(…The Fat Duck Review: a continuation of my trip report “Cathay & British Airways First Class, Philippines and Macau, a Presidential Suite, and the Fat Duck Restaurant”)
When planning my American Airlines Oneworld award, I decided to pop through London on the way back to the US. It meant that I’d be able to try British Airways First Class (I’ve flown ClubWorld only in the past) and I’d be able to eat at the Fat Duck Restaurant.
Ever since my meal at El Bulli in 2008, I’ve wanted to try the Fat Duck. At the time of the meal, only Heston Blumenthal and his three Michelin stars had bested El Bulli in the San Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine ratings over the previous 5 years.
Now, in fairness I’ll be the first to quibble with those rankings. In many cases they lavish praise on restaurants that aren’t even the best in their given city, let alone in their region of the world. Any such ranking will be flawed. Nonetheless, they do highlight some of the better establishments in the world. And since the Fat Duck offers molecular gastronomy in the El Bulli tradition, I did want to compare.
It’s far easier to get reservations at the Fat Duck than at El Bulli. In the latter case, one has to email on the third Monday of October to request reservations for the entire next year, and some say that there’s a one in several thousands chance of securing a booking. But with the Fat Duck, they open their reservation book for each day exactly two months in advance. They open at 10 a.m. London time, and one simply has to call at precisely that time.
Using two phones I dialed the Fat Duck for 30 minutes before getting through, but once they answered I managed to secure a lunch. Dinner bookings were still possible as well, but I’d be arriving from Hong Kong the night before and with the time change I couldn’t imagine staying awake and engaged through a meal late into the evening. Lunch it was!
So having enjoyed a Cathay Pacific first class flight the night before, and gotten a good night’s sleep at the Waldorf hotel, we ventured out towards the town of Bray which is on the other side of Heathrow from Central London. As I mentioned in an earlier post, having had it to do over again, I probably would have just grabbed a room at a Heathrow airport hotel for the night and ventured out to lunch from there. (One could even manage a lunch at the Fat Duck during a long Heathrow stopover, if one could secure the reservation.)
I imagined that in the small town of Bray it would be easy to find the Fat Duck, but we almost missed it. Fortunately, everyone in town knows where it is and some friendly folks directed us.
We were welcomed into the restaurant and seated at a table by a window in the small restaurant.
A waiter shared the menu with us, took drink orders, and returned to ask for any specific likes or dislikes so that they could tailor the day’s offerings accordingly.
Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM
Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel
ROAST FOIE GRAS
Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
MOCK TURTLE SOUP (C. 1850)
“Mad Hatter Tea”
“SOUND OF THE SEA”
SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE
Artichokes, Vanilla, Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil
POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (C. 1720)
Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles
HOT & ICED TEA
TAFFETY TART (C. 1660)
Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon
Black Forest Gateau
WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS
LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP
We let them know that their day’s menu would suit us nicely. Were these the ideal dishes for us? We honestly had no idea. And conspicuously absent from the menu was the ‘bacon and egg ice cream’ that I’d long heard so much about! But when one travels to such a temple of molecular gastronomy, one puts oneself in the hands of the chef to enjoy the ride. At least the first time through!
For the first course, a palette cleanser. Using nitrous, they froze lime and alcohol tableside — the effect being quick salivation (fron the intense lime) and cleansing (from the alcohol).
This was followed by the red cabbage gazpacho
And then the ‘flavours of the forest’ as was explained to us, they created a gaseous smoke emanating from the woods in the center of our table, and then deconstructed flavors of truffle toast, chicken liver, and oak moss.
This was followed by the snail porridge which I really enjoyed. While my wife will tend to order escargot at a good French bistrot, it’s usually not my preference in the least. Still, I was pleased to be on the tour enjoying something I wouldn’t ever have ordered on my own.
Their take on foie gras:
I probably don’t know the story of the Mad Hatter‘s tea party well enough to do this next course justice. We were initially presented with a story card to read before anything else came out.
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea…
‘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.
We were given a bowl which would ultimately be mock turtle soup, and a tea cup with a gold watch dangling inside.
They pour hot liquid into the cup and we were instructed to use the gold watch as a teabag, stir up the contents and it became the tea (with gold flecks inside), which we then poured into the soup bowl to make our mock turtle soup.
Very clever, all very much tied to the story, but – and while the soup was perfectly fine – it wasn’t particularly outstanding as food. And that is when it first occurred to me that everything about the meal thus far seemed to be more about the drama and presentation than about the food.
And while I can only imagine the shock and horror from heston blumenthal (note the lack of capitalization, how e.e. cummings!) at the comparison, I immediately thought of the old commercials for the teppanyaki restaurant chain Benihana with their slogan, “It’s a meal and a show!”
And with that came one of the more interesting examples of that show, the first time I’ve ever used all my senses during a meal. I’m quite sure I had never been served a course for which sound was an integral part of the experience…
First, we were delivered a sea shell containing an iPod.
And then we were presented with a dish that was essentially the flavors of the sea.
We weren’t given much instruction here, and that seemed to be a mis-queue on the part of the staff. We were ahead of most everyone else in the restaurant, everyone was more or less having the same thing, so we saw the dishes we had just experienced being presented elsewhere. And other tables received more instruction than we did.
We each listened to the iPod for a moment, and heard the crashing of waves and the soothing sounds of the ocean. We took out our iPods and tasted the dish, containing ground crawfish masquerading as sand, seaweed, and sliced raw halibut.
A waiter came over and politely suggested “that the food tastes better with the earphones in.”
I put in my earphones and immediately noticed the difference. Indeed, I could feel the ocean as I tasted the sea. The flavors really did change, they were magnified several-fold.
My wife, on the other hand, took offense. We were being scolded by the wait staff for how we were eating the food. It’s true, they were right, it was better. But we didn’t know that it would be since the staff had failed to explain to us what to do with the iPod when the food arrived. And here we were, enjoying our lunch together, and we were being told not to speak to each other but to listen to an .mp3 instead?
The way the interaction played out did underscore that the restaurant wasn’t quite as polished as others that purport to be of a similar caliber that I’ve visited. When I had a request of our waiter at Tetsuya in Sydney (and it was no small request), he responded, “of course, it is your evening.” Here, it was Blumenthal’s dish and had to be eaten as instructed.
My imagination, though, was quickly recaptured by the dish that I thought worked the best as food, the salmon.
Afterward was the pigeon, served almost raw and with blood pudding. I admit, this last was the only thing that I swallowed hard over — really just the idea of it, though it tasted simply sweet.
The famous hot and iced tea fit the pattern I had come to expect, it was very neat to have both hot and cold (one on top of the other) in the same glass. But I wouldn’t consider it to be the best cup of tea I’ve had…
It was now time for dessert, all of which was quite tasty. Here’s the tart and the black forest gateau. Really excellent.
But dessert wasn’t over yet! They brought out gummies stuck to a plaque showing where the whiskey for each had come from..
.. Tennessee (Jack Daniels), Orkney (Highland Park), Speyside (Glenlivet), West Highlands (Oban), and Islay (Laphroaig). We could taste the subtle differences in each, an interesting way to offer a study in whiskey.
And what did they serve with it? Well Glenlivet Water, naturally!
Time to wipe our hands at the end of the meal, the tricks weren’t over yet! Remember Instant Farm, where you’d drop pellets into a cup of water and the pellets would become farm animals? Well they brought pellets to which they added water and those become the towels for our hands.
And now that the meal was done, they brought us a bag of treats which we brought back to our hotel.
So what’s the bottom-line on the meal and the restaurant? It was absolutely worth doing and worth the 150 pounds or so per person (plus service charge). But I wouldn’t count it among my top 5 meals (which thinking back, I’d definitely rate El Bulli and perhaps include Tetsuya, Villa Mahana on Bora Bora, possibly Joel Robuchon in Paris). No doubt though it would make the top 10.
Each course was a surprise, and for the most part a delight, more because I was consistently intrigued than because I savored any particular bite. No doubt recommended, but I’m not sure I’d make a special trip to Europe for it. Fortunately, with a bit of advance notice about such a trip once can secure a reservation.