To say one “had dinner” at the Fat Duck would be a gross injustice and an insult to Heston Blumenthal and his incredible brigade. One doesn’t have dinner; rather they partake in an epic culinary and theatrical event, an event that lasts for an impressive 3 1/2 hours.
I recently had the opportunity to experience this culinary odyssey and of course I jumped at the chance.
initially missing my flight and having trouble re-booking due to public holidays; I finally made it to London, relieved that I wouldn’t miss my much awaited and anticipated “Fat Duck” reservation.
It was a 45 minute train trip from the Paddington station to Maidenhead, then a 5 min taxi ride to take us to Brey and what I now call “Heston Street”. This is the road that “The Fat Duck” is located on, but also two other pubs “The Hinds Head” and “The Crown” which are also owned by Heston Blumenthal and are within walking distance.
An ex colleague of mine is currently running “The Hinds Head”, so we arrived an hour early to stop in for a pint and a catch up before our dinner.
7pm couldn’t come around fast enough, so we crossed the road and entered the 45 seat dining room of what would soon be the most memorable meal of my life.
We were seated at an impeccably laid table with the crisp white “Fat Duck” napkins (one of which I forgot to stuff in my camera bag). Presented with the degustation menu and two options of wine pairings, additionally the wine list was presented. Another injustice is calling it a wine list; this makes the Holy Bible look like a one page flyer…….
When were then given a rare opportunity to view the kitchen. The space was tiny, considering the amazing food that is produced. The brigade worked like a well oiled machine to produce such amazing food from such a tiny space.
Once back our table we were presented with our Amuse bouche. A small bite sized beetroot macaron with horseradish cream. The lightness yet intensity of the beetroot which was carefully balanced by the horseradish cream was a share delight. A couple more would have been most welcome.
Next where the nitro poached aperitif done table side and gave us the choice of: vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or campari and grapefruit. This was done table side by a waiter and gave us just a small preview of the excitement yet to come.
The red cabbage gazpacho with pommery mustard ice cream was next to come out. Again this dish had such a great balance of flavours and contrast of textures. It left us with no doubt to the amount of thought, detail and planning that had gone into all these dishes.
The came the Jelly of quail with crayfish cream, my favourite dish of the night.
First you were presented with a planter box of oak moss in the center of the table. This had plastic boxes with “Oak” flavoured strips inside. (reminiscent of the old Listerine mints). This was followed by a small wooden block presenting a crisp toast which was generously coated with truffle butter and fresh black truffles, painstakingly garnished with radish and chervil. Beside this was a unique looking dish containing quail jelly, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait and a fig crisp. We were the instructed to start by placing the oak strip on our tongue while the waiter proceeded to pour hot water into the grass which happened to be full of dry ice; creating a misty effect. We were then informed to proceed and eat the rest of the dish(es). This was the first real encounter with the theatrics that is dining here. It was an explosion for the senses; the smell, taste and visuals, all giving you the feeling of sitting in the forest floor. The food, phenomenal as it was, was only a 1/3 of that course. In fact, by the time we had finished; I realised that I hadn’t even made a start on the glass of wine that was supposed to be paired with it and this became the trend throughout the meal. There was just so much going on that the wine pairing could easily have been skipped without taking anything away from the evening.
Next up was the much talked about “Snail porridge”. This dish gave you a mouth full of parsley (in a good way), the saltness of the prized Iberico Belotta ham, the rich garlic snails and fresh, crisp lemony fennel to balance it all out. In a word “WOW”.
Then came the Mad Hatters tea party – Mock turtle soup, a pocket watch and toast sandwich. Firstly, we were presented with a teacup garnished with veal tongue, cucumber with turnip and swede presented to look like egg. On top of this was a teapot filled with hot water. Next the waiter came with a leather case containing three gold pocket watches on strings similar to that of a tea bag. We were then briefed about the Mad hatters story before the watch was lowered into out tea-pot of boiling water. This revealed that the watch was actually concentrated consomme which had been set and coated with gold leaf. We gave that a quick stir around before pouring it into our tea-cup. We were then presented with a “hat” high tea stand containing the sandwiches. These contained a filling of bone marrow, egg salad and toasted bread, offering a great flavour and crunchy texture. Yet another outstanding course!!
Up next was another of Heston’s signatures and dish that I had been anxious to try for years “The sounds of the sea”!!
First off, you are presented with a conch yielding a pair of earphones which you are instructed to place on. Immediately, you are transported to the English seaside with sounds of gentle waves lapping the beach, hungry seagulls squawking in the distance. This really set the stage for the plate of food about to come. Having wondered about this dish for several years, im glad to report that it did not disappoint.
Artificial sand had been created with maltodextrin, crispy fried grape nuts and many other components to add to its realism. This was topped with cured mackerel and yellow tail, grilled abalone and a whopping nine different varieties of seaweed. All this, caressed with a kombu foam which added yet another taste and texture. The entire dish was one great explosion of umami after another. Again the detail and planning of this dish must have been immense and is easy to see why this is one of the signature dishes which has not been able to be removed from the menu for all these years.
Salmon poached in liquorice gel was the course that followed. I had some reservations about this dish. How would salmon, grapefruit, liquorice, artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe work together? Or would it just be a very wrong clash of flavours. To my surprise there was indeed a marriage of flavours and they all worked together harmoniously. The waiter later explained that each component shares a similar molecule which allows them to pair well.
After the final main course of the most perfectly cooked duck breast I have ever eaten, we were presented with “Hot and iced tea” as a pre-dessert. It was a glass of Camomile tea with a hint of lemon which as you drank it was both hot and cold. Yet another secret of the “Fat Duck”…….
This dessert was everything you have ever dreamt of from a Black forest gateau. Think of all those times when you have left a pastry shop disappointed; well this made up for each and every one of those. The intense Kirschwasser flavour slapping you in the face with every mouthful. The bitterness of the chocolate and the sharp cherry flavour clawing the sides of your mouth only to be mellowed by the rich creaminess. Not to mention the presentation – a perfect rocher of kirsch ice cream…………
The wine gums were great and were a true representation of each region. The Laphroaig with its typical smoke and peat and Glenlivet, that sweet sherry finish. Each one was like it had a precious dram locked away, just waiting to explode once in your mouth.
The grand finale of the night was “like a kid in a sweet shop”. We were presented with a pink and white striped bag which contained out “petits fours” for the evening. Unfortunately, we had already well over stayed our welcome (5 hours) and were going to miss the last train back to London. So we opted for them “to go” and rushed off to the Maidenhead station.
The following morning I was eager to tear into the sweet shop bag to see what other surprises Heston had planned for us. Again, he did not disappoint.
The entire evening was spectacular and will go down as one of the best meals I have ever had! The food was outstanding and faultless. But the big difference was that the food was only a 1/3 of the evening. The theatrics and detail that had gone into each course making it more than just food was what really one me over. A night that won’t be soon forgotten………..