On the way to Bray, I wracked my brain in an effort to try and remember just why it was that I hadn’t been to the Fat Duck. I hadn’t even tried to get a table, but if you asked me, it was always on the list of places that I really wanted to go to.
My 32nd birthday just happened to provide the ideal opportunity to go. Originally, we had a table booked for dinner on my actual birthday but advice from others coupled with the memories of rolling out of Per Se at 1am, well fed, happy, but more than a little drowsy, reminded us that lunch was a better option when facing a number of courses that runs into double figures.
I managed to move the table to the following weekend and for lunch rather than dinner. So on Saturday 15th May, we drove to rural Berkshire. Bray is tiny; blink and you’ll miss it. It has the air of a French village where the main road to somewhere else runs through the middle. As we were a little early, we walked over to the Hinds Head pub which is adjacent to the Fat Duck and part of the Blumenthal empire.
The Hinds Head is a lovely little English pub and worthy of a visit in its own right. The menu looks stellar with steaks from O’Sheas in town. We hope to go back for lunch later in the year.
As the clock moved past 12, we walked next door to the Fat Duck to be greeted by both the Restaurant Manager and the Operations Manager. (At this stage it seems appropriate to add that I know one of them; my review however, remains impartial)
We were shown to our table in what is a very small, intimate dining room. There are 12 tables in a horseshoe arrangement in a rustic room with plenty of exposed wood and simple art on the walls. The tables are arranged simply with a single flower in a glass as decoration.
The menus arrived encased in thick leather. Some time last year, the restaurant dispensed with their a la carte menu in favour of a single tasting menu currently priced at £150 per head. The menu is reproduced on their website and so it came as no surprise to me. Our waiter explained that the kitchen would be delighted to cater for any dietary requirements or simply substitute anything that either of us didn’t wish to eat. Mrs Pondering Gourmet doesn’t particularly care for roast foie gras and needed little persuasion to switch when offered langoustines, one of her favourite foods. Detailed on the menu were the wines served by the glass as a wine flight available at £90 per head. The selected wines were an interesting selection taking in Australia, Germany, France, Japan, Portgual, Italy and Spain. The full wine list was a hefty tome which I had a quick browse through. Champagne was offered from the cart. We both had a glass in a nod to my advancing years, but neither of us felt like drinking more so water would be our accompaniment.
Before the show began, we were presented with an envelope each sealed with wax and imprinted with the Fat Duck logo. Inside, the menu to guide you through the next few hours. As I had another look the great man himself, Heston Blumenthal came out of the kitchen and came over to the table and introduced himself. We had a brief chat as I tried not to grin like a starstruck moron.
(Nitro Poached Green Tea with Lime Mousse)
And so the magic began. Before your very eyes liquid nitrogen is used to create a dome of mousse with a green tea dusting. The lime notes are accentuated with a lime essence sprayed into the air that instantly conjure up images of lime groves or gin and tonic on a hot afternoon.
The mousse domes are made individually and guests are asked to consume them immediately. It melts and slightly fizzes in the mouth, releasing green tea notes before refreshing the palate with lime. The intense cold of the liquid nitrogen makes itself felt, resetting the mouth ready for what will follow.
For the first time, my palate felt absolutely cleansed. I have had palate cleansers that have gently bathed or masked, but this was an altogether different experience with anything that might have been lingering in my mouth, banished so that I could ready myself for the rest of the meal. (9/10)
Red Cabbage Gazpacho
(Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream)
The first of many tricks of the mind. When you first lay eyes on the quenelle of ice cream and the deep red gazpacho, you assume that the soup will be the sharp counterpuch to rich ice cream. The first spoonful and you realise that it is in fact the other way round. The red cabbage gazpacho was sweet and round like a young glass of pinot noir; the mustard ice cream was mild but packed solid mustard notes. My mind kept expecting the flavours to be the other way round and each mouthful confused it more.
And then it was finished before my brain had a chance to get used to it. The initial intrigue aside, you are left with a competent gazpacho and a well made ice cream. This is perhaps the weakest dish on the menu; but to keep a sense of perspective, it’s because the others were just more interesting. This was the only course I might expect to see on any tasting menu across the globe. (7/10)
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream
(Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast)
The theatrics continued. A wooden block with oak moss is placed in the centre of the table and liquid nitrogen poured over the top creating a billows of smoke that gently envelope the table. Looking at the picture above, the tiny slab on the left is a slice of truffle toast and on the right, a cup of the quail, crayfish and parfait.
You are presented with a small piece of film which you are instructed to place on your tongue. The film melts and fills your mouth with the taste oak, heightening the aromas flowing from the box on the table.
The cup had had the trio set within it whilst at an angle, allowing you the pleasure of seeing the three layers after your first spoonful; and what a spoonful. The light crayfish cream is juxtaposed with the jelly before finally yielding to an earthy, velvet smooth parfait that coats the mouth. All three flavours compliment rather than compete and can be tasted individually. My first thought was of the ‘meal in a sweet’ from Charlie and the chocolate factory. You suck on it and get soup, a roast dinner and then a traditional pud.
I could have eaten several cups of the cream/jelly/parfait combination. The real let down was the truffle toast. This is perhaps a matter of personal taste but the deep dark colours led me brain to expect a large truffle punch when instead all I got was a mild waft. (8/10: 9/10 for the jelly/cream/parfait and 7/10 for the toast)
(Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel)
Snail Porridge is one of HB’s most famous dishes. For many, it’s inclusion on the menu probably represents one of those ‘wouldn’t normally eat it, but I’m here now’ type responses. I on the other hand love snails and couldn’t wait. A small oval bowl arrived. The base a deep green with plump snails perched on top. The fennel shavings akin to wafer thin tagliatelle.
Wow. The snail were unctuous, the ham a salty contrast with the green sweet grassy parsley porridge wrapping itself around the two. The shaved fennel provided a crunch without interrupting the flavours and there was a slight hint of Christmas pudding provided by slight citrus notes on the nose. I didn’t want this to end. (10/10)
Roast Foie Gras
(Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit)
Mrs Gourmet opted for an alternative to the foie gras. Instead of the foie, she had an exquisitely soft, sweet langoustine. The foie gras was buttery and rich and the sesame seeds scattered on top provided a contrasting crunch. The crab biscuit had an ozone quality that cut through the richness of the foie and the konbu emitted its familiar umami flavour. (8/10)
Mock Turtle Soup
(Mad Hatter Tea)
Another dish that was full of theatrics. You are presented with a bowl containing a pink oblong of ham terrine and something that resembles an egg (turnip in fact) with two enoki mushrooms sprouting from the top. To the right of the soup bowl is cup into which a gold fob (fashioned to resemble a pocket watch) is placed and water poured on top. The fob is dried beef consomme encased in gold leaf. The hot water turns it back into liquid form peppered with the slivers of leaf. You are then instructed to pour the consomme into the bowl.
The beef consomme was delicious; the flavour had been lifted with Maderia. The ham terrine was soft and yielding but I wasn’t overly enamored with the turnip which had a slightly gelatinous feel to it which felt at odds with the rest of the dish. (7.5/10)
Sounds of the Sea
(Halibut, Mackerel, Yellowfin Tuna)
A polished conch appears at the table. Sticking out of the side are some headphones which emit a pleasing sound of the coast. It sounds ridiculous but it really does make you feel like you are eating fresh fish outside by the coastline. The human brain is easily fooled.
First up, closest to you is a piece of yellowfin tuna. Unctuous, suitably fatty and accompanied perfectly by the ‘sand’ of breadcrumbs cooked with smoked eel. Next, the mackerel in the middle which was given a boost by the pieces of sea kelp. Finally a piece of halibut that sang of Earl Grey as the bergamot notes rang out. (10/10)
Salmon poached in liquorice
(Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil)
A beautiful dark box of liquorice that when opened contains perfectly cooked light pink salmon. The liquorice balance was perfect, strong enough that you could taste it compliment the oiliness of the salmon, delicate enough that it didn’t trample upon any of the other flavours. I love roe of any description and the trout variety on the plate burst open periodically to cut through both flavours. This dish changes slightly through the year by all accounts as the vegetable is always seasonal. Nothing beats English asparagus and here were three perfect examples of that heady claim. The vanilla mayonnaise was technically perfect and worked with the salmon, but not the asparagus. The Manni olive oil was dotted on at the table very sparingly, so much so that I really couldn’t taste it. (9/10)
Powdered Anjou Pigeon
(Blood pudding and confit of umbles)
The plate arrived with three pieces of pigeon that were caramalised on the outside and blushing pink within. Unsurprisingly, they were perfectly cooked and had the gamey richness of well sourced pigeon. The blood sauce was a real revelation. I haven’t had the courage to cook with blood as yet, nobody I have cooked for has ever seemed keen. It had the consistency of a chocolate ganache but packed a heavy, meaty and slightly sweet flavour. A little dab slathered over each mouthful of pigeon was heavenly. The umble (heart) was offal at its best. (10/10)
Hot and Iced Tea
Sweet earl grey. Hot on the left hand side and cold on the right hand side. Really. Bonkers. Brilliant. (10/10 for sheer skill)
(Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon)
The first of what would turn out to be three puddings. This was a crisp tart with plenty of sweet flavours, all tempered by silky fromage blanc. The fennel gave it warmth and depth. Whilst it tasted very good, I didn’t find it particularly exciting (8/10)
(Black Forest Gateau)
I recall watching the episode of ‘In search of perfection’ where Heston spent 30 minutes turning black forest gateau into one of his works of art. I therefore had some idea as to what to expect. It was even better. The gateau is light and creamy. There is a massive kirsch kick that really makes it ‘BFG’ rather than any old cake. The velvety ice cream complimented the light, yet somehow rich cake. (9.5/10)
Bacon and Egg Ice Cream
(Candied Bacon, Brioche, Tomato compote)
When the tasting menu was last updated, this was removed. As a bacon fiend, I was disappointed. As it was my birthday, the person I know at the FD surprised us with this as an extra course. A copper pan on a rest is brought to the table. You are shown an egg which is cracked into the pan; this is the bacon and egg cream. Liquid nitrogen is added and in just over a minute, the ice cream is cooked before you. It’s served on a piece of bacon, wafer thin and shiny. Underneath is a piece of brioche with a sweet tomato jam lurking within.
The bacon and egg ice cream had a familiar smoky taste. As expected, the lack of ice crystals meant it was exceptionally smooth. It was cold set cream, there wasn’t any ice in sight. The lacquered bacon has the distant (and pleasing) smell of a freshly polished wooden floor. It was crispy and sweet. At the bottom, the brioche was buttery and the tomato compote sweet with the flavour of ripe tomatoes.
The three flavours worked wondrously together. A real winner. No idea why this isn’t still on the menu. (10/10)
Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
Five wine gums with five distinctly different whisky flavours. (8/10)
“Like a kid in a sweet shop”
A pink and white striped bag of sweets appeared with coffee. The menu card smelt like a sweet shop. All were beautiful and as described. For me, the apple pie caramel was the stand out item. (8/10)
With that, the meal was over. After a quick tour of the kitchen we made our way home. The Fat Duck was an amazing experience; it’s more than just a meal, it’s a chance for highly skilled professionals to play with and heighten your senses in order to produce exceptional cuisine.
If I had any overall criticism, it would be the lack of a defined main course. In this array of ‘Galacticos’ (but infinitely more successful than Real Madrid), the pigeon seemed more like a midfield genius than the star striker. I would love to see HB’s take on beef or veal.
Don’t let that detract from how massively impressed I was with the Fat Duck. The food was brilliant, the experience unique and the service impeccable.
It. was. amazing.