The Fat Duck got its third Michelin star in record time. When people rank best chefs in the world, Heston Blumenthal is safely in the top echelon, some say second only to Ferran. If for no other reasons, these two facts make the restaurant a mandatory stop for foodies and a long overdue one for yours truly.
Getting to Fat Duck involves travel, even when already in London (depending on whom you talk to between half an hour and two and a half hours). For me, it was a twenty-minute cab in London to the train station, a twenty-one minute train, and then another eight-minute cab ride to the restaurant. Once you step through the front door and round the corner past the blue and clear glass sculpture-as-dividing-screen partition, you enter a room that contains all the appointments you expect of a fine restaurant – white linen, silver, crystal, plenty of staff in dark suits, tasteful and congruous art, and wheeled serving carts. Different, though, is that the room is in a building obviously built at a time when either people were smaller, or saving a couple cubic feet of space to heat was a priority over giving tall people headroom. The ceilings are at a cozy height (I would guess seven feet) creating a feeling as if you either just stepped far back in time, or into a Hobbit hole.
On the table when you are sat sits a plate of simple green olives with toothpicks. What message this conveys I am not sure, but along with them are small cards to read while you nibble. The type on the card explains that nostalgia is the motivation behind Heston’s inspiration, names some nostalgic flavors that invoke his fond memories (foreshadowing some of the things to come), and invites you to scribe some of your reminiscence-inducing flavors on the card and leave them. It also assures you that this man famous for food tech will not be using synthetic flavors, and that in the end the ideal is that a good time be had. With that course laid out, this journey begins:
The Fat Duck
NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE (2001): A reverse meringue of egg whites, vodka, lime and green tea, puffed from a whipped cream canister and submerged in liquid nitrogen to set a shell. The exterior is hard and icy, the interior set to a soft marshmallow consistency. I took the train with five other people including Madman and Encyclopedia, and we consumed a couple of cans of beer on the way. This was a concern of mine being as I wanted to be fit to taste; I assume from the palate cleansing power of this dish Heston has figured this condition into dinner. As the shell quickly melts away and your mouth gets over the shock of the cold, you taste lime, you smell green tea, there is a metallic sensation as if a bit of the spoon used to prepare it flavored it in someway, and behind all this is a clean and ready palate.
OYSTER, PASSION FRUIT JELLY, LAVENDER: In an oyster shell, creamy horseradish with a nice bite sits under an oyster set in a passion fruit jelly, topped with a few lavender leaves and a pepper tuille. The oyster had enough brininess to assert itself in this mix so either they source serious oysters or it was cooked in some way. The horseradish brought noticeable heat, the passion fruit was sweet and tart, the pepper tuille and lavender lent touches of heat and soapy perfume respectively, but in the long run this was an oyster dish.
POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM, RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO: The mustard flavors of the ice cream are like deli mustard, tasting of both horseradish and mustard seed and making it its own contrast of cold and hot – the mustard seeds little piquant bombs interspersed amongst the cold. As the ice cream melts into the cold red cabbage soup, they combine, with a light vegetal crunch provided by diced cucumber in the bowl’s bottom.
JELLY OF QUAIL, LANGOUSTINE CREAM, PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS (Homage to Alain Chapel): Puréed English peas under quail jelly under langoustine cream, with a quenelle of foie gras ice cream floating in it and a quince tuille stuck into the foie gras ice cream. Moving through the layers there are sweet earthy peas combining with a gamey/earthy rich gelatin and the iodine in the cream, with the cold creamy richness touched by sweetness of the foie ice cream harmonizing them all. The coolness of this dish is its coldness: parts that would mush up against each other and get all sloppy were it hot get their own place cold.
MANZANILLA EN RAMA, BARBADILLO (SPAIN): A bone-dry mineraly Port served as an aperitif with those starters.
SNAIL PORRIDGE Joselito ham, shaved fennel: an herbed porridge makes an emerald green lawn for the snails to sit on, while nested shaved fennel provides the shade that would coax them onto this pitch. Small dried bits of Spanish ham are strewn about resembling forest detritus. In the food-as-art world this is a “garden on a Spring morning” still life. In the how-does-it-taste world I am not sure if these are just far better snails then I have been served in the past or they benefited from preparation, but their bite was firm rather than chewy. The porridge managed to suck enough of the flavor from the herbs that in spite of its amazing vibrancy, the flavor was that of a tamed tarragon/chervil pesto. There was also a textural component to the gruel (some of the more roughly ground oats had a papery bite in the middle of its basic thickness) contrasting the crispness of the light licorice of the fennel and chewy saltiness of the ham.
2004 COLLIOURE ROSE, LA GOUDE, DOMAINE DE LA RECTORIE (FRANCE): a light cold rose with notes of watermelon and strawberry to round out the warm garden motif.
ROAST FOIE GRAS Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile: a seared piece of foie gras rests on two lines of cherry puree joined by one preserved sour cherry (not the type of cherry, but the flavor). The almonds play out in four forms – there is a smooth almond purée, blanched almonds with the bite of an al dente bean, cubes of amaretto jelly, and thin shavings of blanched almond resting on top. The blanched and grated almonds seem to be represented more as a textural component, while the marzipan and amaretto flavors of the purée and gel respectively offer sweet elements to compliment the foie’s richness. The two cherry components offer tart contrast while blending in quite well.
2003 VINOPTIMA GEWURZTRAMINER RESERVE, GISBORNE (NEW ZEALAND): less aromatic than European Gewurzt, this wine straddled the acidic fruity line as well as the cherries did.
SARDINE ON TOAST SORBET Ballotine of mackerel “invertebrate,” marinated daikon: simply put, mackerel is an oily fish and sardines are a salty fish; the coldness of the sardine flavor here definitely tames it, while the sweet daikon purée and bitter salmon roe are different flavors as well as textures that serve to highlight the fishes’ saltiness and oiliness. If you enjoy the traditional version of these flavors, I imagine you will love this dish. If don’t, this won’t change your view.
TAISETSU, TAKASAGO, JUNMAI GINJO SAKE (JAPAN): a light aromatic sake best when drank with the lingering aromas of the fishes, it was lost during the course.
SALMON POACHED WITH LIQUORICE Asparagus, pink grapefruit, ‘Manni’ olive oil: a perfectly poached piece of salmon filet was wrapped in a gelled licorice sheet and plated amongst dots of aged balsamic, segments of grapefruit pulp, a vanilla purée, and blanched asparagus spears. Added tableside were a grating of licorice root and a drizzle of Manni Per Me olive oil. The flavor of the gel was very light and slightly sweet with a texture more delicate and giving than that of the soft poached fish, which was confusing when the two were eaten alone. However, when these components were combined with the deep licorice flavor of the grating and the peppery/tomato leaf flavors of the oil, they benefited. Alone with the vanilla purée they were again more texture than flavor.
1999 DOURO, QUINTA DA LEDA, CASA FERREIRINHA, DOURO VALLEY (PORTUGAL): deep roasted black fruit flavors; like the dish, better with the grated licorice than anything else.
POACHED BREAST OF ANJOU PIGEON PANCETTA Pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre épices: torchons of poached pigeon breast wrapped in pancetta (playing the crispy salty part the skin would have had the pigeon been seared or roasted rather than poached) served with leg meat, spiced with nutmeg and ginger, and wrapped in a pastry like the skin of a samosa. Pistachio foam, roasted pistachios, and baby white turnips round out a dish obviously drawing from all of influential British history – their own pigeon, Italian pancetta, Indian savory pastry, Middle Eastern nuts, French/Eastern spice mix – all brought together well and owned as British by its creator’s lineage.
2002 COTE-ROTIE, DOMAINE DUCLAUX, RHONE VALLEY (FRANCE): blueberries, leather, and hung meat complimenting a game course.
MRS MARSHALL’S MARGARET CORNET: served with a lesson on ice-cream cone history (invented by Mrs. Marshall, a Brit whose story is sadly seldom told outside the Fat Duck; it comes with a pamphlet). With vanilla and sugar involved, the ice cream and cone still favored the savory side of the spectrum. More interesting were the candied cinnamon sugared rose petals they were served off. When Encyclopedia asked if he could have one the waiter said, “sure, but they are not for eating.” Of course we both proceeded to eat them. They were great, perfuming the palate with rose, the cinnamon sugar shell neither too sweet nor too savory. We later learned that the “don’t eat it” thing has something to do with local law regarding garden grown ingredients; either way once again our lives were richer for ignoring instruction and experimenting.
PINE SHERBET FOUNTAIN: Madman explained to me that this is modeled on a penny candy in the UK called sherbet fountain, not unlike American Fun Dip. In this case the “lik-m-stick” is a dried shell of a vanilla bean scented of pine, which also serves as a straw. The “lik-m-aid” is a citric dust that my brain made taste of tangerine because it is called sherbet. After the first lick the end of the stick gets a little gummy, so that as you clean the sweet powder you draw in pine aroma through the tube while its essence numbs your tongue, paving the way for the next course.
MANGO AND DOUGLAS FIR PUREE Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet: the lychee and mango Bavarian cream is set with a gelatin or some other stabilizing agent so that it will support the pine scented mango leather set on top of it. The pine mango combination also appears as a smoother purée on the plate. Along with the bavarois was a tart blackcurrant sorbet of the deepest crimson, as well as some similar but slightly less tart cubes of currant gelatin. There were also a currant tuille set in the sorbet and three of the currant gel cubes set atop the bavarois, joined by fine lime zest and some toasted pine nuts.
2003 SCHNEIDERBERGER RIESLING EISWEIN, WEINVIERTEL (AUSTRIA): with the two pine-centric courses out of the way, it was safe to move on to sticky.
CARROT AND ORANGE TUILE, BEETROOT JELLY: The tuille was a crisp of carrot flavor and orange essence on the end of a stick like a lollipop that was dusted with powdered orange zest. The beetroot jelly was a sweet gummy devoid of the earthiness I associate with beets.
Served next was a single serving breakfast cereal box containing parsnip flakes as well as a carafe of parsnip milk for pouring over them. The flakes were crisp as breakfast cereal would be (not as chewy as simply dried parsnips) and stayed so when topped with the milk. The combination was sweet as breakfast cereal should be, except in an adult way.
SMOKED BACON AND EGG ICE CREAM Pain perdu and tea jelly: at some point in every lumberjack all-of-the-breakfast-items-on-one-plate breakfast you achieve a balance between the salty/smoky flavors of the meats, the richness of egg yolk, and the sweet nuttiness of syrup. Taken in parts, the ice-cream tastes like bacon and eggs yet cold and a little thin, the pain perdu tastes like sticky chewy oven-baked French toast, and the toffee tastes nutty and syrupy. Put together, the cold and warm mix to create that perfect sweet/ savory/smoky/salty/rich/starchy pinnacle of breakfast. Lest we forget we are in Great Britain, this is served with a cool breakfast tea (bergamot?) set in a loose jelly, to be eaten from a cup with a demitasse spoon.
HOT AND COLD TEA: you are presented with a crystal clear insulated shot glass (an insulating pocket of air contained between the interior of the bowl of the cup and its exterior) with a loose russet colored gel, and advised to drink it without turning or shaking. As you do the shot, split exactly down the center of your tongue is the sensation of hot and cold (right and left respectively) and the flavor of a lemony tea. Best I can figure, the respective gels are thick enough not to commingle and poured on either side of a divider that is removed before leaving the kitchen. But I am not dying to figure it out; understanding magic makes it less fun.
So, was Heston’s nostalgic journey also nostalgic for me? Things like sardines on toast, quail jelly, and porridge definitely brought back childhood memories of British literature, as recollections of flavors my palate was still too immature for when my dad encouraged me to sample them in my youth. Above all, the fare at the Fat Duck translates as the elevation through current technique of quintessentially British food. When Heston even nods to foreign influence as in the pigeon dish, he harkens to days when those lands were part of or a trading partner of the British Empire. This is no one else’s dinner.
So what of the inevitable comparisons to Ferran Adria? At this point, Ferran is adapting and recreating the food of El Bulli; gone are the days when he was reinventing Spanish cuisine as Heston is doing with English. Where Chef Adria strives to take El Bulli and the new cuisine on to its next step, Heston thrives with a foot deeply rooted in long-standing tradition and the possibilities of its reinterpretation. Much like with El Bulli, though, I am not confident at all in any of the assumptions I have made about what I consumed, and how it was prepared. I am sure I missed many subtle touches as I tried to comprehend the fundamentals of each dish.
The third Rosette from Michelin that drew so much attention to Chef Blumenthal in ’04 means “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” Having made such a trip I can say I am very pleased to have done so. Once I took my spot at this unique restaurant, in this unique room, I was served a most excellent and unique meal. I went in expecting new food, and I left rapt in someone else’s memories, excited by a cuisine that as far as I know only exists within the confines of this cozy, relaxed, magical little room.