[Aside: Publication of this review was delayed for a few months due to external factors. I'm now publishing it regardless!]
An inconspicuous old redbrick building in the Berkshire village of Bray bears a sign of a webbed foot, a feather and a duck's bill, all with cutlery handles. Next to the door is a bronze plaque in French, 'Relais & Chateaux Gourmands' and on the other side of the door, a large stylised fowl 'Traditions et qualité'.
This is The Fat Duck. Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, closely associated with the molecular gastronomy movement (though he eschews this label), enjoys Michelin 3-star status and was recently ranked among the world's top ten restaurants.
The welcome was friendly and not as stiff as the staff's attire might have led us to expect. The first three staff we encountered were French — a common affectation in British fine dining. There were maybe fourteen tables in the low-ceilinged room, with wooden-beams and whitewashed walls featuring colourful abstract art. A relaxed ambience.
This is an establishment best known for 'experience' dining, having attracted much popular attention for dishes such as snail porridge and egg and bacon ice-cream. We were curious to see how this would affect the meal and the clientele.
Once seated we waited quite a while for menus, even though the room was not busy and guests who arrived simultaneously had been provided with menus promptly. Two menus are available. The à la carte choices were strongly biased towards fish and seafood. The tasting menu was more diverse and clearly the entertainment side of the experience. At GBP 80 (ca A$200) and 115 (ca A$290) respectively, the à la carte menu looked like the poorer choice.
The first clearly positive note was the enquiry about dietary restrictions. The questions were quite intelligent regarding allergies and permitted guests to opt out of certain dishes if they seemed too scary (I would guess this is primarily a snail issue). The standard dishes are strong on seafood and very poor for vegetarians.
Water was offered–the imported (French, in this case) bottled type, with which restaurants in Britain attempt to earn similar margins to those they do on wine. GBP 4.50 for less than a litre is quite a feat. Good bread was offered, accompanied by unpasteurised salted and unsalted butters. Delightful. And, remarkably, 'free'.
Nitro-green tea and lime mousse
Lunch commenced with a piece of theatre. A cooking station was set up next to the table. The waitress announced that she was about to cook a foam of eggwhite in liquid nitrogen and that the resulting ball should be placed whole in one's mouth immediately. The foam was squirted onto a spoon and floated in the nitrogen, turned a few times and removed. The resulting hard white ball was placed on a plate, liquid drained off, and then dusted with a green tea powder and, as it was delivered to the first guest, the table was spritzed with 'essence of lime grove'. Cute, theatrical, and setting the scene for a meal which would simultaneously titilate and irritate.
The eggwhite foam had become a cold, hard meringue-like shell which revealed a soft, refreshingly lime-tangy centre. It succeeds in the pleasant surprise and frisson of novelty. The dish was described as removing fat from the tongue and opening its 'pores'. Uhuh.
Shortly hereafter, a plate of two small squares of jelly was placed in front of each diner. We were told that these were orange and beetroot jellies, and it was recommended that we should eat the orange one first. The diner promptly goes for the orange-coloured jelly. It doesn't take a lot to guess there would be some sort of novelty here. The orange jelly tasted of beetroot. Intense, earthy, fruity beetroot. The dark red jelly tasted of orange. Deep, tangy blood orange. The waiter removed the plates and asked us which one we liked most. 'The one that tasted of beetroot.' 'Which colour was that?' A didactic touch, rehearsed and stiffly delivered, unwilling to acknowledge that we had seen through the trickery.
Eavesdropping on the neighbouring table, it was clear that not everyone sees through this caprice. The couple debated whether the red jelly was blackcurrant flavour and felt the orange coloured jelly wasn't very orangey. Yep.
The jellies behind us, it was time for the first savoury dish.
Oyster, passion fruit jelly, lavender
For me, the no-seafood guy, a martini glass with a small dollop of lentils surrounded by a peach puree and sprinkled with mint. The flavour was round and very savoury, despite the mild sweetness and perfume of the peach. There was more to this dish, but the waiter wasn't inclined to be informative.
For the seafood people, a raw oyster with a thick passionfruit jelly and some notional lavender. Presented in shell, balanced on a mound of wet sea salt as a pedestal. This dish was received enthusiastically, despite the combination of sweet and savoury with oyster.
Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho
A shockingly violet sauce (the gazpacho) was the pool for a ball of mustard ice-cream. Very savoury, but a pity that the gazpacho tasted like old cabbage water. More successful in visuals than olfactories, this one.
Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras
Oak moss and truffle toast
Next, more theatre. A wooden box containing a layer of oak moss was placed on the table. Atop the moss were three small plastic boxes which we recognised from Japanese flavoured films and certain brands of breath freshener. We were instructed to place the film in our mouths. The waiter poured water over the moss, which then gushed white mist like a disco smoke machine. Dry ice was lurking somewhere. I assume the mist carries aromas from the moss.
With the film dissipating in our mouths, we tasted a 'truffle toast' — a small rectangle of wafer-thin bread topped with dry black shavings, it was intense and absolutely delicious. The primary impression was less of truffle and more of a broad umami hit. And finally, we started exploring a cup of 'foie gras parfait, langoustine crème, quail jelly and pea purée'. The parfait was a tiny quenelle of a sweet cream of foie gras. Delicate and rich. The langoustine cream was appreciated by the fishy people, while my replacement — truffle cream — was strong and a little overwhelming at first. Beneath this was a layer of quail aspic. Firm and also quite strong, yet another meaty note to this rich dish. The pea purée, concealed below the jelly, was mild and sweet, and not as mushy-pea flavoured as one might have feared.
The first less fussy dish in the tasting was the dreaded snail porridge. Dreaded? I had resolved to try it, despite a not-so-adventurous palate, whereas my otherwise adventurous companions at first baulked at the idea, only to slowly find bravery in their hearts. The tables were turned when the plates arrived. My bravery evaporated as I saw that the porridge did not contain the snails. There were, instead, three or four whole snails perched atop the porridge. Small strips and cubes of jamon added texture and flavour to the dish. The porridge was, of course, not quite that. Yes, there was evidence of oatmeal, but it was really a thick parsley-coloured snail sauce with small pieces of oatmeal and jamon through it. The challenging snails were garnished with shaved fennel which tasted of walnut. I have no memory of being impressed… but snail trauma might have been to blame.
Up to this point we had enjoyed most of the dishes, with high points and low points clear amongst our preferences. What had been lacking was the 'wow' in all of it. Where was something that would impress us with flavour and texture in a 'normal' gustatory way, rather than because of cleverness or novelty?
Roast foie gras
In the centre of a plate decorated with a sour cherry, an amaretto cream, delightful little cubes of almond jelly and stripes of morello cherry sauce was a small piece of roasted foie gras. (There was, apparently, chamomile somewhere in all this, but we couldn't sense it.) The foie gras was stunning. Unlike the typical paté-like texture, this was soft and light, almost a loose jelly in texture, with a sweet, mellow flavour only showing the characteristic foie gras bitterness at the very end of the flavour timeline. When the waiter was asked how this texture had been achieved, he started to describe a long, slow cooking process in a vacuum bag. That was fine and clear, but the surprise on his face when I asked if he was talking about the 'sous vide' method in turn left me surprised, and his unwillingness to say how long the foie gras was cooked for seemed petty (or ignorant).
Sound of the sea
A recent addition to the dishes that have had media attention is 'Sound of the sea', a multimedia dining experience. Dining with an iPod Shuffle for company – we were instructed to listen to the sound of seagulls and waves whilst eating. The food is intended to recreate a seashore image, with a loose white foam on one side of the rectangular glass plate, covering samphire, seaweed and mussels (or in my case konbu and broccoli), and delineated on the opposing side by a tapioca powder 'sand'. Why the sound effects? Apparently it enhances the flavour impression. Evidence? Not within the walls of the restaurant, from my experience. I started with the earphones, removed them, replaced them, tested different parts of the food. Perhaps the effect doesn't work so well with kelp. My seafood-friendly friends were more enthusiastic, with one objecting to the strong sound-induced seafoodiness. A waiter pointed out (towards the end of the dish) that I should be listening to the music. Thanks. Been there done that. Now doing my own testing, thank you very much.
Salmon poached with liquorice
One of the visually more challenging dishes was a square of salmon encased in a liquorice flavoured shell. This was served with asparagus, olive oil and a dusting of grated liquorice root. Feelings were mixed, with one of our party finding the salmon wet and characterless, completely lost against the liquorice. We asked a few previous diners over the following days and they almost unanimously felt that this dish was the least successful. Do some Googling and you'll find numerous unenthusiastic comments.
I instead enjoyed a rectangle of pork belly, sweet and flavoursome, served with macaroni in an intense truffle sauce. The sauce so overpowered the wonderful meat that this dish seemed poorly judged. The macaroni were on the firmer side of al dente, small and not suited to the cutlery (or vice versa — widely spaced tines on the fork, a tapering pointed blade on the Laguiole knife). [I'll write more about silly cutlery in restaurants another time.]
In a place where enthusiasm for the entertainment seemed rather essential, the waiter's handling of one companion's uneaten dish of liquorice salmon was interesting. He insisted on knowing what had been wrong with it, but then sought to explain the rationale for its character to counter the diner's opinion. 'The salmon shouldn't overpower the liquorice as the flavours need to be balanced.' Indeed. But wet and tasteless? He finished with a clearly rehearsed line, 'I'm sorry it didn't work for you.'
It was increasingly obvious that the oral description of the dishes, the theatre and service behaviours were strongly rehearsed and scripted. This is performance dining.
Best end of lamb
The final savoury dish, a sort of main course in a sea of tastings, was a beautifully tender lamb chop (also sous vide) with a light and fragrant thyme cream and an onion purée. Very un-played-with. Tasty, meaty, but after rather a lot of strong savoury dishes we were running out of appreciation.
Hot and iced tea
Between courses we were served a glass of two semi-liquid Earl Grey teas, one hot and one cold, though this wasn't obvious until you started to drink. The two jellies had probably been poured into the cup with a divider, and with divider removed created two temperature zones in the cup. Later on, just the cold lightly gelled tea was served.
As palate cleansers before dessert, first an ice-cream cornet and then a sherbet fountain were served. The tiny cornet was a ginger-orange wafer filled with apple ice-cream. Very pleasant. The sherbet fountain was a small card cylinder filled with a modest dose of douglas fir flavoured sherbet. None of us could find this flavour, but sherbet makes most people happy. The sherbet was consumed with the aid of a vanilla bean straw — a length of vanilla pod, hollowed and dried to form a tube. Breathing through it flavoured the air with a musty vanilla aroma. Biting into it was a bit like eating vanilla charcoal (oops).
Mango and Douglas Fir purée
The dessert was a cube of lychee and mango bavarois with a dollop of mango and Douglas Fir purée — mildly woodsy – accompanied by an absolutely stunning blackcurrant sorbet and little blackcurrant jelly cubes.
Carrot and orange tuile, beetroot jelly
A wafer-thin rectangle of translucent carrot-orange flavoured 'tuile' on a stick. Can't remember the beetroot jelly!
Strangely, it was now time for breakfast. A small cardboard cereal box in a bowl was presented to each of us with a greeting of 'Good morning!'. The box contained a tiny sachet of parsnip flakes. Over these we poured parsnip milk. Trying not to gulp it down in one spoonful (it was a very small sachet, really très petite) we noticed that each mini-mouthful was sweeter than the one before. Curious!
And (almost) finally, the most written about dish at The Fat Duck.
Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream
Continuing the breakfast theme, the cries of 'Good morning!' seemed to have become a chorus. Merriment all round? No. Irritation. The waitress arrived with her cooking table and, with more than a theatrical flourish, cracked open some eggs to reveal that they had, miraculously, become custard inside. (Her thumb was strategically placed to hide the plug in the shell through which the egg had been drained and the custard injected.) In a copper pan over an unlit burner, she then 'cooked' the custard in liquid nitrogen. The custard cools very rapidly, creating an incomparably creamy ice-cream. Waiters suddenly arrived proclaiming 'Good morning!' (yet a-bloody-gain), bearing plates of pain perdu ('French toast', nicely brûléed in this case) with some tomato jam and a bacon tuile (?) on top. The ice-cream was added to this little pile. We did not feel this was successful. It was sweet and the ice-cream tasted of fake bacon flavour (think a packet of flavoured potato chips).
At last we were at the end. With coffee came whisky wine gums and violet tartlets, and some chocolates (from L'Artisan du Chocolat, which I've discussed in another article). The gums were like vinegar jellies and the tartlets were palely flavoured (if vibrantly coloured). I like violet, and am often disappointed at the lack of flavour nominally violet sweets have (but more about that another time). Coffee was tolerable but by no means great and a list of teas featured prices breathtaking enough to deter all but holders of a Centurion American Express card! (GBP 14 for a pot, for instance.)
The meal came to GBP 140 (AUD 350) per person, including expensive water, coffee and the 12.5% merry service charge. As much as this cost will seem utterly ludicrous to many readers, one of my dining companions made the point that a three-course meal at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants in London would cost not a great deal less and include the joyful experience of being rushed through a sitting! With that in mind, I guess The Fat Duck is a much more tolerable option.
The experience was novel but became less enjoyable as the meal (all four hours of it) progressed. We ate food we would never find elsewhere; we gained insight into the cooking, the movement and the experience which is really only attainable first hand. We were not struck dumb by the gustatory pleasure of the dishes. We were, however, very very impressed with a small number of items (for me, the roast foie gras). As the non-seafood diner, I was surprised at the number of truffle items I was served instead. It was unsubtle and overly intense.
Dining at The Fat Duck is unlikely to be something people would repeat – or at least not often. There was clearly a table of repeat customers when we were there, but as the menu changes only incrementally for the most part (six months after I was there, the menu is almost identical), you would probably want to have quite a hiatus between visits.
I didn't feel it was a comfortable meal. It was an intellectual exercise. The contrived service performances made it seem particularly artificial and the fact that we could hear the same script delivered to each table at different times meant that any surprise was often dulled.
Others have had different opinions of the experience (as can be read all over the internet) and it is clearly a strongly individual preference. It was useful to be able to compare lunch at The Fat Duck with a meal at Melbourne's Interlude a few weeks later, as I described here. These were two very different meals.
[Note: there's a chance one or two minor details of the meal are slightly inaccurate... I defy anyone to politely (ie, without camera or filmcrew) dine for four hours and remember it all! ]