DINING OWL AWARDS: 1st – for standout dishes; 1st – for family occasions; 3rd – petits fours
When I visited: February 2012, July 2017
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: ‘Breakfast’ / ‘Kid in a Sweetshop’
If I could change one thing: Correct minor mistakes
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 in 2012 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.
After the Fat Duck’s triumphant return to Bray following a sojourn to Australia, it was time to check it out again. This time, the storytelling aspect had been cranked up a few notches (to the extent that our waiter actually described himself as our ‘storyteller for the afternoon’) and, happily, they had retained the best dishes from our first visit while adding even more theatrical and personal touches.
Before we visited, we had to fill in questionnaires about nostalgic memories (especially food-based ones) from our childhoods, which led to some personalised elements in our meal. Upon arrival we were presented with a magnifying glass and a detailed map showing the ‘journey’ we would take, based around a family holiday, which included an ‘itinerary’ with the details of what we would eat in a very tiny font so that if we wanted to, we could read ahead with the magnifying glass, but if we wanted surprises we could wait. I thought this was a really neat way of doing things and the map made for a cool souvenir.
The drinks list had been significantly extended since my last visit – we were given a menu containing options for paired wines (at three price levels, the highest of which was pretty eye-watering at almost £800 per person) or cocktails, spirits, beers or soft drinks, as well as the option of having a ‘normal’ thicker wine list. We went for the cheapest paired wines option, which was apparently the most popular. While it did ensure that we had the ‘full experience’ and tried sake as well as white, red and dessert wine, personally I thought it was a little too much alcohol and next time I would probably go for just a bottle of white wine – but I’m sure that many restaurant-goers would disagree and be happy to go the whole way.
In an effort to preserve the storytelling spirit of the meal, I have set out below what we ate using the headings on our map:
1. The Day Before We Go: Are we nearly there yet?
The amazing puffs of air from my last visit were happily still there, prepared and presented at our table as the first thing we ‘ate’ – I went for the Campari soda one. You pick it up with two fingers and ingest it in one bite, and it is amazing how many different flavours you can get in one bite.
Next came an aerated beetroot macaron – tiny and perfect.
Just The Tonic We Need
This was a ridiculously good gin martini with a ‘tonic’ of smoked cumin Royale and a gazpacho of Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. At this point in the meal, this was my favourite course and a really promising opening.
2. Morning: Rise and shine, it’s breakfast time
Excuse me, my tea seems to be cold … and hot
The hot and cold tea was another ‘dish’ retained from my last visit, but it is pretty cool so I didn’t mind. You can turn your cup various ways (without shaking it too much) to get the full effect of having one side of your mouth feel the hot tea and the other side the cold.
Why do I have to choose between a variety pack and a cooked breakfast?
We got a ‘bonus’ personalised element to our meal at this point – someone on our table had a childhood memory of French toast and cream and jam so we got gorgeous French brioche with cream and coffee-flavoured jam (with the most wonderful of cutlery – tiny spoons) as part of our breakfast.
We also got the most fun and childish part of the meal so far – we each chose a mini cereal box from the variety pack (which I did actually used to do as a child at my grandma’s house) and enjoyed cereal with truffled egg mousse, jellied tomato consommé, and bacon. Amazingly, we also got a ‘toy’ within our mini cereal boxes – a jigsaw of box pieces that we had to construct to make a coin box, which then housed a coin we were given for later. Levels of excitement at the table at this point were sky-high.
3. Mid-morning: First one to see the sea …
“Sound of the Sea”
This was another callback to my last visit: we were each given an iPod shuffle inside a shell with headphones, so that we could listen to the sounds of the sea while eating some fish courses.
“Can I have some money for an ice cream?”
There was another cool childlike twist on a fish course with the presentation of a salmon, avocado and horseradish mini ‘Twister’, a crab and passionfruit ’99’ and a Waldorf salad ‘Rocket’.
Then we went rock pooling
This was a course of Cornish crab, smoked caviar and golden trout roe with a velouté of white chocolate and sea vegetables, served on a transparent box so that we could see the sand (not edible) and rocks beneath.
4. Afternoon: If you go down to the woods today …
… and we did
As well as the food in this section, we also had a theatrical element – more dry ice poured over a ‘tree’ in a container in the middle of the table, with a small animal-shaped figure within the container.
Damping through the boroughgroves
For the ‘woodland’ theme, we had mushroom, beet and blackberry scented with fig leaf, meadowsweet, melilot (sweet clover), oak moss and black truffle. The black truffles were another personal bonus for our table relating to one of our childhood memories. Personally I didn’t feel that this course was quite as good as the others – it followed the unwelcome recent trend of truffle-based courses not having enough truffle flavour.
… we discovered the mock turtle picnic
This was the famous ‘mock turtle soup’ and egg with a toast sandwich – involving a dissolving pocket watch (in an afternoon of theatre, this was possibly one of the coolest scientific elements). We also each got a Mock Turtle bookmark to take home.
5. Evening: Are you ready for dinner?
It was a testament to how well the restaurant had prepared numerous but light courses that we didn’t feel sick at the prospect of a THREE COURSE DINNER at this point in the meal. For starters, we chose between cuttlefish cannelloni or snail porridge; mains were lamb with coffee, tomato and savory or roast turbot with caviar, and desserts were Alphonso mango with pepper and mint or botrytis cinerea. All were sampled at our table and all were well received, and as we were having the paired wines we got to try different glasses of reds and whites to accompany these dishes.
For a ‘digestif’ we all had the whisky gums, another highlight of my last visit, stuck onto a map – I am not a fan of whisky but I quite liked these gums, with perhaps only the last two a little strong for my taste.
6. Bedtime: Off to the Land of Nod
This was a ridiculously good dessert of malt, orange blossom, tonic, milk, meringue and crystallised white chocolate with pistachio. To top it off, it was served with a spoon with a handle made fluffy and white as it was wrapped in gorgeous towelling material – I kind of wanted to steal that spoon. And there was a levitating pillow.
7. And then to dream …
Like a Kid in a Sweetshop
This was where our coins from earlier came to the fore – we each used them to feed a magical dolls’ house sweetshop and were then presented with a selection of sweets within old-fashioned pink- and white-striped paper bags. The sweets were oxchoc, a caramel in a edible wrapper, a mandarin-scented aerated chocolate and a Queen of Hearts jam tart. This Queen of Hearts sweet was an EDIBLE PLAYING CARD, and for some reason even among a virtuosic display of theatrical fine dining this has always stuck out for me as a highlight.
Happily, the restaurant had even corrected what I saw as a mistake on my last visit – the fact that at the time, all the teas and coffees were quite expensive. This time, some of them were free, and I really enjoyed my free Japanese green tea.
Although the restaurant hadn’t changed its intimate living-room feel, there were extra elements this time: a huge clock upstairs near the (Japanese, auto-moving) toilets showing the days that the Fat Duck was open in Australia; a motion-activated wine cabinet upstairs that lights up as you walk past it; lights above our table that changed colour depending on what we were eating; fake books such as Gone With the Wind in a ‘library’ upstairs (I was actually reading Gone With the Wind at the time of my visit so couldn’t help noticing this). To extend the storybook mood, even the card machine we used was presented inside a fake book.
I should also mention that the restaurant happily and adeptly accommodated vegetarians on our table and made their meal just as exciting as ours, which is rare even in good restaurants, in my experience. There were some minor mistakes made in the service (some of the wrong flavour air puffs were served at the outset and sometimes we were given sparkling water when we wanted still) but even writing those down feels like complaining about the most tiny of first world problems, and the service throughout was really friendly and excellent. We even got a tour of the (surprisingly small) kitchen afterwards.
This visit solidified the impression I had of the Fat Duck as one of the best restaurants out there. It’s expensive, time-consuming (I think we spent 6 hours there?!) and full-on but truly unforgettable for all the right reasons.