Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Fat Duck - Heston Blumenthal

This post has long been waiting; I wanted to have proper time to digest (mentally) the consequence of this experience - well, and I moved to Singapore and would have been too wistful too finish writing this at that early stage of my settling in. Anyway, before I totally forget the tastes and textures of this landmark restaurant, I'd better write about it.

A drive to Bray north of London on a grey wet morning (what's new?) reminded me of the road trips that Leon and I used to take in Canberra. Well, in Australia the highways don't look so depressing and there's usually blue sky. I like travelling with Leon because he puts up with my Princess-petulism with regard to hungriness, thirstiness and the need to go to the toiletness.

We'd booked lunch a long time in advance for this special occassion. I looked forward to it - I did not see myself dining in such a world-renowned place for quite a few years after I moved to Singapore.

We celebrated with a champagne toast to welcome in 30; a nice sweet cava.

As was the current fashion, we had two types of butter: salted and unsalted. You can tell by the fleur de sel sprinkled on top which is which. Leon ate here previously when I was in Amsterdam, but still elected to partake of the Tasting Menu. He felt there was still more to explore in the flavours and textures.

Our amuse-bouches (note the plural) arrived. The waiter made the much-fêted nitro-green tea and lime mousse made from whipped egg white frozen with liquid nitrogen. [Diversion: Technically, the "nitro"-green tea should more correctly be "aza"-green tea as "nitro" implies NO2 whereas "aza" refers to the N-triple bond-N.] No pictures of this dish as it was formed and consumed so quickly.

Leon's favourite was the oyster, passionfruit jelly, lavender. I thought it very innovative to pair floral and fruity flavours with oyster. The tang of the passionfruit does well to cut the oyster liquor. We also had a two squares of orange and beetroot jelly. Can you guess which is which?*

We also had a Pommery grain mustard ice cream on a gazpacho of red cabbage. I love the presentation of this dish - what a HUGE plate and rim with a tiny depression in the middle. The concentric rings draw your eye right down to the quenelle of ice-cream. This was the first in a series of savoury ice-creams. This sort of thing is very easy due to the Pacojet. Anything that can be frozen can be made into a sorbet/ice-cream. This had a very subtle flavour. The cold numbed the mouth so that the mustard spiciness was very much subdued and only the nuttiness and hint of bitter came through.

Then a small plate of jelly of quail, langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras. The brown gel is made from quail broth and orange quenelle is the foie gras. The foam is made from langoustine broth and cream. I'm trying to remember the flavours but it's been over six months and there were too many dishes. All I can recall from this dish are the creamy and jelly textures contrasting with the savouriness of everything else.

With our amuses finished, on came the first course: Snail Porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel. We looked forward to this signature dish. Scottish oats cooked in a savoury broth - I've forgotten how the green was achieved - with diced snail pieces, shredded Joselito (I'm assuming a type of Spanish ham) on top with the aniseedy fennel counterpoint. The broth was a little rich and overpowering for me to make out the snail and ham distinctly.

Roast Foie Gras. Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile This was one of my favourite dishes. I LOVE roasted/pan-fried foie gras. The cherry (stripes) and floral chamomile (white curl) cut the richness of the foie gras. The tiny cubes of almond gel were so cute; each one dissolving in my mouth to release packet of flavour.

I'm always on edge with the almond flavour/smell. The smell is due to non-toxic cyanide compounds in the almond itself. The skins of almonds need to be cooked to eliminate the toxic ones. We've frequently been told that hydrogen cyanide smells like almonds, i.e. the last thing one smells before dying of HCN poisoning is almonds.

Sardine on Toast Sorbet: Ballotine of mackerel invertebrate, marinated daikon, sea salad. I didn't really like this dish but admired the innovation and audacity. I also liked the cute little anchovies. Of course presentation is faultless. The daikon are the beige rectangles on the bottom of the plate. I found the dish a little fishy for me, thankfully this was cold so volatile flavours were subdued; very clever how the mackerel was 'invertebrated', i.e. the bones taken out and the flesh re-rolled to fit the original shape. Perhaps one day they might breed such a fish: just a long tubular piece of flesh wriggling in the ocean.

Salmon poached with licorice: Artichokes, pink grapfruit, 'Manni' olive oil I liked this dish a lot. The artichokes are echoed twice here. Here the artichokes are served roasted and as a cream (beige blob off in the distance).

All the mains seemed to have the accents presented twice in two textures. Now that I think of it, I'm sure the broth for the snail porridge was made from (Joselito?) ham bones. We had almond cream and almond fluid gel, cherry sauce and cherry.

"But where's the salmon?", you may ask. It's in the black square: a resilient lightly liquoriced casing made from some sort of agar/gel. Break it open and perfectly poached salmon emerges, delicately perfumed with liquorice. Who would have thought it works, but it does. Personally, I love eating black food. It seems so unnatural and perhaps slightly poisonous; like taking drugs.

Poached breast of Anjou pigeon pancetta. Pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre épices. This was probably the most 'traditional' of all the foods served today. I've forgotten what the pastilla looked like, but I think it was some sort of round patty underneath the pigeon breast. Nothing too unusual to mention here, I mean after sardine ice-cream the use of cocoa to season poultry seems positively ordinary. I think the quatre épices may have been a play on Chinese five-spice but minus one. The cocoa may have substituted for one, but my nose and mind were a bit overwhelmed at this point and I could not deconvolute.

The last of the mains finished, we had an in-between course refresher of Hot and Cold Tea (2005). Obviously a perennial favourite, it was just a ordinary looking cup of amber liquid served in a squat glass. The waiter turned the glass 'just-so' and asked us to sip from an exact point on the rim. Simultaneously, two streams of hot and cold tea entered my mouth - both slightly gelled, what an experience!

This must have been prepared at the last minute with the partition removed just before serving. The viscosity of both fluids would have retarded mixing and heat transfer from hot to cold.

We also had Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet. Apparently it was she who invented the first ice-cream making machine. Blumenthal is trying to revive old recipes and this is supposed to be the very first ice-cream recipe.

Pink sherbet fountain. A bit of a gimmick, but I gathered that woody flavours were in at that time; so Douglas fir sherbert came in a little packet. The interesting thing is that the flavour comes not from the sherbert but from the woody thingo that's used to retrieve it.

I love having a bit of white powder at the tail end of dinner. Brightens the senses and wakes the mind, I say.

Mango and Douglas Fir puree. Bavarois of luchee and mango, blackcurrent sorbet. Desserts naturally lend themselves to fanciful flights of imagination. This is probably the cutest dessert I've ever had. In the foreground you can see the bavarois with the mango layer on top. The squares of blackcurrent cube, tuile and blackcurrent sorbet repeat the single-flavour multiple-texture motif of this meal. The green garnish had piney overtones again. The pinkish squares, I think, are lychee flavoured. There's a streak of mango puree to the left.

Carrot and orange tuile, beetroot jelly. Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream. Pain perdu and tea jelly. Whisky wine gum, violet tartelet. These after-dinner treats came to bring us down from the heady experience. Almost as if one couldn't partake of such dizzying culinary heights without a parachute to bring one down. The waiter 'fried' our bacon and egg ice-cream in liquid nitrogen at our table. He cracked open eggs pre-filled with a bacon-infused savoury custard and stir-fried the mixture till set in a copper-lined plate. I didn't really like the flavour of bacon ice-cream. The cream AND smokiness were a little overpowering for me, innovative concept though.

We liked the squishy whisky wine gum; very whimsical. We got complimentary menus to take home, each sealed with wax.

~£90 a head without wine for the 12-course degustation menu.

*The orange square is jelly made from golden beetroot. The red square is jelly made from blood oranges.

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