we were fat duckers
The Fat Duck in Bray is run by Heston Blumenthal, made famous by television here and made infamous by devising snail porridge. His three-starred Michelin restaurant has been voted the "2nd Best Restaurant in the World", coming behind the legendary El Bulli in Spain. He is probably best compared to Thomas Keller of French Laundry in Napa, Calfornia. Creator, part scientist/part alchemist, and oddly, somewhat of a sex symbol. I'd been looking forward to this for two months; my birthday meal had finally come.
This is a view of the dining room, along with the mumbliest waiter in the world. I'm not joking, I was reading lips at one point and was thisclose to begging him to switch to French in the hopes I might be able to catch a few more words.
The menu for us to take home, complete with a Fat Duck wax stamp.
We went for the tasting menu, and Paul had the wine tasting menu with it. Here is my lengthy, but hopefully useful "review" of our epic meal.
NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE: I didn't have time to take a photo because it had to be eaten immediately. A waiter came to our table and squirted an artfully dispensed blob of egg white and lime on a spoon, then placed it in a container of liquid nitrogen (which is something like -150C). It floated on top like a poached egg for a few seconds, then the waiter placed it on a plate and dusted it with green tea powder. We were instructed to pop it into the mouth in one, and I felt it dissolve immediately into a bite of cold slush. It was to refresh the mouth and clean the palate, which it certainly did.
POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM, RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO: Once your brain realises not to expect something sweet, the ice cream becomes a little more enjoyable. The first bite was unpleasant, dominated by the grain mustard and incredibly odd when your eyes see a quenelle of ice cream but your mouth experiences something completely savoury. The next few bites were more enjoyable; however, the flavours didn't work for me at all.
JELLY OF QUAIL, LANGOUSTINE CREAM, PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS, OAK MOSS AND TRUFFLE TOAST: Now this is what we came for: theatre, amazement, surprise, and incredibly intense flavours. The first stage is a moss-flavoured film placed on the tongue and left to dissolve, which tasted wonderfully earthy without actually tasting like moss (or what you'd expect moss to taste like, never having eaten it myself.) Liquid nitrogen was poured on a small platform filled with fresh moss, to give the effect of being in the woods on a misty morning. The parfait was astounding; so dense with flavour and surprisingly filling. The tiny, thin, delicate toast provided a lovely contrasting texture.
SNAIL PORRIDGE: The famous snail porridge, which did frighten me when placed in front of me. I wasn't too bothered about the snails, but the lurid green mush underneath them scared me slightly. It tasted delicious, again, deeply savoury and rich, and topped with crispy fennel. The snails were tender (I always think of my last experience of escargot as being akin to eating erasers sauteed in garlic butter) and the porridge beautifully flavoured. I do think the porridge is there more for novelty than for taste as it's not quite identifiable and heavily disguised by the rest of the ingredients.
ROAST FOIE GRAS "BENZALDEHYDE" (Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry, Chamomile): Beautiful, delicate, and again, completely surprising. You'd never expect bakewell tart to go with fois gras, but it was perfect.
"SOUND OF THE SEA": Definitely more for entertainment than adventures in haute cuisine, "Sound of the Sea" comes with an iPod Nano playing sounds of the seaside. Paul's wine tasting selection was sake for this dish, which I fully understood as the flavours very much reminded me of Japanese food. The "plate" was lined with foam representing the foam left behind after a wave comes in (which didn't taste of anything), "sand" made of tapioca and eels (more frightening than it sounds; it was mostly just salty), three different kinds of fish (mackerel, yellowtail, and another fish that has slipped our minds), and varieties of seaweed underneath. I got it; it's the seaside. What I didn't get was the "wow factor" or a lot of flavour.
SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE GEL (Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and “Manni” Olive Oil): It did look much more beautiful than this, but I forgot to take a photo before digging in. The liquorice wasn't detectible in the gel, which is probably a good thing. Salmon wrapped in an Allsort wasn't going to do it for me; thankfully, it was simply a delicately cooked piece of fresh fish. The vanilla mayonnaise was light and went well with the salmon. The servers shaved liquorice on top of the dish and added drops of olive oil, however these too weren't detectable. The pink flecks on the plate is grapefruit, which was wonderfully fresh in the mouth.
BALLOTINE OF ANJOU PIGEON (Black Pudding “made to order”, Pickling Brine and Spiced Juices): Black pudding doesn't thrill me at the best of times, let alone when it appears as a glistening teardropped-smear on my plate, but I tried it with the pigeon anyway. Alone, it was very rich and didn't taste pleasant. With the pigeon, it blended well. The pigeon was incredibly tender and moist, and the crispy "crackling" (forgot to ask what it was made from) was light as a feather. By this point, I was starting to get full and this dish felt a bit heavy in my stomach.
HOT AND ICED TEA: This has got to be most the bizarre thing I've ever experienced; half of my mouth filled with warm Earl Grey tea and the other with cold. Bizarre, but sensational. I think the tea had honey and lemon in it, and it was a lovely "refresher" after the dense feeling left after eating the pigeon.
MRS MARSHALL’S MARGARET CORNET: Mrs Marshall, unlike Mrs Beeton, wrote and tested her own recipes in the Victorian era (so the small booklet we received before this course told us.) She was an early Blumenthal in drag, coming up with the idea to cook food with various gasses. This was her ice cream recipe, made from apple. I can live with foam, I'm getting used to jelly cubes, but I really can't get my head around salt used with dessert. Somewhere on this cone was a layer of salt, and it was an unpleasant surprise. I've been presented with salt on a dessert before (lemon tart with vanilla salt at the Old Bridge) and it made me wince then. I just don't get it, or what it's supposed to do for me.
PINE SHERBET FOUNTAIN (PRE-HIT): Sherbet to us North Americans is that white powdery sugar you find in Lik-M-Aid or those sweets that involved a firecracker-shaped paper tubes of powdered sugar with a liquorice stick for dipping. The concept of pine sugar makes me think of sweet floor cleaner, but this wasn't the case at all. The taste is difficult to describe, but mostly it was sweet with a wonderful hit of vanilla from the vanilla "stick" in the middle of the sherbet. Again, this was another palate-cleansing course before the final desserts.
MANGO AND DOUGLAS FIR PUREE (Bavarois of Lychee and Mango, Blackcurrant Sorbet, Blackcurrant and Green Peppercorn Jelly): Again, fearful of car freshener-flavoured food, I was hesitant about this one - particularly as the douglas fir was actually visible on top of the bavarois. And again, thankfully, it wasn't the case at all. The blackcurrent sorbet was intense and refreshing, with a sliver of (what I assumed was) dehydrated blackcurrent on top. The bavarois was delicate and light, not overly sweet.
And at this point, my camera battery died and just for fun, my phone also died. We had no photo-taking abilities, much to my huge disappointment.
PARSNIP CEREAL: The server chirped "Good morning!" and placed a miniature box of cereal in a bowl in front of us, with a small jug of milk. Both were made from parsnips, creating a tiny bowl of parsnip "corn flakes". Funny, cute, but pointless. It tasted like parsnips (which is fine, I like parsnips), et alors? This was another novelty course.
NITRO-SCRAMBLED EGG AND BACON ICE CREAM (Pain Perdu, Tea Jelly): This was undoubtedly another highlight of the evening, simply because it tasted sublime and provided entertainment. Tableside, no less. A server again bid us a "good morning" and cracked an "egg" into a pot. I say "egg" because although the outer shell was definitely once a chicken's egg, the inside was a pre-prepared liquid that had been injected inside. Once again, our friend liquid nitrogen appeared to "cook" the egg. The server stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon and announced that it was scrambled eggs. Another server placed a plate with the pain perdue and a razor-thin slice of bacon in front of the other server, who topped it with the scrambled eggs. I was absolutely taken aback and delighted at the flavour of the eggs; sweet with a hint of smoky bacon. The pain perdu was sweet, crunchy on the outside, and light inside. Beautiful - I would have gladly eaten a large slab of this in lieu of the three courses that preceded.
PETITS FOURS (Mandarin Aerated Chocolate, Violet Tartlet, Apple Pie Caramel in "Edible" Wrapper): I was presented with a plate of petite fours with "Happy Birthday" written on it. I can only speculate that Heston had anything to do with it. Let's just say he did and move on. Paul had an additional cheese course, and managed to pick the smelliest, ooziest cheeses of the lot.
I caught a glimpse of what I think was the man himself. He had been there earlier in the day for the lunch service (according to our fellow B&B guests at breakfast this morning) so I may not have been imagining things.
So what did we think overall? We loved the experience, we're thrilled that we did it, but it's not something we necessarily need to do again. It was gloriously extravagant (don't ask what the final bill was), service was perfect, and we're just not going to get a chance to do something like this very often in life. If we were to go again, we'd order a la carte. The table behind us did that, and their food looked delicious and a little more accessible (and less gimmicky.) We smiled from the first course until we left, noting in amazement that we'd just spent almost four hours eating. How often do parents get to do that? Fantastic; a real treat.