Some of you might have caught wind of my desperation when I couldn’t get through the very, very, very hot line. Some of you might have also heard that I made more than 160 calls to this very, very, very hot line. Those who know me personally, might also know that I managed to get through once, on my very last attempt to the very, very, very hot line, and was told by the lovely robo-voice to have my credit card details ready. I whipped my card out in a second, and listened patiently to a Scottish man regale the tales of Alice in Wonderland, as I wait for someone in the real world to
goddammitjustpickup thedamnphone. Someone who is flesh-and-blood, warm and hopefully able to coax me into giving him or her my card details as I play bratty coy, just to annoy the millions of frustrated callers who don’t even know who I bloody am. HA!
As I plot my evil ways to Alice, a chirpy ‘Good morning!’ snapped me out of it. Everything kinda picked up speed inside my head. Who am I kidding? I don’t have to be coaxed into giving up my card details. This is money that I’m dying to spend. Here, take it, take ALL of it (okay, maybe not..).
Me (tentatively): Oh gosh, I thought I would never get through. Can I make a reservation for two for [date: I can’t remember the original date I asked for, but it was exactly two months after the day I called them] please?
Reservations team: I’m so sorry, I’m not sure if we still have something for this date, please let me check…….Nope, we’re fully booked up.
Me (can you hear my heart breaking): Oh dear…do you have any tables available right up till that date (because you are only allowed to make reservations up till 2 months before your desired date)?
Reservations team: No, I’m afraid not…
Me (this was all very much shouted in my mind): THEN WHY THE HELL DID YOU LET ME THROUGH?! SHOULD HAVE DASHED MY HOPES AND STOMPED ALL OVER MY BLEEDING HEART BEFORE LETTING ME INTO YOUR BLOODY ALICE IN WONDERLAND STORYTIME!!!
Reservations team: Would you like to be put on the waiting list?
Me (in a huff): No. That’s fine.
Reservations team: You sure?
Me (still seething with anger and hopelessly steeped in disappointment): Yes.
Reservations team: I’m really sorry..Have a nice day ahead.
Me (only realising in horror what I just turned down mid-sentence, no, mid-word): Bye.
What the hell did I just do?! Did I just make more than 160 calls, finally get through, and reject going on the waiting list?! Was I possibly, legally insane?! It felt like someone pickled and dried my heart out, and wrung it slowly but surely into a million pieces. I called M to tell him what I did, and ever the optimist, he reassured me that we will get a reservation and he will sort it out. I wasn’t so sure of what he said.
About two weeks later, I was at work and have almost gotten over my stupidity when I received an email from M. It was titled, ‘Booking confirmed at The Fat Duck’. I was in disbelief. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t still legally insane. The short text from him read, ‘I only managed this. You want?’. Of course I want it!! And so we did. If you want to know, we were really lucky; M called as one table freed up in a cancellation.
One fine morning, we drove out to Bray, making sure that we had an early head start to avoid any donkey situation i.e. punctured tyre, lost our way, kidnapped by aliens who want to dine at The Fat Duck too, that might cause us to lose our reservation. It was a reasonably short drive and we got there an hour earlier than our lunch reservation. The town is small, and buildings are pretty in a nondescript kinda way. We couldn’t find where The Fat Duck was and wandered into the one shop that was opened along High Street, to kill time and to ask for directions. Another couple looked lost as they hovered outside the shop. The sweet lady pointed them, and hence, us, in the right direction; lo and behold, The Fat Duck was just opposite her shop, in the most unassuming building. The couple and us looked equally surprised. The owner of the shop chuckled and remarked, ‘Heston doesn’t need to show off.’. Indeed.
Since we were no longer lost, we headed over to The Fat Duck to see if we could be seated earlier and to our delight, we could. At first glance, the restaurant is very small and cottage-like with cream walls, wooden pillars and incredibly simple furnishing. It seats a maximum of only 45 diners each for lunch and dinner, and since only the tasting menu is served, only 90 individuals get to spend 4.5-5.5 hours of their lives here in a typical day at The Fat Duck. According to the manager, the restaurant boasts a 55-strong team, including the researchers, and that works out to more than a 1: 1 ratio between staff and diners. Granted, the menu stands at a whopping £160 per person, but knowing Heston and his tricks, the dedicated team and a strong staff-to-diner ratio, I knew we were paying for something special. Indeed, it was really something that we got at our excursion to Bray.
We started with a pretty pair of Aerated Beetroot with Horseradish Cream as M deliberated over the long list of vino in the encyclopedia-esque wine menu. A playful twist to the classic salad, these burgundy gems were almost honeycomb-like in texture and fun to eat. They certainly gave a hint of what’s-to-come on our 15-course menu.
The waiter pulled up by our table with a trolley full of gadgets that almost made me pee (in excitement) in my pants. Liquid nitrogen, dangerous-looking canisters, things that I was so used to seeing when I was still doing scientific research, but never quite at meal times. We were asked to choose from a selection of Nitro-Poached Aperitifs; I went for Vodka and Lime Sour while M went for Gin and Tonic. Much to Heston’s liking for pretty much anything that is out-of-the-box, these aperitifs were made from flavoured egg white mousse balls that were frozen immediately in liquid nitrogen and dusted with pairing flavours.
I didn’t get to taste the Gin and Tonic, as we were meant to pop the whole thing in our mouths and consume it in one bite, but my Vodka and Lime Sour, which was swiftly dusted with matcha powder (the powder puff was impossibly cute), went down pretty well with me. The ice-cold shell gave way to citrusy nothingness and cleansed my palette immediately; the waiter even spritzed some citrus-y fragrance over my head as I had it, and that made for a very special, ‘all-rounded’ aperitif.
Next, we had the Red Cabbage Gazpacho served with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream. Easily one of my favourite soups in the world now, even though I have never been a big fan of cabbage, the flavours were somewhat contrasting and complimentary at the same time. The gazpacho was laced with distinct cabbage-y notes (for the lack of a better word) and the mustard ice cream tempered it well, giving a tangy edge to the sweetness of the gazpacho. M was very pleased with this soup too.
The multi-sensory theme that we saw in the Nitro-Poached Aperitifs continued in the next dish, which was the Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast. I’ve always loved chicken liver parfait (done properly, of course) and truffles, so I was eager to see how this dish was presented. The waiter brought a bed of oak moss with two strips of film that resembled the Listerine breath freshener film, to the centre of our table. He then placed the truffle toast and parfait at our place settings, explained that truffles are naturally found amongst oak moss and that this dish was meant to be tasted in its ‘natural environment’. He asked us to open the little boxes and put the film on our tongues; instead of breath freshener, I was getting a delicate hint of woody oak. The waiter then poured some water into the bed of oak moss, and billows of oak fumes flowed out immediately, turning our little lunch to the natural grounds for truffle hunting. We tucked into the parfait and truffle toast as this happened, and it was just brilliant. I felt like I was there, right where truffles are naturally found. The parfait was savoury and incredibly smooth (heck, in a nutshell, it was just pretty damn tasty); it gave way to sweet pea puree and deep-flavoured jelly of quail. This was the perfect pairing for the pleasantly heady truffle toast. I joked to M and said that I could have this toast any time of the day, even though I’ve developed an aversion to bread because I had too many sarnies in London.
I was pretty bowled over by what we had thus far, so imagine getting the breath knocked out of me when I was told Heston’s famous Snail Porridge was next. I didn’t know how to prepare my senses for the next avalanche of flavours, but oh well, someone has got to do it, no? The snails were perfectly cooked and lent a delightful chew to the thick, buttery porridge oats. Although the chef was a little heavy-handed with the salt (or maybe it was the saltiness from the Iberico Bellota ham), the porridge was still a gem to have with the shaved fennel. It was warm, comforting, deceptively down-to-earth but damn right, possibly, the poshest porridge I’ve ever had and ever will have.
Another one of my favourites at The Fat Duck was the Roast Foie Gras with Barberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit. I thought this was a superior twist to the foie gras and berry pairings that we usually have, as the flavours used here were Japanese-inspired and worked very well indeed. I would advise picking up a little bit of everything before you have a bite. The thin film of braised konbu at the bottom of the foie gras gave a thrilling umami kick, which worked so seamlessly with the crab biscuit (it really tasted like a potent dose of crab) and the toasted sesame seeds on sprinkled on top of the foie gras. You could say that this was the best form and a good twist to the conventional ‘surf and turf’. I didn’t care much for the copious amounts of barberry though, I didn’t feel compelled to finish every last drop of the barberry, and only felt the need to have some of it with alternate bites of the foie gras.
Next came the Alice in Wonderland part of the menu, when we were served the Mock Turtle Soup with the Mad Hatter Tea. The theatrics really came into full-form with this dish when two waiters arrived at our table with a jewellery box containing two gold pocket watches. The storyteller of the two, told us that we were at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and that I was Alice, he was the March Hare, his colleague was the Mad Hatter and poor M was the doormouse. With a flourish of his hand, he opened the jewellery box, presented the gold pocket watches to each of us and dropped them into the empty teacups. Then, he added hot water to the teacups and told us to swirl the pocket watch in the teacup to dissolve it, just as the March Hare did in the story. It turned out that the pocket watches were made of beef consomme enrobed in gold leaves. This deliciously deep Madeira-ish broth was then poured over a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in Alice in Wonderland – a caterpillar sitting atop a mushroom smoking his hookah. Flavour-wise, I would go as far as to say that it was a very tasty consomme, but I was way more impressed with the theatrics and all that work that went into creating this dish, than with the flavours.
At this point, we were pretty impressed with everything we had. M told the waiter jokingly that this was getting out of hand and very ‘far-fetched’ but in a good way. The waiter told us we hadn’t seen nothing yet, and I agree. Just as we thought Heston couldn’t pull any more tricks that would raise our brows, he did. With an iPod and a beach holiday.
Yes, ‘Sound of the Sea’ was all it took to make us pause and check our screws. With this dish, we felt that we were far far away on a beach holiday, breathing in salty seabreezes, listening to the waves lapping on the shore and tasting the freshest offerings of the sea. And then we fell flat on our faces on the beach, but instead of gritty sand, we were eating very, very tasty sand with bits of fried baby sardines in it. We woke up when we were done with the sand. It was a very delicious dream.
Alright, alright, sorry, I must not make sense (don’t you see it now, nothing at The Fat Duck should but it does when you taste it).. Let me try again. Three pieces of sashimi – yellowtail, halibut and mackerel – were served on a bed of tapioca and fried baby sardine ‘sand’, and drizzled with sea water foam that was made from a seaweed stock. I was pleasantly surprised by how the sea water smelled (just like a real beach), and I was even more bowled over by the crunchy, savoury, addictive sand. I could lick the plate clean, and many other diners gestured to do so as well when they had theirs. It was the perfect way to present sashimi on a plate, but Heston likes to go over the board, doesn’t he? So he takes everything further and makes sure we enjoy the flavours of the sea whilst listening to crashing waves and seagulls on the iPod. We must have looked silly, and this might come across as gimmicky, but I liked how listening to the waves helped us focus on the experience of a beach holiday as we had this course. No distractions, no nothing, just me and the beach, which was really nice.
We were snapped out of our beach holiday dream with a spot of Salmon Poached in Liquorice Gel served with Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe on a bed of grapefruit pulp. I was least impressed with this dish. While the salmon was perfectly cooked (the best texture I’ve had), I couldn’t taste the liquorice (not that I wanted to because I’m not a fan..) and the sweet hint of the vanilla mayonnaise didn’t quite work for me. It was a decent dish, but it wasn’t something that jumped right out at me.
The Lamb with Cucumber, Onion and Dill Fluid Gel, however, begged to be eaten. It was one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever had, so tender, so perfectly done and well-paired with the hearty sides of fried lamb scrag and sweetbread served on a bed of sweet caramelised onions. This was finished with a wonderfully cool and savoury lamb jelly with bits of mint in it to cleanse the palette. M was absolutely enamoured with this course.
Next, we had the Hot & Iced Tea to refresh our palettes. I didn’t know what it would be like until I had it and let’s just say that this defies any sort of bodily reactions that you would expect. Usually, we would have something hot or something cold, and hardly something that was both. But this Hot & Iced Tea was both, in equal proportions, if I might add, as one side of your mouth feels hot and the other feels, well, cold. Odd, but very cool indeed. This made me giggle.
Pre-dessert was A Strawberry Picnic with Macerated Strawberries with Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile on a White Chocolate Picnic Mat. This was served with an Earl Grey Ice Cream Cornet (a salted wafer cone, no less!). I thought the strawberry picnic was just too pretty to consume, and really, a brilliant way to add a fun touch to the old-school magic of strawberries and white chocolate. I would make gingham picnic mats out of white chocolate everyday if I had the tools, but what a shame…I don’t know how and I guess I never will..
We were also served The ‘BFG’ (Black Forest Gateau) with kirsch ice cream, and spritzed with kirsch scent as we had it (I think you might have noticed a lot of spritzing goes on in this restaurant – you won’t need perfume for your hot date). I’m a pastry enthusiast and again, I was wow-ed by how beautifully constructed this BFG was. I couldn’t bear to have it, but when I did, there were no regrets. There was enough alcohol in it to temper with the sweetness of the cake, and it was smooth, light, yet creamy and chocolate-y at the same time. The kirsch ice cream was a real winner too, boasting an impossibly matt texture when you look at it (so much so that it looks fake), and gliding so smoothly on your palette when you sink your teeth into it. The sour bits of cherries lined on the plate gave a brilliant touch of tartness to the dessert too.
As with most wonderful meals, some people like to finish with a good swig of whiskey. But we were so full as we approached the end of the tasting menu that we couldn’t possibly. So Heston came up with a good way of having it – Whiskey Wine Gums, that were made to be consumed in a particular order (by region, as you can see on the map in the photo frame). You could have it all, from the sweet and mellow to the oaky and smoky! M loved this naturally, as he likes a good whiskey. I was just in for the fun of plucking whiskey gums out of a photo frame. These were very, very potent by the way, a lot of whiskey was packed into each gum.
As we ambled towards the end of the meal with our unpregnant but ‘pregnant’ bellies, we were treated Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop. I was particularly excited about this one, as I’ve seen Heston’s ingenious takes on sweets in his TV series (Heston’s Feasts, including his edible cemetery and edible house from Hansel and Gretel), and I’ve always wanted to see what his creations would taste like. We didn’t get an edible house, of course, but we did get a selection of Aerated Chocolate (Mandarin Jelly), Coconut Baccy (Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco), Apple Pie Caramel (with an edible wrapper) and The Queen of Hearts (a berry compote tart encased in white chocolate and printed to look like a playing card). M and I couldn’t get enough of the playing card, we had to fight over it.
We are quite amicable as two halves of a couple, but really, some dishes here at The Fat Duck are worth fighting for. I’ve come away thinking that I might never ever get to experience a meal like that again, and yes, I’m a whole lot poorer after this, but it was completely worth it. I don’t want to exaggerate, but a multi-sensory, theatrical meal like this that tastes equally good and surprises to no end, probably wouldn’t surface in my lifetime again. Having had my five senses (and possibly my sixth) so well taken care of at The Fat Duck, this could be the meal that takes the crown for me. Until, someone surpasses this, it seems….I can’t even begin to fathom how much work goes into creating every experience at The Fat Duck, for every plate is clearly produced with careful and calculated thoughts. Our reactions to scents, flavours, textures and the stories told at The Fat Duck have all been predicted by people who put themselves in our shoes, shoes of diners who are eager to be surprised. Oh, what wouldn’t the science geek in me give to be in the research team at The Fat Duck..
Anyway, I urge you to try and make a reservation. It is the experience of a lifetime – whether you end up liking it or not – well, that’s the way I see things when I am about to blow some cold hard cash on an expensive meal, so if you think like I do or if you love molecular gastronomy as much as I do, go for it.
Also read about my meal at Dinner, the other restaurant by Heston Blumenthal.
*Updated: This post has been featured on Foodgawker. Check out my profile on Foodgawker to see my other featured posts!
The Fat Duck is located at:
High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ