Monday, 7 February 2011
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Knightsbridge
If there existed a movie that all your best friends loved, had received rave reviews from every movie critic on the planet, and had smashed all box-office records, would you be interested in seeing it?
The answer seems obvious - of course you would, even out of sheer curiosity, and although there would be a risk your inflated expectations didn't quite match up to the reality, you wouldn't blame anyone but yourself, you'd probably still have a good time, and anyway what do you have to lose?
And yet for some reason, when a restaurant receives similarly universal praise, there are certain parties who, instead of wanting to see what all the fuss is about, instinctively brace to the opposite position, desperate to not debase themselves by accidentally having anything so trivial as a popular opinion. I find the psychology of this quite hard to fathom - why would you deny yourself the pleasure of a fantastic meal just to mark yourself as separate from the herd? There's no shame in liking somewhere good, even if everyone else likes it too. I can understand why you may get bored by the reams of gushing text on Twitter and press and food blogs of course, but to deliberately avoid somewhere just because it's popular, or - even worse - to set out determined to hate a place before you've taken your first bite in order to position yourself as the sole arbiter of "reason" and "perspective", seems incredibly arrogant. To repeat: there's no shame in liking somewhere good.
Sorry to start off this post on such a belligerent tone, but I promise my motives are benign - I just want to persuade as many people as possible, including - and in particular - all the nay-sayers and hype-averse and deliberate contrarians, to book a table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. I don't care if you're bored senseless with the coverage, if the merest mention of "meat fruit" turns your stomach or if you want to gouge your eyes out whenever you see the phrase "spit-roasted pineapple" - everyone should have a meal at this dazzling, spectacular, wonderful new restaurant.
We may as well start with the meat fruit - if I'm going to provoke the anti-hypists, I probably can't do much better than with this, the most exhaustively investigated dish. Looking for all the world like a slightly saggy but authentically textured tangerine, the fruit "skin" contains a subtly alcoholic, deliriously light and rich chicken and foie gras parfait, which spread easily on the crunchy rustic loaf provided. The orange wasn't just a visual trick either - the citrusy casing added a sharper note to the rich filling and made the whole that much more enjoyable. Unique and tasty and very impressive indeed.
Another starter of Hay Smoked Mackerel was no less accomplished. Some moist and fresh slices of delicately smoked mackerel fillets came nestled in a salty anchovy sauce and dressed with some bitter endive leaves and thinly-sliced pickled lemon. It was a combination of flavours and textures that showed a masterful technique but also, even more importantly, real imagination - a memorable and hugely enjoyable dish.
I don't know what strange alchemy Professor Heston had used to get these strips of pigeon breast so unbelievably tender and tasty, but the results were truly spectacular. With a rich ale sauce complimented with some sharp (and neatly carved) artichoke hearts, this was another completely stunning, expertly crafted dish.
This generously proportioned pork chop was grilled over charcoal to get a lovely smoky, crispy char and served over buttered cabbage. A much simpler dish than the others perhaps but no less tasty - I can't think of any restaurant other than London's top two steakhouses (Hawksmoor and Goodman) to use flame-grilling to such good effect - the fat was crisp and salty, the flesh tender and barely pink. Perfect.
If the starters and mains were impressive, desserts were out of this world. Taffetty Tart was a dish I'd been served in a slightly modified format at that Fat Duck last year, but here it was even better than I remembered, the carefully constructed layers of caramel and fruit paste served with a truly incredible blackberry sorbet. And yes, the spit-roast pineapple tasted every bit as good as its 30 minute cooking time would suggest (we had to order it along with the savoury courses to give them enough time to prepare), served alongside a heavenly alcoholic brioche "tipsy cake".
We never wanted it to end. In an effort to delay the inevitable, we dragged our heels with a very good British & Irish cheese board, and once that was polished off were pleasantly surprised with a final petit for of Earl Grey caramel with caraway seed shortbread to dip in it. Like everything else, it was carefully considered, artfully prepared and brimming with fun and invention.
There was, of course, the final matter of the bill. With only one glass of wine each it came to just short of £160 for two, which of course is not a cheap lunch, not by a long way. But it is no word of an exaggeration that the food at Dinner, while perhaps not as mind-bogglingly intricate and theatrical as the multi-course tasting menu at the Fat Duck, comes from the same wonderful place creatively and still felt like the bargain of the century once we'd paid up and rolled happily home. The sheer effort, attention to detail and astonishing skill that went into every single element of the dishes we ate on Saturday, as well as service from a front of house team that were as attentive and knowledgable as you could ever hope for, made the whole experience a complete joy from start to finish. It may be irritatingly over-exposed, it may be depressingly over-subscribed, but it's both those things for a very good reason. Believe the hype.