Never has a meal been so eagerly anticipated and obviously this can bring undue anxiety. I'd heard murmurings from fellow diners at one of the Blueprint Cafe special events and they hinted at a definite a case of the emperor’s new clothes concerning Heston's cooking or what is generally referred to as molecular gastronomy. I'm not entirely sure his show helped; the digger, digger, digger, ding, ding, ding music was way too pervading and many of his processes just seemed too extreme for the home cook who hasn't added liquid nitrogen, elbow length gauntlets and full face welding mask to their batterie de cuisine. But the prospect of experiencing this alchemy first hand was a whole different prospect. And one MC, D and I had waited for with bated breath. Some of us had new dresses for the event (well frankly any excuse!) and before he feels I am missing him out, MC had a fine new pinstripe in honour of the auspicious occasion.
We had already decided it was the tasting menu, it seemed entirely wrong to drive all the way out to Bray and order a steak even if it did turn out to be the best steak ever. We wanted the ‘full’ all-singing, all-dancing Fat Duck experience. As it turned out it was way more theatrical than I could have imagined, the whole meal was some sort of culinary cabaret and we were the enraptured audience. So what about our meal/evening’s entertainment?Firstly Heston Blumenthal is extremely keen to ensure he has a ‘blank’ palate to works with and so we have the first performance as the waitress squirts out a ball of green tea, lime and vodka mousse from a siphon and then poaches it briefly in liquid nitrogen.
The resultant almost meringue is dusted with green tea and then popped into the mouth in one go. The NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE ball has the thinnest shell and almost bursts cleansing every corner of your mouth. We are told that the vodka removes the fat from the tongue and the green tea and lime refreshes our taste buds for the delights ahead. D announces that she is looking forward to our next visit, and that's after the first taste!I ask if we can have a copy of the tasting menu to peruse whilst we choose some wines as MC and I decide we don’t want all the different wine flavours throughout the meal but a stunning white (Silvaner Spatlese Trocken) and a rich red and some dessert wine to finish. We don’t get just a copy of the tasting menu but an elegant vellum envelope sealed with a wodge of black sealing wax with the restaurant insignia. The very same duck spoon, knife and fork that we’d struggled to find suspended outside the restaurant on entering Bray. Actually we passed by the restaurant several times and actually ended up at the Waterside Inn which is the other three star Michelin restaurant in this tiny village. It seems like no KFC for Bray but haute cuisine all the way! The envelope has our individual copies of the tasting menu which is a fabulous idea as it would have been very difficult to remember it all. Our first little dish after the palate cleanser is the OYSTER AND PASSION FRUIT JELLY, LAVENDER. I’ve not a huge fan of oysters that aren’t slightly warm but the passion fruit jelly was such great combination with the salty oyster.
Next we have a large
Now for another intriguing bit of theatre, our waiter deposits a small box filled with turf topped with little plastic boxes containing thin films. These films are like one of the mouth fresheners that you pop on your tongue and then it instantly dissipates. This one wasn’t mint though but oak. The waiter ignites our box of wilderness to allow evocative wood smoke to curl around us evoking memories of camping whilst the oak film mingles with the bonfire and cleanses our mouth again.
Following the mossy theme we have the fabulously meaty JELLY OF QUAIL, LANGOUSTINE CREAM, PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS and a little wooden board topped with OAK MOSS AND TRUFFLE TOASTnext. The bowl containing the langoustine cream and foie gras was just amazing. We were advised to dip out spoon into the bowl right to the bottom so that you could experience all the layers in each mouthful. And the surprise was the intense quail jelly lurking beneath the smooth creamy surface. It was a perfect combination, so spectacular!
And with a flourish we had the infamous SNAIL PORRIDGE with Joselito ham, shaved fennel delivered. So much has been said about this dish. The thought of snail porridge has astonished many a commentator on the Fat Duck menu, reams have been written about it but it almost defies explanation. I have always enjoyed garlic snails in a French bistro so have never been repulsed by the thought of snails. In fact porridge is more of a food I’d normally avoid but this is just like nothing you’ve ever tasted, I must admit the smails don't taste of much but then really garlic snails is all about the garlic I guess. The porridge is bright green, very herby and has tasty bits of crispy ham hidden in it. The only downside for me is that I thought I could detect curry powder which is definitely a flavour I am not partial to. Though apparently there wasn’t any curry powder in the porridge so I don’t know what was emitting that essence of curry house.We move onto the ROAST FOIE GRAS with extravagant little artistic and delicious little flourishes of Almond fluid gel, cherry, chamomile. The cherry and foie gras is a sublime touch, Heston wins again! Whilst we’ve been tucking into all these delights we have been filling in a little card at our table. We’ve been asked to write down the decade in which we grew up and list our reminiscences. D and I did one and MC the other, it gave us a lot of food for thought. We recollected perfect roast potatoes, cola cubes, midget gems and Caramacs.
One of the new much talked about dishes at the Fat Duck is the next one, the "SOUND OF THE SEA". Heston Blumenthal has spoken before of the interesting concept of either getting his diners to don earphones that block out all the surrounding sound and hence enhance the sound of every crunch or slurp whilst you eat the food or to have particular sounds played at you to conjure up memories and images through aural stimulants. And the latter is what the “sound of the sea” is. We are handed iPod shuffles tucked into conch shells and then individual beaches are placed in front of each of us.
These ‘beaches’ consist of abalone, scallop slices, razor clams, tapioca ‘sand’, seaweed foam and samphire. And whilst we consumed our seashore our iPods played us waves crashing the shore and the seagulls circling overhead. The sounds definitely transports you to some beach somewhere and conjuring all those seaside memories you can taste salt and ozone and seem to be able to appreciate the seafood more keenly. It does look quite comical though, looking around the restaurant and seeing other diners all sitting there with their white ear-buds in and concentrating carefully on each mouthful was a sight to behold.When we remove our earphones, everything seems a little more pronounced and we talk about the effect the little square shuffle had on our sensory perception. Our next course is the incredibly exotic looking SALMON POACHED WITH LIQUORICE Asparagus, vanilla mayonnaise and “Manni” olive oil. The perfectly pink pave of salmon is enrobed with a thick layer of liquorice jelly and as you slice into it each forkful the beautiful salmon pink is exposed. The plate is dotted with grapefruit shreds and balsamic vinegar spots, it may seem strewn casually but really we know otherwise. I would never have thought of serving salmon and liquorice but it absolutely works. But then who would have thought of many of the taste sensations we are appreciating today, they are so seemingly random though you know so much experimentation has gone into devising each "mise en scène". Actually this is the hardest meal I’ve ever tried to describe. It’s not as if the tastes and whole fabulousness won’t be indelibly printed on my brain forever but it’s so far removed from any meal experience I’ve ever encountered it almost defies explanation.
And after our fish course we move onto our meat course, the most delectable BALLOTINE OF ANJOU PIGEON ever served with Black pudding “to order”, Chinese pigeon cracker, pickling brine and spiced juices. This pigeon is unquestionably the finest pigeon we’ve ever had, it is so juicy and intense and just an astonishing flavour. The sauce is so rich and glossy but I’m not sure where the “black pudding to order” appears in this dish.
We are asked if we’d like to have the cheese course, well with us all being part-mouse this is an easy decision and the cheese trolley is wheeled over for our delectation. We carefully choose our favourite cheeses; I favour the creamy and oozing cheeses and eschew the blue and the goat. There’s plenty to choose from and I have some tasty bread to enjoy it with. Eating the cheese is the first time I fear that I won’t be able to finish everything, I glance at the menu and we have seven “course’ followed by petits fours to come and I am starting to flag.
I would have thought that some sort of sensory overload would be kicking in but actually the balance is so finely tuned that you actually are welcoming the next sensation and then more magic happens. And the magic this time is HOT AND ICED TEA. We are presented with a double walled glass cup which we are told not turn. We this tea is drunk you have the most astonishing awareness that the left side of your mouth is tasting hot tea and the right side iced tea. The tea is more viscous than usual which I guess prevents the hot and iced tea from mingling and yet again we are confounded and delighted. I suddenly feel more refreshed, the cheese may have almost defeated me but the "nice cup of tea" has revived me.
We are delivered a leaflet explaining all about Mrs. Agnes B. Marshall and what she did for the world of ice cream and Victorian cookery. She was a trailblazer, ran a cookery school, wrote a weekly paper and invented the world’s first ice cream machine and freezer. In honour of this illustrious woman we tuck into a tiny MRS MARSHALL’S MARGARET CORNET, which has diminutive icing spikes around the top of the cornet and is filled with both ice cream and sorbet – a miniature refreshing hit. All hail Agnes B Marshall!
After all the nostalgic culinary pondering, it seems most appropriate that we have Heston’s twist on a sherbet fountain next but his is a PINE SHERBET FOUNTAIN. The liquorice that would normally be sticking up from the twisted paper tube has been substituted for a length of hollowed out vanilla pod. And the sherbet powder is diffused with pine. I think this time it’s not so much the taste but sweet little memory that is plucked from my past. I would be intrigued to know what experience you’d have if you haven’t enjoyed a sherbet fountain in your past.
Our sherbet coated trip down memory lane appears to be a prelude for the next plate of exotica the MANGO AND DOUGLAS FIR PUREE Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet. It is another beautifully executed collection of edible loveliness. With all the fruity flavours complimenting each other yet still being very distinct, you can clearly identify each flavour. The contrasting colours of the blackcurrant sorbet, the mango layer on the bavarois, the delicate beetroot shard and the little alcoholic cubes all look so stunning. How grateful am I that for once it’s possible to take decent pictures in a restaurant at night. Part of the theatre of the Fat Duck is really being able to see the little gastronomic set pieces as they unfold. As most of the restaurant seems to be having the tasting menu you can watch the flamboyant scenes being acted at another table ahead of you in the cycle and whet your appetite for the next act. We noticed the table next to us were two ‘courses’ behind us and they watched rapt as the party pieces transpired.
Next we have a new take on the cubes of carrot and beetroot they used to serve with the twist being that the orange coloured cube was actually beetroot and vice versa. We have a lollipop slice of CARROT AND ORANGE TUILE and a juicy sugar coated deeply purple BEETROOT JELLY.Our German waiter announces that it is now “time for breakfast” and gives us a tiny pistachio coloured box of ‘cornflakes’ or actually PARSNIP CEREAL and a jug of parsnip milk. I cannot begin to imagine how one would extract milk from a parsnip and I try not to conjure up an image of some sort of vegetable milking parlour out back and assume there’s been much steeping of sweet parsnips in milk. It seems quite apt to having breakfast at the end of the meal, I am not sure if it supposed to indicate the considerable time we’ve been enjoying the hospitality of the Fat Duck and that the idea is you have dinner, then breakfast then leave.
D comments on all the pistachio branded items that are piling up for us to take home and wished she’s brought a larger bag. This is overheard by our waiter who immediately furnishes us with a pale green carrier bag. They have also been awfully accommodating to my sudden onslaught of a summer cold, after exhausting my supply of paper tissues they seemed to be more than happy to replenish my supply by bringing a couple of plates of delicate folded fans of tissue to relieves my poor nose.
The final pièce de résistance is the astonishing drama of the much written about NITRO-SCRAMBLED EGG AND BACON ICE CREAM with Pain perdu, tea jelly. The waitress produces a special egg box filled by special ‘duck’ eggs, clearly fat duck!
She cracks this special egg into the Macbeth’s cauldron of liquid nitrogen and in a moment a icy creamy scrambled egg appears and topped of the brioche pain perdu with the stained glass slice of bacon.
Right at the beginning of the meal, which I was beginning to suspect may have been on another day, we were asked of any dislikes or allergies. I mentioned my studied avoidance of all things “tomato” even though I couldn’t see any evidence of the dreaded red thing on the menu this was duly noticed.
As our individual eggy ice cream balls were produced we were handed one at a time and immediately started eating. D and MC exchange a look and wonder if I’d spotted the rather obvious tomato compote topping the brioche (I mean please, tomato in a dessert – is there no sanctity in this world?) and after a few mouthfuls ask how I’m coping with tomato avoidance. But mine is as it should be, entirely tomato-free, and is extremely tasty. Of course they have remembered my anti-tomato stance but didn’t even mention it when serving and I was really impressed by that. I get my desires met but don’t have what some would believe to be “weirdness” highlighted. Thank you Fat Duck!
After our scrambled egg it’s the tea, well actually a delicate, delicious Earl Grey jelly served in a stunning little porcelain cup like a giant egg shell. Mmmm, I feel further crockery envy coming on again. After the tea it’s the tea. We have menu of teas to choose from all from Jing.com, and even though I normally would plump for Earl Grey I wanted to explore some of the other flavours. And I am afraid much like attempting to pick a Grand National winner, I’m going for the name I like best and that is Jing Monkey Picked Tieguanyin. According to Jing’s website, “dedicated tea aficionados are said to have trained monkeys to pick an otherwise unobtainable tea from wild bushes overhanging
As the curtain is drawn over the stage and we have to consider the long drive back home, we ponder perhaps our most memorable, jaw-dropping meal ever, one that as MC says “we’ll remember for the rest of our lives”. It was truly a meal like no other, do believe the hype! The Fat Duck is truly deserving of three digger, digger, digger, ding, ding, ding forks and of course the most covetable top fork slot – the diamond fork! Oh my, what are we going to eat for the rest of our lives?