Our reservation for lunch at one of the world’s best restaurants by one of the most crazy, forward thinking and innovative chef’s of modern times – Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray – was secured just after a multi million pound refurbishment of the restaurant. Thousands clambered to get a golden ticket for the chance to sample the food of one of the planet’s most talked about chefs. We were two very lucky diners.
Following a spell over in Melbourne, Australia the restaurant is now back home in Bray after the massive revamp complete with a whole new menu themed around Heston’s childhood memories including a trip to the seaside, time spent in the woods and suchlike. Essentially it’s an idyllic day in the life of a young Heston Blumenthal.
Arriving into Bray village itself you could blink and miss the most famous centre as it’s three restaurants sit on a blind bend, all three owned by Blumenthal. The Fat Duck is smaller than it looks in pictures or on television, almost like someone’s house. The Hinds Head with a spacious frontage spreading the width of the bend looking every inch the country pub and a little further down is The Crown, completing Heston’s Bray empire.
We parked up just behind the development kitchens of The Fat Duck which has plenty of room for guests of all three establishments. If you arrive a little early feel free to watch a steady parade of chef’s going in and out of the buildings which form the hub of preparation and experimentation for The Fat Duck before being taken over the road to the restaurant due to limited space. These buildings contain the laboratories which can be seen in Blumenthal’s many television series such as ‘Feast’ and ‘In Search of Perfection’.
Being amongst the first people into the building we ended up joining a line of various nationalities who had also been lucky enough to get a ticket. Parties go in one at a time in order to make your journey more personal. After being handed a map of our journey through the menu we were seated in the newly refurbished dining room. Anyone over 5’11 please keep a look out for the low beams. Thankfully the staff will remind you. On arrival we happened to spot food critic Andy Hayler at a neighbouring table.
With the dining room slowly filling up we were served a complimentary glass of champagne and had a chat with the head sommelier and restaurant manager who had been keeping a keen eye on my past recreations of dishes from The Fat Duck Cookbook and Historic Heston through my twitter feed. They came across as the perfect hosts and didn’t chastise me for declining the wine list. What usually happens is that diners are taken down to the cellar to pick out their chosen bottle, normally at great expense. We opted for fresh juice – very nice it was too.
The show then gets underway, to make it easier I have divided it into sections:
The Day Before We Go: Are we nearly there yet?
The smaller dishes begin here with beetroot and horseradish cream macarons, a Jerusalem artichoke ice cream rocher with green gazpacho and nasturtium finishing with nitro-poached cocktails. All of these dishes were superb, the gazpacho dish especially. So fresh and the ice cream was surprisingly good.
The macarons were one bite wonders but looked a little odd sitting on a huge plate with one macaron in the centre. The ‘cocktail’ is the restaurants signature nitro-poached aperitif with a choice of pina colada, lime and green tea or bellini. We opted for lime and green tea which tasted sensational along with a puff of smoke from the nostrils for good measure. The result of sub-zero temperatures.
Morning: Rise and shine, it’s breakfast time
Two more dishes in this section of the menu. Rabbit flavoured hot and iced tea and a cereal dish with a difference.
Firstly the tea was the weakest point of the entire menu. The ‘tea’ is served in a small glass, one side hot and one side cold – a supposed upgrade on the previous ‘hot and iced tea’ that the restaurant used to have on the menu. The hot and iced effect was different but the rabbit stock tasted like lukewarm gravy. Combining the two temperatures in the mouth wasn’t pleasant and baffled me that they served it. In Hayler’s review he enjoyed this dish giving it 17/20, god knows how.
The cereal dish was a lot of fun. The waiting staff place a huge variety pack of different cereals before you and instruct you to pick one and open the box to discover a toy. In this case a money box made of jigsaw pieces to put together in order to hold a coin. The detail on the box is amazing with the ‘best before’ date showing ‘best before: going to the beach’. A dish of bacon cream and tomato jelly arrives to which you pour your cereal on to creating the texture of a bowl of cereal but the taste of a full English. An amazing concept.
Mid-Morning: First one to see the sea….
Sound of the sea, savoury lollies and a rockpool dish make up this section.
I had a go in the early weeks of getting The Fat Duck Cookbook at making Sound of the sea but with little success. To try it for real was a personal victory, almost like looking at the answers after a written test. Delicate cured seafood with salty hits coming from the miso sand to the tune of the seagulls and crashing waves by way of an Ipod. It’s slightly odd watching people two courses behind you looking over at your table while you have headphones in – I can’t honestly say I was transported to my own peaceful island.
Savoury lollies were a delight, the salmon twister lolly especially with the intricate weaving of the mousses. A truly skilled hand has been on these. The flavours all complemented each other and the presentation was another level. The other lolly combines flavours of a Waldorf salad – celery, grape and walnut.
The rockpool dish was another piece of theatre with a crab-shaped biscuit in the midst of a rockpool-shaped plate with a garnish of seaweeds onto which a mussel broth is poured over the biscuit to melt the crab shell away and leave behind a soup with white crabmeat and sweetness from the melted biscuit. This was oh so good.
A crab ice cream ‘Mr Whippy’ was the final curtain of this chapter. The ice cream was alright but hard to get the flavours of crab in ice cream form to work. It just about made it.
Afternoon: If you go down to the woods today…….(and we did)
The flavours now take a more earthy theme as a forest floor style dish with oak moss is served before the mock turtle soup and sandwiches follow.
A large jar with moss and dry ice creates an damp oak aroma when hot water is poured onto it. The eyes of the whole restaurant were on our table at this point as large plates of shaved mushroom, truffle, beetroot jellies and other earthy components were placed in front of us. Taste-wise it was decent but quite a dry dish, the mushrooms especially. Not bad.
Around the two-hour mark I decided the check out the toilet facilities and this seems to be where the vast chunk of the refurbishment has been blown. The toilet is like one of those in Japan – no need to lower or raise the seat or even flush, it does it all for you. Very impressive.
The Mock Turtle Soup is another legendary stand-out of the restaurant. An arrangement of swede and turnip jelly set to resemble an egg along with garnishes of diced ox tongue and truffle with a consomme set in the shape of a gold pocket watch dissolved and then poured into the bowl. Not to mention the sandwich on the side with contains a frightening amount of ingredients such as cucumber, truffle, egg yolk mustard and homemade ketchup. Just check out how tiny those enoki mushrooms are. The precision up to now has been frighteningly good on the plates, almost like the borrowers are in the kitchen cooking your lunch.
Evening: Are you ready for dinner?
This step screwed with our minds a bit. After all those intricate work-of-art dishes you now sit down to a three course dinner. The waiter hands us a menu with the courses listed and bread is served. This completely throws you, almost like the meal is beginning all over again.
Prawn cocktail, Duck a L’orange and Cheese with Grapes are the menu listings. Deceptively simple.
The Prawn Cocktail turns out to be langoustine with kombu crisps and sesame. Incredibly soft langoustine with a very Japanese influenced arrangement on top of a precise line of onion gel. Very good.
The duck was a work of art on the plate. Each drizzle of sauce was identical. Almost as if they have a template in the back instead of doing it inexplicably accurately in freehand. The dish had so many textures and variance of taste. The orange was strong and then fresh, the puree was sweet and sticky with a crispy texture of the slow cooked duck spring roll and duck skin over a beautiful sous-vide duck breast. Magnificent.
Although that dish was put in the shade very quickly by the Botrytis Cinerea. A dish resembling a grapevine containing an incomprehensible amount of elements dedicated to the flavours of wine, blue cheese and pear. This was an absolute work of genius, pretty as a picture and the flavours and textures I can’t get over, it was sheer perfection. From popping candy to salt elements of the cheese and a leaf motif made from isomalt sugar. Skill on a ridiculous scale. Our favourite dish of the lot.
All this was completed by the petit fours section containing Whisky Wine Gums, delicious and incredibly strong in flavour. Definitely not one for the kids.
Bedtime: Off to the land of Nod
The waitress then appears with the dessert forks ‘Why are you not asleep yet?’ she asks. Our blank expressions give the impression that the joke has fallen flat. In fact it’s probably due to Andy Hayler’s dining companion keeping us awake. I mean the restaurant is close quarters anyway so the last thing you need disturbing your lunch is an American on the next table with a voice like a foghorn.
Two Horlicks flavoured meringues with liquid centre’s on top of a levitating pillow arrive at the table. The waitress attempts to get the pillow to levitate but without success on the first two tries. Luckily third time’s the charm and away it spins, offering a welcome breeze.
The main dessert then follows. A tonka bean meringue with pistachios and a perfect rocher of milk ice cream along with frozen yogurt crumb, orange and bergamot. The dessert wasn’t actually the main talking point, although it’s nice enough – the spoon that you eat it with is wrapped in a furry sleeve that smells supposedly like fresh bedsheets and lavender, very strange.
And then to dream
The final curtain. A huge doll’s house is wheeled up beside your table and all eyes are back on your table again. The coin that was given earlier from the cereal course is needed to drop into the house which randomly selects a draw containing your petit fours. The Queen of Hearts, Oxochocolate – from the perfection series – apple pie caramel and aerated mandarin chocolate. It’s the perfect end to the meal.
A nice espresso rounded off an interesting, thought provoking and insanely expensive meal. First off let’s talk price. The meal itself cost us £255 per head just to secure the reservation with the remaining balance to be paid plus a whopping service charge once we had finished the meal with the final total coming in at over £600. Bear in mind that figure is without wine. It’s astronomical in the extreme but then again with The Fat Duck getting crazy amounts of requests for reservations it’s a case of supply vs demand.
There are huge pro’s to dining at The Fat Duck. The professionalism of the service is second to none, every member of the team worked incredibly well juggling everything from serving food to actually plating dishes. Giving an interactive feel to the experience and doing it with such ease really takes a lot. Well done to them.
The kitchen team also are unbelievable at their jobs – and let’s not forget the rest of them over the road beavering away tirelessly doing the prep work. Read Alex Watts’ ‘Down and Out in Padstow and London’ for a glimpse of how hard life is behind the stoves of this restaurant at three star level. The quality and presentation of getting each dish identical was astounding.
For me though there were a few gripes. The restaurant seems more primed for an Armani advert, let some light in and take away the claustrophobia and fear of tripping over fellow diners on the way to the bathroom. The use of maltodextrin to transform liquids into powders didn’t sit well with me either. Not to mention that rabbit tea.
Overall though it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Certainly not an experience to be repeated. Due to how the menu is, the price it’s at and the likely chance of getting a table in the first place. There’s only a handful of times in life that you will ever be able to eat at a place like this. Once ranked as the world’s best restaurant and living up to glimpses of that past glory but now I fear The Fat Duck could just be turning into a money-making machine. I hope that i’m wrong.
Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday 1200-1315