Well, as promised, my series of birthday posts finally concludes today with a write-up of my lunch at the Fat Duck at Bray, Heston Blumenthal's 3-Michelin starred restaurant near Windsor, and (until recently) voted the best restaurant in the world.
You know how they say the path of true love never runs smoothly? Well let me assure you that the same can be said for fine dining. Getting to my birthday lunch was an uphill struggle from the word go, in other words, the booking process. In common with other fine dining establishments, the fun starts with the hoops you have to jump through to get a reservation. Now the Fat Duck only takes reservations two months in advance, so if you want to go there on 1 June, you will have to book on 1 April. Not before, not after. And if 1 June happens to be a Saturday, your chances of success are hugely diminished. I thought I'd use my birthday as a perfect excuse to book a table for 6 on a Saturday afternoon – a lovely drive into the countryside, a delicious meal with friends and maybe a stroll after lunch. I did know that it wasn't going to be easy as I tried previously to get a table without success. Anyway, on the appointed day two months before the Saturday I had in mind, at precisely 10h00, I called. Engaged. Redial. Engaged. This is the way it goes. There is no queue – you just hit redial and hope to get lucky. Sadly, some of us work for a living and can't sit there hitting redial endlessly, so I took the middle road of hitting redial every 10 mins. I eventually got through at… 11h30. Sorry, no tables left for Saturday. But… wait… let me see… we have one table for Friday lunch at 13h45 – how about that? DONE!! So it's going to cost me half a day's leave – what the hell, it's my birthday and I have a table at the Fat Duck, tra la laaaaa!
Seeing as Nick had no leave left (and because secretly I think he dreads going to restaurants with me when I start taking pics of the food…) I invited Johanna and we agreed to meet at Richmond, from where we would go by car. So far so good. I left work on time and hopped on the Tube to get to Waterloo… and within minutes the train just ground to a halt. Signalling problems (oh the joy of the underground!!). So we sat in a tunnel for close on 10 minutes and by the time I made it to Waterloo, I had missed my train. Found the next train, but obviously the entire schedule had been thrown out. I called the restaurant to let them know that we would be a little late and they said that would be OK, but 10 minutes later they called back to say that they didn't think I would make it before 14h45 and that they would therefore not be able to seat us. Suffice to say that I went into orbit. Explained that I had waited a long time for this table (that plus the fact that they had my credit card details, taken at the time of booking – what were they going to charge me for being an enforced no-show??) and that there was no way I wasn't coming. So a compromise was reached – if we could make it there by 14h15, they would seat us. If anybody saw a streak of lighting in the shape of a car zooming between Richmond and Bray that day, that was us And when we arrived, slightly breathless, at 14h15 we were welcomed and seated without a murmur of complaint. Phew!!
The restaurant interior is smaller and more appealing than I expected. It's in a little low-ceilinged house in the village, indistinguishable from its neighbours, but they seem to have knocked out most of the interior walls, leaving only a huge fireplace and a lovely open space with whitewashed walls and exposed wooden beams. My kind of room, with only large abstract canvases to break the clean white walls, and carpeting, so the sound of your fellow diners is somewhat absorbed and you can hear yourself think. One of the first things you notice is the tremendously high staff-to-guest ratio, and service throughout was excellent without being stuffy. We were immediately offered a glass of champagne and seeing as it was my birthday, we both opted for a glass of rose champagne, offered from a lovely silver ice bucket (more on this later). We perused the menu but sadly were not able to have the tasting menu – if you arrive any later than 2, the tasting menu will take so long that it will run into the evening service! So a la carte it was. Hot on the heels of the menu came the heavy leather-bound tome of a wine list. Johanna was driving and so we couldn't share a bottle of wine, but that didn't stop me browsing. The wine prices were on the high side, but started with some fairly reasonably priced bottles (there was an Alsace white for £30, and a number of bottles in the £35-45 range). The selection was enormous with lots of interesting stuff you do not find on the lists of lesser establishments, like a selection of Austrian wines. I plumped for a glass of the Willi Opitz 2001 Pinot Gris.
We were served some good bread and a little knob of excellent salted butter (which to me is always one of the marks of a good meal to follow!). The first amuse bouche promptly arrived and was announced (in heavily accented English!!) by our waiter – a small scoop of Pommery mustard ice-cream over which he ceremoniously poured red cabbage gazpacho. I have to admit that this was my first experience of savoury ice cream and I am in love. First, there's the novelty of a savoury taste clothed in the shape and texture of food you have always regarded as sweet. And then there is the palate-clearing zing of the mustard – just to get your taste buds ready for things to come. And the red cabbage gazpacho provided both a vivid splash of colour as well as a complementary flavour.
Following the first amuse bouche came the second: the biggest, fattest, most pillowy oyster in all of England served in its shell on a little smudge of horseradish and covered in a passionfruit jelly. And on top, you can see the lavender crisps and a little lavender flower below each. Sublime. In fact, I disregarded oyster etiquette entirely and ate mine in four little forkfuls because I didn't want it to end. The saline tang of the oyster plays surprisingly well with the slightly tart passion fruit jelly, while the spike of horseradish stops it all becoming too cloying soft and comfortable. One of the best appetizers I have ever had. (You can't really see it in the picture, but the oyster shell was perched on a little 1-inch pedestal of rock salt, presumably dampened to keep it in shape.)
From there it was on to the starters, and Johanna and I had decided not to have the same dishes so as to allow us to taste more of the menu. Johanna ordered the crab biscuit and I got the intriguing-sounding radish ravioli of oyster but I have to say that I think in terms of sheer deliciousness Johanna won here. Two crispy crab-flavoured tuiles, sandwiching between them a slab of roast foie gras and resting on four little sticks of rhubarb and some crispy seaweed. Absolutely sublime, with meltingly gorgeous foie gras offset by the crispy biscuits and the sweet/tart rhubarb. My radish ravioli on the other hand was, to my mind, a far less cohesive dish – three interesting components but nothing to tie them together. But very pretty nonetheless… Starting at the front, we have a crispy little rissole of fromage de tete (not cheese, but rather a type of terrine, similar to brawn). It was delicious – crisp, light and piping hot, tasting of creamy ham more than anything else. At the far end is the "ravioli" itself: a little mound of oyster, goat's cheese & truffle, covered in transparently slices of the tiniest, most perfectly round little radishes imagineable. I was almost afraid to eat it and disturb the delicate arrangement, but when I did it was delicious. The principal taste was the goats cheese, but there was definitely a subtle flavour of truffle and oysters. The slight tang of the radish stopped the taste from becoming overpoweringly rich. But what impressed me most was the visual impact. Have a close-up look. In the middle was something that we could not quite place – and the waiter who brought the dishes out once again spoke such accented English that it was almost impossible to hear the explanation (I know, I should have asked…). Anyway, it was a little scoop of what tasted like a mixture of mild dill pickles and mushrooms in a mayonnaise-y base. If anybody who can throw light on the actual ingredients, I'd love to hear from them.
After this came the "palate preparer" to set the scene for my main course. Since I was having lamb, it was came as no surprise that the preparer was jelly of best end of lamb. It was served as a small bowl of jellied lamb consommé topped with a teensy weensy salad of itty bitty sun-dried tomato and strips of cucumber and cubes of ham. It was really delicious, like a little miniature meal and such a good idea. This was followed by my best end of lamb with onion and thyme puree and caramelised baby onions. The two chops were perfect: thick, juicy, tender and beautifully pink. The onion and thyme puree was a little bland for me though – not sure if I would have picked out the thyme at all, had the menu not mentioned it . But the best thing for me was what came on the side, in an adorable little metal ramekin with a lid, rather like a Mini-Me version of Le Creuset. I lifted the lid to find a little hotpot of lamb shoulder, oysters and sweetbreads in a rich gravy, covered in slices of tiny baby potato, each topped with a cube of what might have been sweet potato. One mouthful and I was hooked – it was incredibly delicious and I just wanted a huge bowl of it, on its own, as a course. Fantastic. Johanna, on the other hand, was having saddle of venison with celeriac, marron glace and sauce poivrade. She pronounced this to be delicious, especially the sweetness of the marrons glace with the gamey venison. Her side dish was another winner (and a great use for the cooking juices after you've roasted a leg of venison!) but her side dish was also the winner: civet of venison with pearl barley and red wine, topped with a red wine espuma (foam). Awe-inspiringly simple and delicious (picture does not do it justice so I've omitted it!). We both agreed that we could have eaten a whole (large) bowl of this, but its richness would probably have made this impractical… While Johanna didn’t get a palate preparer for her venison, she did get something afterwards (a palate relaxer??!) – venison and frankincense "tea", a venison jus served in a tiny teapot and poured into a lovely stemmed whisky glass, redolent with the smell of frankincense but tasting of venison. Delicious and playful.
Next up were the pre-desserts. First we were presented with two little sugar-crusted purply-red squares of beetroot jelly on a plate, and hot on their heels came a waitress carrying two little orange-coloured lollipops. Now usually it would take a lot of persuasion to get me to eat beetroot of ANY description, but I had a nibble on one of the squares and found it to be surprisingly blackcurranty and tasty. (I have read subsequently on EGullet that if you have them blindfolded they taste more like beetroot and less like blackcurrant… go figure!). The lollipops were carrot-flavoured – the thinnest strip of caramelly carrot in the universe with a bit of orange zest, attached to a toothpick – in fact, so thin it’s translucent! Light, crispy, clever and amazing. Johana and I were fascinated as to how these are made. But sadly, so insubstantial that they are gone within seconds.
Then came the Big Event that was dessert. Once again we had decided to order different dishes so that we could share and experience as much of the menu as possible – and unsurprisingly we both went for a chocolate extravaganza! I had the chocolate fondant with cardamom dried apricot yoghurt and harissa ice cream. The fondant was less eggy than the fondants I made at home and was topped with caramelized pecan chips. One touch of my spoon and out came a river of bittersweet chocolate – heaven. On the right was the dried apricot yoghurt and what I presume were cardamom crisps. The yoghurt had a lovely thick consistency and a nice apricotty tang . On the left, we have a scoop of harissa ice-cream on a bed of sweet red pepper mince. Yes, you read correctly – harissa ice cream. But just do as I did, suspend your disbelief, and spoon up a little of the chocolate pudding together with the harissa ice cream. Perfectly fabulous – the chocolate and the harissa is quite possibly the best combination of things I have ever put in my mouth! I would go back for this dessert alone. While I was cooing over my dessert, Johanna was having fun and games of her own. She had ordered the delice de chocolat – a little tower of chocolate mousse coated in chocolate on a biscuit base, served with slightly spicy chocolate sorbet and a little pool of cumin caramel sauce. When she served it, the waitress explained that the little tower should not be eaten layer by layer, but that each spoonful should cut vertically down through all the layers so as to include a little of each. Okeydokey. So Johanna takes a spoonful and has a few chews, and then claps her hand to her mouth and starts giggling uncontrollably. I could see she was having a ball, but was mystified as to what could possibly be so much fun! Eventually she had swallowed enough of her mouthful to be able to respond decently, and she said "there's something, erm, fizzy… no, popping in the chocolate!" My first thought was some kind of sherbet – but I couldn't imagine sherbet working very well with chocolate! But I was willing to wait until I tried it before making any decision. As soon as we had each had half of our respective desserts, we swapped plates and I also got to have my first mouthful of the myterious chocolate tower. Bittersweet chocolate on the outside, smooth mousse on the inside, a chocolatey biscuit base and… Pop! Pop! Pop-a-pop! Suddenly my mouth and toungue were just alive with popping and I was scared to open my mouth lest the noise disturb other diners! This was definitely not sherbet… It’s just the maddest feeling – your whole mouth seems to have taken on a life of its own! So we called the waitress over to ask what it is and she told us it’s just shop-bought pop rock candy (or space dust or whatever it’s called where you are) baked into the biscuit base. (Fascinatingly, I found out that pop rock candy is made like any other hard candy from a mixture of water, sugar, corn syrup and flavouring. However, the mixture is combined with carbon dioxide gas under a pressure of 600 pounds per square inch. The carbon dioxide forms tiny bubbles in the candy when it hardens and the bubbles remain in the candy until it melts in your mouth. So what you are feeling is hundreds of little explosions as the high-pressure gas bubbles explode in your mouth!). What a simple, brilliant idea – and when last can you honestly say that a dish made you laugh out loud from surprise and enjoyment?
From there, we moved on to coffee, which was preceded by mini violet tarts. You can't really see in the picture, but they were in fact a deep violet colour, and the filling had the consistency of treacle. They tasted like slightly floral caramel and were just small enough not to be too rich or cloying. Coffee was accompanied by chocolates – some infused with pine and some with fresh mint. I was a bit apprehensive about the pine chocolate, but the flavour was extremely subtle – to the point of hardly being noticeable. The mint one was a different story though. There is such a gulf of difference between the flavour of fresh mint and what we get on a daily basis as the flavouring in toothpaste and chewing gum and after dinner mints. This is mint as nature intended it – intense and a bit leafy, not the blandly sweet artificial flavour we take for granted. Delicious.
So after sitting back and feeling pleased with ourselves for a while, Johanna and I finally got the bill. The a la carte lunch is £80 for 3 courses – pretty steep, but we knew the price beforehand and had steeled ourselves (the tasting menu is £97). What did make us do a double-take was the fact that a single glass of rose champagne cost… £28!! Yikes!! OK, so I understand it was Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Rosé 1999, and presumably under the arcane logic of restaurant wine mark-ups, it wasn't an unreasonable price to charge, given that they're selling the bottle for £118. But still, I thought that the waiter might have a) mentioned the prices when he listed the champagnes available by the glass or b) the wine list might be available for perusal before you choose your glass of bubbly. I know that the there is no champagne by the glass that comes cheap, but we were expecting something more around the £12-15 mark, not £28!
Thast aside, there was little to find fault with. As I said, the service was excellent and the setting attractive. I was initially disppointed that we couldn't have the tasting menu, but in retrospect I'm glad that my introduction to Mr Blumenthal, so well-known for his zanier ideas (bacon + egg ice cream; snail porridge; things flash frozen at your table in liquid nitrogen…) was via a reasonably traditional meal. It meant that you could gauge whether the kitchen were getting the basics right, rather than just being dazzled by the showy stuff. And let me assure you, they are getting it right! I loved the idea of messing with our entrenched expectations – the expectation that ice cream will be sweet and that beetroot will be savoury. And as I said, I found the exploding dessert to be a total hoot – not something you can often say for food! I do think that I was more forgiving about trying odd-sounding things purely because you know it's Heston Blumenthal. For example, I very much doubt that if Pizza Express suddenly put oysters in passionfruit jelly on their menu, I'd order it. But at the Fat Duck you are somehow more open to unsual combinations because of Mr Blumenthal's towering reputation.
Was it worth the money? For me, definitely. For someone not intensely interested in food, possibly not. Would I go back? Oh yes. Now if only I can employ a full-time assistant to sit on the phone and get me a booking…
The Fat Duck
Reservations: +44 (0) 1628 580 333