I normally post my restaurant reviews to the UK board of another website but thought that the Fat Duck was sufficiently "down south" that it might be of interest to the much more London-centric Chowhound board as well (although I can't see any recent mention of anyone actually eating there).
It was probably with some trepidation that my wife suggested going to the Fat Duck as my 60th birthday present from her. And it was with some trepidation that I said that I’d love to. It was going to be a dinner unlike any other we’d eaten. It was going to be wacky. It was going to include food that didn’t sound instantly appealing. It was going to be eye-wateringly expensive.
So, the reservation was made. An opportunity to mention any dietary issues had been given (and would be repeated on arrival) but we decided to “go for it” and trust that everything would be OK. And, if it wasn’t, then we could always get a bag of chips on the way home. So, there we were. Ready for anything. But, perhaps, the biggest surprise was in the whole ambiance of the place. It was extremely relaxed and, whilst service was formal, there was not a hint of stuffiness. Some diners had “frocked up”, others were dressed in jeans and polo shirts. Neither group looked out of place. We were about to start on a four hour experience of great food, theatre and just downright good fun. It will be fair to say that my wife found the meal more challenging than I did and, whilst she found all the dishes to be excellently constructed and interesting, there were several that were simply not to her taste. Apart from a couple of the courses, I liked everything.
I no longer drink alcohol but a long tasting menu is always a challenge for my wife in matching wine to food. The restaurant offers a pairing which would have brought eight different wines but, if she was not to leave Bray absolutely legless, this would have to be pared down. This is when the skill of a good sommelier comes to the fore. He was able to select four glasses from the eight which, in conjunction with a champagne aperitif, kept her going all evening.
And so to food:
LIME GROVE, nitro poached green tea and lime mousse. Kit is delivered to a side table – plates, a bowl, a flask containing the liquid nitrogen, a pressurised bottle of the mousse. The waiter squirts nitrogen into the bowl; mousse onto a spoon and it goes into the nitro. A few seconds later, the blob has set and is plated. A dusting of the green tea. One mouthful. It feels like meringue – crispy on the outside, soft inside. The waiter squirts an atomiser of lime scent into the air. Perfect theatre. Perfect citrusy palate cleanser.
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO, Pommery grain mustard ice cream. Bread arrives before this. Nothing fancy – just white and brown. But it’s excellent bread with a good crust. It’ll be regularly offered throughout the meal. A small quenelle of the ice cream sits in the bowl and the soup is poured over. You notice the mustard first, then the sweetness of the ice cream and, finally, the distinct flavour of the cabbage.
JELLY OF QUAIL, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast. The most theatrical dish of the evening. Placed in front of you is a bowl and a wooden board. On the board sits the toast. In the bowl is almost everything else. In the centre of the table is a small tray of oak moss. On this are two slivers of film of “essence of oak moss” which we’re invited to place on our tongues. They taste of, erm,, oak moss. In the bowl, there are four layers. A bottom layer of pea puree, topped with the extremely rich quail jelly, then a thin layer of the crayfish cream (in truth, not detectable to our palates) and, uppermost, the chicken parfait. You are about to eat when waiter pours dry ice onto the moss and your table is completely covered with the mist of the forest floor. It lingers while you eat. It had us laughing out loud. This is a wonderfully rich and delicious dish which I loved, the crisp truffle toast contrasting well with thr softness of the jelly concoction. It was the first dish which didn’t find favour with my wife (which meant I got “seconds”).
SNAIL PORRIDGE, Jabugo ham, shaved fennel. Perhaps the best known Blumenthal dish, it was again a very rich flavour in the porridge. Neither of us had eaten snail before and we were both surprised how little flavour they had in themselves. The fennel was heavily salted and, whilst it was no doubt intended to have the predominant flavour, we were less than convinced that it worked better than a fuller pure fennel taste.
ROAST FOIE GRAS, gooseberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit. Foie gras is something that we’d usually choose not to eat but we’d decided to put ethical considerations to one side and “go for it”. Of course, you cannot entirely escape your prejudices and it was, perhaps, no surprise that this simply didn’t appeal to us. Of course, it was technically brilliant – the soft richness of the liver; topped with the crunchiness of the seaweed (and something else) topping, the tartness of the gooseberry. No doubt, many customers would love this. We wouldn’t be amongst them.
MOCK TURTLE SOUP. I think this is from one of the “Heston’s Feasts” programmes and was back to just damn good fun. In the bowl, a little piece of veal, a pretend egg, little dice of veg. Alongside a cup. The waiter drops the Mad Hatter’s gold pocket watch into the cup. And pours water on. You then stir and the watch dissolves into the water, forming the gold flecked stock for the soup. You pour it into your bowl and, there you are, a delicious soup of deep savoury flavours and textures. Wonderful.
“SOUND OF THE SEA”. Theatre continues with the presentation of an iPod enclosed within a conch shell. You listen to the gulls and the waves lapping whilst you eat. There are slivers of raw yellow fin tuna, halibut and mackerel. They “swim” in the sea – actually a foam of fish and seaweed stock. It laps against the shore – the sand made from semolina, fried eels and vermouth. This is fab. We don’t want to take off the ear pieces. But it’s time to move on.
SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE, artichoke, vanilla mayo, trout roe & Manni olive oil. Neither of us was keen on this dish. The salmon was wrapped in the liquorice and topped with roe and drizzled with the oil. There were blobs of the mayo dotted around and it was the strong taste of the vanilla that “did for us”.
POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON, blood pudding, potted umbles, spelt. I loved this but my wife didn’t – but then she’s not a fan of game or offal. Here there was pigeon breast – two slices very soft, perhaps poached; a larger chunk fried. The blood pudding actually in the form of deeply rich thick sauce – almost the consistency of congealing blood. Separately a bowl of the umbles, in a creamy sauce, topped with crispy spelt. A masterpiece of a dish – my wife admiring the skill if not the taste.
HOT & ICED TEA. A palate cleanser and Blumenthal’s witchcraft is again employed. The glass of tea, intended to be drunk in one swig, is, as described, hot on one side, iced on the other. I swigged and tasted hot tea on the left side of my mouth, whilst cold on the right. There must a gelling agent in there somehow. Burn him, burn him!
MACERATED STRAWBERRIES, olive oil biscuit, chamomile & coriander. A seemingly straightforward summer dessert. Delicious berries made special by the oily biscuit and the hint of spices. There was excellent sugar craft here, in the form of a miniature plaid picnic blanket, draped over the berries. Oh, and there was a delicious jelly & ice cream cornet to eat first. Summer in a few bites.
THE BFG, Black Forest Gateau. A dessert from another TV show which attempted to perfect this British classic dessert. We’re old enough to remember when this was a feature of dinner at a Berni Inn (after the prawn cocktail and steak & chips). And we don’t diss Berni Inns – this is where folk like us went for celebration meals. As for eating the creation, it was really good gateau with some kirsch ice cream on the side. And an atomiser of an indeterminate “essence of Black Forest” to spray around.
WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS. The wine gums come “stuck” to a map of Scotland showing the region from which the flavours come. Even in my drinking days, I was never a fan of Scotch and now this was just so-so.
LIKE A KID IN SWEET SHOP. The Fat Duck’s offering as petit fours to go with coffee (extra charge). They arrive in a stripy paper bag – just like when you were a kid and went to spend your pocket money on penny chews, sherbet dabs and blackjacks. There was an “orange aero”. And a caramel with edible cellophane wrapper. And the Queen of Hearts – a white chocolate playing card, encasing a tart fruit filling. And a paper pouch, just like you’d buy loose tobacco – but here the baccy made from coconut but infused with tobacco flavour. Bloody good coffee, as well.
So, in conclusion, how do I feel about my birthday treat? It was an evening that I’m really glad I’ve experienced. I’d eaten some outstandingly tasty and enjoyable food. I’d eaten even more outstandingly interesting food. It had been fun. And I can now say to anyone who asks “I’ve been to the third best restaurant in the world”. There’s not much more a foody could ask for.