DINING OWL AWARDS: 1st – for standout dishes; 1st – for family occasions; 3rd – petits fours
When I visited: February 2012
Location: Bray, near Maidenhead
Team: Heston Blumenthal (Chef Patron), Jonny Lake (Head Chef), Isa Bal (Head Sommelier)
Rating in the Michelin Guide: 3 stars
What to wear: Could go casual – no dress code
Ambience: Intimate, like someone’s sitting room
Course of the meal: Jelly of quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast (homage to Alain Chapel)
If I could change one thing: Don’t charge for tea at the end
Yes, I’m a Heston fan. I love Dinner, I love the Fat Duck, and I even love the stuff he puts his name on for Waitrose (especially the dark chocolate Easter egg with edible straw – you should definitely check that out). My first introduction to the wonderful world of Mr Blumenthal was at the Fat Duck, which I booked as a surprise for my partner Owl’s birthday a few years ago.
Sometimes high-end restaurants out of London suffer a bit in quality due to their scarcity power: there isn’t enough high-end competition around them so they don’t raise their game like restaurants in London do. Happily, the Fat Duck isn’t one of these and certainly deserves every one of its 3 stars. It’s more like an afternoon of theatre than a normal dining experience, and earned Heston his reputation as a food scientist due to the experimental nature of some of the dishes. It probably isn’t for everyone as there are some things that are quite weird (like the snail porridge, described below) but I loved it.
The whole menu at the time of our visit had a bit of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel, and was childlike in some ways. The cost at the time was £180 per person (there was only one menu). We shared a bottle of Champagne (given that it was a birthday celebration) with the other guests at our table and red and white wine throughout the meal.
In true scientific style, we started off with what looked like puffs of foam: nitro poached aperitifs. You chose from vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic, or campari soda “Citrus Grove” – I went for the campari and found it delicious and feather-light. The next course was red cabbage gazpacho soup with pommery grain mustard ice cream. Weird, but wonderful.
In an “homage to Alain Chapel”, we then had jelly of quail with crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast. This was followed by the aforementioned snail porridge with Iberico Bellota ham and shaved fennel. You’ve probably noticed that there isn’t a course so far that is at all ‘normal’ or commonplace but that’s the beauty of this restaurant.
We had roast foie gras next, with rhubarb, braised Konbu and crab biscuit, and then came the standout “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” (c. 1850): mock turtle soup with pocked watch and toast sandwich.
The interactive theme continued with “Sound of the Sea” – a fish course where you listen with headphones to crashing waves while eating (!). Next came salmon poached in a liquorice gel with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe.
We then had Anjou pigeon with blood pudding, risotto of spelt and umbles, which was very tender and delicious. Next came another sciency course of hot and iced tea (half and half in the same cup!). I’m not a fan of normal tea (I always drink green or jasmine if anything) but I did enjoy this.
The first of many desserts came in the form of a galette of rhubarb with neroli scented yoghurt and rhubarb sorbet. Next was the standout “BFG” (black forest gateau), swiftly followed by the wonderful whisk(e)y wine gums (which were whisky-flavoured gum bottles stuck onto a map of Scotland to show you each’s origin!!).
The meal ended amazingly with “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop” – edible playing cards inside an envelop with an edible seal. This gives you a great last impression of the restaurant and is something you’ll never forget.
The only slight negative that I remember is that they charged us for having tea afterwards (maybe they feel that as the meal actually involved tea you shouldn’t need anything else?) – I know that most restaurants would do the same but given the high price of this one I thought at the time this was a bit steep.
The Fat Duck is of course famous and revered and I’m here to tell you that it deserves to be, and that you should definitely make the trip if you can. I actually booked online and it was a lot easier than I expected to get a spot (although as I remember it has to be Monday-Friday).