It's a beautiful day. It's warm, the sun is flying high and the clouds are lightly sprinkled across the sky. I am, however, in Maidenhead. Now, this may anger a few people, but Maidenhead is hardly a cultural mecca. I am not here to visit one of its many huge warehouse stores, or to drive around on it's seemingly endless system of roundabouts and roads. No, for me, Maidenhead is a means to an ends. It is the doorway to fulfillment and trust me, I am not hanging around for long. I am in a taxi and I am going to the Fat Duck.
Now, for those of you who may not have heard of the Fat Duck, you definitely will have heard of Heston Blumenthal. You know the one, the bald guy off the telly who last week created a giant edible iceberg which burst into flames. The same guy who is smirking over London Bridge next to Delia. Yeah, that's the guy. And when he isn't being a TV celebrity, he is the brains behind a rather well respected restaurant, the aforementioned Fat Duck.
Now, for the uninitiated, this restaurant is what is known in the industry as "a bit good". It has held three coveted Michelin stars since 2004 and has even reached the pinnacle of its trade by being crowned the best restaurant in the world in 2005. It is the mecca for all discernible food lovers, and best of all, it's in England. I have been wanting to come here for a very long time, and now I can happily say I have.
So Maidenhead isn't great, but the Fat Duck can be found about 10 minutes away in an idyllic little village called Bray. Home to not one, but two three Michelin star restaurants (Michel Roux's Waterside Inn is also located here). The entrance to the restaurant is very discreet, a simple wooden door on the high street. Inside is pretty small, with only 42 covers in the restaurant, but we were immediately made to feel welcome by the excellent staff.
We were ten minutes early but were made to wait a tortuously long time for any sort of food. It was over 40 minutes before our first course in earnest turned up, with a small bowl of olives presented to keep us going, but once the food starting hitting the table, the meal moved forward like clockwork.
Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse
The first course was a simple palate cleanser but was all about the theatre. Where some restaurants would wheel out a shot glass of some sort of granita, here the ice is replaced with a bucket of liquid nitrogen. Small balls of mousse are squeezed out of a canister and then dunked into the freezing nitrogen to form a shell. These are then popped into your mouth for the mousse to slowly melt in your mouth, whilst desperately trying to ignore the waiter who is spritzing lime essence around you. Odd, but nice and a mere taster for what was to follow.
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
Soon after the nitro man had vacated his position at my shoulder, he was replaced by one offering me bread. And rather nice bread it was too, although I believe that this is bought and not actually made on site. Served with slightly salted unpasteurised butter from Jersey, I had to restrain myself from devouring it all. Soon enough, the next course arrived.
It was a small quenelle of ice cream for such a large bowl, and looked rather lonely as it was carefully placed in front of me. However, it was soon joined by a sprinkling of red cabbage gazpacho. The mustard certainly started the taste buds tingling and the combination of mustard, cabbage and the little cubes cucumber at the bottom of the bowl was a most refreshing dish. I was just getting started. I wanted more.
JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM
Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
If there was any dish that was designed to assault all your senses at once, this would be it. A few moments after our dishes were whisked away (where I was caught desperately scraping the remnants of the gazpacho out of the massive bowl), a slab of turf was placed before us, with 4 small plastic containers symmetrically placed on top. We were instructed to place the small strip concealed within the containers on our tongues. After I wrestled my strip out, almost losing it completely in the process, I placed it on my tongue and the flavours of the forest burst out. Oak, sap, moss, mist, it was all there.
As this was going on, a liquid was poured onto the bed of turf and a "forest mist" rolled off, flowing off the table, intertwining itself around our glasses and cutlery. Instructed to eat our truffle toasts, the deep earthy flavour of the truffle and the slight bitterness of the radish rolled all over my tongue as the mist continued to roll off the table.
After that bit of theatre, came the more substantial part of the course, a highly savoury combination of a green puree (broad bean?) topped with a salty quail jelly and a crayfish cream. A small quenelle of sweet chicken liver parfait on top helped to balance the dish, with all the flavours being highly savoury (I hate using the word umami). A fair dish, but one that divided opinion. I enjoyed it but there was better to come...
Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel
One of Mr Blumenthals signature dishes and I can see why. This was one dish which really had the wow factor. It wasn't really the snails that were the focus of the dish, but the risotto/porridge that it sat on. Herby and smooth, we all had fun trying to identify what it was made of but I don't think there were any winners. The smooth risotto was punctuated with intense slivers of air dried ham which just flooded your mouth with porky saltiness. The soft snails and pickled fennel sat on top, finishing a supreme dish. This is what coming to the Fat Duck is all about.
ROAST FOIE GRAS
Rhubarb, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
From pure crazy invention to simple good ingredients cooked well. The foie gras was well cooked and combined with an intense rhubarb jam. Deceivingly simple, but highly flavoured and satisfying.
MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)
"Mad Hatter Tea"
Taken straight from his last TV series, this dish combines both the story of Alice in Wonderland and a dish which was consumed over a century ago. Without going into too great a detail about the history of a dish, we were presented with a scene from the Lewis Carroll classic.
A "watch" was then presented to us, as we were slowly regaled the story of how the watch was dropped into a teacup in the story by our keen waiter. The watch is then "dropped" into the tea cup, where we were instructed to stir and the watch soon materialised into a gold specked broth, heady with the aroma of beef stock and Madeira.
The finished article didn't really live up to the show in it's construction, although I did still enjoy the soup as a whole. I think one of my fellow diners described it as "spam and tofu in a broth", which wasn't actually too far off the truth. Who says you need to be all fancy with words, eh?
"SOUND OF THE SEA"
Another old Fat Duck favourite, although I believe that it has been refined over the years, and after talking with other people, uses the fish which is freshest on the day. Now, I am pretty scared of fish, and raw fish, well, that's a whole different challenge. But the minute I put the earphones in, all those issues went away. Because all I could think was "I hope those bloody seagulls don't crap on my head".
Once I got over that little "issue", I tried to tackle the dish in front of me. Raw slices of yellowtail, halibut and mackerel atop a bed of "sand" (made from tapioca and ground eels) and assorted sea vegetables. I took a mouthful of foam (made from dashi) and it did, strangely, taste of the sea. Not a good memory, as all I could think of being hit full force in the face by a wave as a child and emerging with a mouthful of saltwater for my troubles. This may be where my deep issues with the taste of the sea and all that resides within it comes from.
I think testament to it's execution, I polished it all off. The "sand" was delicious, and I actually enjoyed the yellowtail and mackerel slices, whilst the halibut was one fish too far for me. Fish haters, do not be afraid.
SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE
Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil
For me, this dish was my favourite of the day. Having conquered my fear of fish in the last dish, the combinations in this just blew me away. The salmon was subtly poached in the licorice, forming a delicate coating. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the subtle flavours of licorice and vanilla were delicately balanced. The trout roe added little salty explosions on your tongue, where the pink grapefruit was beautifully sweet and tangy.
No gimmicks, just excellent cooking, flavour combinations and produce.
POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720)
Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles
The only dud in the whole meal for me. Offal is something I am coming to terms with but a sauce made from blood was just too much for me. I did try it, but couldn't manage more than a taste. Instead, I ate the quavers (they were quavers, right?) and the pigeon (don't mean to sound like a broken record, but perfectly cooked, once again), but left the rest.
HOT AND ICED TEA
A palate cleanser and a seemingly innocuous glass of tea. Inside was something quite mind boggling, one half, warm lemon tea, whilst the other was ice cold. Literally split straight down the middle. We all had a bit of fun with this, none more so than holding it in your mouth with one half warm, and the other cold. A strange but lovely experience.
TAFFETY TART (c.1660)
Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon
We were now into the desserts and the most beautiful plate of food was placed in front of me. I really didn't want to eat it and admired it for a little while (whilst also papping the hell out of it). Hard to describe all the flavours going on here, but it had all the flavours of a great apple pie. Again, lots of contrasting flavours and textures.
Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest
The final proper course and probably the best for me. Kang had enthusiastically brought his copy of "In Search of Perfection", hoping to be signed by the big man himself. The highlight of the book was the BFG. Meticulous planning, various processes, layer upon layer of things which were very bad for you. This was the business. A dessert like no other, with such careful attention to every single detail. Not only was there a whiff of kirsch sprayed into the air as we consumed this heavenly dessert, but the stalk is an edible fine dried vanilla pod. Perfection indeed.
WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS
So now we hit the wind-down. A pleasant if whimsical course finds us peeling whisky gums off a map of Scotland, with the home of Jack Daniels thrown in for good measure. Each slightly different, packed with the unique flavours of each individual whisky.
"LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP"
The petit fours were presented in a paper bag, with a menu card instructing me to smell it. So I did. It was scented with licorice, pear drops, gumballs, all the smells of a sweet shop. I closed my eyes and took in another breath, bringing back memories of cycling down to the sweet shop with my sisters and sneaking away with a bag of kola cubes. I ate the chocolate playing card and the delicious aerated mandarin chocolate and took home the apple caramel (with edible wrapper) and the coconut baccy to share just a smidgen of the experience with someone else.
So there you go. The magical mystery tour was over, and I loved it. It is true, it did not "blow me away", but being blown away is over rated. What I experienced was an extremely well thought out menu, with some crazy touches which elevated the whole experience over your average meal. Great produce, intense flavours and flawless execution.
And the service was immaculate. Although it took a while for the whole show to kick off, from the minute we were given our first dish, the team worked together seamlessly like cogs in a well oiled machine. Led by Daniel, the gracious Maitre'D, he made sure that the show kept moving forward. Little touches like folding the napkins, pushing the chair in when you sit down, cutlery mysteriously appearing as if it were set by an invisible dwarf hiding under the table. This is what 3 Michelin star service is and I want it everywhere I eat from now on.
There were a few issues. I really didn't like the fact that there was only one male toilet. I realise that there are only 42 covers but in the four and a half hours I was there, I went to the toilet twice, only to find one person already in the toilet and to my annoyance, another waiting already. We also shared a bottle of wine for the table and our first bottle we requested was unavailable. When we requested an alternative, we were pushed towards a much more expensive alternative. A pushy sommelier is definitely another black mark. Finally, the cost. At £185 all in, it wasn't the eye wateringly high cost it could have been had we taken the accompanying wine flight, but was still far and away the most expensive meal I have ever had.
So there it is. An amazing experience and even taking into account a few minor black marks, I would highly recommend this experience to anyone. There is good reason why this restaurant has been firmly lodged in the top three restaurants in the world for such a long time, and I heartily suggest you find out for yourself.
The Fat Duck - High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ