Perhaps the most anticipated restaurant launch of the last 12 months has been this, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the soft launch of the restaurant in the few weeks before it formally opened yesterday, 31st January 2011. The website describes ‘Dinner’ as “The main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening”; I take dinner in the evening so at 7pm I arrived (with a few others) at the Mandarin Oriental.
The Mandarin Oriental stands opposite Knightsbridge tube station, where Sloane Street meets the Brompton Road. It’s an area so affluent that if you close your eyes and breathe deeply, you can smell money. The bouquet has been enhanced of late by One Hyde Park the apartment block next door where the penthouse suite was on sale for a mere £140 million. The hotel itself was renovated in 2000 and is opulent without being gaudy. There is a street level entrance for Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s London outpost but access to Dinner is through the main entrance, up the stairs and to the left where it’s predecessor Foilage was located. This however, is a very different space to its predecessor, bigger and modern.
On arrival at reception you can see into the bar where we stopped for a drink. The bar menu has undergone a transformation and instead of listing cocktails by type they have been grouped by destination. If you are feeling like a New York minute or leaving Las Vegas there is a choice on the menu for you. I played it safe by having a gin and tonic, selecting from the numerous gins on the list (Tanqueray 10) before being asked whether I had a preferred method of preparation (I do: slice of lime, cold gin, cold tonic, no need for ice) or whether I was happy for them to prepare it in the house style. I chose the latter. I was brought a long glass filled with ‘tempered ice’ (I know a few people who fit that description) which is specially made on site using a process that makes it colder than normal and harder so that it melts slowly and doesn’t dilute the drink too much. Perched atop the ice was a curl of lemon skin. The bartender told us that lime oil was too heavy for gin and it disrupted the delicate botanicals but lemon doesn’t. The peel rather than a segment helped give the drink a gentle lemon zing rather than pips and flesh which again would be too heavy.
We were led into the restaurant which is large and airy. Part of the wine cellar is on display behind floor to ceiling glass. The main kitchen juts out from the right hand side of the room and has a similar glass wall so that you can watch the final stages of preparation before you plate is delivered to the table. We were sat by one of the enormous windows that looks out onto Hyde Park. By night it looks dramatic, by day I suspect it delivers a beautiful view of the park. Once again the main wall is glass and the occupiers of the room can choose whether to have a view out into the restaurant or to close the blinds and shut out the rest of the world. The decor inside the private room reminded me of Heston’s Feasts on Channel 4. Immediately adjacent to the kitchen is a chef’s table which seats 6. It’s separated from the kitchen by a busy corridor and looks directly at the pass. I suspect it will be very popular as will be the terrace overlooking Hyde Park when it opens during the summer. The table is simply decorated. Bare dark brown wooden tables with stemless wine glasses for water and sensibly sized wine glasses next to them whilst below the cutlery is different and delicate.
The menu of 8 starters, 10 main courses and 7 desserts covered a broad range of flavours and tastes. Alongside each dish was the date of its popularity. At Dinner, these dishes have been recreated with a generous dusting of Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmer-Watts attention to detail and skill. It’s worth noting that whilst the restaurant bears HB’s name, it’s Palmer-Watts who runs the kitchen. Those wanting the authentic HB experience need not fear, Palmer-Watts has been running the Fat Duck kitchen for many years. I didn’t get to see the set lunch menu but it’s now on the website. According to articles in the press a afternoon tea and tasting menus will follow in due course.
One of my fellow diners agreed with my plan to order different dishes and then swop halfway through so that we could try six dishes. It ended up being five different dishes as we both wanted a tipsy cake each.
The Roast Bone Marrow served with parsley, anchovy, mace and pickled vegetables. It was attractively presented in a long bone on a wooden board. The parsley and anchovy provided sweet and salty notes to bring out the deep almost fungal flavours of the marrow. The pickled vegetables were crisply acidic and complimented the fat in the marrow.
Meatfruit. This is billed as one of the restaurant’s signature dishes and rightly so. In the 16th century it was popular for meat to be disguised as fruit and so here the smoothest chicken liver parfait is encased in a mandarin gel. An inedible stalk is added and it looks just like a piece of fruit on a wooden board with two pieces of grilled bread. The outer ‘peel’ has a silky quality and a strong mandarin aroma. Inside is the smoothest parfait I have ever tasted. The offal flavour is mild yet but not meek; this is definitely the sort of thing that foie gras lovers will enjoy. The mandarin peel brings a rounded sweetness to the buttery parfait and chewy, crunchy grilled bread. I could have done with a third slice of bread, but I’m really nitpicking here.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the steaks on the menu. Dinner sources its beef from Jack O’Shea the Irish butcher who can be found in the Food Hall at Selfridges. Along with the Ginger Pig, they produce the best beef that I’ve bought in the UK. At Dinner they serve a Sirloin of Black Angus or a Wing Rib for two, to share. Making eye contact with a fellow steak aficionado across the table, we resolved to share the wing rib which came with mushroom ketchup (umami and tangy), red wine juice (concentrated but not sticky) and triple cooked chips. Before I move on about the beef, a note about the triple cooked chips. They were crisp, crunchy, meltingly soft in the middle and not oily in the slightest. I imagine that they have spent some time being dehydrated after one of the three frys. The wing rib was huge, it came sliced in thick slabs with the bone to fight over. The meat was medium rare as suggested and an even shade of ruby red inside with a good crust on the outside. I kept eating but the amount of steak on the plate seemed to stay the same. Be warned, even though this is for two to share, each half is big. The steak was very good and the mushroom ketchup an intriguing condiment but this shouldn’t be the reason to visit Dinner when there are far more exciting things on the menu. (The carrots were delicious and spiced with something quite unusual, worth trying so I won’t spoil the surprise).
I couldn’t choose between the duck and the pigeon and so asked the waiter for his suggestion. He encouraged me to go for the spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes and so I did. The pigeon was rich, gamey and very soft; almost to the point of being like fillet steak in texture. Chef had crisped the skin and the fat was visible enough that it could be removed by those who don’t like it. The jus, just like that served with the steak was rich without being over-reduced and cloyingly sticky. The baby artichokes almost outshone the pigeon. Aside from being arranged to look like rib bones to the pigeon’s meat they were evenly charred and had a delicate texture and flavour that went perfectly with the pigeon.
Along with the meatfruit, the tipsy cake has been described as a signature dish at Dinner. A traditional tipsy cake is served alongside roasted pineapple. The pineapples are on a turning spit and roasted over an open fire. The fruit is caramelised on the outside but retains it’s moisture on the inside. It also seems to loose some of the acidic edge that normally puts me off eating pineapple. A slice of pineapple with a little of the moist cake, the base covered in caramel goodness is very rich and though the portion is small, you probably couldn’t manage any more.
With dessert out of the way we were offered coffee or tea, the latter on a menu with seven or eight different varieties offered. I opted for a Taiwanese tea which was served in a clear pot which provided a single cup in the attractive double walled glass. The waiter indicated that on request he would top up the pot for a second cup. The second cup from good leaf tea always has a different blend of flavours from the first.
To finish, we were presented with an espresso cup filled with an earl grey ganache and caraway biscuits. The ganache was sweet and sticky with the unmistakable perfume of bergamot. The soft texture is what I imagine the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to have been like.
The wine list is smaller than its competitors but it’s quality not quantity here. The Sommelier used to hold the same position at the Capital down the road. I enjoyed three rather good bottles of Burgundy and a bottle of Tokaji with the 5 others at the table. The prices are what you would expect from a restaurant at a 5 star hotel or a Michelin starred establishment.
Dinner by Heston is a break away from what HB is best known for. It opened yesterday and is now fully booked until the end of May 2011 which is no surprise. Despite the hefty price tag, (3 courses for around £55, a set lunch at a far more economical £28), the demand for tables at Dinner will almost certainly continue to be huge given the location and that it’s 1/3rd of the price of the Fat Duck! The next round of Michelin stars will be handed out in January 2012 and Dinner will certainly make the list. Whether it gains 1 or 2 stars in it’s first year will be interesting to see.
As for me, I’d go back for the meatfruit alone.