Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Fat Duck, Bray


What must it be like, I wonder, being told you’re the best in the world? Or rather, what must it be like to believe it? It has to be a somewhat surreal experience for the staff at the Fat Duck, as they polish the cutlery and vacuum the carpets and shake down the tablecloths, to be aware essentially that this is it. Nobody in the world does this, this restaurant thing, any better. Anywhere. The front of house may appear charming and down to earth, like serving eggs cooked in liquid nitrogen and edible playing cards is the most natural thing in the world, but do you think behind the easy manner and practised ease of service there’s a twinkle of pride, that they really know how good they are? Do they even care?

Of course, people will try and tell you that El Bulli, at least until later this year when it permanently closes its doors to the paying public and relaunches as Ferran Adria’s Convalescent Home for the Culinarily Insane, is better. This is absolute rubbish. Not one of the bizarre and often downright disgusting “dishes” I ate in Spain last September could match even the weakest of the fabulous plates of food we were served yesterday afternoon at the Fat Duck. El Bulli serves toy food, technically impressive but vacuous experiments in form and texture, with all the personality of an eight-year-old with ADHD. The Fat Duck is a proper restaurant, its inventions never ever coming at the expense of form or flavour, and the warmth and wit of every element of every course had us grinning and giggling and cooing. Let’s start at the beginning.



A “palate cleanser”, lime mousse poached in liquid nitrogen and sprinkled with green tea dust, was an extraordinary sensation. The intense cold was shocking, and if you ate it soon enough after it came out of the nitrogen bath you could blow great white clouds of lime-scented smoke out of your nostrils. Hilarious, and most importantly, delicious.


Red cabbage gazpacho with mustard ice cream was a balancing act of vinegar and salt, and one which worked magnificently. First to register was the mustard ice cream, giving way to the strongly pickled cabbage as the flavours warmed up and mingled in the mouth. Simple – and very recognisable – ingredients, yet combined in such a way as to produce something memorable and unique.



And then, a life-changing course. “Jelly of quail, crayfish cream” sat in a cute tilted bowl next to a wooden block supporting a delicate black truffle toast. Both of these elements, it almost goes without saying, were divine, the crayfish and quail mixture simultaneously having the rich musk of deep woodland and the evocative tang of a rocky sea shore. It brought to mind childhood holidays in Spain, and of late afternoons in the countryside after a rain shower. We ate this dish, though, as the entire table disappeared under a soft blanket of bright white nitrogen, frothing and bouncing in between glassware and cutlery and spilling onto our laps. It was cleverly scented with a kind of soily, oaky, woody extract and for a few magical seconds it was like eating off the surface of a cloud. It was, quite literally, heavenly.


Next up, the famous “snail porridge”. Nowhere near as weird or challenging as its rather provocative name suggests, it was a wholesome, delicious bowl of deeply flavoured pea risotto topped with a couple of moist, perfectly seasoned snails and an aromatic topping of shaved fennel and Spanish ham. Gorgeous.


Roast foie gras with rhubarb had excellent, perfectly cooked foie and for want of a better word the most “rhubarby” rhubarb sauce I’ve ever tried. This is the kind of rather understated (albeit delicious) dish that tends to get forgotten about amidst the theatrics elsewhere but was nevertheless satisfying and impressive in its use of texture and technique.




The Mad Hatter Tea Party, of the Feasts television programme fame, was utterly magical. First of all we were presented with a bowl of intricately arranged delicacies, including a strongly-scented cauliflower and mushroom mousse and a kind of pressed ham terrine. Then a waiter arrived with a glass-topped box containing what looked like gold wristwatches, but were in fact highly concentrated beef stock covered in gold leaf. The “watches”, once dunked in hot water, dissolved into a hot beef “tea”, which you then poured into the bowl. This wasn’t just a gimmick – the concentrated stock had an amazing flavour (sweetened with Madeira too I think) and the rehydration from the concentrate enlivened the flavours and lifted the whole dish to something bordering on genius. I couldn’t stop giggling it tasted so astonishing.


“Sounds of the Sea” is a Fat Duck classic, and it’s very easy to see why. A slice of raw tuna, halibut and mackerel (each stunningly fresh, the finest sashimi I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat in their own right) were served on top of ‘sand’ made out of spiced tapioca and a shellfish foam. You eat this dish listening to a soundtrack of seagulls and crashing waves on a provided iPod. Sounds silly? Well yes, it was a bit, but I was having so much fun by this point I just kind of rolled with it. Yes, I’m eating fake sand from a glass plate whilst listening to seagulls on an iPod hidden inside a large conch shell. So?


I can see why salmon poached inside liquorice wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Of all the dishes yesterday, this was the most bizarre in terms of flavour combinations, and ironically this was the one most reminiscent of something that may have come from the kitchens at El Bulli. The salmon was, as you’d expect, perfectly cooked to just pink, and the liquorice was actually a very subtle note that was really more of a lingering aftertaste than a strong primary flavour. The artichokes cut through the fatty salmon very well, and more texture was provided in the form of tiny crunchy coriander (I think) seeds. It was very good where everything else had been mind-blowing. Hardly a criticism really.


The next two courses were actually served simultaneously (3 of us got one, 3 the other) and necessitated a spot of communal swapsies, which was a nice homely touch. Anjou pigeon was a superb bit of bird and came with a stunning black pudding and chocolate sauce. And a lovely pink lamb chop was served on a bed of some sort of clever cucumber remoulade thing – you don’t often see lamb and cucumber together outside of a middle-eastern wrap, but it made perfect sense here.



The lamb was served with what they bashfully described as “mash”. But this was no ordinary mash. This wasn’t even merely an excellent mash. This was mash of the gods, king of mash, the mash to end all mash. Light, frothy, cheesy and studded with tiny cubes of sweetbreads, it was hard to see how this could be improved upon at all, and certainly beats anything so-called mash expert Joel Robuchon ever did into a cocked hat.


The final proper main course was some godly pork belly on spelt, garnished with a couple of slices of earthily fresh black truffle. I can’t go on and on about every dish because I’m running out of superlatives, but yes it was the best pork belly I’ve ever had. What did you expect?


“Hot & Iced Tea” was a bit of clever technical wizardry matched with some rather nice tea. It looked like a normal glass of liquid, and certainly smelled like tea, but one half of it was cold and one half was hot. And I don’t mean hot below or above the cold in layers, I mean vertically down through the drink, the left hand side was cold and the right hand side was hot. Don’t ask me.



We had another mix and match dessert selection for the next round, with three of us receiving “Taffety Tart” and three a kind of rhubarb tart thing. The rhubarb was my favourite of the two, with more of that astonishing concentrated rhubarb flavour and a deliriously pretty presentation.




And after that, three of us had a “BFG” (Black Forest Gateau), as first seen in a slightly modified form on Heston’s In Search Of Perfection TV series, and three of us nitro-scrambled eggs with bacon and pain perdue. And yeah, it was all brilliant. Oh – just in case you were wondering, that cherry stalk on the BFG is edible. It’s made from dried vanilla pod. The attention to detail in this place is unbelievable.


The last course I personally ate in the restaurant was this clever whisky map, with little wine gums made from various different varieties which you peeled off in a designated order. It’s interesting just how much of the flavours of the original product survived the ‘wine gumification’ and made an extremely enjoyable end to the meal.


Or at least, nearly the end. I opted to take my final course home with me, as it came in a handy little bag marked “Sweet Shop” and contained various chocolate and confectionary items (all made in the restaurant) which I thought would be an idea to share with my flatmate. So later that evening we tried a toffee in an edible plastic wrapper which tasted of apple, a bag of coconut flavoured ‘tobacco’ infused with a real tobacco flavour, and most amazing of all what looked like a thick playing card (complete with very realistic design) but was actually a slice of white chocolate with an impossibly thin layer of raspberry jam inside. It brought giggles and gasps as I’m sure was intended.

So, the Fat Duck, the Best Restaurant In The World. Why not. Yesterday afternoon I spent four deliriously happy hours eating course after course of some of the greatest food I’ve ever tasted in my life, and almost as soon as it was over I wanted to do it all again. You can’t avoid the comparisons with the other pretender to the crown, so I won’t – El Bulli is pretentious and awkward where the Fat Duck is bold and refined; jarring and unpleasant instead of accessible and rewarding; infantile and daft rather than whimsical and playful. The £291 I spent here (£150 for the food, the £90 wine flight, a whisky and service) was worth every penny, of course, but it’s painful to recall that the last time I spent this much on a meal I left unsatisfied, unsettled and slightly queasy. I learned my lesson, and so should you – if you want to eat the food of the gods, dishes of warmth and clarity and singing of sheer (often literally) gold-plated excellence, there really is nowhere else. That twinkle in the eye of the staff I mentioned earlier, it is pride. It must be. You can hardly blame them.

10/10

Many thanks to Ben Bush for his pictures

The Fat Duck on Urbanspoon

33 comments:

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London said...

Oh my GOD. i've had to re-read these paragraphs to believe it. I've never seen photos of the food before or a detailed explanation of the courses - it sounds absolutley incredible, amazing flavours and textures. I can't afford it, yet, but will certainly try to head there when I can. WOW.

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London

Niamh said...

Fantastic! That looks and sounds really amazing. I've got to go soon!

Boo said...

One word - WOW! I was fortunate enough to visit last year but had a la carte not tasting menu (I don't think there's a choice any more?)

I did get to try the jelly of quail dish though and often find myself thinking of it when I drift off!

I quite agree with you, I had the best meal of my life at The Fat Duck and really want to go back someday for the tasting menu. Just how do they do that tea?!

Jules said...

Superb post. It makes me want to visit The Fat Duck more. It's great to see dishes featured that I've heard so much about.

MyLastBite said...

Amazing! I just started watching "In Search Of Perfection" (in Los Angeles). What a dream meal to experience!

Cheers!
Jo

Malcolm Eggs said...

What a great write-up.

Would love to know more about the nitro-scrambled eggs course.

Tulip said...

WOW... I want to go even more now. Loved the photos too!

eatmynels said...

Nicely done, concise and descriptive, weren't the wine awesome too!

alexthepink said...

Fantastic write up Chris, best meal of my life too! Now have to go back with the hubby in tow as he was very jealous...

Nicisme said...

I really enjoyed reading this, the food looks amazing, and so beautifully presented. Thank you!

Kavey said...

My you wrote this one fast!
Great post, now I want to go!

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Lizzie said...

Fantastic post. I am insanely jealous.

Paunchos said...

Top stuff. Sounds like you had a mind blowing experience. I'd love an excuse to return. But next time for the full monty like you did rather than for a few courses. Wow. And great photos from Ben too.

Ben Bush said...

Excellent write-up Chris. I don't think I could have put it better. I may not even try.

Thanks for organising.

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

That's it. I'm going. I've been pondering whether it's really 'worth it' (whatever that means), but obviously it is. Thank you for curing my chronic indecisiveness on this one. ;)

Dan said...

Superb post Chris. Interesting to read a review from someone who's been to El Bulli fairly recently as well, to make an informed comparison. The food looks incredible, and lovely photos Ben. Really want to go and experience this for myself.

Joshua said...

The meal there is so amazing although looks to have changed a lot since I went. I guess that's reason to go again but it's a hard expense to justify more than once. Would love to try some of the TV show inspired dishes though.

I thought the quail/langoustine dish was arguably my favourite of the night and the salmon in liquorice my least favourite.

Gourmet Chick said...

Wow Chris - great review and I did enjoy reading this as you are one of the few (perhaps only?) food bloggers who has been to both El Bulli and The Fat Duck so you were able to make a great comparison. I am hoping to go for my birthday this year. My husband doesn't know that yet but he will soon once I do the two month in advance booking!

Laissez Fare said...

Hi Chris,
I enjoyed the review, so many thanks. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Even though I have never been to El Bulli, a number of friends have, and would echo your comments re: it being creatively and technically ambitious but not always with a purpose/story/whimsy behind it, and often sacrificing flavor in favor of effect.

I personally loved my meal at the Fat Duck a few months ago, and it is definitely one of the most memorable meals I've had. Heston never does anything without good reason and/or humor behind it, and the execution is flawless, with momentum never being lost throughout the 15+ courses...something that you do not usually get on even the finest of tasting menus.

I am also glad to see that the menu is not the same as it was a few months ago – a lot of it is still there, but for example we didn't have the snail porridge, lamb chop, pork belly or rhubarb tart on our visit. So it's good to see that you could actually go back there and not have exactly the same thing even though there is only one menu now. I think this is further evidence of Heston’s ‘pursuit of perfection’ – he loves to evolve his dishes and work on perfecting them over time.

I think that Heston and his Fat Duck deserve all the success in the world, which they already seem to have gotten.

If you haven't seen my write-up, it can be found here:
http://laissezfare.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/the-fat-duck-a-blumen’-great-day-in-bray/

Best regards,

LF

Fiona said...

Nice post. Weird: I'd swear I had that salmon and licorice dish (or something extremtly similar) at Nuno Mendes's Bacchus before he left there. Must check. Haven't been to The Fat Duck in several years but your post has made me want to return for another go! Sounds like Heston has increased in both skill and confidence and that the whole thing is even more amazing than it was then. Thanks for the lovely descriptions.

Graphic Foodie said...

Wowsers. I have never wanted to go to a restaurant more after reading a blog post.

Food Urchin said...

I spoke to another blogger a while ago about FD saying that personally, I didn't think I could bring myself to spend THAT much money on a meal.

But I tell you what Chris, you may have just convinced me.

Brilliant post.

Helena Lee said...

I love this post. I almost feel as though you spent the £291 for our enjoyment as well - you've captured it brilliantly. Terribly jealous!

Wild Boar said...

I too think that my meal at the Fat Duck was the best I ever had. Am still interested in trying El Bulli despite you and LF's comments.

Gus Paul said...

Trip to the Fat Duck planned for the summer, looking forward to it even more after this.

ginandcrumpets said...

That sounds like an utterly mad, magical meal. Wonderful.

Slobbering on the keayboard said...

Blumenthal's creations have always been surreal...but he seems to surpass himself every year! I've caught all of his shows and have ended up gasping in wonder and drooling helplessly on my remote control. I envy you!!!

delboy1969 said...

An excellent review and has left me gagging to visit the fat duck to sample the delicacies! Blumenthal is reletively new to me but have been watching the channel 4 series avidly and it would be amazing to sample some of the things I've seen!

JamesB said...

WOW WOW WOW!!! Managed to make a booking today, but have to wait for 2 months - I want to go NOW after reading this brilliant post!!

Anonymous said...

I was at The Fat Duck yesterday and yes, it is absolutely brilliant. A four hour experience you really do not want to stop. The team Heston employs are impressive, certainly the top of their game, it is apparent they still get a kick out of diners reactions as they venture in to each dish. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Save up, go, it's a must do experience that leaves you wanting more.

Anonymous said...

Visited the Fat duck last Saturday. Not only is the food wonderful the service and everything about the whole experience is excellent. Great attention to detail. Looking at the prices you would think it is expensive but for what you get I would say it is great value for money. Well worth saving up for. An experience of a lifetime. Favourite course the Moss/Truffle combo. The most amazing thing I have ever eaten.

ipswich1 said...

Look it is no doubt is a gastronomic bonanza of phantasmagorical proportions but the price makes it unpalatable..