After two years of my sister asking me to take her to the Fat Duck, I caved in – precisely, I caved in after watching Heston’s latest series, Heston’s Feast. And, having just been a milestone birthday for my little sister, I decided to try and book a table at the famous ‘third best restaurant in the world’. After 26 minutes of attempts (first on speed dial, then on hold) I did secure a table (2 months in advance), albeit for 4 instead of 2 (as the tables for 2 had been booked already at 10.26am!).
It actually turned out to be a much better option to go with two friends, as it was so much more fun to share the excitement of the experience with others. On one of the hottest day of the summer, we made our way to Bray, and arrived spot on at 2pm at the unassuming door of the famous venue. We actually asked if that was the Fat Duck! We were welcomed in, and taken to our table. The venue is small, and being a very old building, has low ceiling with exposed beams. It surely satisfies my ‘medievalist’ heart too.
Once we arrived…
A cold glass of Tattinger was the opening of what was going to be an extremely memorable day. The menus landed at our table in no time. Leather bound, thick affairs with the cute cutlery and feathers logo, we all read them eagerly while sipping the cold bubbly and munching on olives. Butter arrived – a yellow, thick slab of welsh butter, unpasteurised, made by a lady in her farm. Splendid!
While waiting for our first course, we chose our wine from the massive wine list. At 82£ a bottle it did not come cheap and I actually do not remember what wine our friends chose, following the sommelier’s expert recommendation. I remember it was from Austria, and a tad too sweet for me, but served cold to perfection and on cue. Now, if you are planning to go to the Fat Duck, I would stop you from reading now as it is a SPOILER ALERT! The food needs to be discovered… so do not read on… Otherwise, please read on …!
The first course arrived – prepared tableside by the friendly restaurant manager. I can only describe it as a iced cold merengue, with a heart of lime and a sprinkle of green tea powder. The official name is Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse and it comes with a spray of lime essence. Divine, but not for those with sensitive teeth!
This was to cleanse our palates and prepare them for what was to follow… a cute Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery grain mustard Ice Cream. Tiny iced crumbs of cucumber added a bit of crunch to an original, light, refreshing dish. Then, a strange looking dish arrived. In the middle of the table a wooden box with moss and over the moss, tiny little film’s plastic boxes. We were instructed to open and place the film on our tongue and wait for it to melt. While we duly obliged, liquid was poured over the moss and smoke came out…covering our table in iced smoke and resulting in shrieks of excitement from ourselves. The dish was Jelly of Quail, Crayfish cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast. It sure sounds messy, and here was the first ingredient I was not too keen on eating (liver!). However, after the smokiness of the film had dissolved, it was a burst of flavours. A bite of the toast, a spoonful of the rest. Bang! It was amazing.
We were really getting into the thick of the action.
Before we knew it, Snail Porridge, Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel had reached us. Now, after eating chicken liver, this was really something I was not looking forward to but I had decided to eat here with an open mind. And typically, this is probably the dish I loved the most! The flavours were incredible. The oats crunchy and chunky enough, the pea cream smooth and well, the snails.. were so well cooked and had a great texture which did not remind you of… escargot. Thankfully. The fennel added an touch of freshness to the dish. Divine!
I was on a roll, and by the time foie gras appeared in front of me, I had no qualms about eating it (removing from my mind images of force fed birds…)
Roast Foie Gras, Rhubard, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit was beautifully presented. I am no expert of roast foie gras but it was tender and moist and the herb seasoning mellowed the soft texture of the foie gras.
It was over, and we were prepared for the next exciting dish – the Mock Turtle Soup, Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. There is no soup in the dish when it is served. You are given a tea cup with hot water and a ‘gold watch‘ which is placed in the hot water and dissolves leaving a broth… with bits of gold leaf. Promptly, you pour the broth over the dish et voila’, ready to eat. Mock turtle soup means no real turtle was killed – which is a relief! The dish was again, incredible. It is impossible to describe the flavours, but it was just a pleasure to enjoy with tender meat, jellied egg, mini mushrooms.
The following dish was one of the most famous of Heston’s repertory and one that really brings up the multi-sensory experience he offers. We were give conch shells with iTouches inside… the sound of the sea… waves, sea gulls, kids laughing. Suddenly, we were on a sunny beach! The dish itself arrived – probably my favourite, although I should not say that as it had fish… and fish is endangered, blah blah blah. But it was fantastic. The edible sand, the sea froth, the samphire, and then the actual pieces of yellow tail, halibut and mackerel were perfect.
A tough act to follow. In fact, the Salmon Poached in Liquorice, Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil was a bit of a let down. Still very good, don’t get me wrong, but somehow too many flavours in competition with the slightly bland salmon, while the artichokes and the pink grapefruit seemed to be fighting one another. The vanilla mayo was an absolute winner however.
It was the turn of the meat. Powdered Anjou Pigeon, Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles was a little too rich for my taste. The meat itself was delicious, but the confit of umbles was definitely gory, and I am still not sure which part was the black pudding. The side dish of Spelt was magnificent. It would easily make a main dish on a ‘normal’ table! Our other meat dish (off the menu) was in comparison lighter, and somehow ‘regular’ but the lamb cutlets were tender and the mustard mash with sweetbread was also a fantastic side dish. We had the luck to taste yet another dish not on the official menu – roast pork belly, cabbage and black truffle from Alba. Again, not as surprising as some of the previous dishes but very good too.
I think by now we were approaching the ‘I am feeling full’ state. A few hours had gone by, a few more drinks (including sake with the Sound of the Sea), but we had to leave room for dessert. We had a chance to clean our palates again – this time with Hot and Iced Tea. One has to drink this to believe it, as it was partly hot and partly iced. We laughed our way through drinking it as if we were drinking some sort of magic potion!
The second dessert was possibly too big by this time, but we still managed to polish our plates. ‘BFG’ Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest came with a spray of Black forest smell, which of course, we made the most of (by now we had drank enough to feel pretty merry and silly). I am not a fan of BFG but yet, this was very good, with a ‘bleeding cherry’ that added a touch of ‘splatter’ to the experience. You can easily imagine a dense, scary wood.. by smelling those sprays we had.
Still, we had more to come. A waiter appeared out of nowhere with a tableside cooking set and a box of eggs… oh no, we thought. What is happening? Breakfast! Naturally, after what we have eaten at 6pm we need some proper english breakfast. Here go the eggs, into the pan. Oh it’s the nitro again – in front of our eyes, scrambled egg ice cream materialised, literally. It was served over mini french toasts and super thin bacon. And yes, if you are wondering – we did manage to eat the whole thing (just!).
What we needed after this was some alchool. What better way to finish this than having some Whisk(e)y Gums? It was a lot of fun to peel off the whiskey gums off a framed map and going from 1 to 5. Genius idea. And they tasted so different, each one was a surprise! My Favourite was number 2. We were, at this stage, really totally full…the last course, ‘Like a kid in a sweet shop‘, is a lovingly put together bag of sweets, each with its own element of surprise such as a white chocolate Queen of Hearts card.
And so, while England was being chucked out of the World Cup by Germany, we enjoyed a fabulous afternoon at the Fat Duck. Although it did not come cheap (average of 225£ each including drinks and service), I do not remember the last time a meal was such a merry enjoyment, full of discovery, fun and laughter. Then again, this is what Heston aims to achieve.
And achieve it, he does.