way that I’d hadn’t before.
Credit London Eater

 

The Fat Duck is one of the most famous restaurants in England, and, many say, one of the best in the world. I wonder how it must feel to be Heston and be told that there is no one (or hardly anyone) superior to you in your field of work. It must be surreal. The whole hullabaloo surrounding the opening a temporary Fat Duck at Crown in Melbourne also suggests that he is a man at the very top of his game. It’ll be very interesting to see how his empire develops over the years.

 

Credit London Eater

 

The staff, predictably, were all extremely gracious, professional and good humoured. They must have such a sense of accomplishment and pride, but this never came across in any form of arrogance or snobbiness. They certainly did look smart in their suits with pastel coloured ties. Amazingly, there was quite literally one staff member for every diner: the whole place ran as smoothly as a well-oiled machine.

What I loved most about my meal here was the spectacle, how food was something to laugh at, to be intrigued by, something that makes you question what you’re tasting. I am usually hesitant about molecular gastronomy, preferring straight-up, honest food instead. But none of the dishes here ever came at the expense of flavour, and the surprising warmth of the place had Mum and I smiling and giggling throughout the whole thing. There’s none of the stuffiness you often find at less impressive restaurants elsewhere.

 

Credit London Eater

 

The Fat Duck is in the small town of Bray (Mum and I are convinced that Heston must own about half the town). There’s the Fat Duck itself, a small, off-white brick building on the main street; a little further up is Heston’s pub, the Hind’s Head; and across the street are a few smaller buildings that store food and also contain his labs, where he does all those crazy inventions and experiments. Inside, the Fat Duck is a small, politely cramped restaurant, with perfectly white walls lit up by colourful abstract paintings. Very low ceilings, lovely exposed beams. Very simple, very European, very sophisticated.

Currently, the Fat Duck only offers a set menu. For £150 per head, you are served fourteen courses over about 3 hours. And honestly? YES, it is well worth it. (Is the same meal at $525 a head in Melbourne well worth it? Well… let’s just say this blogger is withholding comment!)

 

LIME GROVE

Nitro poached green tea and lime mousse

We began, stomachs full of butterflies, with a palate cleanser. A waiter poured liquid nitrogen (chilled to -173°) into a stainless steel pot, then sprayed a mouthful of mousse from a pressurised canister onto a spoon, and gently placed it in the liquid nitrogen, stirring gently for a minute. He placed the meringue on a plate, dusted it with green tea powder, and told me to eat it NOW. As I did, he sprayed lime scent above my head.

 

Credit London Eater
The mousse was crisp on the outside but soft, almost like air in the middle. Sort of like a meringue but without the chewiness or the wetness, and it was VERY COLD. Sure, it’s all theatre and spectacle, but it was fun and in good humour. The underlying thread running through the meal was how food is evocative and fun and exciting. Not how much the glassware costs (don’t even get me started).
Credit London Eater

RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

This dish was miniscule, but one of my favourites from the entire night. The flavours were just so intense, so wonderful. A small amount of tangy, sour, cold red cabbage gazpacho, with a tiny quinelle of mustard ice cream, and micro cubes of what we think were cucumber and onion. The ice cream was fantastic, not overwhelming, and it off-set the cabbage perfectly. All the flavours warmed and mingled in your mouth. The gazpacho was just superb, a refreshing razor cold liquid that cuts across your tongue. And how arresting is that purple colour?

Credit London Eater

JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM

Chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast

My first reaction when reading this was that it sounded sort of gross, and I probably wouldn’t have chosen it off a menu, but actually it was amazing. They brought out a box of moss, and poured liquid nitrogen all over so the cold air spilled out over our table and onto our laps, releasing the smell of forest trees and truffles. Quite the show. We both received a film flavoured of oak, not dissimilar to those listerine strips from a few years back. I thought this bit was a little pointless (the oak film), because it didn’t taste like much. The soily, musty oak scent from the moss would have been enough. Only after all this had been completed were we allowed to start eating!

Credit London Eater

On one board was a slice of truffle toast, a delicate sliver of crust smeared with truffle. It was earthy and crunchy, the perfect textural contrast to the silky richness of the other part of the dish. My favourite part was the layered concoction in the egg-shaped bowl. On top is a quenelle of chicken liver parfait, sitting on a thin layer of crayfish cream, below which is the quail jelly, and then on the bottom, some green mousse, maybe asparagus? Oh, it was outstanding, so intense and delicious (and cold, again), but I think this made the flavours all the more intense in your mouth.

Mum had a different dish to me (she’s allergic to egg). I can’t remember what it was, but she said it was exquisite. (She did get the oak film and truffle toast though, so not all was lost!)

Credit London Eater
Credit London Eater

SNAIL PORRIDGE

Jabugo ham, shaved fennel

I had seen this on Masterchef (I know, I know, please don’t mob me), and was instantly intruiged. I have had snails before, but always drenched in butter, garlic and parsley, and here was the first time I’d had them in a more neutral context. Golly, this blew my mind. The snails themselves were wonderfully textured, not chewy at all, and the porridge was perfectly seasoned, it had a lovely pea and parsley flavour. This was such a warming, oddly wholesome dish; I just wanted to have a big bowl of it and curl up on the couch in my pajamas, watching a movie. A creamy bowl of goodness. Despite the oddity of ingredients, the dish was surprisingly accessible, and we scraped the bottom of our bowls with our spoons.

Credit London Eater

ROAST FOIE GRAS

Gooseberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit

While I understand that foie gras is made unethically, I couldn’t help myself from loving this dish. It’s difficult to get real foie gras in Australia because of food import laws, but this was the real deal. Interestingly, aside from the truffle (and I suppose the snails), foie gras was the only luxury item on the menu. I really enjoyed this dish: velvety soft, wobbly, silky pieces of foie gras with a delicious seeded crumble on top, and a gooseberry jel that I mainly left, preferring to just focus on the richness of the liver. The crab biscuit was salty, a nice contrast in texture, and the braised konbu (a type of kelp) was also salty, though difficult to get onto my fork. There was no theatricality with this dish, so it’s easy to forget among all the others, and perhaps it wasn’t quite as interesting as the rest, but it was delicious all the same.

Credit London Eater

MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)

“Mad Hatter tea”

This dish is a take-off of real turtle soup, which was very popular in Victorian Britain. However, I can imagine that turtle meat isn’t actually very tasty, so for centuries a substitute meat has been used, usually calf’s head or some such thing. It is also Heston’s homage to Lewis Carroll’s iconic book Alice in Wonderland, and we were given a little bookmark with some of the history of the mock-turtle, which in the book is a turtle with the head of a calf. The dish was originally brought out soupless, and prettily arranged in a bowl was veal, some tofu that had been fashioned to look like an egg, punctuated with micro mushrooms, and some teeny tiny cubes of cucumber and onion.

Credit London Eater
Then they brought along a glass case, and gave each of us a golf foil encrusted “tea bag”, that looked like the Mad Hatter’s watch. This was delicately placed in a teacup, and warm water was poured over it. The “tea bag” was actually very concentrated stock in gel form, that melted with the water and formed the wet component of the dish. We were instructed to pour the contents over the bowl and begin eating (lots of instructing went on in this meal – it got a tad tiresome at this point).
Credit London Eater
Credit London Eater

The gold foil was edible, so that stayed as well. The broth had a very intense meaty flavour despite its pale colour, and I relished the golden flecks floating in the soup. Overall though, the flavours were less incredible that some other dishes. I think the focus here was really on theatre and presentation, and perhaps flavour was only a secondary consideration.

Credit London Eater

“SOUND OF THE SEA”

This is one of Blumenthal’s landmark dishes, most notably because of his revolutionary idea of having diners eat it while listening to an iPod hidden in a large shell play sounds of waves lapping on a beach. He’s said this dish has made people cry, its evocative power is so strong. I didn’t cry, and I suppose I was sort of reminded of the beach, although to really evoke the my beach memories, Heston would have had to place a tray of burning hot sand underneath my bare feet, had a waiter rub SPF 30+ into my face, and included the loud squeals of children as they run around you, flicking sand into the pages of your book.

Having said that, it was pretty special putting in those earphones and having the conversation of the restaurant disappear. The sand was made from tapioca and eel, and did taste salty and even a tad gritty. The foam was also sort of salty-fishy, and there were a pretty handful of sea vegetables littering the shore, including lily bulb, ice lettuce and sea beans. From left to right, the fish was mackerel, yellowtail and halibut, all beautifully prepared.

Credit London Eater

SALMON POACHED IN LICORICE

Artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe

We moved on to another fishy course of salmon poached in licorice. I feel like a philistine saying this about something Heston Blumenthal has created, but I did not like this dish. I just didn’t get it. The salmon, I will say, was perfectly poached, with an almost gelatinous texture and evenly pink, but I didn’t like the thick glutinous (almost rubbery) covering of licorice. The artichokes with grapefruit were yummy and tangy, and the vanilla mayonnaise by itself was lovely, but the addition of the licorice and trout roe were too many flavours for me. However, I will admire the food styling which was done beautifully. I loved the brown/cream contrast and pops of pink and the visible vanilla beans.

Credit London Eater

 

Mum, due to allergies, had a lamb dish which she raved about. I think I’d have preferred hers!

 

Credit London Eater

POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720)

Blood pudding, potted umbles, spelt and pickles

By this stage of the meal, we were so many courses in that I’d almost forgotten what we’d been eating two hours earlier. I remember feeling this way at Vue de Monde, and thinking that perhaps there’s a saturation point beyond which your tastebuds and your mind lose the ability to appreciate things as much as you did at the beginning of the meal.

Having said that, this was a rich, meaty, iron-intense dish, in the way that blood pudding always is.  The ‘powdered pigeon’ was, I’m guessing, the pigeon flavoured puffed crackers. The pigeon was beautifully gamey, and balanced with some charred pickled onion. As for the umbles, well, I ate them without realising what they were, and being an adventurous person I thought I didn’t need to ask. Out of curiosity, I later googled them, only to realise that ‘umbles’ is the term used for heart meat. Yes, I ate an animal’s heart. I am a terrible, terrible person, not least of all because it was delicious. Damn delicious.

Credit London Eater

HOT & ICED TEA

As a palate cleanser before the desserts, we were given glasses of lemon tea and told to drink them, immediately please, without twisting the glass from the position it had been placed in. One side of the tea was very warm, the other icy. It was quite surreal! My mum wasn’t fooled though – “the two liquids are different viscosities, and you pour them in slowly from each side of the glass so that they don’t mix”. Bingo. That’s what a PhD in pharmacology gets you, the ability to show up Heston’s waiters before they can reveal their magic tricks!
Credit London Eater

TAFFETY TART (c.1660)

Caremalized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon

Heston’s Taffety Tart is almost too good to eat, it’s so pretty. Is it not the very picture of beauty? So lovely I didn’t want to ruin it (almost). It’s a good thing I did eventually crack through those delicate layers of pastry, apple cream and blackcurrant jelly, because this was phenomenally good. On the side of the tart was a blackcurrant sorbet, sugared rose petals and candied fennel. Probably the most impressive, beautiful and delicious piece of pastry work I’ve ever had, I especially enjoyed the refreshing, citrus flavour profile of this dish.

Credit London Eater

THE “BFG”

Black Forest Gateau

It seems like it was impossible to improve on perfection, and yet, Heston seems to have managed it! The BFG (a tribute to Roald Dahl’s famous book) was tall, decadent, and unabashedly chocolatey, with a subtle hint of red fruit from sour cherries suspended in a chocolate ganache. And if you think this chocolate rectangle looks and sounds simple enough (indeed, perhaps you’ve enjoyed the occasional BFG from the local cake shop), you’ve got another thing coming.

Credit London Eater
This torte is in fact composed of eight layers, as this helpful cross-section will show. From the bottom, there is a crunchy biscuit base, apricot compote, aerated chocolate, chocolate ganache, sour cherries, flourless chocolate sponge, kirsch cream, and finally a chocolate mousse. Then, dark chocolate is sprayed through a paint gun over the entire cake, giving it that dusty finish. Even the cherry stalk isn’t as it seems, being crafted from a vanilla pod. If you’re interested in patisserie, just check out this incredible video of Heston building a BFG. Suffice to say, this was simply the best (cue Tina Turner music).
Credit London Eater
Again, mum had an alternate dish, the nitro scrambled eggs and bacon ice-cream, with pain perdu and a sliver of candied bacon (not pictured). Amazingly, they managed to make something taste exactly like eggs and bacon without using any eggs! Yet another example of the genius at work here.

WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS

Finished with desserts, we each picked our way through a whiskey wine gum map, with each made from a single malt from particular regions in Scotland (finishing with a rather strong lolly made with Jack Daniels). I suppose this is a fun alternative to a whiskey flight, and a quirky way to finish the meal.

 

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Credit London Eater

 

“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”

Aerated Chocolate, mandarin jelly
Coconut Baccy, coconut infused with an aroma of black cavendish tobacco
Apple Pie Caramel with edible wrapper
The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts

 

Credit London Eater

 

By way of petit fours, we were each given a little bag of treats to take home and enjoy later. The aerated chocolate was a strong dark chocolate filled with a picquant mardarin jelly. The coconut baccy was ok, but perhaps I would have appreciated it more if I appreciated tobacco. The edible wrapper of the apple pie caramel, and also the Queen of Hearts white chocolate tablet filled with raspberry were genius. Absolute genius.

 

Credit Let Me Feed You Melbourne (woo hoo!)
Once it was all over, more than four hours after we’d originally arrived, we walked back out into the English drizzle, still in a gaze and slightly giddy from the experience. I reflect on this meal with a great deal of fondness, especially since it came at such a pivotal time when I was just thinking about food in a different light and starting this blog.
It was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences. I don’t think I’d enjoy a second visit here nearly as much, if only because I want to keep the memory of this visit, in all its innocence, wonder and mystery, preserved untouched in my mind. We were each given a printed out copy of the menu enclosed in an envelope with the Fat Duck wax stamp – it’s got a permanent home on my bookshelf. An experience, a fantasy, a gastronomic climax of the best kind, call it what you will. I’m so glad I went and I’ll cherish this special meal for many years.
Credit Let Me Feed You Melbourne

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