30.8.10

Pre-theatre? Actually, mostly theatre.

Our anniversary begins on a long grey road. It starts somewhere in the west of the Northern lands that summer has forgotten (aka Scotland) and inexorably winds deeper into the warmer climes of the South. The little silver car’s engine thrums along the road as its wheels eat up mile after mile, at first through a rain blurred landscape which shifts gradually to the haze of dusty industrialised cities and the verdant warm English farmland. Each passing hour becomes more temperate than the last as the little car faithfully draws us ever closer to the ancient countryside that surrounds Windsor castle until, eventually; we arrive in the little village of Bray, home of the Fat Duck.  
      Rows of tiny single story cottages (each unique and quaint) line the narrow high street, which is decorated in merry explosions of summer flowers and interspaced by local boutiques and small shops. Bray captures the air of once-upon-a-time England and we amble through its nearly deserted streets savouring the delicious stillness. The sun wanes and dips, washing the squat white buildings in smooth honey coloured light and, as the evening draws onwards, it feels like we are moving backwards to a bygone era.
      With not a little satisfaction we spot the iconic iron duck styled cutlery hanging from a surprisingly ordinary white fa├žade. The sign, as we head towards it, heralds the end of the long journey and the beginning of an altogether stranger adventure. Unconsciously holding our breaths we push open the heavy wooden door and step across the threshold …
      … Into a quietly efficient restaurant. Both the French waiter’s attire and the circular table cloths are pristine and starched. The interior is much as you would see in any cottage eatery, with white washed walls, dark wooden beams and splashes of tasteful ornamentation. Yet overall the space radiates the startling plainness of an untouched canvas.
      We are greeted warmly enough by a sharply dressed man of indeterminate age, whom we assume to be the head waiter and, with little preamble, shown to our table-for-two by the window. The window sports a view, through thin gauze, of the street outside where we amuse ourselves by watching other diners arrive and pose, as we did, for photos under the iron sign. As we are commenting on one particularly under dressed patron, buoying her way across the street, a waitress appears seemingly out of nowhere.
      “Is thees zee first time aht zee Fat Duck?’ she asks with a knowing look. There is a momentary pause as our brains struggle to digest the idea that some individuals would dine here more than once in a life time.
      “Um.. Yes” I reply, uncertain if this is an acceptable answer.
      “Ah good!” she says, somewhat reassuring us, with a big smile, “You ah in for eh treat!” With that vague threat she takes our drink orders and shows us the menu.
       Bound in thick dark leather and cleverly constructed with interlaced wooden strips to flip open from the left or from the right, it feels more like a piece of antique furniture than a menu. We carefully crack it open, and allow our minds to gorge on beautifully embossed pages and the courses described inside. I can’t help but feel a little intimidated and whisper furtive oohs and ahs of anticipation.
      Another French waiter appears out of nowhere (this seems to be a hallmark of the waiting staff in the Fat Duck) and, as he places freshly pressed pear juice on the table, asks, “What do you expect from zee Fat Duck?” We tell him about the food and the drama of the TV series and that we hope to have fun and enjoy good food. He nods and explains that many diners assume that it will be all about serious food and will be stiff and severe because of the triple Michelin star reputation. He is keen to impress upon us that this is very much not the case but is in fact, in his own words, “all about zee fun”.
      Surprisingly, he’s right.


LIME GROVE - Nitrogen Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse
A waitress wheels out liquid nitrogen, effervescing in an insulated copper bucket. She squeezes a blob of egg white foam into the nitrogen where it skitters about on the surface for a few seconds before she fishes out and dusts it with a light puff of green tea powder. The waitress prompts us to pop the whole thing in our mouths and, as we are distracted by the startlingly cool sensation of frozen mouse disappearing on the tongue, she surreptitiously sprays citrus perfume in the air. A palate cleanser that is delightfully fresh and original, which evokes the feeling of spring.
 
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO – with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
The single forlorn quenelle of mustard ice cream sits lost in the middle of a very large soup plate. Smaller than the end of your pinkie finger it hits somewhat above its weight in flavour. Swimming in the shamelessly pink and intensely concentrated cold red cabbage soup, delicately poured by a waiter at the table, this starter dish can only be described as the gastronomification of Ruby Wax – small, colourful and very feisty. (Sorry Ruby!)


JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM AND PEA PUREE- with Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
“You might want to get your camera ready” warns the waitress as she places a wooden tray filled with moss in the centre of our table. We notice a pair of suspicious objects nestling in the moss which, on closer inspection, are little plastic cases curiously labelled ‘Fat Duck Films’. We are instructed to extract the thin strips from the cases and place them in our mouths. Looking at each other, our eyes widen in mirrored appreciation as the woody essence of the Oak forest, infused in the films, slowly diffuses all around our mouths. The waiter pours a liquid into the moss tray from a black cast iron teapot and our expressions of pleasure turn to pure wonderment.

An eerie mist rises from the moss and eddies lazily around the cutlery and food, eventually spilling over the edges of the table in a soft ghostly blanket. Perfectly setting the mood for the lovely smoky and earthy flavours of the actual dish we’re beginning to get that it is all about the fun.

SNAIL PORRIDGE – with Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel
Growing up, I made sure that I was never associated to the strange fat boy who ate slugs, which I think every British primary school probably has. So I’m secretly amused by the irony when the waiting staff present us this next playful scene.

Enter Waiter #1 and waiter #2 who stand beside the table. Hands are poised over the lids covering the dishes.

Waiter #1 (looks at waiter #2): “I zink zee rain is very heavily zis evening.”
Waiter #2: “Why I zink you are correct! Chef will be very happy!”
Waiter #1: “Yes, he always likes it. He can get zem fresh from zee garden”
Waiter #2: “Very fresh indeed, yes! What iz it?”

Both pause for dramatic effect then, with flourish, reveal the contents of the bowls

Both waiters in unison (with evil grins): “SNAIL PORRIDGE! BON APETIT!”

We are assured that this starter has not just been dug out of the garden and, despite over achieving its goal of appearing to be a snail pooled in its own slime, it is quite enjoyable. Yes, there are real (cooked) molluscan entities submerged in the green risotto and yes, it has the grassy taste of a meadow after a rainstorm and no, we are not suspicious at all. Honest.

ROAST FOIE GRAS - Gooseberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
Meditate if you will, on savouring the luxurious sensation of the best chocolate you can possibly imagine, melting very slowly on your tongue and exquisitely trickling down your throat. If you are picturing this then you are probably now smiling blissfully and you’re eyes are unconsciously closed to better linger on the experience. That is exactly how we feel after enjoying this heart-stoppingly rich starter.
Popping one of the segments of foie gras in the mouth whole immediately rewards the palate with warm melting goodness cut through with salty explosions of fishy konbu and the crunch of wafer thin biscuits made from crab extract. As lumps of goose fat go they have never tasted so good. And in my defence, if my cardiologist ever asks, I shamelessly devoured all three pieces but they were really, really small.

MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850) - "Mad Hatter Tea"
I get the impression that they have tried so hard with the story of this dish that they have forgotten to make it taste as good as it narrates. Starting strong with the usual theatre and attention to detail, we’re presented lovely silver embossed cards detailing the history of the dish and its link with the tale of Alice in Wonderland. Once we have got our imagination in order we’re each given freeze dried stock, moulded to resemble the pocket watches of Victorian times, and coated in gleaming gold leaf. Following the story of Alice in Wonderland, we too are instructed to dunk our ‘watches’ in a teapot (filled with hot water) which, unlike Alice, results in a beautiful gold flecked broth for the mock turtle meat soup.
Not bad but slightly underwhelming on taste, I finish this dish feeling that the star of the show isn’t the food but the concept and whimsical story underlying it.

"SOUND OF THE SEA"
How to react when someone plonks a giant seashell in front of you at diner? At the Fat Duck one does not, as childhood wisdom would have one naturally do, put it to your ear and hope to hear the echo of your own body sounds that faintly resembles the sea. Rather you unravel the iPod Nano headphones concealed inside it, place these in your ears and listen to a record of the seaside with its occasional seagull and crashing waves.
      While soothed by this we’re treated to what looks like a miniature model of a beach (replete with sand, foam, fish and various bits of debris) but is all deliciously edible. To describe it as sashimi dish of mackerel, halibut and yellow fin tuna would be technically correct if artfully deficient. The sand is made of flavoured tapioca mixed with miniature crispy deep fried baby eels and decorated with saphire, light coloured konbu, other types of seaweed and other tiny details. The foam, made from dashi stock, smells and tastes salty and it is all meticulously assembled on a sand filled glass and wood block.
       This dish engages, and is enjoyed by, all five senses in a way that rarely occurs while dining. As I dine I clearly remember long gone vacations swimming in the warm waters of the Spanish coast or aimless walks along the sea fronts of nameless west coast villages during the summer holidays. It is a total success as an evocation and immersive experience of the seaside. My only criticism would be that at the end it is all a bit salty - but that is probably the point.

SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE - Artichoke, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe
Oops! Sorry for the slightly masticated state of the salmon in the photograph. By this stage ‘zee fun’ has taken over and we get a little carried away.
      Anyways the description and photo tells you everything you need to know so excuse us while we go back to enjoying all these wonderful ingredients. Mwhahahahaha!


POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720) - Blood Pudding, Potted Umbles, Spelt and Pickles
‘Mmmm. Some unrecognised ingredients in this one’ I muse to myself while doing honours to the thick slices of pigeon breast and smothering them in the congealed pool of sinister blood pudding. The meaty richness is balanced in flavour by the zing and sweetness of little pickled onions which are covered in wondrously light and tasty foam, and balanced in texture by what look like giant crunchy quavers. There is also a side bowl of brown mystery mush ringed with what rather prosaically resemble sugar puffs.
      In hindsight, not dissimilar to dismembered heads mounted on pikes outside an old city gallows, the sight of the tiny twin halves of pigeon heart delicately placed in the middle of the mystery mush which, coinciding with the unusual act of entirely separating it from the rest of the dish in a bowl, should have screamed to me certain pointed warnings. While ingeniously relishing the cuteness of the word ‘umbles’ I ask what these are.
      “It iz ah very old fashioned English word for eh…”
There is a moments hesitation, then, “what do you call it… Offal?”
      This, as you would correctly surmise, greatly upsets me. Not because it is pigeon organs, but because I pride myself on being of discerning Vietnamese peasant stock and thus appreciating the taste of good offal. However I find that the umbles offend not just my pride, and despite forcefully finishing the bowl I decide that those with an inclination for the blue variety of steak would have nothing to complain about while enjoying the juicy rare pigeon and pudding, but even they would baulk at the ripeness of the potted umbles.
      But all is not lost as we’re entertained by the guest at the next table who repeatedly, and with mounting volume, declares that he absolutely LOVES it and though he is roaring drunk the four waiting staff sent to accommodate him are smooth, professional and courteous, minimising the disruption to other diners effortlessly. Although I swear we see, just for the merest fraction of a second, one of the waiters roll his eyes heavenward.

Hot and Iced Tea
Contained in the elegant yet innocuous glass of lightly sweetened earl grey is an experience that makes even the most reserved guest smile. Some smile at the surprise; some with amusement at their own puzzlement; yet most just out of pure delight.
      We are told to simply drink it ‘just as it is’. Cautiously we oblige and are rewarded with a completely alien sensation in the mouth, a sort of tactile illusion. Simultaneously one side on the tongue is treated to tinglingly cold tea and the other side is messaged with mellow warm tea. We take an identical second puzzled sip, then a third and forth and fifth until sadly the magic is over.
      Turning the glass in hand, like a volunteer invited to confirm that the magician’s hat is indeed empty, we inquire on how it is done but the waitress shrugs telling us it would not be magic if she told us. Like most good magic tricks the deception is simple but as any good magician knows the first rule of illusion is that you never tell the mark how it’s done.
      Of course that doesn’t stop us from having days of fun, trying to work it out.


TAFFETY TART (c.1660) - Caramelised Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon
Words fail to describe our delicious plight. The creation placed in front of us is almost too mesmerising to eat, adorned with dazzling crystallized rose petals and delicate flowers made from petite slivers of fennel and glistening maroon sorbet. Eventually we succumb and reluctantly lay waste to the carefully balanced layers of caramelized apple, soft cheese and candied lemon that is separated by parchment thin sheets of pastry.
      Our taste buds are greeted with a symphony of fruit flavours. The intense berry sorbet is curiously complimented by the kick of fennel seeds hidden underneath it and candied citrus around it. The rose petals and pastry sheets crumble and snap satisfyingly on the plate and on the palate, and even the soft cheese is unexpectedly infused with rose water. I eat it in progressively smaller portions in an attempt to prolong my rapture but the inevitable happens far too soon. A tart that the chastest of men would be willingly seduced by again and again.

THE "BFG" - Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest
I’m truly glad we had not looked at ‘reviews’ of the restaurant. We loved the anticipation, surprise and novelty element of each dish because throughout the entire meal we had no idea what was in store beside its menu title and short description.
      However in hindsight, this was the only dish that I regret not having more details about. The deceptively simple monolith of cocoa cloaks a truly complex and ingenious construction of gateau layers that I only now belatedly appreciate the craftsmanship of. I regret the discarding of the cherry stem made from an edible vanilla pod and my ignorance of the many other details that make this dish a permanent feature in the Fat Duck’s menu. So, other than spraying ‘smell of the black forest’ at each other, for once there is no drama; indeed there is no need for it. There is just cake. And it is Good.

WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS
Never let it be said that the Duck is not politically correct. Indeed their clever resolution to the highly contentious issue of the correct spelling of the great Celtic beverage is both diplomatic and amusing. Nevertheless I suspect that Scottish, Irish and English nationalists alike would be aghast at the mischievous inclusion of the Tennessee made Jack Daniels. Were it not for the twinned distractions of the charming presentation of jelly bottles on a framed map of Scotland and the novelty of the regionally distinctive flavours of each whisky gum, then I’m sure fists, bagpipes and kilts would be flying. Thankfully the only quarrel we have is which region’s flavour to try first.

"LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP"
The fun doesn’t stop even as we pay and head back home, jealously clutching our stripy paper bags, full of perfumed card and sweet trophies. But despite our excitement we are good little boys and girls, so we remember our schooldays admonishments to share, and make a point of stopping on the way home to split of our loot with family, before finally trundling back to the North.
      For a week we drool over the stash, marvelling at the childhood details and playfulness of some of the sweets; like the white chocolate playing card; or the apple pie flavoured toffee with edible wrapper; or the toy packet of coconut ‘tobacco’, but eventually we commit them to our stomachs and to our memories. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that Mr William Wonka would be a bit envious.

      A month later I am still given odd looks by the occasional passer by, as I am caught smiling in reminiscence about the evening’s adventure. Was it worth it? What do you think?
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2013 Edit: Years later, we're still telling our friends and family about our extraordinary culinary journey at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck. I would recommend you treat yourself at least once and visit the Fat Duck!


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Website: The Fat Duck Restaurant
Reservations: Necessary