Two months ago, I spent several nerve-wracking mornings ringing The Fat Duck’s reservation line in hope of booking a table somewhere around my mother’s birthday. The process of getting a reservation is not as ridiculous as for El Bulli, but you must ring exactly two months before the day you want to dine, and the phone line opens at 10am (but is engaged from 9.55 onwards). If you manage to get through, you are put on hold to listen to an audiobook of Alice in Wonderland.
Having nearly worn out the redial buttons on the telephone trying to get through, I managed to speak to a very lovely human being and secured a table for two at 8.30. This was confirmed by email, and I responded by asking whether it would be possible to adapt the menu for my pescetarian preferences (yes, and excitingly I was told that the options would be “discussed” with me on the night).
Needless to say, I looked forward to April with increasing excitement.
Needless to say, I was extremely dismayed when I came down with a gastro bug only a few hours before setting off for Bray. A walk around fresh air in Oxford and a lump of dry bread just about fixed my nausea before we drove to Bray.
I am an unreformed philosophy dork, so I had to photograph this:
A warning to any future Fat Duckers - it is extremely easy to completely miss the turn off for Bray and end up in Windsor. Similarly, it is extremely easy to completely miss The Fat Duck itself, as it is sublimely anonymous.
Blink, and miss it.
The Hind’s Head, however, is a helpful landmark, and by locating it one can find The Fat Duck just a few doors away.
I was very glad that we were early, as we had enough time to walk around Bray itself and admire it during a springtime dusk. It is an exceedingly pretty village, and worth a visit in itself.
Although still a bit early, we entered the restaurant and were shown to our table. Quite a few diners were already there and delighting in profusions of liquid nitrogen.
Charmingly, the tables are all circular, which my mother particularly likes as she believes they are more friendly. They are laid with heavy white linen, and set with Fat Duck damask napkins. The china is limoges porcelain and the cutlery is French (meat eaters get Laguiole steak knives). Each table had a unique and exotic small flower arrangement, and a card on “Nostalgia Foods” in which Heston Blumenthal invites diners to fill out the decade in which they grew up and foods that are particularly significant for them.
We were brought tap water, served in Riedel glasses, and a plate of delicious green olives, while we examined the leatherbound menu (as an indication of what is coming - it is a tasting menu only, so one does not really choose from it as such) and a list of wines by the glass (including Chateau Mouton Rothschild for £240 a glass!).
As promised, the menu was discussed with me and proposals were made for altering and substituting some of the courses to suit my pescetarian tastes. All of which sounded utterly delicious.
We were also brought copies of the menu, sealed in envelopes to take home. The paper was described as "skin" paper, and does hav a very similar tactile quality. I adore good paper, and even I have never encountered anything so unusual.
Bread was brought out, and unpasteurised Jersey butter was placed on a small slab of black granite. The bread was “white” or “brown”, but of course was far superior to other breads. The “brown” was particularly good with a fantastic crust. My mother grilled one of the waiters on the bread, asking if it was made with rye flour - apparently not, just exceptionally good brown wheat flour, made by a baker to a Fat Duck recipe.
The bread was so good that, I estimate, my mother ate around ten slices of it throughout the evening. I only managed two…
With great theatricality, the first course was wheeled out on a trolley: Lime Grove - Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. The trolley was set with an aerosol canister, a slightly smoking cauldron, a little green-dusted powder puff and plates. The waiter sprayed the air with the essence of limes, and expelled the mousse mixture onto a spoon. This was then “poached” in liquid nitrogen, placed on a plate and dusted with matcha. We were instructed to put the “mousse” into our mouths in one bite - for very good reasons. The exterior was frozen into a crisp shell, which yielded to a gloriously refreshing cool limey mousse. It was the most delicious palate cleanser I have encountered, and I loved the scent and taste of limes as I ate.
The next course was Red Cabbage Gazpacho - Pommery Mustard Ice Cream. This was presented in a little porcelain bowl, and comprised a fabulous magenta “gazpacho” with a quenelle of mustard ice cream. I love red cabbage, and this was extraordinarily intense. As a fanatical mustard consumer (with spoon, from jar…) the ice cream was a revelation. I vow to try savoury ice creams when I am back.
The third course was Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream - Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast. This course was also my first substitute dish, and you will have to bear with me given that I can’t exactly remember what I ate.
For both of us, this was presented in several parts. Firstly, there was a tray containing verdant moss, with two little plastic cases on top. We were told to pick one up, open it, take out the “film” and place it on our tongues, where it would dissolve. I can’t remember the exact order, but at some point some mysterious liquid was poured over the moss which smoked away in a dry icey/liquid nitrogeny cascade over the table. The smell of a forest was also spritzed around. We had a thin rectangle of “toast”, which resembled Finn Crisps in appearance, but was sublimely crisp, buttery, and covered in finely shaved pieces of truffle. All very woody. Then, in dishes that looked like the Egg Chair, we had the jelly and cream concoction. I believe mine was mushroomy, rather than quaily. It had two, maybe three, layers, the first being a rich transparent brown jelly that covered a smooth cream. The truffle toast was the absolute highlight. I do so love a woodland ambience.
Next was one of the most famous dishes on the menu - and, indeed, the concoction that brought Heston Blumenthal to our attention a few years ago: Snail porridge, with jabugo ham and shaved fennel. Mine was, naturally, lacking snails and ham. Both came out as bright green purees in little bowls, with fennel and various other micro leaves and bits on top. For what it’s worth, my mother loved the snail porridge. My vegetarian version was delicious - very fresh, and the fennel had retained its delicate crispness. I had expected it might be slightly limp, but it wasn’t.
For the omnivores, the roast foie gras with rhubarb, braised konbu and crab biscuit followed. The foie gras seemed like a large amount, segmented by the crab biscuits (again, these looked a bit like Finn Crisps) and accompanied by a streak of clear pink rhubarbness. My version had roast langoustine. The langoustine, the “biscuits” and the konbu were superb, and this course gave an intense hit of umami (my favourite taste ever). For me, this was definitely one of my favourite courses of the night.
Having watched Heston’s Feasts, I was excited that I would experience one dish that was developed on the Alice in Wonderland feast: Mock Turtle Soup, with Mad Hatter Tea. I, in fact, had “mock-mock turtle soup”, and owing to the inherently meaty aspect of one component, had a slightly different experience. Nonetheless, with aplomb, we were formally invited to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. We were presented with a cup and saucer, filled with “tea”, and a bowl containing a snail-like “egg” and what looked a bit like a liquorice allsort. My mother, the omnivore, was given a gold pocket watch and told to place it in her tea (here the courses diverged, as mine had already been done), whereupon it disappeared with careful stirring to leave flakes of gold leaf. We were both then told to pour the tea into our bowls.
The tea was, of course, an extraordinary clear broth (mine vegetable based, very umami). The “allsort” was beetroot and some thinly sliced white vegetable. There were micro leaves, and the snaily egg was a smooth jellyish orb that gave a lovely contrast to the “tea”. The preparation involved in a dish like this defies belief - that someone would go to the bother of a) creating such a complex piece of theatre and b) then turning it into something edible (with the help of tweezers!) is sheer artistic genius.
Another of my favourites, and a justly famous dish, comprised the next course: Sound of the Sea. We were brought large conch shells, from which protruded iPod headphones. My mother, spoiling the magic, exclaimed, “Oh, a shell with an iPod Shuffle inside!”. To which the waiter replied, “No, madam, it is a shell…”
Extraordinary rectangular trays came out, in the form of a wooden box (containing sand) topped with a sheet of glass/perspex. On top of this was more “sand” (edible - made from tapioca starch), a little “anemone”, some “seaweed”, “sea foam”, various bits of flotsam and jetsam and three perfect portions of fish. My memory is rapidly deteriorating, but one fish was definitely raw mackerel (my favourite) and the other two were white fish - possibly kingfish and haddock?
As one ate to the sounds of a seashore and gulls (“Like Whitley Bay,” was my mother’s rather unappetising analogy), one experienced the tastes (predominantly salty), textures (the fish melted in the mouth, the “seaweed” and “sand” gave crunch, the foam dissolved in an ozoney salty tang), and sights (self explanatory) of the seaside. Far more than mere “sound” of the sea.
It was all the best bits of a childhood trip, with none of the grimness of getting sand in your shoes afterwards.
Another fishy dish came next - salmon poached in liquorice, with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise, golden trout roe and Manni olive oil. The salmon was a curious rich brown oblong, almost looking as if it had been laquered and shellacked. Three little artichoke halves laid alongside in a row, and the plate was bordered by an avenue of pea-sized blobs of vanilla mayonnaise. I normally loathe mayonnaise, but this was a small enough quantity to stop me from feeling sick, and the vanilla (yes, you could see the seeds) added an absolutely divine dimension. I wouldn’t have thought that the subtle sweetness would have worked, but it did. The salmon was perfectly poached, by far the best poached salmon I have had, pink on the inside but with the slight savoury earthiness of liquorice. Not at all overpowering. If I remember correctly, there were also tiny little fragments of pink grapefruit (presumably winkled out with a pin), which cut through the richness. The olive oil was extremely fresh on the palate (not at all oily, thank heavens) and the artichokes were sweet and yielding. I could have eaten a plate of them alone.
The next course was another substitution for me, and more or less satisfied my particular gastronomic desires: roasted monkfish (a lovely sized piece) with morels, and a truffle and morel foam/cream/jelly. The latter came in a separate bowl, and was heavenly. I absolutely adore wild mushrooms, and this had all the flavours (plus the interesting textures of the morels and the foam and the creamy jelly underneath) I might want. The fish, perfectly cooked and allowing its natural sweetness to come through (no doubt enhanced by roasting) came with more morels. I was in fishy, mushroomy paradise.
My mother had powdered Anjou pigeon with blood pudding and confit of umbles. Now this one flummoxes me a little from the description. I could clearly make out the pigeon - the finest-grained meat I have ever seen (mahogany compared with builder’s pine) - but I’m not sure how the other components fitted in. There were a few dark red elongated comma shapes of sauce, which may or may not have been “black pudding”. I tried to extract more from my mother, but she is fixated on how good the pigeon was. And I, I’m afraid, was far too mycologically mesmerised to pay much attention to anything other than my own plate.
What isn’t on the website’s version of the menu is the palate cleanser course that followed, but it is one that viewers of Heston’s Feasts would have encountered: Hot and Cold Tea. Glass teacups and saucers were brought out, filled with a honey-amber liquid. We were instructed to drink it all at once. As we did so, we discovered that one side of the mouth experienced cold “tea”, whilst the other got hot “tea”. Very strange! The “tea” itself was also stupendous, honeyish, with hints of ginger.
The first dessert course was Taffety Tart, with caramelised apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon. This came out as a narrow rectangle of tart, comprising millefeuille-ish layers of crisp caramel pastry, with a crunchy seedy toffee topping, then a layer of piped fromage blanc, and finally (I think) the caramelised apple. Fennel seeds gave a gentle savouryness, and the candied lemon and rose were sensationally intense. Additionally, there was a quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet, which I described as “Ribena times ten”. The dish evoked toffee apples, Toffee Crisps (a secret childhood shame) and the demon blackcurrant cordial that was completely and utterly verboten when I grew up. Except, of course, this was highly sophisticated and far far nicer than anything a normal eight year old might have had. I cannot begin to describe how much I enjoyed this dessert - and I don’t like desserts.
Heightened expectations preceded the BFG, having seen it on In Search of Perfection and noted the lengthy recipe that can be found online. BFG stands, of course, for Black Forest Gateau, and this came with kirsh ice cream and “the smell of the Black Forest” (predominantly Kirshish). I have a considerable antipathy towards kirsch and the cream component of the usual BFG, so this could have been an ordeal. The plate comes out with a rather formidable matte chocolate tower, topped with a glossy dark cherry that oozes sauce down one corner, with a quenelle of kirsch ice cream on the side. The kirsch ice cream was a revelation, and forced me to completely reconsider my attitude towards liqueurs. The oozy sauce was curiously fizzy (like the fizzy coke bottles one could buy by the penny). The stalk of the cherry was, I later discovered, not a stalk but a fine threat of vanilla pod, and added a stunning dimension.
Then there was the cake monolith itself. As one sliced down one corner, one discovered that it was a multistorey affair: mousse, ganache, cream, incredibly dense (near-black) sponge, aerated chocolate (i.e. A really posh bit of Aero bar) and an extraordinary honey/caramelish biscuit base. At various points one encountered kirsch-soaked cherries, which had just enough sourness to counterbalance the bittersweet chocolate and boozy cream.
I would never, ever, normally order Black Forest Gateau, given that it has two of my bete noires - cream and liqueur. But this was so good that I had to eat it very slowly and thus prolong the experience. I could almost feel inclined to have a go at making it myself, bar the faff.
The last proper course (and we were offered a supplementary cheese course, but god knows who could fit that in too) was the “Whisk(e)y wine gums” - the name referring to both Scottish and American spellings, for reasons which became clear. Another inventive mode of presentation, we had picture frames set in front of us, containing a map of Scotland. Affixed to the map were little jelly bottles (a la the fizzy coke bottles), which corresponded to a little key - this explained that each bottle was flavoured with a particular whisky, and one whiskey, from different regions and distilleries. I was surprised by how much variation there was in flavour, as I had previously thought that all whisk(e)y was uniformly awful. Not so. We also had bottles of Glenlivet spring water to cleanse the palate between tasting (one gum being, appropriately, Glenlivet whiskey). My mother, a glass bottle fanatic, requested the top she could take the bottle home. The slightly bemused waitress admitted that no one had ever asked for that before, but she managed to fine one.
The meal ended with “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”, which some people opted to wolf there and then, but we kept until we got home.
The lovely candy-stripe bags contained the following:
A menu (which says “Smell Me! And does indeed smell of sweeties)
Aerated Chocolate - Mandarin Jelly
This was like the love child of an Aero bar, a jaffa cake and Terry’s chocolate orange - but made with superb ingredients.
Coconut Baccy - coconut infused with an aroma of black Cavendish tobacco.
My stepmother informs me that this is a grownup version of a sweet she had as a child, which was made from coconut and came in a tobacco pouch. I’m not a huge fan of coconut, but this is delicious. I can’t really taste the tobacco, but that’s perhaps because I left it a couple of days before consuming. Oops.
Apple Pie Caramel - with an Edible Wrapper (no need to unwrap)
What looks like a plastic wrapper actually dissolves in the mouth, and the caramel does indeed taste intensely appley. It is also, by far, the best “caramel” I’ve ever had.
The Queen of Hearts - she made some tarts…
This is quite astonishing. Inside the envelope is a Queen of Hearts “playing card”, made from white chocolate and filled with jam. Beautifully presented, and joyous to eat.
My mother was distressed that other diners left their pretty sweetie bags on the table, and commented on this to one of the waitresses as she cleared away the debris, enquiring if she ever thought it was upsetting that diners did not seem to appreciate the care and attention that went into the bags. And, by contrast, how thrilled we were by the entire experience. Very sweetly, we were brought a proper Fat Duck carrier bag for our sweetie bags, which just about one-ups every other cardboard bag I’ve seen. Hurrah!
I don’t know what more I can say about the Fat Duck. I hope this is not the only visit I ever make, even though I had initially described it as a “once in a lifetime experience”. I am shocked that the staff indicated that it can be hard to manage some people’s expectations, as I can’t imagine that anyone couldn’t be completely astounded and delighted. It is, without question, peerless and perfect.
Importantly, everything was actually delicious. There was not a single dish, component or combination that did not excite the senses and cortex. I could have easily licked every dish clean, and indeed, I noticed a few other diners wiping their fingers across the plates in order to get every last morsel (here the bread came in handy, too).
What was also notable, and unique, was the way every table seemed to resound with laughter. I have never been to a restaurant and seen so many people clearly enjoying themselves. Towards the end of the night, one couple even got engaged, with the woman holding a Tiffany box (complete with sizeable gem) asking her companion “Are you f***ing me? Are you serious?”. Amused staff watched on, before bringing champagne to the pair.
Clearly, a life-changing experience for many.
Ten out of ten, Heston! And ten out of ten for attention to detail. I wish everything in life was as well thought out and considerate - it is obvious that the entire restaurant is run to make diners feel special, contented, happy and entertained. I believe it shows, too, that Heston Blumenthal does what he does to please people - if only all people acted like that.