In last year’s exceptional documentary Closer To The Edge, central protagonist Guy Martin says that the word unbelievable is bandied around too much these days. Despite spending most of the film inches from self-afflicted doom, he refutes claims that what he’s doing is unbelievable, going on to say “When a man eats his own head, I will hold me hands up and say: ‘THAT is unbelievable’.”
It’s hard to argue with his sentiment. In the overhyped, sensationalist world in which we live, reputations are built up and knocked down with one fell swoop of a journalist’s hand. Amid mediocrity, the good can seem great, the great can seem extraordinary and the plausible is often labelled with that word… Unbelievable.
It was with those sage words ringing in my ear that I arrived in the sleepy Berkshire village of Bray last week to go for dinner at Heston Blumenthal’s flagship restaurant The Fat Duck. Three Michelin stars are not handed out willy-nilly, indeed only four such places in the UK have ever been exalted to such pantheons of greatness, but at the same time I was wondering if food could ever achieve the tag affixed by so many to the place. Unbelievable.
The restaurant itself is a surprisingly low-key affair. No garish sign outside (it’s entirely possible to walk past and not even acknowledge its existence), nor lavish décor to distract you. The bells and whistles that adorn so many places are stripped out. This is a gastronomic experience, laid bare. Even the element of choice is removed, something an indecisive and non-fussy eater like myself is hugely appreciative of. You are seated, told what you are going to eat, and that is the end of it. The curtain is raised.
The first course (of fourteen, no less) was described as nitro poached aperitifs, a phrase that only really makes sense in hindsight. A choice of three classic pre-dinner drinks were offered, in mousse form, and poached in smoking liquid nitrogen before your very eyes. The waiter’s dexterity in their creation somehow transforming the scientific-looking canisters into an effortless art form. This is far from the only time this bridge between those age-old polar opposites is crossed during the course of the meal. The result here, resembling a small meringue, was ice cold yet melted in the mouth to leave the exact sensation of your drink of choice. It was a strong opening statement.
A tasty dish of red cabbage gazpacho was quickly followed by another of the eccentrically original creations that I had gone to experience. We were instructed to place a slither of oak moss on our tongues to prepare our palates for what was to follow. A slice of truffle toast sat aside a bowl of quail jelly, crayfish cream and chicken liver parfait. As the moss coated your mouth and prepared you for the earthy nature of the truffles, dry ice was poured liberally all over the table top, lending the impression that you were eating from the morning fog in a woodland clearing.
At this stage it’s probably worth noting that the inner cynic is screaming at you to ignore this OTT mumbo jumbo, but the fact of the matter is that you have gone to this extraordinary place to be entertained both sensually and theatrically. If you buy into the drama of the piece, the rewards are obvious. It was, needless to say, phenomenal.
Next up was one of the signature dishes of the place, in the form of snail porridge. The equally famous eggs and bacon ice cream had sadly been removed from the menu a while ago, but when Heston first hit the scene all those years ago, it was these dishes that captured the nation’s imagination. Many would recoil at the thought of snail porridge, it sounds rather like the sort of elaborately repulsive things that the baddies in Roald Dahl novels would eat, like bird pie or snozcumbers. It was however deliciously textured, and topped off with some intricately shaved fennel. Another extraordinary taste sensation.
It feels strange that I would not elaborate on the next course, but with fourteen to get through, the “mere” excellently roasted foie gras (which I hasten to add would be a highlight of most other meals) seems somewhat too ordinary to mention. The same cannot be said of the next dish.
The mad hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland was lovingly, deliciously and totally insanely recreated in front of our eyes. A gold pocket watch was dropped into a teapot of clear liquid, only to transform the contents into a tea-coloured consommé once shaken. From here, you were instructed to pour the contents into a teacup of veal and miniature poached egg to create the famous mock-turtle soup that the Hatter served up. It was a hilarious concept really, and one that played on the inner child in everyone. A good, yet unspectacular tasting dish was elevated through interaction. Conceptually, it took the cheap thrill you got from adding your own salt to crisps, or shaking your own salad… and ramped up the theatre a notch or ten.
The following dish was another headline act, the sounds of the sea. For this, we were given a conch shell with headphones coming out of it (as most conches do, naturally), and were instructed to listen to the noise of a gently-lapping shore as we marvelled over what was in front of us. A shoreline scene, briny sea crafted from edible froth, a sand substance made of anchovy and tapioca, all strewn with edible seaweed and sashimi, was to be the focus our four remaining senses. Heston has long claimed that sound can enhance your sense of taste and while it certainly added to the novelty of the experience, to my humble taste buds, the aural aspect was probably unnecessary. Bah, humbug!
The rest of the menu was a mix of the extravagant and the excellent, with the two very rarely separated. Salmon poached in a liquorice gel proceeded immaculately cooked lamb. A cup of hot and iced tea (each entering a different side of your mouth to cause the oral equivalent of when you’re simultaneously washing your hands under a hot and cold tap) was followed by a tiny edible picnic, complete with a white chocolate rug and wild strawberries.
By the time the sweeties came out at the end, I was unsure as to whether it was even the same meal as when I started. Fans of Heston’s television programmes will know that he possesses a sizeable inner child, and this manifests itself in the doggie bag you are given to go home with. Edible wrappers, coconut tobacco, jam-filled playing cards. It’s straight out of Willy Wonker, and given that you almost certainly won’t have room for them after the meal, a nice way to carry the experience over to the following day.
Anyhow, in summation, what were my overall feelings. Of course it is pretentious, that’s without question. In terms of sheer quality, you can definitely do better elsewhere, while the bill is big enough to make a Toucan jealous. But that’s missing the point. This is food served as theatre. This is novelty and invention, in the grand traditions of this fair isle. And with that in mind I find it hard to deny that, despite my reservations over the word, much of what you eat at The Fat Duck is… unbelievable.
by Harry Harland