Few chefs can truly claim to have changed dining forever. In the 1960’s, Britain had the Roux brothers, who grabbed a sorry restaurant scene by the collar and beat some sense into it by opening Le Gavroche. Their kitchen played “uterus” to a generation of chefs steeped in tradition – most notably Marco Pierre White – that would go on to inspire the following generation. It was the primordial soup of modern British gastronomy. But from the broth emerged a mutant: a self-taught heretic who would alter the way we look at gastronomy.
Nitro poached aperitifs
Red cabbage gazpacho
Before all the Waitrose and the generally bad television shows – which are basically just inferior, culinary versions of Neil Buchanan’s Art Attack! – Heston Blumenthal was busy developing a reputation for pioneering that thing we call “molecular gastronomy”. If all you’ve seen of Heston is his TV shows, you might be fooled into thinking that he isn’t to be taken seriously; that all that showmanship is just a smokescreen for food that doesn’t really deliver. And you’d be dead wrong.
Oak moss with dry ice
Away from the cameras, in the quiet village of Bray, you’ll find two of the country’s 3 Michelin star juggernauts within moments of one another. The first is the epitome of classical French cuisine, namely The Waterside Inn. The other occupies a space at the very apex of modern gastronomy, and was once considered the best restaurant on the planet. That restaurant is Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck.
Jelly of quail, crayfish cream
It’s a place where bloggers go unnoticed. By which I mean people bring cameras, by which I mean they expect a show. It’s not every day a dense, dynamic mist of dry ice temporarily blankets your table, wafting woodland aromas into your nostrils, as you take a bite of truffle toast along with a spoonful of an accompanying layered mix of pea purée, turnip bits, quail jelly and crayfish cream topped with a mind-melting chicken liver parfait. A first mouthful that now ranks amongst the very best my memories have to offer.
Roast foie gras
A lot of the dishes start with an idea, followed by a painstaking process of reverse-engineering in a dedicated ‘laboratory’, where scientific method is employed along with extensive trial and error for months, even years to perfect a single dish. The amount of hard work involved is at times stupefying, to the point where just explaining some of them requires two minutes of our waitress’s time. There was a dessert which included a knee-weakening assortment of grapes that weren’t quite grapes – inspired by those used to make sweet wines – on a bed of salt and sugar, and finished with a snow of Roquefort powder. I don’t know which I was more impressed by: the ambition, the difficulty, or the sheer ability of the waitress to recount every last detail without access to the dish for reference (I’d already eaten it). There was so much information to take in that most of it just leaked through my synapses, meaning I can’t fully convey to you just how extraordinary it was.
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
There was an impossibly light beetroot macaroon with a horseradish cream that disintegrated in the mouth, followed by the electrifying zing of a gin and tonic ‘aperitif’, poached in liquid nitrogen tableside. A Pommery grain mustard ice cream lay prone in a delicate gazpacho that harboured the essence of red cabbage. Snail porridge was a warm cuddle for your oesophagus: a pea-green swamp infused with Iberico ham, with the snails buoying on the surface under shavings of fennel.
“Sound of the Sea”
With a dish titled “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party”, Heston demonstrates the bionic grip with which he clings to his childhood for inspiration. It starts with an illustrated bookmark of the scene in Alice in Wonderland when mock turtle soup is served. A gold leaf-encased pocket-watch is then gently lowered on a string into a teapot of hot water, where you are to swirl it until the beef stock within dissolves. The consommé is then poured into a teacup containing a ‘mock’ egg, enoki mushrooms, diced turnip and pork, creating a delicate, subtle blend of flavours and distinguishable textures. And what kind of tea party would it be without sandwiches? ‘Toast’ sandwiches to be exact, lovingly assembled with fine layers of cucumber, toast and truffle shavings.
Salmon poached in a liquorice gel
On a glass display unit comes a culinary reconstruction of a day at the beach, complete with a seashell-concealed iPod Nano providing a backdrop of seagulls and crashing waves. Delicious, fresh mackerel, halibut and abalone are precisely arranged over an intensifying ‘sand’ of tapioca and baby sardines, alongside a froth of vegetable & seaweed stock.
The main course was sous vide duck that came with duck hearts, and a sweet purée of blood pudding with bags of depth. A side of ridiculously creamy mash with slow-braised chicken tendons only added to it, but the real star was a ‘cigar’ of slow-braised duck neck, with the moist and crispy textures and lightly spiced flavours of the samosa of your dreams.
As things moved into the home stretch, a clever palate cleanser of “Hot & Iced Tea” – where tea of two separate temperatures exist side by side in the same glass – gave way to the desserts, which included the “BFG”: A Black Forest gateau of the highest order, with a meticulously layered cross-section, dusted in a razor-thin film of cocoa powder. A neat smear of cherry brandy connects it to a dollop of kirsch ice cream that delivers a relaxing kick of alcohol. But with my defences down, the “whiskey wine gums” that followed were so heavy on the whiskey, I almost winced like a teenage boy the first time he takes a swig of his dad’s brandy.
With the aid of science, Heston bends cooking to satisfy his whims. There was a time when you could say that his cooking defied convention. But now many of the ideas and techniques he made famous have spilled over into a growing number of kitchens, in and outside of the UK. And that’s exactly what trailblazing is.
food : 10/10
service : 9/10
ambience : 6/10
value : 7/10
The Fat Duck
High Street, Bray, West Berkshire SL6 2AQ
01628 580 333