The Fat Duck High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
Michelin stars: 3
Position on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list: No. 47
It may no longer technically be the world’s best restaurant, but, for many a gourmand, The Fat Duck remains the holy grail of fine dining. Those who make the pilgrimage to Bray (a small village west of London that has more Michelin stars than residents) are rewarded with a level of gastronomic wizardry that’s generally reserved for the pages of a novel.
The novel that springs foremost to mind is, of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Securing a booking at this small 42-seat restaurant is akin to finding the last golden ticket, and it’s no stretch to imagine Willy Wonka as Heston Blumenthal’s fictional alter ego; particularly not while I chew on an Apple Pie Caramel complete with Edible Wrapper.
Blumenthal’s modus operandi is that eating’s pleasure depends on more than just taste: all the senses, including memory, should be stimulated. While the Black Forest Gateau isn’t something I’ve grown up with, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party definitely delivers a healthy whack of nostalgia, at the very least for my childhood reading habits. The Whisk(e)y Wine Gums trigger it too, for I recall being convinced as a child that wine gums, true to their name, were alcoholic.
Even without the memory element, dining at The Fat Duck is a personal experience. Although Blumenthal wants to push the theatrical and fantastical, it’s important to him that diners around you aren’t disturbed by what’s happening at your table. The infamous “Sound of the Sea” dish was served without headphones until he found a way to deliver them subtly and inoffensively to the table. A good thing he worked it out, I muse as I slip the crashing waves into my ears, the iPod hidden deftly inside a conch shell. Why just eat the beach when you can listen to it too?
Like Blumenthal’s other restaurants, British ingredients reign supreme. Yet the technical complexity and flawless execution evident in each dish demonstrate how The Fat Duck has managed to hold onto three coveted Michelin stars for the last ten years. There may not be a chocolate river nor a chocolate factory to be won, but the chef’s just as creative, and the meal is just as rewarding.
Appetiser: AERATED BEETROOT WITH HORSERADISH CREAM
First up is a beautiful, delicate, beetroot-red sphere, the size of a Malteaser but with the bubbled surface of a golf ball, severed and smeared with peppery horseradish cream. It’s light, quick and earthy.
Dish #1: NITRO POACHED APERITIFS: CHOICE OF VODKA & LIME SOUR, CAMPARI & SODA OR TEQUILA & GRAPEFRUIT
Like a regular aperitif, this dish is designed to stimulate the appetite and cleanse the palate. Unlike a regular aperitif, this dish is mixed with egg whites and shot from a whipping-cream canister into a flask of liquid nitrogen. A fragile, frozen meringue-shaped puff slips onto my plate seconds later; unlike a regular aperitif, I pick it up with my fingers and eat it in one bite. It’s clean and cold, and the bitter, spicy flavours of Campari refresh my mouth more effectively than Colgate ever could.
Dish #2. RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO, POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM
An oval scoop of sharp, peppery mustard ice cream floats in cold cabbage soup thickened with red wine mayonnaise and dotted with cucumber brunoise. It’s not a standout dish, but nor is it the “fart of nothingness” infamously described by German critic Wolfram Siebeck.
Dish #3. JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM, CHICKEN LIVER PARFAIT
A slab of oak moss and pieces of oak resin film are placed in the middle of the table. Before us are bowls layered with delicate, concentrated quail jelly, perfumed crayfish cream and a scoop of chicken liver parfait, along with a side of black Périgord truffle toast topped with tiny radishes.
I melt the oaky, tannic film on my tongue as our waiter pours a mix of oak moss essential oil, alcohol and hot water onto the moss slab. A cold vapour reeking of damp wood billows wildly out, engulfing me as I bite into the earthy, oaky truffle toast and chase it with a spoonful of jelly and cream.
It’s magnificent; the aroma of oak moss lifts the dish to dizzying new heights.
Dish #4. SNAIL PORRIDGE
Porridge oats cooked in chicken bouillon and parsley butter, topped with shaved fennel dressed in walnut vinaigrette, Iberico Bellota ham, and braised Helix pomatia snails.
This dish is one of Blumenthal’s signatures; nevertheless, I admit to slight reservations. I love snails (and these ones are particularly good – clean, delicate and succulent, perfectly balanced with the aniseed from the fennel) and I normally have no issues with eating cereal for dinner, but porridge at a three Michelin starred restaurant? Even the word sounds gruelling.
Fortunately, it’s far from. Closer in texture to risotto than your standard morning oats; it’s also surprisingly light. It conjures up images of spring: fresh, vibrant and vivid green.
Dish #5. ROAST FOIE GRAS
A generous hunk of foie gras is cooked sous-vide, seared with a blowtorch, stabbed with a splinter of crispy crab biscuit and served on a salty piece of confit kombu splashed with tart barberry jus. A variation of this dish was Blumenthal’s first ever signature, back in about 1998. Although it has undergone refurbishments over the years, it’s plain to see why this indulgent dish is still hanging around.
Dish #6. MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY
Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, `Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’
`No,’ said Alice. `I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’
`It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.
This dish pays homage to both the whimsical ludicrousness of Alice in Wonderland and historical British gastronomy. Mock turtle soup is a real thing; it was created in England in the mid-18th century as a cheaper alternative to green turtle soup, with various bits of offal and heads and hooves of calves and such as a substitute for the costly turtle meat.
The Fat Duck’s version is a bit more posh, and there’s a bit of assembly required. Four elements come to the table: a glass teacup holds small pieces of ox tongue and a few vegetables; a glass teapot, full of boiling water; a pocket watch made from freeze-dried beef stock covered with gold leaf; and a Mad Hatter’s hat platter topped with tiny toasted sandwiches stuffed with shaved black truffle, cucumber, homemade ketchup and a sherry reduction.
I dangle the pocket watch in the boiling water and watch as it turns into a rich, deep brown consommé, then pour the lot over the vegetables in the teacup. Voila! Mock Turtle Soup.
Dish #7. “SOUND OF THE SEA”
Hearing is probably the most overlooked of our senses when it comes to eating, but it actually plays almost as big a role as the others do. Just like Pavlov’s dog, when we hear that toaster pop, a bag of chips crinkle, or a steak sizzle – even when we hear the microwave ping – we salivate and anticipate taste. Although a seascape has nothing really to do with food preparation, the principle is the same: the effect of sound on the perception of flavour.
On sand made from tapioca flour, shirasu, panko breadcrumbs and miso oil is a flotsam of sea urchins, oysters, razor clams, samphire, seaweed and ponzu, and a foam made from salty seaweed juices, abalone, cockles and clams. It’s plated on a glass box filled with real sand from the shores of Venezuela, and comes with an iPod and a set of headphones tucked neatly into a conch shell.
It’s a bit gimmicky, yet it’s hard not to feel swept away by the sound of screeching gulls and crashing waves. Whether the soundtrack enhances the flavour of the dish or not is hard to say; nonetheless, it’s an interesting experiment.
Dish #8. SALMON POACHED IN A LICORICE GEL
Salmon fillets are dipped in a licorice gel, allowed to cool and set, then poached sous-vide and served with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. It sounds like an odd combination but it works: the rich, oily salmon cuts through the intense sweetness of the licorice, which is further offset by the slightly bitter artichokes. Nevertheless, it’s a perilous balance.
Dish #9. THE DUCK
Duck is always a good test of a kitchen’s skills. Although there is no doubt as to the skill level of this kitchen, there are certain expectations that need to be met when a dish so boldly bears the name of its creator.
The Duck is a comparatively simple dish: roasted duck breast, bay and black pudding with a side of the softest, silkiest pommes puree I will ever, ever eat and a cigar made from umbles (a.k.a. animal entrails). Knowing Blumenthal, I’m sure there is much more to the construction of this eponymous dish than meets the eye, but for now I’m happy to enjoy it for what it is: the perfect roast.
Dish #10. HOT AND ICED TEA
Blumenthal, for the most part, is pretty straightforward when it comes to naming dishes. Roast Foie Gras, Snail Porridge. Even “Sound of the Sea” lives up almost exactly to its name. But Hot and Iced Tea? How is this possible, I hear you cry!
As per the others, Hot and Iced Tea is exactly what it sounds like. Sweetened Earl Gray tea served in a small glass cup, one half scalding hot and the other freezing cold. Yet there is no trick glass, nor are the different temperatures layered carefully on top of one another, for in order to feel the full impact of hot and iced simultaneously the temperatures must be divided vertically.
The answer is two fluid gels (one hot, one cold), which, at the right consistency, pass for liquid. A vertical divider between the two is removed just before serving, so you feel the full, totally bizarre impact of the different temperatures.
Dish #11. BOTRYTIS CINEREA
A man who was fond of wine was offered some grapes at dessert after dinner. ‘Much obliged,’ said he, pushing the dish away from him, ‘but I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills’.
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
Who could have guessed that a dish named after a nectrotrophic fungus could be so delightful? Botrytis cinerea, a mould that infects grapevines, is both feared and revered among viticulturists for its ability to either wipe out entire crops or produce beautiful dessert wines. Blumenthal’s Botrytis Cinerea represents the deconstructed flavours of Château d’Yquem Sauternes – a Premier Cru Supérieur wine made from grapes grown on a site particularly susceptible to this noble rot – and is particularly pleasing to those of us who, like the protagonist in Brillat-Savarin’s little anecdote, prefer our grapes in wine form.
Each ‘grape’ in this dish is different in taste and texture, made from everything from milk chocolate, caramel and popping candy to transparent balls of blown sugar. Underneath is an edible soil made from chocolate, vanilla and Château d’Yquem-soaked raisins, and, on top, a dusting of Roquefort snow.
Dish #12. THE “BFG”
As well as alluding to Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, this dish nods to another classic in British cuisine. Although originally German, the Black Forest Gateau was a hugely popular dessert in 1970s Britain.
Bluementhal’s version is an almond base topped with kirsch ganache, aerated chocolate and griottine cherry-studded chocolate sponge, covered first in white chocolate mousse and then in dark chocolate mousse. The whole lot is then sprayed with flocage, which adds crust and crunch to the cake (it also looks like a bit like boulder moss) and topped with an amarena cherry complete with dried vanilla cherry stem. Served with shaved chocolate bark and kirsch and sour cream ice cream.
Eating it is like taking a metaphorical stroll through the black forest. Intense, rich dark chocolate, sweet plums and apricots, syrupy wild cherries, aromas of pipe tobacco and the kick of full-flavoured kirsch. It’s sublime.
Dish #13. WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS
Five whisky wine gums, served on a wooden frame, separated by flavour profiles and map coordinates. The (e) in Whisk(e)y alludes to the American spelling, as Jack Daniel’s was a last minute inclusion to the all-star Scottish lineup of Glenlivet, Oban, Highland Park and Laphroaig.
Dish #14. “LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”
About a week or so before I was due to dine at The Fat Duck, I was emailed a seven-minute video or “sensory journey,” as they call it, designed to prepare my mind and palate and stir my senses to that “delightful state of heightened excitement and anticipation experienced as a kid in a sweetshop”. With this last dish, Blumenthal ensures I hit that state, just in case I’ve somehow missed the sensory and nostalgic triggers prominent in the last thirteen dishes.
I’m presented with a candy-striped goodie bag stuffed full of different sweets: An apple pie flavoured chewy butter caramel that comes in an edible wrapper made from a mixture of glycerine, powdered gelatine and water; a crunchy, bubbly aerated chocolate filled with soft, gooey mandarin jelly; a packet of Coconut Baccy – coconut flakes infused with Black Cavendish tobacco, which tastes like vanilla, prunes and caramel, and smells like a just-filled pipe; and a Queen of Hearts white chocolate tart with raspberry filling.
After four-and-a-half hours and more pounds (physical and financial) than I care to think about, we are done. As our jackets are brought and a cab is called, I think about how best to sum up the experience. There really is no other restaurant like The Fat Duck, and although it’s not the sort of place one dines at regularly, I’m really glad to have ticked it off my gastronomic bucket list.