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.
Many thanks to Ben Bush for his pictures