One of the more controversial restaurants in the U.K.--no, make that anywhere--is Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck. Located in the quaint village of Bray-on-Thames, about a 45-minute drive out of London, the Fat Duck is just around the corner from one of the other three-star Michelin restaurants in the U.K., the Waterside Inn. I guess Blumenthal must subscribe to the adage that "birds of a feather..." because the odds against two restaurants of this calber being so close together in a rather large country must be staggering.
The Fat Duck is housed in an old beamed building that could have been built in the 1500s, and feels like it might have been a simple inn where weary travellers could rest their bones and grab a warm meal when travelling from, say, London to Bristol. With whitewashed walls, it is elegant in its simplicity, and is one of the smarter dining environments I've been to while completely lacking in ostentation. This was my fifth visit to the restaurant, although my first since January 2004. Since this was my last meal of a long trip where I did a significant amount of dining, I had some concerns that my palate would be shot. But I was leaving on a late-afternoon flight from Heathrow, and given the restaurant's location, it made sense to have lunch and then get dropped off at the airport. We decided on the tasting menu, but I asked the kitchen to replace one dish with the Snail Porridge which is a favorite of mine.
Amuse bouches at the Fat Duck are really stupendous. For those interested in modern cuisine, I can't think of a more compelling group of amuse. Blumenthal uses a different approach than other modern chefs. Rather than turning the amuse into a series of small courses that are served as part of the meal, they are all lumped together and served before the actual meal gets underway. It's a methodology I prefer because I often find a thousand little courses over the length of a meal distracts from the main event. Blumenthal's method not only separates whimsy from more serious effort, but also sets the tone of the dining experience in a way that is both amusing as well as delicious.
We started with the Nitro-Green Tea Lime Mousse which sounds more like a shaving cream than something you eat. It's one of those great bits of culinary theater that is based on a technique created by Ferran Adria, and which a number of chefs have adapted into dishes of their own. The festivities start when Eric the captain pushes a trolley up to your table with what looks like an ice bucket and a whipped cream dispenser. He removes the top from the ice bucket to reveal that it is full of liquid nitrogen, so cold that it is smoking away. He then takes the dispenser and fills a tablespoon with the lime-green tea mousse, which he then places into the liquid nitrogen. After a second or two it emerges from the tureen and you are presented with what can only be described as a frozen candy. The taste is sharp (not to mention cold), and the combination of the acidity of the lime and the tannins of the green tea make for a great wake-up call for your palate. And did I already say it is great theater?
Blood Orange and Beetroot Jellies. One expects the orange jelly to taste like oranges and not yellow beets. But of course Heston has flip-flopped the colors and flavors and that makes for a bit of a surprise. Otherwise they are fine savoury jellies and nothing special on their own, but they actually play an important part in the totality of the amuse bouches. A bit of misdirection is still on the menu with an oyster topped with passion fruit jelly, horseradish cream, and lavender. This is actually the first time I had this amuse and I have to say it was so shockingly good that I would have liked an order of a half dozen. Then Heston's most famous amuse, red cabbage soup with Pommery mustard ice cream. With a sharp flavor that cuts your palate, this is another dish that would hold up well in a full service. Finally an hommage to Alain Chapel, jelly of quail, langoustine cream, and parfait of foie gras on toast. Good, but not up to the caliber of the oysters and the red cabbage soup, although I guess this was more like an appetizer course than an amuse.
Our menu got under way with what has become a Blumenthal signature dish, snail porridge served with Joselita ham and shaved fennel. Somewhere between a porridge and a risotto, it's quite a unique dish. Green in color from the inclusion of a heavy dose of flat parsley, it has a nutty flavor that is appealing, and is simultaneously reminiscent of both the cooking style at Mugaritz as well as Thomas Keller's "Oysters and Pearls." Roast foie gras with almond fluid gel, cherry, and chamomile was next. A superb dish and among the best contemporary foie gras dishes I can think of. The foie has an interesting texture, soft without being caramelized on the exterior, but not wet in the interior like many other dishes. You can easily slice off a small tranch, and it will retain its shape while you are wiping up the amazingly delicious sauce. Then, cauliflower risotto with carpaccio of cauliflower and chocolate jelly. There is a bit of theater that comes with this dish, as Eric approaches your table with a large pastry bag, centers it over the bowl of risotto, and proceeds to give it a tap on the side, which releases powedered chocolate all over the risotto. It was very good, although possibly not up to the porridge and the foie. But in fairness to Heston, at the beginning of the meal I had requested that the usual dish served at this point in the tasting menu, sardine on toast, be replaced by the risotto.
Salmon coated in a licorice aspic and served with asparagus, pink grapefruit, and Manni olive oil was the most controversial dish of the meal. My dining companion didn't like it at all, which is in keeping with what a number of my friends who have experienced the dish have felt. In fact, some of them described the dish as being disgusting. I didn't have strong negative feelings against it, although I'm not fond of the flavor of licorice. I will say that the concept of the dish--a square of salmon completely encased in the aspic--is terrific. I'm just not sure about the licorice part, and I think Heston would be better off if he found another way to execute this technique. Finally, best end of lamb with onion puree and thyme was superb. This is the type of dish that sets the Fat Duck apart from most other modern restaurants. A straightforward lamb dish, the modernity is all about the cooking techniques and how the flavors are extracted from the ingredients. A delicious dish and something I could eat all of the time.
By the time we were finished with the savoury part of the meal it was 3:45. I had a 5:55 flight home from Heathrow (which I ended up missing because of a problem with my ticket that didn't get straightened out in time), so I made them rush through a series of desserts in 30 minutes. We had the pine sherbert fountain, some type of British candy which came in one of those quirky Fat Duck dispensers which you had to lick off an applicator, carrot and orange tuile with beetroot jelly, mango, and Douglas Fir puree, and delice of chocolate with cumin caramel and chocolate sorbet. A fine assortment. I love the cumin caramel and wouldn't mind having a jar in my fridge to spoon over fruits and ice cream.
One can't review the Fat Duck without addressing a number of issues that always seem to be surrounding the restaurant, the lack of changes on the menu being the one that you hear most often. I have to say that the absence of new or seasonal dishes at the Fat Duck is one of the worst features of the restaurant. Many people feel that if you have eaten here once, you never have to return. I didn't feel that way on this visit, even though I have had many of these preparations before. The kitchen seemed to be cooking with more confidence than ever before, and combined with a two-year interval between visits, I didn't find my meal at all redundant. The other issue is whether the restaurant is deserving of its Michelin three-star rating. That's a harder question to grapple with, and is predominantly caused by the lack of nuance to the Michelin system. If you analyze the three-star category as in reality being a series of restaurants that merit a rating of between 2-1/2 to 3 stars, I would put the Fat Duck somewhere between 2.6-2.8, similar to restaurants like Guy Savoy or Le Calandre (review upcoming), while saving the very top rating for places like Arpege and Pierre Gagnaire.
From my own perspective, I appreciated the planning that went into this meal to a much greater extent than I was able to at my earlier meals. Just look at how the amuse flowed:
1. Acidity of the lime mousse and the mouth-drying tannin of the green tea served in a way that contained absolutely no color.
2. Blood orange jelly that was sweet but which looked like beet jelly, and beetroot jelly that was savoury and was yellow and appeared that it was going to be sweet.
3. Oyster in a yellow jelly that actually turned out to be sweet from passion fruit and paired with a slightly biting horseradish cream.
4. Red cabbage soup where the natural sweetness of the cabbage is featured, served with Pommery mustard ice cream which picks up where the horseradish cream left off.
5. Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, and foie gras on toast is completely savory and orients your palate towards the savoury course.
A veritable tango of palate manipulation.
So I guess you can say that I enjoyed my meal at the Fat Duck. And I guess you can say I highly recommend it. If anything, the one thing about the food is that it can be a bit sterile, as if a scientist prepared your meal instead of a chef. If there was anything I would change about the place, it would be to add some spontaneity to the dining experience. But otherwise, as a modern dining experience, it is really top notch. A