Ever since I started my restaurant “List”, one restaurant has sat head and shoulders above the others as my most-wanted – the Fat Duck in Bray; a restaurant that was listed as the top restaurant in the whole world in 2005 and has maintained its three Michelin Stars for the last nine years. Its founder, Heston Blumenthal, is synonymous with this institution of gastronomic excellence and his belief in the combination of molecular gastronomy and theatrical showmanship have wowed diners for years. Last week was my thirtieth birthday and my wife took me to this wonderful place for my birthday. It was, quite simply, the perfect birthday present.
We were booked in for lunch on the 12 o’clock sitting and so made our way to the sleepy little town of Bray, in Berkshire. We were the first table to arrive and were greeted by the very friendly staff who seated us and explained that we would shortly be embarking on their fourteen-course (!) tasting menu. Everyone who visits the Fat Duck has the tasting menu, there is no á la carte menu; the one choice that we were given was whether we wanted to substitute the foie gras course with some scallops. My wife decided that she would, partly so that we could try a different course!
From the outset what was noticeable was that the staff were very keen to explain fully what we were going to be having, as well as proffering tips on how some of the courses should be eaten to maximise our enjoyment of them. They were tremendously personable and gave a very genuine feeling all through the meal that they were getting a great deal of pleasure out of making sure that your dining experience was as good as it could possibly be. Furthermore, they exhibited a playful side that was one of my more lasting memories of the restaurant – the whole experience was not one of stiff, traditional haute cuisine, but one of fun, excitement and sensory decadence.
We had a glass each of Moet and Chandon’s 2002 Grand Vintage Champagne (my wife had the Rosé) whilst we decided on our wine options for the afternoon. You could, of course, select a huge variety of wines by the glass, bottle, magnum, etc. from the weighty tome that was their wine list. I, however, chose one of their wine tasting menus designed specifically to accompany the food tasting menu. As my wife is not a big drinker, she decided that she would only have a glass of wine with one of the later courses (and plus she could always try little sips of my wine – she was paying, after all!)
I decided straight away to photograph each course as I wanted to be able to report on the experience as best as I could. As such, I’ll keep my descriptions and observations as short as possible; otherwise this could end up being a rather long and interminable blog!
The magic commenced with our first course, which was Nitro Poached Aperitifs. This was a Vodka and Lime Sour Foam poached in Liquid Nitrogen on a spoon in front of our eyes. We were instructed to eat the resultant morsel all in one go, which produced something akin to a very cold meringue with the flavours from the Vodka and Lime Sour coming through very nicely.
After this we were presented with a Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream served on a Red Cabbage Gazpacho. The combinations of flavours here were really interesting, creamy ice-cream with a soft mustardy kick, contrasting the sweetness of the cabbage Gazpacho.
From this we moved back to the theatrical. We were presented with a patch of moss containing some dry-ice. When triggered by the addition of water, this resulted in an ethereal fog emanating over the table. To this, we were provided with a thin strip of flavoured film which we were instructed to place on our tongue; this had a musty, oak moss taste and was designed to heighten our senses of this forest glade. The food we had in this woodland setting was a Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream and Chicken Liver Parfait, which were layered in the white bowl on the right, as well as a crunchy Truffle Toast (on the left hand side). The richness of the flavours of Quail, Crayfish and Chicken Liver were complimented excellently with the wine pairing for this course, a 2011 Sevilen 900, Fumé Blanc from Güney, Denizli, Turkey. This wine was slightly toasty but with a pleasant splash of acidity.
For the next course we were given Snail Porridge served with Iberico Bellota Ham and Shaved Fennel. The snails had been slow cooked for 12 hours, which meant that they were deliciously tender. The wine paired with this course was a 2011 Châteauneuf du Pape from Clos La Roquète, Rhône Valley. A white Châteauneuf du Pape was a little bit of a surprise; this wine was a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc and had a lovely fruity flavour, with just enough oak to add a bit of backbone.
Next up was the Roast Foie Gras, which was served with Barberry, Confit Kombu and Crab Biscuit. This was quite simply fabulous – the generously sized Foie Gras was deliciously rich and sumptuous and presented with the biscuits sticking out of its back like a Triceratops. The wine with this course was one of my top three, a 2012 Pinot Gris “Signature” from Rene Mure, Alsace. With such a rich and fatty main course, a fresh, vibrant, zingy Pinot Gris was absolutely the right choice to cut through. This was a deliciously moreish wine.
After this we were presented with one of the dishes that I’d been particularly looking forward to, having seen it on Masterchef. This was their take on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, from Alice in Wonderland. This started with us being presented with a gold packet watch, which was in fact a beef stock covered in edible gold leaf and produced a very pleasing beef consommé when hot water was added to it. This consommé was then poured into a tea cup which had a mock turtle soup, complete with an intricate mock egg and micro-mushrooms. With this we had a number of “Toast” sandwiches presented on a Mad Hatter’s Hat. This dish perfectly summed up the restaurant; intricate, inventive cooking intertwined with an extravagant streak of fun.
So far the taste, smell and sight senses had been well and truly tickled – how could they up their game further? Well, with their renowned course “the Sound of the Sea”. We were presented with this attractive dish featuring edible sand and sea foam, along with various sashimis of fish and sea vegetables. Along with this we were given a sea-shell which concealed an iPod playing a soundtrack of rolling sea waves. The concept here is to use the actual sounds of the sea to heighten the sense of eating something that was designed to taste like the sea. This course was paired with a Saki – Junami Daiginjo Masumi Nagano from the Miyasaka Brewery in Nagano Prefecture; it was a tricky match given the extremely salty tastes from the food and it was probably my least favourite match of the whole lunch – however, I was glad to have tried something a little different.
Believe it or not, this has only taken us to half-way through this epic meal! However, the courses kept on coming and the quality did not let-off one jot. The next course was a Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel, served with Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe. The genius of this course was that in Heston’s micro-gastronomic experimentation he discovered that the ingredients for this dish all contained a common element – therefore he designed this course around combining these unusual ingredients together. The result was delicious. This course was paired with a gorgeous, fruity 2008 Valpolicella Superiore from Marion in Veneto.
After this was what I would describe as one of the “serious” courses – exhibiting the supreme talent of the chefs at the restaurant and demonstrating that the food at The Fat Duck is not all about showmanship. We had an Anjou Pigeon served with Smoked Onion and Malt. The Pigeon had been cooked sous-vide (ie: in a water bath) and had a deep, rich red to the meat, whilst being fabulously juicy and succulent. This was served with some of Heston’s signature mashed potatoes, which are absolutely the smoothest and creamiest mashed potatoes that you’ll ever eat. For this course, the pigeon was paired with a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley – my favourite wine of the evening. This was an excellent wine, which had good structure and plenty of firm black fruit on the palate, complimenting the flavours of the pigeon perfectly.
The next course was something that I had heard about before and was very eager to experience myself: Hot and Iced Tea. In the same cup. We were presented with a tea cup and told to drink the tea exactly as it was laid out in front of us. The result was that in the left side of my mouth I had slightly sugary, warm tea and in the right side of my mouth I had cold, peach Iced Tea. There was no discernible division in the tea cup to keep the two differently heated liquids separate; I assume that it has something to do with the densities of them. Regardless, this was a neat little example of Heston’s magic at work.
Now we were starting to move towards the pudding courses (plural – of course). The first of them was absolutely stunning. Entitled “Botrytis Cinerea” (which is Noble Rot to you and me); this was a homage to the disease that is responsible for some of the world’s most glorious dessert wines. They did this through creating a mock vine, complete with a sugared vine leaf, with the different grapes each having tastes of different dessert wines. The wine that was matched with this course was a 2008 5 Puttnyos Tokaji Aszú from Tokaj-Hegyalja. This gorgeous wine was everything that in my mind a good Tokaji should be: clean, pure, fresh, fruity and sweet – my third favourite wine of the evening.
Following the first dessert course came the second: Eggs in Verjus (c. 1726), Verjus in Egg (c. 2013). Verjus is a juice made from the pressing of unripe grapes or crab-apples and was used widely in the Middle Ages to add flavour to dishes. This dish was very cleverly presented with a chocolate egg sitting on a nest, flavoured with the Verjus from the dish’s title. To go with the slightly sharp and sour flavourings the wine was a very sweet 2006, Leandro from Marjan Smicic in Goriska Brda, Primorje (Slovenia).
We’re in the home straight now – the penultimate course! This was a simple idea, but executed with aplomb; a board with a map of Scotland and Tennessee featuring a selection of five Whisk(e)ys ranging from Orkney to Islay to Tennessee. It was absolutely remarkable how different these whiskies tasted; I haven’t done a proper whisky tasting before and I am now more determined than ever to do one.
So, onto the last course, entitled “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”. This was a lovely idea as it was a series of sweet treats put into an attractive old-fashioned bag with the Fat Duck logo on. Most importantly, we could take all of this home; as you can imagine by this point we were extremely full and it was nice to be able to eat these little morsels the next day. The picture below was one of the elements which was a clever take on the nursery rhyme “the Queen of Hearts, she bakes some tarts”, so here we had a Bakewell Tart printed as a Queen of Hearts playing card.
So, there you have it. 14 courses of opulent, visceral, sensory, indulgent delight. I truly believe that for anyone interested in trying good food and good wine, a visit to the Fat Duck is something that should be done at least once. It is a perfect combination of fun, spectacle and gastronomy. Be under no illusions, however, it is expensive. However, I would say that the level and quality of the service and the food is worth every penny. Of course, it’s even better if you can get someone else to pay…!
Special thanks to Isabelle for treating me to this wonderful experience.