review: m to the g…
“My former cell mate had no teeth!”
The cry went up from the deuce in the corner, followed by a giggle.
The soundtrack at all 15 tables stopped.
The decibel count and nasal frequency was unmistakable. She (yes, she) was clearly from my neck of the woods.
The four of us Yankees hunkered down lower in our chairs.
Must my people be the ever-apologetic and perennially-reviled nationals? Who let those two beyond our borders?
A sense of urgency overcame me. How do we make the others understand: we are not like them?
So, maybe the color of our passports explained the frosty reception and sterile service we received at The Fat Duck. Or maybe it was the fact that none of us actually looked like we could possibly be over the age of twenty-five. What – was The Fashion Nugget’s Helmut Lang top to Louboutin toe not good enough?
At the very least, surely my table mate was entitled to a napkin, which disappeared from his seat during a restroom intermission, never to be returned no matter how many times it was asked for or promised.
Yes we can?
After it became apparent that we would never gain any real footing with the staff, we largely ignored them. And they ignored us. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
But we, of course, maintained our civility. We kept our arms and legs inside the ride at all times. Obeyed all traffic signs – especially the ones that stipulated “No Flash Photography” and “Keep Your Lens Trained On The Table.”
The important thing is that no one got hurt.
* * *
Other than Gordon Ramsay and the f-bomb, Heston Blumenthal and his restaurant, The Fat Duck, must be the most famous culinary couple that side of the Puddle and this side of the Channel. So, there’s nothing that I can regurgitate to you that Google can’t tell you directly about the two. Knowing the type of reader you’re likely to be, you probably know all about The Fat Duck anyway. You might even have Blumenthal’s weighty anthology. Heck, you might have even already eaten at restaurant.
As you probably know, our reservation was not easily come by. Thankfully, I had my Fashion Nugget helping me. Between the two of us – me in my pajamas at 4 a.m. and she, in sartorial splendor, in London at 10 a.m. – we managed to orchestrate a table for four on our desired date. I offered the additional seats to Aaron of A Life Worth Eating, who, as I suspected, happily flew over, with his brother in tow, to join us.
In the interest of time, I’ll sacrifice what little style I might have provided in this review and proceed in a fairly cut-and-dry method. Given that this song and dance hasn’t really changed in years (our menu was nearly identical to ones I’ve read from years past), it shouldn’t be that hard to learn. I’ll give you the course, the description, and the upshot, and then you can repeat after me. Follow along, it goes something like this:
Orange and Beetroot Jelly
Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavender
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
Roast Foie Gras “Benzaldehyde”
‘Sound of the Sea’
Salmon Poached in Licorice Gel
Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon
Hot and Iced Tea
“Mrs. Marshall’s Maragaret Cornets“
Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream
(CLICK HERE to see the entire photo set from this meal. Or, click on each hyperlinked course for the individual course photo.)
Before we ordered, a dish of olives was dropped off at the table.
Were they just olives? Or was there some gastronomic trickery involved?
No one had cared to explain, least of whom was our server, who scurried off to deliver more olives. So, we just kind of stared at them.
I admit that I approached The Fat Duck as a skeptic. None of my encounters with molecular gastronomy (“m.g.”) in the U.S. had impressed me: alinea, moto, wd~50… The Fat Duck was not only my first full-frontal m.g. experience outside the U.S., but it would be the first m.g. restaurant I visited that bothered to use the Shift key.
I had low expectations but high hopes. If nothing else, I planned to walk out with a new perspective on food.
Part of my discomfort with m.g. is the chemical abuse involved. I find it incredibly confounding that many those who worship at the altar of the organic and seasonal – canonizing the likes of Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse - are the same ones who applaud the adulteration of food and deify the gods of m.g.
While I’ll admit that Homaro Cantu (moto) and, for the most part, Grant Achatz (alinea) seamlessly incorporated chemicals into their food, most of what I ate at wd~50 was compromised by interloping additives. Actually, I’m being nice. Most of what I had at wd~50 tasted bad.
Then there’s gimmickry. I hate gimmickry. It makes me feel like I’m at the circus – or worse, in kindergarten.
Why would I want to drink my donut? Why do I need to eat off a wire protruding precariously near my eye when I’m capable of picking things up? Why would I want my foie gras tied in a knot? Why?
So with those two thoughts in mind, I was relieved to discover that the olives served to us were just plain olives. In fact, they were so unadulterated that they still had their pits about them (bad pun, you don’t have to laugh).
I’ll make a second disclosure: I knew little about Bluementhal’s food before going to The Fat Duck. I had purposely sequestered myself from information about his repertoire for years in anticipation of a meal there. I knew about the concepts, of course, and a couple of dishes, like the “Sounds of the Sea,” but little else.
Thus, I admit what reservations I had about Bluementhal’s food were based largely on prejudice.
However, in this case, ignorance worked to my advantage. Nearly everything was a “surprise” to me (in fact, there are a few *spoilers* below, which I’ve clearly marked in case you want to avoid ruining the fun for yourself). Other than mental reservations about the style of cuisine, I came to table with a relatively fresh plate.
As you’ve probably gathered, we all opted for the restaurant’s tasting menu (122£).
Since this review gets long in the tooth rather quickly, I’ve set off each course by their titles, so you can skip ahead to whichever course you desire to read about. Intermission and breaks are encouraged.
Gimmickry seemed to strike right out of the starting gate when a trolley pulled up with a N2O-charged canister and a pot full of liquid nitrogen.
Performance art – I’ve seen this before and I knew what it meant: high on style, low on substance.
I was wrong.
The server poured the liquid nitrogen (dramatically, I might add) into a bucket. From the N2O-charged canister, he dispensed a ball of lime-kissed foam onto a spoon and dropped the rounded fluff into the liquid nitrogen where it bobbed about until it was fished out, drained on a plate and dusted with a puff of green sencha tea powder.
One at a time, the server presented us with “Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse,” our first course.
This crispy ball was like a frozen citrus meringue – somewhat tart and bursting with lime fragrance. I was especially shocked (and pleased) by how much flavor the light dusting of green tea imparted. Together, it was quite an extraordinary combination of flavors, texture, and temperature. It accomplished its purpose wonderfully: a refreshing, light opening to the tasting menu.
Bread and butter arrived. There were two blocks – one salted and the other unsalted.
Though I was quite hungry (my short 3-mile morning run had unexpectedly turned into something more like a 6-mile run after I took a wrong turn and headed off toward Paddington Station instead of Baker Street), I stayed away. Others in my party, however, partook of inhaled the bread and butter, so I can only imagine that it was a good show.
Almost concurrently, our second course, “Orange and Beetroot Jelly,” arrived.
*Spoiler Alert* – if you do not want any surprises spoiled, do NOT read the following description. Proceed, instead, directly to the next course.
This tiny dish held two squares of fruit jellies – softer than pâté de fruit and denser than jam – one red and one orange, arranged Rothko style. We were instructed to eat the “orange” one first.
In a witty and sly move, the orange-coloured one tasted like beets (golden?). The red one tasted like orange (blood?). Cleverly played.
On a practical level, however, this dish was difficult to eat with a spoon. Why would you serve something on flatware with a round utensil? *u.e. Pet Peeve* Maybe I’m clumsy that way, but I ended up chasing (and severely maiming) the squares around my plate.
Sometimes it is simply easier and more civil to use one’s digits.
The third course, entitled “Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavender,” presented us with an oyster on a half shell coated in a smooth and shiny orange gel that was topped with two sugar glass chips and two tiny dark-purple lavender bud antennae. It looked positively other-worldly, in a creature-like way.
What the description doesn’t disclose is that the oyster, which is sectioned underneath the passion fruit jelly into three bites (my section cuts were not entirely cut all the way through, which made for a very messy proposition – cutting inside a oyster shell set on a (strange) foam base is not easy), hides a layer of creamy horseradish beneath it.
I’m not sure I loved this dish. But, I was quite surprised how well the passion fruit went with the oyster, or, rather, that the passion fruit did not clash. Call me a stubborn traditionalist, but I found the horseradish to have a better affinity with the oyster.
The lavender was faintly discernable, but I’m not really sure why it was there. I suppose its fragrance could have chased away any lingering brininess that might have been present.
If there’s a logical or chemical explanation for this seemingly odd combination of ingredients, it was lost on me. And that’s another problem I have with m.g. – there are often purposes and methods to the madness – brilliant ones, sometimes – which the diner couldn’t possibly know about or understand without prior research or thorough explanation. (See 7th Course: Roast Foie Gras “Benzaldehyde” for a continuation on this point.)
I love mustard – especially grainy mustard. And I love crucifers. So, I suppose I was predisposed to love our fourth course, which included both. It featured a single quenelle of “Pommery Mustard Grain Ice Cream” garnished with tiny dices of cucumber. Around this was poured a brilliant, Tyrian-purple “red cabbage gazpacho,” which was sweet and made good use of acid. I’m not sure what kind of vinegar was used – red wine or sherry – but it was well-positioned here.
Just when the flavor gets a bit much, a burst of grassy cucumber – in the form of tiny dices at the bottom of the dish – comes to the rescue with a refreshing crunch.
Our fifth course was a progression of parts moving along a sylvan theme. It was the first of the few (what I call) multisensory courses – those that engage more than just sight and taste.
First: a bed of oak moss bearing small breath-freshening strip dispensers (which, like everything else in the restaurant, sported the restaurant’s logo). The strips – gelatin sheets that melted away in the mouth – were flavored with oak moss and pine. Indeed, they were. We were told that this was to refresh and prepare our palates for the forthcoming dishes.
Second: a clear liquid was poured over the bed of oak moss, releasing a veil of creeping mist and a verdant, moss scent. (I’m pretty certain that the liquid was not liquid nitrogen as it didn’t immediately phosphoresce. It could have been water.) It simulated a forest experience well.
Lastly, the edible portion: it came in two parts served at once. To the left, there was a wooden platform holding a narrow slice of “Truffled Toast” studded with bits of black truffle and topped with three microscopic slivers of radish. Crispy and very flaky, the texture was similar to that of fried flatbread. The truffle flavor was apparent, though not as explosive as the appearance might have suggested or as I had hoped.
I wish had been a few more toasts; I would have liked to have spread some of the accompanying parfait on it (see below).
To the right was a beautiful footless bowl balanced on a pedestal (by J.L. Coquet). It contained a multi-layered parfait crowned with a quenelle of foie gras. Drilling down through the layers with my teaspoon revealed (from top to bottom) cream of langoustine, quail jelly, and a dark green pea puree.
The quail jelly was, by far, the predominant flavor for me, and perhaps a bit overbearing. I barely tasted pea puree and got no flavor from cream of langoustine.
For me, the sum of this course was greater than its parts, which, even now, I’m not sure are meant to be evaluated individually.
My experience and reaction to this course seems closely linked to the reason why this course is parenthetically named “Homage to Alain Chapel.” Alain Ducasse’s observation in the following exchange between Ducasse and Heston Blumenthal, published in the November 11, 2007 issue of The Independent (“Saucepan at dawn: Alain Ducasse meets Heston Blumenthal,” story by Joe Warwick), summarizes it quite well:
“HB: One of my favourite dishes on The Fat Duck’s menu is called ‘Homage to Alain Chapel’.
AD: What is it?
HB: A quail jelly, cream of langoustine, parfait of foie gras with an oak moss and truffle toast.
AD: Very delicate. In cooking, there are things that are clear and things that are intangible, things that you can’t quite put your finger on and the harmony that you got from Chapel is the latter. We take lots of ingredients, give them a shake and see what happens, not only with cooking but with staff, design and tablewear, to see how it all fits together.”
There was something intangibly cohesive about the different parts of the “Oak Moss” course. At the very core was a shared earthiness.
Surely, my perception was influenced by the multisensory factors at work.
Was I primed by the title of the course? How much did that oak moss and pine film affect my palate? Maybe it was the moist moss phosphorescing onto our table, giving off a damp, woodsy scent. Or, maybe it was the whole – sight, smell, and taste in concert. I suppose, in the end, it doesn’t matter since the course successfully elicited a specific and intended experience for me.
“Snail Porridge,” our sixth course, was the first of a series of warm, and more substantial, courses. It seemed to be a crowd favorite. Other than finding it terribly over-salted, I liked it too.
The snails were extraordinarily soft and tender. The “porridge,” intensely green with parsley puree (a play on the traditional escargot au persil), tasted just like sour cream and onion dip – like “veggie dip” – especially in concert with the tuft of shaved fennel atop the snails, which mimicked raw celery. The porridge was flecked throughout with bits of Jabugo ham and had the consistency and viscosity of loose oatmeal (not surprising in retrospect given that the recipe calls for “porridge oats”).
Comforting and good, I wish I could have liked it more.
I have always thought almonds, especially almond extract, tasted like apples and cherries. Thanks to Heston Blumenthal, I now know why. Our seventh course, “Roast Foie Gras “Benzaldehyde”” taught me that C6H5CHO is a chemical compound common to almonds, cherry pits, apricots, and apples.
Actually, the food didn’t teach me anything; almonds and cherries had failed to do so for nearly thirty years. But the name of the course did prompt me to ask our server, who explained the association.
The square of roasted foie gras (like the oyster, it had been pre-cut into three sections) was dusted in chamomile and topped with a snowy tuft of shaved almonds. It was accompanied by a swatch of each almond “fluid gel” and dark cherry puree, a macerated whole dark cherry, and three tiny cubes of ameretti gel.
Of all the m.g. dishes I’ve encountered, this one has come the closest to achieving what I think should be the ideal m.g. experience. Taking one known quantity (foie gras + sweet = good), Blumenthal added to it another (a shared chemical compound among various ingredients) to make something that was both delicious and intellectually gratifying.
In this course, the foie gras was uniformly cooked, exhibiting the same supple consistency inside out. There were no pockets of grease or shades of looseness and firmness. The most analogous substance would be soft (not quite silken) tofu. For me, it was the most perfect version of cooked foie gras I’ve ever had (a very close second would be the “steamed foie gras lardons” in the “Velouté de Cèpe“ at l’Ambassade de l’Ile). As discussed and ordained by Mother Nature, all of the accompanying elements worked in harmony. My only disappointment with this dish is that I thought there could have been more ameretti – the three tiny cubes barely offered enough for one to get a proper sense of its contribution to the whole.
Conch shells sprouting earbuds announced the advent of one of Blumenthal’s most celebrated courses, “Sounds of the Sea” and the second extrasensory course. The (looped) sound of crying seagulls and crashing waves playing on the iPod shuffle hidden inside the shell is supposed to transport you to the beach and help you believe you’re eating it too.
To the unfamiliar, it all sounds very abstract, I know. That’s what the pictures are for.
What appears before the diner, on a sheet of glass hovering above a sandbox, looks like the beach – a sandy bank hugged by frothy surf. Cockles, an oyster, and razor clams have washed ashore, as if by chance, woven together with colorful tendrils of seaweed. It’s all very organic and natural. It smells and tastes that way too.
The “sand,” had the semblance of wet sand. In actuality, it was quite soft and powdery – in the mouth, it felt like soft chenille and dissolved quickly (it is made from tapioca powder). To mimic the gritty texture of sand, flecked throughout this tapioca powder were crunchy bits of dried eel that tasted intensely of dried fish (actually, it tasted like Chinese fried baby eel candy).
Anyone who is shy of the sea might not enjoy this course. It’s not fishy tasting in a foul way, but it does have a hearty sea breeze blowing through it. The oyster foam and seaweed were especially sea-briny.
Gimmicky? Sure, I suppose. I had all but dismissed this course before I actually experienced it.
But, in this case, I’ll run to Blumenthal’s defense: the gimmick was testing a theory in a rather convincing way. Studies have shown that sight and sound affect taste. Did the seaside soundtrack, sight of the conch shell, or the beach-like food affect or enhance my experience? Perhaps. I have no point of comparison. But I do think the fact that Blumenthal named this course “Sounds of the Sea” instead of “Flavors of the Sea” is significant.
I had tried to mentally separate the sound from the taste while I was eating this course. I’m not sure I succeeded. And since, I have revisited this course in my mind, trying to second guess my senses in an attempt to rationalize and segregate the experience into different compartments. Again, I’m not sure I have succeeded. Was Blumenthal so successful in recreating the taste of the ocean that neither the accompanying visual nor audial component mattered?
“Sounds of the Sea” is a course I appreciated much more for its intellectual and psychological challenge than for the actual taste and flavor.
In the case of the “Roasted Foie Gras Benzaldehyde,” a scientific theory translated successfully onto the plate. Our next course, “Salmon Poached in Licorice Gel,” didn’t make that leap as successfully.
This curious collection of colors and flavors featured a cube of salmon coated in a thin, pliable layer of black licorice gel and dusted with cracked black pepper and coriander seeds. The entire plate had been showered with grapefruit buds and dotted with balsamic reduction. Vanilla mayonnaise streaked by two halves of an artichoke bearing coriander seeds. Together, it looked like an action painting.
At the table, the server sprinkled “Manni” olive oil about our plates. (One in my party inquired as to which of the two Manni labels it was, “Per Mio Figlio” or “Per Me.” I don’t believe our server was able to answer that question). As a final touch, licorice was grated over the dark cube of fish. This picture gives you a good view of the table-side action.
What was going on here? We put on our collective thinking cap and surmised that this dish was a musing on the sense of sweetness.
What on this plate was sweet?
Well, there’s licorice – its Greek name, glycyrrhizin, means “sweet root.” Glycyrrhizin, not surprisingly, is a chemical found in licorice. It’s reputedly fifty times sweeter than sucrose.
There’s also grapefruit. As you know, it contains fructose.
Like licorice, artichokes also derive their nomenclature from a key chemical component. Cynarin interacts with saliva such that things taste sweeter (the Italians, not surprisingly, have capitalized on this to make a liqueur called Cynar).
And the vanilla in the mayonnaise – it contains the chemical piperonal, which, makes you expect, and, indeed, mentally create the taste of sweetness, even if it’s not present.
So, was this like licking one big salmon and grapefruit lolly?
In fact, I’m not sure the ingredients, together, achieved their purpose. I don’t recall getting a noticeable sense of sweetness while eating this dish. In fact, I don’t recall much about this dish other than the salmon, which was extremely soft and moist – as if it had been cooked sous vide (or poached, as the name says) at a very low temperature – and the coriander seeds. The coriander seeds created a nice spark of magic every time I hit one.
I will note that the grapefruit wasn’t bitter. But it wasn’t particularly sweet either; it was the first thing on the plate I tasted. And nothing seemed to change after I started eating the other sense-altering foods. I have had sweeter grapefruit without any enhancers.
This course had gotten lost in translation.
Our last savory course, “Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon,” moved me into more familiar waters.
Truth be told, I don’t recall anything stuffed into the deboned rounds of pigeon breast meat or the lollied leg so, I’m not sure what made this a ballotine. The meat was a deep shade of red, incredibly tender, and gently sauced with “spiced sauce,” a rich reduction of the roasting juices.
The bird was accompanied by a swatch of “black pudding ‘made to order,’” which had the consistency of oil paint – it was very smooth and luscious. Maroon in color, the pudding was very clean-tasting (I believe they use pig’s blood) and complemented the ferric-natured fowl well.
I love pickling flavors and I do like acid, so the foamy “pickling brine” was a welcomed addition. I thought it helped balance the dish out nicely.
There were also halved baby onion bulbs (or giant scallion roots?) and halved baby turnips, all of which were caramelized. Leaning up against the whole composition was a slender “pigeon chip,” which looked like a Chinese prawn cracker and, indeed, had the same tongue-gripping effect. Our server confirmed that it was made with tapioca powder, as are Chinese prawn crackers.
Overall, this dish was satisfying. Everything was executed perfectly – especially the cooking of the meat, which was perhaps the best thing about this dish for me; pigeon is rarely so moist and tender. The flavors were lovely, in a savory way – especially the contrast between the pickling brine and the richer elements. And the pigeon cracker added a needed textural component. I was impressed how well the cracker withstood the moisture on the plate; it maintained its crispiness surprisingly well.
Like the Snail Porridge course, this one didn’t seem to hang itself on any magic tricks or test any scientific boundaries (well, maybe the black pudding required some kind of finagling). Instead, it presented an old classic in a slightly different, but approachable way.
This was a solid dish.
Our eleventh course, “Hot and Iced Tea” was probably the biggest surprise of the meal.
*Spoiler Alert* – if you do not want any surprises spoiled, do NOT read the following description. Proceed, instead, directly to the next course.
I didn’t think too much about the title of this course before taking a sip. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have been as surprised to find that the tea in this double-layered glass cup was cold on the left and hot on the right. There was a distinct (and invisible) temperature boundary running between the two down the middle. It was a surreal and irrational experience.
Of course, there’s a perfectly rational and scientific explanation for this phenomenon – perhaps a chemical reaction taking place where the cold and hot sides of the “fluid gel” met. The tea was slightly sweet and floral-tasting, and, as the term used to describe the liquid suggests, it had a gel-like viscosity.
Like the “Sounds of the Sea,” this course was much more about the experience than the food itself.
Our server dropped off printed pamphlets for each of us without instructions or comment.
The pamphlet included a short biography of a long-lost soul mate of mine, Mrs. Agnes B. Marshall, the British Queen of Ice Cream. It tells of her undying love for the frozen treat and noted that she, back in the late 1800’s, had made the first edible ice cream “cornet” and entertained the idea of making ice cream with “liquid gas” (i.e. liquid nitrogen).
Having read the four-page treatise thrice – and thus revisiting Ms. Marshall horrible demise needlessly – I began to wonder if I was supposed to eat the pamphlet.
Our server eventually returned with a tray of mini ice cream cones - “Mrs. Marshall’s Maragaret Cornets” - nestled in a pool of silver beads. They were adorable. He told us that Heston Blumenthal is wild about ice cream and paid tribute to Mrs. Marshall by presenting us her original recipe for apple ice cream in an almond “cornet.” Apparently, Blumenthal is another long-lost soul mate of mine.
The tiny tuile cones wore pink and pearl necklaces and were crowned with a spiral of apple ice cream (only four ingredients: Bramley apple puree, heavy cream, caster sugar, and lemon juice) beneath which hid a layer of orange-ginger granité. This little bite was great: refreshing, tasty, and cute.
I have been told that Blumenthal keeps a database of foods and their chemical compounds. Given his approach to cooking, I find this highly believable. If this is true, I’d love to know if they can identify the offending chemical common to the three foods to which I am allergic.
One of them is mango. And, I must say, I did not regret that allergy at this meal. Instead of getting the tasting menu dessert, “Mango and Douglas Fir Puree,” I was served “Galette of Rhubarb, Neroli-Scented Yoghurt.”
A lacy line of white and crystallized coconut flakes stretched across the plate and was interrupted only be a blushing pink quenelle of rhubarb sorbet sporting a razor-thin strip of candied rhubarb, which was streaked with red and white. Beside it was a glowing pink carré of rhubarb topped by pearls of whipped (or, at least it was fluffy) neroli-scented yogurt and filled with a fluffy rhubarb mousse. This little “galette” was sandwiched between two sugar crisps.
Dainty and pretty, it looked like a lady’s dressing room on a plate. It actually tasted like one too – the fragrance of neroli perfumed the dish. I loved this floral element.
Though the yogurt and rhubarb were tangy and tart, the overall tenor of this dessert was sweet, owing primarily to the coconut and a rhubarb mousse at the core of the carré.
The “Mango and Douglas Fir Puree” was another two-part experience.
The first part involved a “Pine Sherbet Fountain.” This was a tiny cylinder (again, branded with the restaurant logo) with a (dehydrated vanilla pod) straw sticking out the top. It looked like a little firecracker with a stubby, black fuse.
There is some confusion as to how this dessert “pre-hit” is supposed to be experienced.
Some have maintained that the proper way to take this “fountain” is to suck on the vanilla pod straw, thereby extracting the pine-sherbet-flavored powder within. Others, like my dining companions, have opened up the cylinder and used it as a lick-stick á la Dip Stick candies (i.e. “Fun Dip™”), by wetting the stiffened vanilla pod and picking up the powder within. Given the perfectly round and hollowed vanilla pod as well as the name “fountain,” I think the former method is correct.
Our server was, apparently, schooled in the Dip Stick method. [Edited to add: The "sherbet fountain" is a traditional British candy. It is a powder candy which is licked from a licorice stick.]
Or, were we just a bunch of fools?
After priming the palate with the Pine Sherbet, the “Mango and Douglas Fir Puree” arrived. This featured a block of lychee bavarois paved with a smooth mango gelatin. This was topped with cubes of black currant-green peppercorn jelly, pine nuts, and tufts of what appeared to be lime zest (perhaps, this was Douglas Fir zest?). This was accompanied by a black currant-green peppercorn sorbet.
I defer judgment on this course to Aaron at a life worth eating.
Breakfast for dinner is one of my favorite things. Blumenthal does it well and ends the tasting meal on this fun and upbeat note with two morning menu items.
The Fat Duck is “branded” top to bottom. Tabletop accessories, including the napkins, have the restaurant’s logo (a curious collection of silverware made of duck parts) etched, engraved, printed, or embroidered on it, including their mini, single-serving “Parsnip Cereal” boxes. This powder-green box contained a plastic bag of parsnip flakes that looked just like frosted corn flakes. A pitcher of sweet parsnip milk was provided for our table to share.
I have always loved parsnips – especially for their sweetness. So, the experience of eating parsnip cereal did not seem strange to me.
Of all the nostalgic strings The Fat Duck played, this one tugged the hardest. The parsnip milk was just sticky enough to make my inner child squeal. Together, it was crisp and familiar, with a nutty, earthy appeal. I loved it.
The nitro trolley came around the bend, heralding our last course, “Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream.”
This science experiment on wheels was outfitted with a faux mini stove and a deep copper pot. Now, one would not normally scramble eggs in a deep copper pot. But, in this case, the depth of the pot was necessary to keep the diner from gaining highly sensitive and confidential trade secrets.
We were shown an egg. Index on top, thumb on bottom, our server’s arm swung to and fro quickly.
The egg went into the (deep) pot where it was cracked.
“Tut, tut,” the server waved off my friends invading lens.
The eggs were portioned out onto plates hovering in servers’ arms nearby.
The cold “scrambled eggs” were, in actuality, more like a sweet custard flavored with bacon. They were soft, having the consistency of melting ice cream. The eggs sat on a square of pain perdu, covering a dollop of tomato jam and sided by a thin strip of candied bacon.
The pain perdu was awesome. This glazed piece of brioche had been so inundated with butter and syrup that the interior had taken on the simulacrum of fine bread pudding and outside had morphed into a sticky, lacquered crust.
Ketchup is a condiment I never make use of in the mornings. And I found its addition here harmless, though I suspect the touch of savory acid it added did help temper what would otherwise be a head-first tumble down a wanton path of indulgence and shamelessly comfort. This course went straight for the jugular and I was its happy victim.
It was so good, in fact, I completely forgot about the “Tea Jelly” served in a little ceramic egg shell cup. I thought this was a rather useless and silly addition as it looked and tasted just like a more gelatinized version of our “Hot and Cold Tea” course.
Other than the “Mandarin Aerated Chocolates,” none of petits fours offered anything particularly novel. These chocolate bon bons contained a layer of mandarin orange pâté de fruit but was otherwise run through with pockets of air bubbles.
“Carrot and Orange Lollies,” arranged in a windmill-like fashion, came in a spherical bowl. They were good, in a carrot juice kind of way.
Then there were “Apple Pie Caramels” in edible wrappers, which, if you’ve been to Asia (or eaten a lot of Asian candies – especially sesame brittle) is nothing novel. But I have to say that I like all things apple, and more so, apple pie. These caramels were also good.
The “Violet Tartlets,” which looked like dark-purple daisies, were, perhaps, a bit strange. Cute though they were – especially the witty double entendre – the tartlet shells were too delicate for the filling, which was a mastic mess of teeth-staining and teeth-rotting goo. I liked the deep violet fragrance, but not the blue teeth it left me with.
* * * *
Of all of the m.g. restaurants I’ve visited, The Fat Duck has been the most successful at hitting the sweet spot where the brain is connected to the stomach. Through subtle clues and queues, it did a better job of eliciting a dialogue between the food and me than its peers. There’s a process of discovery at the table and afterward. One’s curiosity is not beyond scratching.
Given my relatively low expectations, the food at The Fat Duck impressed me. Most of it was interesting and quite tasty. Where gimmickry and theatrics were employed, they had a demonstrable purpose and directly contributed to creating the food. Sure, parts of it did seem like the circus, but in those moments, The Fat Duck made me feel more like a kid wanting to be a kid rather than an adult being humored.
I found the dichotomy in Blumenthal’s tasting menu most compelling. Dishes generally fell along two paradigms. On one side, there were the classics – nostalgic forays into tradition cast in a new light: “Snail Porridge,” “Roast Pigeon of Anjou with Black Pudding,” and “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornets.” For me, these were the more gustatorily gratifying dishes. Was it because these were more familiar? Or, was it because they were just tastier?
On the other side were the experimental dishes that, for me, were driven by multisensory experiences: the “Nitro Green Tea and Lime Mousse,” “Oak Moss,” and “Sounds of the Sea.” For me, these caused more intellectual stimulation than palate pleasure (though this isn’t true for the “Nitr0 Greet Tea and Lime Mousse”). Again – is this because these dishes were less familiar to me? Or, were they just less tasty?
Some, like the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” and “Hot and Iced Tea” straddled the divide, combining tradition with a multisensory experience. When it came to taste alone, I loved the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” but wasn’t particularly wild about the “Hot and Iced Tea.” But, I found the “Hot and Iced Tea” much more fascinating than the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” because I was unfamiliar with the technique. So, too, the discovery of Benzaldehyde in a collection of ingredients was exciting.
I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule here – it’s like the nature versus nurture debate.
Did The Fat Duck convert me to being a proponent of molecular gastronomy? Certainly not. But it did stir my gray matter. And, as stated at the beginning of this novel, the fact that I walked away with a new perspective on food was a reward worth the wait.
The 16th century stone building the restaurant resides in is a forgotten pub. What I assume to be the original wooden beams are exposed on the inside, giving the interior a lovely off-kilter look. The effect reminded me of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles.” Unframed canvas panels vibrantly aglow with yellows and shades of periwinkle lined the space, fitting perfectly into the peculiar shapes framed by the wooden beams.
Though quite lovely, I did not find the restaurant particularly warm or cozy. And this was surprising given its smallness and character.
Perhaps it was the staff?
As stated above, the service dampened the occasion and experience. In fact, at times, it was downright nippy. The reception was frosty, the middle sagged, and we oft felt like the forgotten table. Maybe this is a style the British prefer? After all, they seemed quite well-received by the annual Front of the House Awards.
I noticed that the front of the house was extremely international. When I asked one of our servers, he confirmed this and rattled off no less than ten (European) countries represented, including Germany, Poland, Spain, and France. But I suppose this is the diversity that Michelin 3-star restaurants attract.
Would I go back to The Fat Duck? I suppose. Though the menu seems a bit stale, there are enough a la carte items to warrant a return. But I’m not going to be the one getting up a 4 a.m. to dial for reservations next time.
I’d rather devote my energy to gaining that elusive ticket to the fountainhead, el bulli.
The Fat Duck
+44 (0) 1628 580 333
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.