To be told as you walk into The Fat Duck that "Er, sir, you are over an hour late for your reservation" is to see the end of one's life as a food blogger and bon viveur. I was sure I had booked the table for 1.30 but Eric, the indomitable maitre d' was insistent. The book said 12 and there was nothing he could do about it. I was stunned. I had planned everything perfectly: my fellow diners, the train (12.00 from Paddington getting me into Maidenhead for 12.32), the cab, the preprandial pint at The Hind's Head (must get me some more of that Dark Horse bitter) followed by lunch at 1.30. But it seemed it was all for nothing as I had got my booking wrong.
I was gutted and felt queasy at the thought of explaining to the other two (Father of Silverbrow and Howard of Food and Drink in London) how this had happened. And then, a wry smile passed across Eric's face "Ah, no sir, it is really for 1.30, I was only joking." Initially I wanted to kiss him, then I wanted to slap him. I hadn't expected to have the piss taken (other than with the bill) by a maitre d' in a Michelin three star restaurant. Shouldn't they be the home of the cloche, the stuffy waiter, the sniffy sommelier? I had been warned, but it was then that it struck me, things don't happen normally around here.
I had approached my reservation at The Fat Duck with a certain amount of trepidation. I knew from reading reviews, blogs and food forums that the only way to get the full experience was to opt for the tasting menu. I also knew that dishes such as Oyster, passion fruit jelly, lavender or Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel were going to be problematic, given that I keep kosher. I had resigned myself to sticking to the à la carte menu and watching on as my fellow diners tucked into their extravaganza.
I had not counted on the knowledge and care of the staff. Rather than explaining to them the problem before I arrived, I demured for some reason and waited until I was at the table. They said it was no problem at all, I could have the tasting menu and they would simply make replacement dishes for me. I was quite blown away by this. Although you might argue that at over £100 per head for just the tasting menu they bloody well should be able to rustle up some grub, we're not talking boil-in-the-bag. We're talking food that is up to the standards of everything else they are serving, that they have planned and prepped for. Then up turns little old me and chucks a spanner in the works - or not in this instance. I was impressed, maybe too easily, but I was impressed. I've been to too many places that couldn't care less about accommodating me to such lengths.
My replacements also put me in a pretty special category: I got to eat dishes that others rarely eat. This has double significance at TFD, first because it stretches the skill of the kitchen even further, second because Heston has come in for some stick for his lack of originality. There are those who argue that he so rarely changes his menu, he lacks real flair. Howard was the only one of the three of us to have eaten there before and he recognised dishes from when he was there, in 2003. You would expect the chef to change the menu. I am going to reserve judgement on Blumenthal's lack of progression. I'm tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is trying to refine his dishes in an attempt to achieve perfection. Although, it is interesting to note the number of similarities in the dishes served at this meal in 2005 compared to those we had, you can download my menu below.
If you want to read my full bespoke menu, along with my wine pairings - again bespoke - you can download it as a Word document here. Out of a menu of 15 courses, they replaced six dishes just for me, and that included wine different wine pairings as well. The wine pairings ensured that I have not remembered everything with crystal clear accuracy, but I will do my best. The dishes in brackets are what was on the main tasting menu.
Of the four amuses bouches, I got two replacements. The first was Castelluccio lentils and peach puree (vs. Oyster passion fruit jelly, lavender) The lentils were heavily salted - a feature of the meal - but worked well with the foamy pink slick of sweet peach puree. I did wonder, very briefly, where Heston got such sweet tasting peaches at this time of the year, and then decided this was no time to worry about carbon footprints. Next up was a Butternut squash veloute, chive black truffle. It tasted very pure, just of the key ingredients and little else - can't really complain about that, even if butternut squash veloutes are very 2000.
As the rest of the table tucked into the infamous Snail porridge, Joselito ham and shaved fennel (which they both loved) I had Parsley porridge, almond and shaved fennel. It looked the same as theirs but I imagine tasted rather different. It tasted like the summer, grassy and herby with the almond adding some much needed texture.
My Marinated ceps, almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile (vs. Roast foie gras, almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile) was so meaty I had to check it wasn't. This was a great winter dish. The sour cherries cut through the dense, woody richness of the three almost-black mushrooms.
The highlight of my Sole Veronique, Champagne jelly and pommes pont-neuf (vs. Poached breast of Anjou pigeon, pancetta, pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre épices) were the potatoes: Heston's famous triple cooked chips and the wine, a 2002 Mersault 1er Cru, Les Poruzots, Jean Gagnerot. The chips were astounding, crunchy as hell on the outside, fluffy on the inside. I can't remember enough about the wine to give a decent tasting note, but I remember taking a sip and gasping at how good it tasted. A beautiful drink. Overall, this course, which was lifted off the à la carte menu was very good. The Champagne jelly acting as a great stand-in for the Muscat grapes Escoffier calls for.
My final replacement was a Delice of chocolat, chocolat sorbet and cumin caramel (vs. Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream, pain perdu, tea jelly). Unfortunately, by this stage I had drunk so much, I can't remember a single thing about this dish so let us move on. If however you would like to see how the scrambled egg is made, Howard took some blindingly good photos - particularly impressive when you consider just how drunk we all were.
Heston Blumenthal is known for supposedly wild and wacky inventions, the aforementioned Snail porridge or Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream are two fairly well known examples. They sound c-c-crazy and by implication not very nice. Without fail there was not a single dish that was not excellent. The craziness is reflected largely in method of preparation rather than the flavour profiles. Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho would appear to fit into the mad scientist category. But think about it, the flavours are classic: the heat of the mustard, playing off against the sour, vinegar hit of the red cabbage gazpacho and all that tempered by the ice cream. Hot and sour is a pretty bog standard combination found in numerous cuisines. Blumenthal has simply gone off and riffed with the concept and it works well time and again.
I thought we had hit a duff point in the meal when we were served Salmon poached with liquorice, artichokes, pink grapefruit, 'Manni' olive oil. The salmon was coated with a liquorice jelly, the texture of which made me squirm - not the ideal reflex reaction in a restaurant. But, when combined with the marinated artichokes and the slick of artichoke puree, a few dabs of grapefruit and olive oil, the flavours came alive. Again there was the bitterness of the liquorice, the umami of the salmon, sweetness from the artichoke, a little bit of sourness from the grapefruit and a mild pepperiness from the oil. It all worked so well, even the liquorice jelly. My only criticism with the food was that someone seemed a tad heavy handed with the salt, it got more noticeable as the meal progressed. My only issue with the room itself was that it got quite noisy. I'm not after a library but it would have been nice not to have to ask the waiters to keep repeating themselves.
As hopefully you can tell, I found the experience fantastic, from the service to the food and via the wine pairing, it was exceptional. In lots of ways I did not eat the meal I was expecting or have the experience I was expecting, but it excelled for just those reasons.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1628 580333
What others think
Tastingmenu - I'm kind of at a loss to sum things up in a way that really does it justice
Christian Lindholm - The food is a moving experience for all senses
Cooksister - I loved the idea of messing with our entrenched expectations