It’s a stroke of luck that allows me to start this blog with one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory. To clarify, it’s not the best. If I’m ever asked what that might be, the answer is easy: The Fat Duck. It’s located in Bray, a town about an hour’s train ride outside of London, in an unassuming little cottage on a quiet street (Exotic restaurants like these have a funny way of popping up in quaint spots in the middle of nowhere. Look up “El Bulli” and “The Three Chimneys” if you don’t believe me). For what it’s worth, this place has three Michelin stars and was named Restaurant magazine’s best restaurant in the world in 2005, before being supplanted later by El Bulli.
What’s so special about it? It’s an experience. My family and I spent four or five hours there and had tastes, textures, even sounds in a meal unlike anything I’ve experienced. For those who have heard of molecular gastronomy, that’s what this place is all about. It’s experimental, doing things with food that have never been done before. A sushi dish that feels like sand and seafoam in the mouth? Sure. A tea jelly which is simultaneously hot and cold? Check. How about ending the many-course meal with “breakfast,” which includes candied bacon and egg ice-cream made by whipping eggs in liquid nitrogen table-side? Actually, more than one dish used the liquid nitrogen. How cool is that?
While this all might seem a bit artsy and over-the-top, what’s great about this food, and the genius of chef Heston Blumenthal, is that it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. His food tastes good. It’s all about breaking things down to their component parts, capturing their essences and flavors. It’s playing with familiar experience in a way that makes it completely new. As just another example, we were handed conch shells with the seafood dish that contained headphones, so we could listen to the sounds of the sea as we ate. It’s all about the experience.
Just last week, I got to experience the genius of Heston Blumenthal yet again. For our anniversary dinner, Cornelia and I went to his new London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. And what a night it was.
Located in the posh Knightsbridge in the middle of London, Dinner is not quite as avant garde as The Fat Duck. Nothing is dripped on your plate from a pipette or whipped in liquid nitrogen. But the concept is just as unique. You notice upon first looking at the menu that there are dates listed next to each dish.
Meat Fruit (c. 1500)
Roast Marrowbone (c. 1790)
Savoury Porridge (c. 1600)
The idea here is that everything on the menu is traditional English food. For us foodies, we don’t encounter much “traditional English food,” unless you’re talking about fish and chips and gin. But what Heston has done is resurrect the English food most of us don’t know about, to prove that it can be just as diverse and flavorful as French, or any other cuisine we usually associate with fine dining. On the reverse side of the menu are a list of sources for each of the recipes. I can’t imagine the research Heston put into finding these old, obscure dishes. One even dates as far back as 1390, the Rice and Flesh, from “The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II.”
For the most part, the presentation is pretty straightforward: Meat is served on a plate, with little (if any) sauce, and no sides unless ordered separately. My appetizer, the Meat Fruit, was served on a block of dark wood with grilled toast. But there’s more to the meat fruit than meets the eye. It’s one of the dishes where Heston’s touch is really apparent, a modern twist on the old recipe. What I was served looks identical to a little mandarin orange: it’s shiny, has pores, etc. But cutting into it, what’s revealed is a delicious chicken liver pate encased in a very thin layer of mandarin orange jelly, everything edible but the stem. Cornelia started with the Broth of Lamb, which would surely be good on its own, but was phenomenal with a poached hen egg and sweetbreads.
Each menu is bound by a slip printed with a historical fact about England’s food. Mine talked about the old French nickname for the English, “Beefeaters,” as they were known for centuries as having the highest quality beef. After reading this, how could I not order the Hereford Ribeye (c. 1830)? It was a beautifully tender cut of meat with a delicate marbling of fat, served with red wine sauce, chips (read: fries), and a mushroom ketchup. Cornelia had the Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780), served with an ale sauce and artichokes. Is anything more evocative of medieval cookery and mead halls of yore than pigeon, spices and ale? Why yes, actually, my dessert. While Cornelia finished with a Taffety Tart and blackcurrant sorbet, I had the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c. 1830) with salted caramel and malted yeast syrup. Just typing it makes me want to abandon any pretensions of a low-carb diet.
But beyond all of the delicious, fascinating, satisfying food, beyond the beautiful wine (Shaw and Smith Shiraz, highly recommended), the highlight of the night was that Mr. Blumenthal himself was in the house. Yes, Heston Blumenthal was eating dinner only two tables away from us. And to top it all off, I got a brief moment to speak to him as we were leaving the restaurant.
So all in all, pretty good night. It was the one year anniversary with my girlfriend, it was some of the best food I’ve ever had, and I got to meet a hero, the man behind it all. It was one of those rare, always-going-to-remember-it experiences, which I can only hope I’ve managed to capture a glimmer of in this blog.
*A note about photos: This food all looked wonderful, and I do wish I could share photos of all of it with you. But alas, it was dark and my poor iPhone camera just couldn’t keep up. Meat fruit picture is not my own, but definitely worth seeing.