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.
My first visit to England took place in 1977. I spent three weeks there, two in London sandwiched around a week driving through the English countryside in a little red Mini.I was a 23-year-old rock ‘n’ roll guitar player who had aspirations of being a professional musician.And outside of my home turf of Greenwich Village, no other place had as much allure for me as London. While that was well before I acquired a taste for fine dining, I had already developed a keen interest in food, mainly cheap eats and ethnic cuisine.But friends who had visited England had warned me about the food.How could this be, I asked myself?I simply couldn’t imagine that there was a place in the world where people didn’t like to eat well, especially a place where they made such great music.
Before arriving in England I spent three days in Rome and three days in Paris. It didn't take me long to have a seminal culinary moment. On my first morning in Rome, I found the cappuccino so astoundingly good that I had six of them in 90 minutes, capped off by a whipped cream–filled cornetti at the pasticerria in the Stazione Termini.And after three days of experiencing the glories of Italy, I got off the overnight train from Roma to Paris to find food paradise.Never before had I seen displays of pastries, cheeses, meats, etc. all laid out so beautifully.It didn’t take long for the cornetti to be topped by what seemed like the perfect croissant, which I suspect was really a stick of butter with the wrapper removed with a little flour thrown into the mix. France and Italy were just as my friends had travelled to Europe had said. Delicious.