The Fat Duck lies in Britain’s richest village. At least concerning Michelin stars. Down the road lies another three star, the Waterside Inn. Still, despite having been in London for about two years now, I have never played with the idea of going to Bray. Too many people who are into their food gave me rather negative feedback from Heston Blumenthal’s cooking. Well, after having received the impressive big Fat Duck cook book a while ago, I was interested somehow. The approach to cooking here seemed genuinely different from most other restaurants I know. Therefore, three of us set out to have lunch in Bray.
The room is very pretty. It’s incredibly elegant, with some rustic features reminding you that you are in a listed building. It might well be one of the most attractive dining rooms in the UK. Service is great too. The brigade is faultless, knowledgeable, but at times, the explanations seem a little overdone. Some appear like being lessons, which are not really needed, unless you ask for it. However, I don’t let that spoil the fun, and fun I did have.
The wine list is a dream. Leroy, Domaine d’Auvenay, Coche Dury, Hirtzberger, Egon Müller,… are all present, and sold at decent prices. We started with a great Riesling from Franz Xaver Pichler, it was a Federspiel, meaning that it has a limited degree of alcohol. Those wines are light, fresh and incredibly easy drinking. The big show came next though: a 2005 Bourgogne blanc from Jean Francois Coche-Dury. Now, white generic Burgundy does not get any better than this. ’05 was a blockbuster year for the Cote de Beaune, and this wine was arguably the best money I ever spent on wine. Incredibly powerful, divinely balanced, with very subtle oak on the nose and palate, a delicate fruity structure backing the whole thing up and a fine acidity, which held things together. Wow, I adored it. If I ever am lucky enough to taste one of his village, premier cru or Corton Charlemagne, I’d be in heaven I suppose… Finally, we had another great wine: a 2004 Sotanum, from Vins de Vienne. This is a cooperative from three of the Rhone’s most talented winemakers, who produce absolutely gorgeous wines. This is a Vin de pays, but could well be mistaken for a fine Cote Rotie or so. Great stuff!
On to the food: First up, we had the obligatory Lime Grove, Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. What is effectively a meringue, flavoured with vodka and lime is cooked in liquid nitrogen and dusted with matcha tea. It’s fun, but doesn’t really taste of all that much I felt. It was very… subtle. Let’s get on to the next one.
Red Cabbage Gazpacho, Pommery Grain Moustard Ice Cream. The beautiful ice cream, and intensely coloured soup worked rather well together. Tasty they were, only a bit on the tart side of things. There was a bit too much vinegar or other acid in the gazpacho, which with the sharp mustard from the ice cream, created a moutfeel, which was dominated by this acidity. Otherwise, it was good.
So far no revelations, but here came the next course: Savoury Lollies, Waldorf Rocket, Salmon Twister and Foie Gras Feast. These appeared on the Feast series (the ‘70s episode), so it was quite funny to actually be able to see what it tastes like. I started with the rocket, which didn’t taste of very much. In fact it was impossible for me to detect any flavours there. Moving on came the salmon. This was perfectly nice, with a piece of decent salmon wrapped around a stick and covered in apple (?) and cream twists. It was good fun and tasty. The last bit however was phenomenal. The foie gras had the most luscious texture, and perfect spicing. It was coated in cherry jelly, which gave it just a hint of sweetness, and an incredible depth on the palate. Hhhhm this was the first moment, in which I could see those three stars shining very brightly. Mediocre for the first two, outstanding for the foie.
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel). Apart from the mist, created by liquid nitrogen underneath the oak moss film, which was fun, this was a very tasty course too. The truffle toast was useless, but the quail jelly and crayfish cream with the peas were very good. Fully-flavoured, very tasty and hugely enjoyable, this was not only a clever, but also rewarding dish. Very good to excellent.
Snail Porridge, Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel. This was the first real highlight for me. Very comforting flavours, and really clever construction again here. I don’t see why the British public is always amazed by the combination, as it seems perfectly harmonious and natural when you eat it. However, the snails are perfect, the porridge very tasty and the fennel gives it a little crunch and freshness. Excellent.
Roast Foie Gras, Rhubarb Puree, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit. Another picture on a plate, this featured exquisitely cooked foie gras. If you want to know the recipe for cooking it, it’s in his book, and rather lengthy. Combined with the rhubarb fluid gel, and the crunchy biscuit (which was devoid of crab flavour), it was a more than satisfying mouthful. Great stuff.
Mock Turtle Soup (c. 1850), “Mad Hatter Tea”. Arguably the most refined, and clever dish of the entire menu, this really is crazy. The plate is filled with braised pork cheek, covered with truffle and lardo, a mock turtle egg, and a few bits of cooked truffle. You are then presented with your “golden watch”, which is in fact the mock turtle soup (beef stock), covered in gold leaf. This is diluted in hot water and poured over the whole thing. Apart from the gimmicky side, it is a satisfying, incredibly tasty dish. The beef consommé is amongst the most intense, I’ve eaten and the combination with the other elements works perfectly. Excellent to outstanding.
“Sound of the Sea”. Another rather complex dish was about to come towards us. The ipod is placed in front of you, you are instructed to put it on, and eat the dish at the same time. Even if the fish wasn’t of the highest quality, and brined, it was a really great dish. With great intensity, you had a variety of iodine flavours, present in many different forms. Absolutely great stuff!
Salmon Poached in Liquorice, Black Truffle, Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and “Manni” Olive Oil. Well, this was probably the worst dish, I’ve ever been served in a 3* restaurant. If you were trying to demonstrate how something can be completely free of flavour, this piece of salmon might be it. It wasn’t seasoned at all, and as there was no other salty element on the plate, apart from the roe, the dish was very “thin” in the mouth. I don’t know why this is served here, but if one would take away the liquorice and serve the fish nicely seasoned with the other ingredients, it wouldn’t be that bad at all. But, like this…unpleasant at best.
We were rewarded though with the next course: Powdered Anjou Pigeon (c.1720), Blood Pudding Cream and Confit of Umbles. Boy, this was a contrast to the previous dish! Here, you had great flavours, rich, powerful and extremely enjoyable. The black pudding cream worked very well with the pigeon, and I can only count this among the finer pigeon dishes of my life. Excellent.
The dish of the day was next: Braised Pork Belly, Black Truffle and Pearl Spelt. A piece of Portuguese black pig was slowly braised, and served with spelt, cabbage and an incredibly concentrated truffle-jus. I could have eaten tons of this, as it was unbelievably good. The truffle was present, the pork meltingly tender and packed with flavour, whilst the spelt accentuated the earthy elements. Cabbage cooked in such a way is a joy too, making the dish count among the finest for this year. OUTSTANDING.
HOT & ICED TEA. This is another of the more playful courses, where Heston plays with your expectations. The cup contains two different teas, one being warm, the other cold. It’s fun, but probably only once, as the novelty factor dies away after it.
Taffety Tart (c.1660), Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon. This was great. Light, fresh and perfectly executed, it was a dessert that you are not likely to find in many restaurants. Excellent.
Galette of Rhubarb, Neroli Scented Yoghurt and Rhubarb Sorbet. Yet noe more picture on a plate, this dish was equally light, fresh and tasty. Rather classical in the flavours again, it was incredibly light, being perfect after such a long meal. Very good, to Excellent.
The “BFG”, Black Forest Gateau. Also featuring on one of Heston’s TV series, this little jewel is incredibly complex, and can’t really be compared to the classic Black Forest gateaus in Germany. It is again incredibly light, whilst maintaining all of the chocolate’s intense flavour, and strking the perfect balance between the cherries and the chocolate. I loved it. Excellent.
Finally, the Not-So-Full English Breakfast, Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. An ice cream, made with an obscene amount of egg yolks, roasted bacon, cooked to a higher temperature than usual is prepared, using liquid nitrogen again. Paired with French toast, it is served atop of the latter, sitting on a bit of caramelised bacon. The only negative aspect here is the tomato compote, which is too intensive and somewhat doesn’t taste very nice here. Otherwise it’s a very nice dish, with a great ice cream, and a good French toast (not as good as Andoni’s though). Very good.
A few Whisk(e)y gums and a bag of sweets to take home make this experience complete.
So, what was it like? Uneven, like a ride in a roller-coaster really. There was great stuff, like the pork belly, the pigeon, the sound of the sea or the mock turtle soup, and there was tasteless rather bland food, such as most of the lollies, the salmon and the lime grove. However, I really enjoyed the meal. It was perfect in terms of technique, presentation and seasoning, if you take the salmon apart, and showed a really interesting cooking philosophy. What it failed to do, was to impress with product quality. The fish was rather mediocre in terms of quality, especially the salmon, which was watery in taste, and wasn’t quite the freshest piece around. For the world’s third best restaurant, it should be possible to get better quality of seafood. Apart form that, I can say that I will happily go back, not tomorrow, but give it a few months and hopefully a change in the menu and I’ll pop down with pleasure.