Bray, England/ July 11, 2009/ dinner
Winederlust Rating (details below): 8.75 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Getting into Fat Duck – thought by many to be the “second best restaurant in the world,” narrowly trailing El Bulli, outside of Barcelona – was a huge surprise, to say the least.
Eating here was really the only reason we had decided to go to England at the beginning of our culinary trip instead of straight to France. We called two months earlier to try to get in, in the middle of the night U.S. time, at first getting nothing but a busy signal for 45 minutes and then being put on hold for half an hour, forced to listen to a reading of “Alice in Wonderland” (more on that theme later). Finally, after Jay was able to speak to a real, live person, we were put on the waiting list; however, they could not tell us WHERE we were on the list. Jay was optimistic that we would get in and still wanted to go to London, but I thought that our chances were slim to none. Jay even called Fat Duck the day before we left for our trip to see if there were any cancelations, but no luck.
However, after stopping back at our hotel in London after lunch on Saturday, Jay called once more in a last-ditch effort. Unbelievably, they had just had ONE cancellation for a table for two at 8pm that night! We were so excited that we felt sick (not the best feeling when preparing for a multi-hour meal). We’d been talking about going to Fat Duck for years. Unlike most other European culinary whizzes, the chef, Heston Blumenthal, is completely self-trained and a genius in using “experience” to provoke taste and sensory perceptions during a meal (much more on that later, too).
So we hurried over to the Tate Modern for a quick half hour look at the Futurists exhibit before booking it over to Paddington Station to catch the 40-minute train to Maidenhead followed by a 5-minute cab ride to the village of Bray, where Fat Duck is located (actually not as complicated as it sounds; it all ran pretty smoothly). The cab first took us to the Hinds Head next door, where we went in and had them look for our reservation, which of course they couldn’t find. From there they directed us around the corner to the Fat Duck, marked by their symbol of a spoon, knife, and fork stylized with a duck bill, duck feather, and duck foot respectively.
Fat Duck’s spoon, knife, and fork sign.
We could not believe we’d actually made it here. As I said to Jay, this was going to be about living in the moment; we were expecting an experience that would likely never be repeated, and we were right.
Inside, the restaurant had an old carriage house feel with exposed wood beams, contrasted with modern art paintings on alternate walls.
Liz inside Fat Duck.
Immediately after sitting down, a server approached us with a tray of champagne and asked whether we’d like to start with any. How could we say no? I chose a glass of the Delamotte rose champagne, while Jay oped for a Taittinger Brut Reserve. We were started off with a plate of olives, which Jay hungrily devoured (as many people I’ve eaten with well know, I do not like olives!).
One of our servers (we had about four of them at different times during the meal, and some of them we definitely liked better than others) brought over the menu for us to look at – but only to look at and not to choose from, as here there’s only one tasting menu of about 15 small plates for 130 pounds (210 U.S. dollars) each. Then they basically left us to stare at the menus for a while, though this was the only time the service lagged during the entire meal. (In fact, for most of it, it moved nearly a little too quickly at times, especially when we trying to process what we had just eaten as well as trying to take notes!) Finally, another server brought over a wine list. Besides pages and pages of wines from around the world, there were four choices of wine pairings. Since this was going to be a once in a lifetime event, we opted for one of the pairings, albeit the least expensive alternative at 90 pounds for eight wines to match with the courses throughout dinner.
Then the wild ride through the rabbit hole began. Things started off with a bang as the server wheeled over a tray of dishes of liquid nitrogen in which she submerged egg whites mixed with vodka and lime. After placing these into the bath for a minute, she sprayed an essence of lime into the air and then took the concoction out of the bath, at which point it resembled a deconstructed meringue. Then she sprinkled green tea powder on top. It tasted like a cold lime sorbet with the texture of a meringue, and melted in the mouth. The official name of the dish was Lime Grove, Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse.
Next we had the Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, which we both found rather uninspired. Both of these courses were served with a German Riesling (2007 Riesling Kabinett, Joh. Jos. Prum, Mosel) that had a strong smell and taste of sulphur mixed with green apple. However, this sulphuric quality did dissipate as the flavors of the meal progressed.
Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream.
The showy (some might say “contrived”) quality of the meal was upped several notches when our server placed a box of live green moss in the center of the table and gave us a small plastic package that looked eerily similar to a Listerine tongue tab you’d dissolve in your mouth to freshen your breath. He said to pull out the tab and dissolve it on our tongue for our “walk through the forest” – and, indeed, the flavor of a cedar campfire immediately filled our mouths, not unpleasant, but definitely something we were more used to smelling than to tasting.
“Walk Through the Forest” tongue tab.
Immediately after, he poured water on top of the “forest” of moss. Dry ice was hidden underneath so that the “forest” billowed scented smoke over the tabletop.
“Walk Through the Forest.”
It was quickly becoming clearer that this was going to be a meal based upon sensory “memories” and unexpected taste sensations rather than on, say, perfect technique or well-balanced flavors or even necessarily flavors that we couldn’t wait to eat more of. No, this meal was meant to provoke and challenge and even confound, and, as Jay mentioned, to make people happy. Looking around at each table in the restaurant, nearly everyone had a smile on his or her face.
To accompany the “walk through the forest,” we were presented with our next dish, Jelly of Quail, Cream of Langoustine with Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast, basically a bowl of chicken liver layered with the quail jelly (an odd green color) and the langoustine cream. We were told to alternate spoonfuls of this dish with bites of the yummy truffle toast, a pleasing mixture though difficult to describe all of the tastes involved except for being a little salty (I thought; this didn’t seem to bother Jay).
Jelly of Quail, Cream of Langoustine with Chicken Liver Parfait.
Our next dish was melt-in-your-mouth Roast Foie Gras with Gooseberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit accompanied by a 2004 Rolly Gassmann Alsatian Pinot Gris. This was one of the more traditional dishes and truly excellent (though we couldn’t figure out where the crab biscuit was – maybe it was untraditionally incorporated and somehow not discernible to the naked tongue). The pinot gris was a good accompaniment, with a candied citrus nose and a somewhat sweet yet refreshing and clean finish.
Roast Foie Gras with Gooseberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit.
At this point, the wine was starting to go to my head, but I bravely soldiered on. Jay again noted that success in any business, though especially in the restaurant business, could be measured by the ability to delight and surprise, and in that regard, the Fat Duck was definitely a success so far.
However, we found our next dish to be less successful than the others before it – Mock Turtle Soup with Mad Hatter Tea (yes, note the Alice in Wonderland theme). I’m not sure if it’s because neither of us had ever had real turtle soup before, much less the mock one, but this dish seemed like more of a novelty than one that had a good taste, balance, or flavor. We were given cups of the Mad Hatter Tea, bullion covered in real gold leaf to look like a pocket watch into which our server poured hot water, and were told to stir them until the gold “dissolved” (which it never fully did) and the tea was made.
Cup of Mad Hatter Tea.
Then we poured the gold-leaf tea over the mock turtle mixture, which if we were to deconstruct it (as we tried to do with every dish, though we started giving up at times when we couldn’t figure out what some things were and the servers didn’t always tell us because of “trade secrets”), seemed like a simple beef broth with cucumber and bits of ham for the turtle. Unfortunately, not all that exciting. One thing our server did tell us was that this was the newest addition to the menu, just added in the last couple of weeks. Other than rare additions, the menu apparently stays the same for about a year, though ingredients and proportions are constantly being tinkered with in the pursuit of ultimate flavor perfection (so we were told).
Mock Turtle mixture pre-broth.
Mock Turtle Soup with Mad Hatter Tea.
Interestingly, this dish was paired with a madeira (Madeira, Verdelho, H&H, Portugal), one of the odder wine pairs of the evening. Its nutty, somewhat sweet flavors worked with the soup, though were maybe a little bit overpowering.
The next dish was one of the more bizarre of the evening, though oddly enjoyable and definitely memory-eliciting. The dish’s official name was “Sound of the Sea.” Jay had noticed earlier in the evening that people at some other tables had iPod earbuds in. Why would they be listening to music during such a special meal, we thought? But we quickly realized that listening was a PART of the meal and eagerly anticipated what this could be. Our server placed a conch shell on the table in front of each of us in which sat an iPod shuffle and told us to “listen to the sounds of the sea.”
iPod in conch shell.
We heard waves and seagull cries as we were given a plate of what looked like sand studded with things washed up from the ocean.
Sound of the Sea.
The sensation of spooning “sand” and the fishy objects in it into our mouths was a little disconcerting. If you ever put some sand into your mouth as a kid at the beach, you can pretty much guess what it tasted like, and the other things within it squished in our mouths as we chewed them. But in a weird way, eating “the ocean” was also very cool.
One of our servers actually ended up revealing the “secrets” of this dish when we asked – tapioca for the sand, fried baby eels, mackerel, yellowtail, and seaweed. We never would have guessed. Another interesting thing was the wine pairing for this dish – an excellent ginzo sake, fresh and crisp enough to cut through the saltiness of the sea.
Next up was one of our favorite dishes of the night, Salmon Poached in Liquorice with Artichokes, Vanilla, Mayo, Golden Trout Roe and Olive Oil. When reading the menu before the meal, I’d been afraid that the licorice flavor could be very strong (and I’m really not a big black licorice fan), but it turned out the dish was perfectly balanced. The velvety salmon melted in our mouths, while the trout roe provided a burst of delicious tangy flavor, and the vanilla added an unexpected yet welcome touch of sweetness to the dish.
Salmon Poached in Liquorice with Artichokes, Vanilla, Mayo, Golden Trout Roe and Olive Oil.
Very yummy, and also wonderfully paired with one of our favorite wines of the evening, the big, rich, and complex 2001 Quinta da Leda, Casa Ferreirinha, from Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Unfortunately, the next dish was one of our least favorites – the Powdered Anjou Pigeon with Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles (we asked, and “umbles” =“humbles,” extra animal parts like gizzards and innards traditionally thrown into the mix when cooking e.g., humble pie). The entire dish was heavy and very traditional tasting, and the wine pairing, a 2002 Le Dome Bordeaux from St.-Emilion (a town we will be visiting later in this trip!), while good on its own, was also very heavy and didn’t do anything to cut through the meatiness of the dish.
Powdered Anjou Pigeon with Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles.
From there we started moving into the sweeter portion of the meal – not quite dessert yet, but on the lighter side than what we’d sampled thus far. Jay absolutely drooled over the tangy Taffaty Tart with Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon, a very British-tasting concoction that also included a cream cheese filling in the tart and black currant sorbet. This was paired with the 2006 Breganze Torcolato from the Veneto.
Taffaty Tart with Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon.
Things started taking more of an overly dramatic turn again with The Not-So-Full English Breakfast of Parsnip Cereal, Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, and Hot & Iced Tea (which, I don’t know whether this is sad or what, was probably my favorite “dish” of the whole meal!!!). Our server came out and announced, “It’s breakfast time!” which, yes, was already weirdly contrived. He gave us boxes of “cereal” to open and pour into our bowls and pitchers of “milk” to put on top. The “cereal,” which looked just like corn flakes, was actually made of parsnips and the milk was also made of parsnips – an interesting concept, but it didn’t bowl us over.
Box of Parsnip Cereal.
Parsnip Cereal, opened.
The Nitro Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream is one of Fat Duck’s signature dishes. Our server cracked open what looked like an egg (we don’t know if it really was) supposedly already flavored with bacon and “poured” its contents into a metal container. Then he poured on the liquid nitrogen and “scrambled” it up until it turned into the consistency of ice cream.
“Scrambling” the eggs and bacon.
Then the eggs/bacon mixture was placed on strips of slightly salty candied bacon (again, who knows what this was really made out of) and served with a piece of French toast with tomato jam. Since I don’t normally eat bacon, I admittedly may have been biased against this dish to begin with, and while the concept was interesting, in the end we thought the preparation and novelty were more exciting than the actual taste and enjoyment of the dish.
Nitro Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream.
The final part of this trio of breakfast dishes was by far my favorite, probably because as anyone who knows me is aware, I LOVE TEA. The Hot & Iced Tea was totally bizarre – half of it stayed hot and half of it stayed cold… IN YOUR MOUTH. So cool. It was like there was an invisible barrier maintaining the two sides of the liquid at different temperatures. I loved it so much that I asked for seconds. I also asked for the secret, which our server wouldn’t divulge. But he did say to look it up on You Tube (though we
haven’t yet been able to find it).
Hot & Iced Tea.
The not-breakfast breakfast was paired with the final wine of the evening, a 2007 Charles Hours Jurancon from the Dordogne region of France. This was a nice, clean wine with a crisp green apple and muscat flavor, and actually paired well with the unusual dishes we were eating.
We loved the Chocolate Wine Slush with Millionaire Shortbread. It was like a red wine granita with chocolate essence that we sipped through a straw and alternated with bites of a crisp chocolate bar layered with butter toffee. Delicious.
Chocolate Wine Slush with Millionaire Shortbread.
Next came the Wine Gums from the “historic trade routes of Britain.” This was very weird and very British and really didn’t do much for us. We were each presented with a map of Europe in a picture frame in which were stuck jellies shaped like mini bottles of alcohol, including mead, Madeira, port, wine, and rum. I thought they were kind of disgusting.
Finally, our server brought out a paper bag imprinted with the words “Like a kid in a sweet shop.” Evidently, this was Fat Duck’s version of petit fours. Inside was a chocolate with a honeycomb of chocolate inside of it and topped by apricot jam; a caramel on which the wrapper was also edible; tobacco-soaked shredded coconut in a little bag that looked like chaw; and a take on a Lik-a-Stik that tasted woody. We ate some of these on the train to France the next day.
“Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop.”
Overall: It was an amazing experience in many ways – the presentations, the textures and smells, the concepts – but also more than a little over the top. One thing was for sure: It definitely made us THINK about the whole experience of eating food. And yes, it did bring smiles to our faces – despite it also being the most expensive meal that we have ever eaten (so far). – by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 9.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 9.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 9.5 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 7.5 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$$$ (Incredibly Expensive)
Fat Duck / High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ [ map ]
Direct line +44 (0) 1628 580 333 (call two months in advance and hope for the best)