Wow. We’ve just got back from Sunday lunch at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, Berkshire and that’s all I can think at the moment… wow.
If you don’t want to know specifics or are planning on going to TFD and don’t want the surprises to be ruined please don’t read on, I’m going to be quite descriptive.
It started just over two months ago; we were at my brother’s wedding and my sister and her boyfriend mentioned The Fat Duck and we all agreed we should go. Why not? So, I looked it up online and the only way to get a reservation is to call the reservation line exactly two months before you want to go, to the day, at 10:00 and wait until you get through. We wanted to go on a Sunday, for lunch, so I called on a random day to seek advice and they said that I had to call on a Tuesday for a reservation on a Sunday.
This can be a bit tricky if you are working, but I had to excuse myself from the office on the following Tuesday with promises of making the time up another day. Off I went and called the reservation line… engaged. I called again… engaged. I called at least 100 times and didn’t get through. So I did the same the following Tuesday and the Tuesday after that… third time lucky. I estimated that I called 300 times (approx) that Tuesday and finally got through to someone who took my booking for the last table for four (before you actually speak to someone, they put you on hold and someone reads Alice in Wonderland to you, which is a nice touch).
They asked for any allergies/dislikes and made a careful note of all our preferences. I felt a bit embarrassed listing our various needs/wants but the lady on the phone insisted that she had heard a lot worse. In the end we had a pescetarian (me), a nut allergy, an egg allergy and a severe dislike of cheese and mushrooms! They then sent me a confirmation e-mail, to which I replied mentioning the allergies, etc as they had asked me to do so.
…skip forward two months…
So here we are, today, on the 15th of May, 2011. Our reservation is for 12:00 (they are closed for dinner on Sunday and all day Monday) and we live an hour and twenty minutes away. We programme the sat-nav and off we go in our finest gear (there is no dress code but I thought it would be nice to take the Lulu Guinness clutch out for a day trip).
We arrive 30 minutes early and have a drink in a pub opposite. They are also very popular and recommend wines based on ones picked by Heston himself. The menu didn’t look half bad and might be worth a go in the future.
The outside is very understated and, as I’ve previously read on other reviews, easily missed. The little village of Bray is very picturesque indeed.
We were the second table to arrive so we did get to see another table getting served before us. It’s best to try not to watch what is going on and try and save it for when they come around to you.
There are so many servers and waiters floating around. There’s someone to serve you bread (which I won’t mention again but is absolutely delicious and comes in brown or white and served with salted, unpasteurized Welsh butter throughout the whole meal), someone to serve drinks, someone to fold your napkin when you visit the restroom, someone to actually serve you, someone to cook things in liquid nitrogen for you… I thought people exaggerated when they said there was the equivalent of one member of staff per customer but it looks to be about accurate.
We were seated (very comfy seating, which is great as you’re going to be seated for 5 hours) and then offered water and then champagne. We weren’t drinking out of respect for the designated driver so we passed up on this and opted for fruit juices, which again were just lovely. We were then offered the wine list which is huge, again we declined and waited for our first course.
Sadly I don’t have a picture of the first course because they tell you to put it straight in your mouth with no delay (I really did try to get a picture). This was the Nitro poached aperitifs. You could choose from Vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or Campari soda. Three of us had the vodka and my sister had the G&T. There were “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” coming from everyone when they came to the table with a smoking vat of liquid nitrogen and we watched in awe as the server put some egg white on a spoon and put it into the nitrogen, swishing it about a bit to “cook” it. He then sprinkled the top with green tea powder and spritzed the air with lime juice.
It was described as “crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside” and they were not wrong. You aren’t allowed to bite it in half, it has to go in whole and nitrogen smoke comes out of your nose as you crunch through the crispy shell. My stomach did a flip and my mouth just flooded with saliva as the lime hit it. It was nothing short of amazing.
At this point we were given a copy of the menu to take away in a wax sealed envelope, I was told that mine was being typed and I would get it later as my menu had been tailored to my liking.
Next we had the Red cabbage gazpacho with Pommery grain mustard ice cream.
This was the course I was looking forward to the most and it did not disappoint. I don’t know what I can say about it really, the title gives it away entirely. You get served the ice cream in the bowl with little cubes of something (like cucumber) and they pour over the gazpacho at the table. Why have I not thought of mustard ice cream before?
Then there was a variation in the menu. I had Jelly of smoked mushroom, truffle cream and pea with oak moss and truffle toast. This exceeded my expectations, it was utterly divine. The jelly of smoked mushroom was a taste explosion and had frozen pea puree on the top, which was also delicious. The truffle toast was a little strong and not quite to my liking but that’s down to whether or not you like truffle, and I’m not too keen as it is such a strong, earthy flavour.
There is a little theatre here as the server tells you to take a little strip out of a plastic packet and put it on your tongue and let it dissolve on the roof of your mouth. This somehow tastes smokey and mossy and earthy and isn’t bad at all. The server then pours a teapot of nitrogen over a wooden block covered in moss and the smoke creeps over the table like an eery swamp, cue the “ooooo’s”.
The meat version was Jelly of quail, crayfish cream with chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast. I’m told that this course was “good” by the boyfriend. I have a feeling my mushroom jelly was tastier though… just a feeling (it was divine!).
We then moved on to the course that my boyfriend was dreading the most… Snail porridge with Iberico Bellota Ham and shaved fennel or Parsley porridge with shaved fennel for me.
L was really dreading the snails, but he did actually try a piece of one and he’s still alive, so that’s a bonus. We all liked the parsley porridge; it was completely inoffensive and really quite tasty. I really don’t know why we don’t eat savoury porridge in this way. The fennel was fresh and crunchy and instead of ham and snails, mine had tiny strands of what tasted like a really intensely flavoured sun dried tomato. Stunning is one word to accurately describe this dish.
Up next is the Roasted langoustine with rhubarb, braised konbu and crab biscuit (for me, picture one) and Roasted foie gras with the other bits for the meat eaters (picture two).
This was lovely (I’m going to run out of positive, descriptive words here because I’m not very wordy). I’ve always wanted to try langoustine and today I did. The highlight for me though was the crab biscuit. It was just mouth watering and delicious. It reminded me of a Japanese rich cracker, slightly sweet and fishy. I’m assured that the foie gras was also delicious and I believe was a favourite of one of our diners. The rhubarb sauce was thick and sweet and quite yummy.
After that we had the famous Mock turtle soup from the “Mad Hatter Tea”.
Before the bowls were brought to the table we were given a bookmark-type piece of card explaining the idea of the Alice in Wonderland Mock turtle soup (everything at TFD is printed on the best quality, thick, cream card) and we were given time to read through it and digest the information. Then the bowls came, looking absolutely stunning, followed by the servers with a wooden box…
The box contained gold watches (mine was already in a teacup as the gold watches contain gelatine) and each guest was given one to put in their tea cup of hot water. The watch then dissolved leaving behind a rich beef broth which could be poured over the contents of the bowl. This was exciting for a couple of reasons… we were eating real gold, the egg looking thing (turnip jelly) looked like a jiggly egg with mushrooms growing out of it and it was Alice in Wonderland themed! My broth was mushroom flavoured instead of beef and it was absolutely stunning in every way. As you can see from the photo, I had cubes of beetroot in my bowl, the meat eaters had a chunk of beef wrapped in a little parcel and I’m told by L that the beef was “good” (this was a very positive good).
We then moved on to Sound of the sea. L was the only one that enjoyed this course out of the four of us. We were given a seashell with earbuds in it so that we could listen to the sound of the sea whilst eating our meal. I liked this part of it, it was quite fun and we all looked ridiculous. Then came the food… a fish broth sea foam and three pieces of cured fish. I can’t remember what they were but I did try them all and without sounding too silly… they were very fishy and I am not a fan of fishy fish. The sand was okay, it sort of dissolves in the mouth and leaves crunchy bits to have a chew on and there was lots of different types of seaweed, some of which were okay.
After that came the Salmon poached in a liquorice gel with asparagus, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe.
This dish was amazing. It was tasty, it was beautiful, it was fresh, it was… just amazing. Roe is something I said I would never try but, for Heston, I did. I didn’t like it. But once I had put it all to one side I cracked open the liquorice gel to find the most amazing salmon I have ever had in my life (unsurprisingly as this is The Fat Duck). I don’t know where to start, there’s the liquorice gel which is tasty and was more of a texture for me than a flavour, the salmon which was translucent and amazing, the asparagus which was fresh and crunchy, the grapefruit bits which were zingy and amazing and then… the vanilla mayonnaise. This is one of the reasons I know that Heston is an actual genius. Vanilla. Mayonnaise. Some of you will no doubt be squirming at the thought of this but it was so tasty. Like a tangy, firm, vanilla custard if I was to simplify it. It’s something that has to be experienced (and can be bought from Waitrose).
I could have eaten this course again straight after, it was that delicious.
Roast turbot with mushroom carpaccio, morel and artichoke and jelly of verjus was next (for me) and lamb with cucumber (c.1805) for the meat eaters. That’s a very simple name for what was a very complex dish and hopefully the pictures will help with this.
My turbot was roasted to perfection and the morels were very tasty indeed. The other guys enjoyed their lamb and plates were emptied. No one was keen on the cream that you can see just above the lamb and no one finished that. They also had a side dish of lamb bits (neck, sweetbreads, etc) and a mint tea/jelly that was supposed to cut through the richness of the lamb.
Up next is the highlight (well, for me anyway) and my favourite dish by far. If I had to save one dish to continue on this menu for ever and ever it would be this… Hot & iced tea.
Witchcraft is the one word I would use when describing this little cup of liquid joy. It had me grinning from ear to ear. It is placed down in front of you in a particular way and you are told to not hesitate in drinking it, which we didn’t (after the photo shoot, obviously). Then down it goes, in sips of course, we’re not animals. The grin then spreads across your face as you experience something utterly genius… one side of your mouth is hot and the other is cold… I’m grinning now, just writing about it. It tasted really good too, but I don’t think that’s the focus on this course!
Then on to the desserts. Macerated strawberries with an olive oil biscuit, chamomile and coriander and and ice cream cornet.
The description of this does not do it justice. There is a white chocolate picnic blanket covering a white chocolate topped biscuit crumb base (like a thin cheesecake) with strawberries, mini strawberries, crushed pistachio nuts, freeze dried raspberries, strawberry sauce, coriander seeds, edible flowers and an ice cream cone with salt and pepper ice cream in it… I felt like clapping at this point, it was so good.
Then more theatre! This got the attention of everyone else in the restaurant because everyone else was being served The “BFG” (black forrest gateau) with Kirsch ice cream and the smell of the black forest, but because it contained gelatine they wheeled over a big pot of liquid nitrogen and cooked me my very own “The not-so-full English breakfast” with nitro scrambled egg and saffron ice cream on top of French toast with tomato jam.
I’m told that the BFG was not what was expected (I think more chocolate was expected and it was white and spongy inside) but still very tasty and the Kirsch ice cream was very alcoholic. My ice cream was nice, the making of it was more exciting than the eating, purely because saffron is a very strong flavour to put into an ice cream. The French toast was very good though, it was completely covered in a crisp layer of sugar and was quite creme brulee-like in flavour (the burnt sugar flavour).
This was the only course that they didn’t have an alternative for, so I had to watch. They’re not on the official menu so it doesn’t have a name but they are like cola bottles but instead of being cola flavoured they are flavoured with five different whiskeys from around the world, numbered and increasing in strength as you go through them. I’m told they were very good!
Like a kid in a sweet shop is the final course. You’re given a card that is scented like a sweet shop and it’s very clever. Inside the bag there is a toffee apple flavoured toffee in an edible (gelatine) wrapper that I was told I could take out of the wrapper or trade with someone else as they are desirable (like being in a playground!), an aerated orange jelly chocolate, a white chocolate playing card and some edible coconut tobacco.
Other bits and bobs: The staff are amazingly attentive without at all being intrusive, they are funny and reassuring (they can see when you’re a bit nervous about something and are happy to explain what something is) and generally the nicest servers and waiters/waitresses I’ve ever had. The loos are very nice (some people care about stuff like that)!. There is an additional cheese course that you can add at the end for £15, at the start we were tempted but by the end we were far too full. It’s very relaxed once you get over the initial nerves and I would definitely go back again some time.
So there we go, The Fat Duck, Bray. Go, it’s worth it.
Note: This post is in no way paid for or sponsored by The Fat Duck.