Who set my dinner on fire?
Well, we went to the Fat Duck. The burgers were good, but the fries were a little soggy. The soda machine was broken so we just had water and WHY CAN’T I STOP LYING?!
The fries were perfectly golden brown and crispy and ok so there weren’t fries, but if there were I’m sure they would have been perfectly golden brown and crispy, it’s just that kind of place.
For those of you who don’t know, the Fat Duck is a small restaurant in Bray, England, just a few dozen kilometers outside of London. The little village is so small the restaurant doesn’t even give an address; they just say “continue past the bottleneck and The Fat Duck can be found on the right hand side.” Perfect.
The chef and owner’s name is Heston Blumenthal. He’s an amazing self taught food freak who pretty much hones the cutting edge of the modern culinary experience. His little project started out as a modest pub and now is consistently tossed around in that best-five-restaurants-in-the-world category. Go him.
Just before I left for culinary school in Italy, I decided that eating at the Fat Duck was pretty much a mandatory experience if you really want to know what haute cuisine and fine dining is all about. Turns out I do and luckily for me, so does my wonderfully understanding wife.
Sneakily, I called and got a gift certificate for the tasting menu for two and the wine pairings that go with it. I slipped it to Mme. Pants as a combination birthday present/anniversary present/graduation, Christmas and Hanukah present/in lieu of a first house/car/higher education for our future children, but hey, you only live once right?
Enough backstory. Fast forward about 13 months. We’d just had an amazing year in Florence and we were ready for dinner. We hopped a flight to England as nervous as two school girls in a room full of rocking chairs or whatever that saying is.
We killed a day or so in London doing some stuff and things, but in no time at all, our appointed eating slot was upon us. We had 8 o’clock reservations on Tuesday, May 15th.
That afternoon, we took a few hours getting into our sexy pants and grooming to a state of extreme attractiveness. This is probably a good time to mention that unlike most places of fine dining The Fat Duck has no dress code. Zero, absolutely none. (When we showed up, there was actually a young Asian man in a dirty t-shirt and shorts. Who are these people?!)
Primped and fabulous, we boarded the train from Paddington Station to Maidenhead, about a forty-five minute ride. When we disembarked we emerged into some sort of British monsoon. It was pouring. We had gotten in early because we had planned to take a leisurely stroll from Maidenhead to Bray. Since we didn’t feel like swimming, we wasted a bit of time and then took a taxi.
Five minutes later, we pulled up in front of a modest building that was unmarked except for a small metal sign hanging high over-head. It didn’t even have the name, just their patented duckified knife, fork, and spoon.
When we walked in the door, I got a bit of an Eyes Wide Shut vibe. Me: “Yes, my wife and I have reservations for tonight.” Lovely Hostess: “Good evening Mr. Cooper. So glad to have you. If you and Mrs. Cooper will come right this way…”
The walk from the door to the table wasn’t exactly a scene from Cheers, but every member of the service staff we passed, everyone, either smiled and nodded or smiled and said hello or smiled and waved. But nicely, not in that creepy way. We certainly felt welcomed.
Now before I start with the ass kissing and swooning praise, I would like to kick this story off with a bit of bitching. Pretty much as soon as we’re seated the sommelier wheels over a fabulous cart with about five types of champagne/sparkling beverages. He immediately and expertly gives us the run down of what he’s got and asks if we would care for a glass of any of his bubblies.
Well of course we would. The problem is that we had no idea if this was complementary or a set price or if each of the bottles had a different price etc, etc… I’m sure you’re thinking, “Come on man! Use your words. Ask how much and get it over with.”
(Aside from girlie – I felt exactly the same way! We were likely the only people this sommelier saw the whole month of May who cared how much things cost.)
That’s all well and good, but the fact of the matter was that I was already feeling a little on the Jed Clampett side and I really didn’t want the first words out of my mouth to be, “So just how much is y’all chargin’ for this here fizzy juice?” Like a possum in a flood light I froze.
Luckily, I have had the good sense to marry up, so my lovely wife stepped in seamlessly and ordered us two glasses of Taittinger Non-vintage Brut Reserve. She said she knew that it wasn’t outrageously expensive and that she had wanted to try it for a while. It was a really good choice. The nose was fresh and a little yeasty and each sip was bubbly and creamy with bright, sweet citrus flavors. Nice work girlie. (If you’re curious, they ended up charging us about 22 bucks a glass. Not enough for me to choke on it, but come on, they could at least give you a ball park number before pouncing with their irresistible cart.)
With the drinks also came an adorable little ramekin of picholine olives. They were a little nutty and a little anisey and it never hurts to start a good meal with yummy olives. Oh, and fresh butter. Lots and lots of fresh butter and homemade bread. Yeah, I knew I was going to be eating for the next four hours but that didn’t stop me from cramming several pieces of warm crusty bread into my cheek pouches. I mean, come on, they had white and wheat as well as salted and unsalted butter. As if I’m not supposed to try every combination.
After we had a few briny/buttery treats, our waiter showed up pushing a small cart. He greeted us and then explained that he was going to dunk a large dollop of lime-vodka green tea mousse into a pot of liquid nitrogen. Ok, he caught my attention. He further explained that we were to eat it immediately and in one bite. If we hesitated, or god forbid, waited long enough to take a picture, the whole effect would be totally ruined and Mr. Blumenthal would be deeply and personally wounded. I get it. No picture.
Here's one of the a la carte menu to help soothe the wounds.
He made one for Mme. Pants first and quickly followed with one for me. It was quite cool and firmer than I was imagining. The flavors were subtle but intriguing and the whole thing dissolved on your tongue practically before your mouth could close. It was a nice little amuse bouche.
Our waiter in action
The mousse was trailed by two small trays bearing two squares each; one a garnet red and one a deep yellow. The waiter explained that we would be eating orange and beet root jellies. This opening dish is the perfect example of the Fat Duck dining philosophy. Heston and his team don’t just want you to have an awesome eating experience; they want to fuck with your head.
(SPOILER ALERT! If you care about these things, you might not want to read the next paragraph.) Per the recommendation, I started with the orange jelly. The first thing I noticed was the smooth texture and the next was the strong and savory taste of beets. Huh? I moved on to the red jelly. Blood orange of course, blood orange and golden beet. That sneaky bastard.
On the heels of this came an oyster shooter with horseradish, passion fruit, lavender and sugar flakes. It was a total giggle dish. It just makes you feel good and kinda silly. It was sweet, hot, fresh, salty sea and you couldn’t help but smile.
Shortly after the oysters were dispatched, two white bowls appeared, holding pommery grain mustard ice cream and red cabbage gazpacho. Now you might think that you don’t like mustard ice cream, but you are mistaken. This stuff was mild and delicious; perfectly complimenting the aggressive cruciferous spice of the soup. And the color was totally cool.
Next in the line up came a quail jelly with asparagus, langoustine cream, and a parfait of foie gras. Besides being a touch too salty, I could have eaten several dozen bowls of the stuff. It was silky and intense. The quails had been roasted to achieve a deeply rich flavor not unlike a good beef demi glace. The foie gras was fluffy and the asparagus provided the requisite vegetable note. The langoustine cream was sweet, but really almost disappeared. It was probably a case of I wouldn’t have missed it unless it was gone though.
The last in the starters’ roster was oak moss and truffle toast. In addition to being a great idea, this dish also introduced a little more of the Fat Duck’s technological bent. Mr. Blumenthal has figured out how they make those nifty little Listerine Breath Strips and has co-opted the process to make oak moss strips. See, it turns out that while oak moss may not initially sound delicious, it actually shares several key flavor compounds with black truffles. According to Heston then, this should make them very complimentary. I’m going to go out on a limb and agree.
The fun part of this dish is he doesn’t just want you to taste things; he wants to get all of the senses involved. It starts with the moss breath strip dissolving with a light astringency on your tongue. Then warm water(?) is poured over fresh oak moss that you have previously been encouraged to touch and poke. This sets off some sort of seriously smoky reaction that bathes the whole table in eau de oak moss.
As the last of the vapor dissipated, we shoved the truffle toasts (with tiny slices of radish) into our mouths. Truffleness exploded on our tongues and mossy fragrance ran down the back of our olfactory sensors. The similarity was clear. Wow. It’s neat to be shown things that you almost certainly wouldn’t have discovered for yourself.
Wherez ma feedins?
This marked the end of the food they serve to make you hungry before they serve the real food. I was beginning to wonder if there weren’t more chefs than diners.
The first “real” dish was snail porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel. The snails were perfectly cooked and served on a bed of parsley garlic butter puree. The dish was enjoyable, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it tasted an awful lot like Stouffer's Stuffing or maybe Cup o’ Noodles. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it’s just how I felt. (Girlie: I agree. There was a strong flavor of boullion here (the ham maybe?), though it was still well incorporated, somehow.)
After the snails came a roast foie gras with almond gel, cherry and chamomile. This was possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. The liver, cherry and almond combinations were just amazing. The chamomile powder added a great floral note but also a real richness of flavor. The chives and shaved almond really added to the texture spectrum, highlighting just how creamy smooth the foie gras and gels were. More please.
The Fat Duck is a small place and fully packed it’s a little on the loud side. It didn’t help that at this point in the meal, some very intoxicated woman a few tables away started yelling things like, “You’re mean! Shhhh! We need more champagne! Shut up!” It wasn’t totally distracting, but I found myself quickly wishing that she would take her own advice.
I’m sure it was complete coincidence, but right then the waiter came out bearing the next dish, enigmatically titled “Sound of the Sea.” It started with two large conch shells that each appeared to have a set of headphones emerging from their depths. As we donned our headphones, restaurant babble quickly faded to soothing sea sounds. Neat. It was kind of like the audile equivalent of the sorbet palette cleanser. (No the shells didn’t play the music. They had tucked a little iPod shuffle up in there somewhere. Those guys.)
Along with the shells came a long box with a glass top covering sand. On top of this was a huge mess that was unidentifiable but indescribably delicious. This is what the waiter said was in it: four types of seaweed- dulse, hijiki, wakame, and sapphire. Cockles, abalone, fried baby eels, sea beans, and a shellfish foam. All this was mixed with some kind of off white powder that melted in your mouth but was also a little crunchy. The waiter guy swore it was just tapioca, but from the taste and texture I’d bet another dinner at the Fat Duck that it was good old fashioned potato chips blended with tapioca maltodextrin. Seriously. Call Heston and ask.
Fried Baby Eel.
Regardless, it was amazing. It didn’t go with any of the other food and it really seemed out of place. But with the combination of the sound and the unusual Asian flavors – and the non-traditional sake pairing - it was more like a hiatus than a miscue in the meal’s progression.
Next up was an item that was probably the weakest of the evening. It was salmon poached in liquorice with pertuis asparagus and pink grapefruit. It also had Tuscan olive oil, coriander, and a vanilla mayonnaise. Yeah. When the waiter brought it out he “musically grated” some additional liquorice over the food. Why not?
The whole dish gave me the sense that at some point it had become an engineering feat to the guys back in the kitchen. The preparation was a tricky problem that they were sure they could solve, but along the way they forgot that it just wasn’t that tasty.
Don’t get me wrong. Individually, the components of the dish were each quite yummy. The salmon was soft, moist and buttery, a preparation that paid a true compliment to the fish. The problem was that it was encased in some sort of liquorice rubber. The texture was just all off. It’s not that the flavors of everything didn’t go together; it’s just that there were so many I felt like I was licking a Jackson Pollock painting.
Amends were made with the next offering, titled Best End of Lamb. I asked the waiter what the exact cut was. He stared back at me wide eyed and in all seriousness said, “Why it’s the best end of lamb sir.” After recovering from my many and varied blows, he went on to explain that it was a super tender cut from just behind the neck.
The lamb was served with roasted onions, an onion and thyme fluid gel, and a little napoleon made up of a fennel and potato mash, lamb sweetbreads and crispy potato rounds. Everything was doused in some sort of lamb jus and wow, it was seriously scrumptious. The meat was fork-cuttingly soft and Heston and his boys didn’t hesitate to leave on a nice encasement of succulent lamb fat. After all it is the best end of lamb, not the sissy-dieters slice.
I know I haven’t been talking about the wines that came with each dish, but this particular one deserves a special shout out. The sommelier paired the lamb plate with a 1999 Poderi Luigi Einaudi 'Nei Cannubi' Barolo. It’s big and deep and powerful, and paired with the lamb it really rocked.
It’s a yummy Barolo with rich stewed fruit and oak. Its structure and tannins did good things for the chocolate, tar, mint, and black cherry flavors. Having lived in Italy for the last year, so close to wines like this but so inhabiting another economic plane, it was a real treat to sample what the fuss is all about.
After wiping both glass and plate clean with my face, I realized that a bathroom break was not the worst of ideas. For all you die hard Fat Duck freaks out there, if you wanna see behind the scenes you’ll just have to go yourselves. Oh, I have pictures alright. I just don’t feel like sharing.
One interesting note though. While I was gone, the sommelier immediately came over to the table and started to converse with Mme. Pants. He lent her his company, insuring her non-loneliness practically until the moment of my return. Whether this is testament to the restaurant’s unimpeachable customer service or rather to girlie’s irresistible charm may forever remain unresolved. Either way, it was kinda cool.
Seconds after my return (they had been waiting patiently I’m sure) our waiter arrived bearing two small insulated glasses containing what he described as hot and cold iced tea. As he handed them to us, he explained that we must drink them instantly without delay. Any hesitation on our part may force the kitchen staff to resign en masse. Clear as a bell, gov. We each quickly downed our offerings and as promised it was both hot and cold. Quite a strange sensation.
Evidence after the fact.
I’m not sure how he did it, but I can tell you that the cold side was noticeably more viscous than the hot side. If I had to guess, I’d say he made some sort of chilled tea jelly and let it set while the glass was tilted on its side and then right before serving poured in a hot version of the same concoction minus the gelatin. Or something entirely different. (We’ve also heard that a gel sheet of some sort is used to separate the hot and the cold teas and keep them from mixing.)
After the tea came Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornet. It turns out that Heston is quite a food historian. He not only seeks out the science, but also the history of gastronomy. Agnes Bertha Marshall, almost forgotten today, wrote some of the finest books on ice cream ever written. Her recipe for the ice cream cone predates the supposed first at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 by some 16 years.
One of the last of her original machines still in existence was recently tested and turned out a liter of ice cream in an impressive 3 minutes. You’d think modern machinery could top that, but it’s still the fastest in the world by far. Apparently, she was quite the bad ass.
Homage was paid with a tiny cone filled with orange granita and topped with apple ice cream. The cone was so thin you could practically see through it. This wasn’t no 31 flavors baby. My one note would be that the crisp sugar shell had a distinct and not all together pleasant fried flavor. The filling was stellar, but the cone could have been a touch less greasy.
After ice cream time came one of the more playful dishes of the evening- the pine sherbet fountain. I don’t care what they call it, this thing was a gourmet lik-m-aid. I can’t tell you how cool it was. The flavor was sweet and tangy and packed with piney goodness. Again, a definite giggle dish, bringing great forest flavors right into dinner.
Our pine theme continued with a mango and Douglas fir puree. Accompanying that was a black current sorbet with cashews and a beet crisp. This dish was complicated and had a lot of different things going on. To start with, the sorbet was fantastic. It was tart and had a very satisfying mouth feel. The beet crisp was a great earthy compliment.
The mango and Douglas fir jiggle box was ok. It was sweet and interesting but not particularly delicious. What was awesome though, and totally made the dish for me were the little jello cubes. Those tiny guys were spicy! It was an excellent counterpoint to the agrodolce and coniferous notes. (Well, isn’t someone all fancy pants with their unique and successful flavor pairings?)
Next, Mr. Blumenthal opened up his candy store. Our waiter paraded out two adorable carrot and orange tuiles and two sugar coated little beet root jellies. The tuiles were yummy and the vivid orange color was so bright it looked almost like an ember fresh from the fire. A tasty, tasty ember that you shove into your mouth and suck on until it dissolves into a sticky, carroty orange puddle. Slurp…
The beetroot jellies were so enjoyable that I have vowed to swear off beets in any application except desserts. These little bastards were goooood! They were beety and tangy with the perfect amount of sweetness. They were amazingly soft with a light and pleasant chew. These should come in giant sacks.
The little confections pretty much wrapped up dinner, but since Heston and his boys weren’t quite finished with us we agreed to stay overnight for a bit of hanky-panky if they promised to cook us breakfast. (We’re very open minded.)
First up, individual boxes of breakfast cereal. Too cute. In typical Fat Duck style though, these weren’t your usual Kellogg’s Frosted Golden Fruity Puffs. No, these were pure parsnip flakes. Served with what else? Parsnip milk of course.
The presentation was the whole show here. The packaging and theater of it took something extremely simple and changed it into a great dish. It was so basic but it really made you think about the whole concept of fine dining. How important it is to not only draw the customer into the experience but to fiddle with their preconceptions. Very Warhol really; take a common mass produced food stuff and co-opt it for art.
For the last course, all stops were pulled out. It had a little bit of everything: performance, novelty, humor, presentation, deliciousness… you name it. It started with a lady bringing over a carton holding a half dozen eggs, each bearing the Fat Duck stamp. After we selected our egg, she prepared the anti-pot, a copper apparatus that “cooks” with cold instead of heat.
She cracked our egg into the pot and added a little liquid nitrogen while stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. We soon discovered that the eggy insides had been replaced with a bacon flavored gelato mix. I’m also fairly certain that during the initial preparation of the base, it was taken to a higher temperature than normal so that more of the egg proteins set, giving it a distinct egg flavor.
When the gelato was done, it was carefully served on top of bruleed French toast with a paper thin slice of candied bacon that had been coated with a shellac of sucrose. On the bottom, there was a dab of tomato jam and on the side came a glass of chilled tea jelly. See, an entire breakfast!
I know I said that the foie gras was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten but it would just be wrong to not put this dish on the list too. It was sweet, salty, creamy, crispy and hilarious. The tea jelly was a perfectly complimentary tannic-sweet and herby. Playful yet masterful. These guys are rockstars.
After the last plate disappeared, girlie and I decided that a nice espresso or two was in order. The coffee was solid, but not as good as say that cup we had in Siracusa. You can’t beat the glassware though. Heston has all of his stuff custom made just for the Fat Duck and somebody in the design process has some seriously good taste.
Along with coffee, we were presented with the very, very last things that would go in our mouths. I swear. Really. Just a few more things. This was it. They didn’t bring out anything else. Hang in there.
First came a plate with whisky jellies and violet tartlets. The whisky jellies had a really good Irish whisky flavor and a nice chewy texture. Not quite as good as the beet ones, but that’s a high freakin’ bar.
The violet dealies had a runny gooey middle that was nice, but they didn’t have much violet taste. They came off mainly as sweet. Also, the shell was fried like the tiny ice cream cones and the weird oily flavor didn’t really do it for me. On the plus side, the rich deep purple color was all pretty and stuff.
Finally, they brought out a half a cocoa pod half filled with some kind of cocoa shavings. Nestled inside were two types of chocolates. The first was filled with a rich mint and dark chocolate ganache. The mint tasted like the real deal, vegetably and pungent. The center was satiny with a coating mouthfeel.
The second one was an orange honeycomb. It was light, crisp and entirely lovely. The cool gold leaf on the bottom had some sort of rainbow oil slick appearance and was a nice touch. The whole candy was surprisingly light; it almost felt like you weren’t holding anything. I’m not the biggest chocolate fan, but I could appreciate that this was one impressive sweet. Yum.
Well, that about wraps it up. We pretty much shut the restaurant down. We paid and went outside where five or six extremely expensive vehicles sat idling as drivers sat stoically awaiting their patrons’ emergence. We hopped in the cab that the hostess had called for us and made the short trip back to Maidenhead. That was it. We boarded our train and rehashed the evening as we wound our way slowly back into London.
If any of you out there have the desire to sponsor a nice young couple for a bit of continuing research we would be more than happy to entertain your proposals. Why eat it yourself when you can have a fabulous full-on virtual meal with the Pants family?