Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Lean Lunch at The Fat Duck

The five-hour meal that wasn't.

The inspiration to seek out an unforgettable meal suddenly hit me like a thunderbolt, one muggy afternoon in London. My husband and I were holidaying in England and we were just then preparing to check out of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and drive out to the county of Berkshire to spend a few days at the Vineyard at Stockcross, a well-known spa, before returning to our home in Tokyo.

Studying the detailed driving map, I realized that our destination, a modern Relais & Chateaux establishment with a two-star Michelin restaurant, was about 30 minutes away from the village of Bray. Bray itself is not a sightseeing spot (although it has plenty of history – what English village doesn’t?), and it doesn’t even make it onto most UK maps; but food lovers the world over know this tiny one-street village as the home of two Michelin three-star restaurants: Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. Fat Duck was chosen by Restaurant magazine as the best restaurant in the world several years in a row and, last year, the enigmatic Blumenthal himself received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for being chef-patron of the world’s best restaurant. It's also consistently included among the top five restaurants in the world by numerous other publications and dining associations.

I gasped upon realizing what this meant to a self-proclaimed foodie like myself. Then, without a second thought, I immediately called Suzanne, the very nice lady handling my membership at a London-based travel concierge I use. Suzanne has been known to perform minor miracles concerning reservations in impossible-to-get restaurants in various cities including New York and London. With little expectations because of the suddenness of my request, I asked her straight out if we could possibly get a table at Fat Duck for that week. This request seemed more like gambling than a sensible query -- especially since the (minimum) four-month waiting lists for this restaurant are more fact than urban legend, if you can even get through to their reservations office at all! – but I thought we should try our luck anyway.

Even the usually non-plussed Suzanne was fazed for a few seconds. "I'll try," she said, after a few deep breaths. Mind you, this was sometime back, before a recession hit the world and threw conspicuous consumption out the window, and also before Heston Blumenthal received some bad publicity for cases of food poisoning as a result of his experiments.

Within half an hour, Suzanne was back on the phone, breathing heavily as if she herself could not believe the good news. “You have a table for lunch on Thursday at 1 pm,” she said. “We have a very good contact there and we had to pull all kinds of strings to do so, so please don’t cancel. Besides, they will charge your credit card 80 pounds per person if you don’t show up.”

Apart from the prospect of a very good meal, the idea of losing 80 pounds certainly was an incentive to show up. I still don’t know how Suzanne did it, but, of course, we were going to be there for lunch at all costs. I’d been hearing of and reading about Fat Duck for years, and my taste buds were already nervous with anticipation. Depending on which reviews you read, Blumenthal is either cutting edge culinary genius and visionary pioneer of the new cool science of “molecular gastronomy,” or mad scientist with a fetish for liquid nitrogen – and possibly just a little bit of both. But either way, his food is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.

We arrived at the very ordinary – at least by English standards -- village of Bray well before our reservation time. We'd actually driven past it three times, looking for a typical English village layout, which we failed to find. The central area of Bray has one very short main street, which can probably be driven through at leisure in less than 30 seconds, and a row of period buildings on one side of it.

In spite of this non-fuss layout, too, we again had trouble finding our world-famous restaurant. Within this very ordinary village, Fat Duck occupies a nondescript village townhouse with no aura at all of culinary greatness, no parking places, and only the most unobtrusive of signs to mark the place where royalty and presidents have dined.

After depositing our car in the common village parking lot, we walked towards the village center and unknowingly passed right by it. We would have gone back and forth, and bypassed it a few more times, if only several well-dressed people -- more appropriately attired for a smart lunch in Kensington than a meal in the burbs -- had not hurriedly appeared out of nowhere and entered the townhouse at exactly at one o’clock.

“That’s our restaurant!” I exclaimed, with the gut feel of the hungry.

We opened the door after them and found ourselves in the first of two small and very simple dining rooms, both with white-washed walls, low wooden ceilings with exposed beams, and modern art on the walls. By the time the people before us were seated, every table in the restaurant was occupied except a small one for two under the stairs at the other end of the room, which we joyfully knew would be ours.

The restaurant was strangely quiet in spite of the small, crowded rooms -- perhaps because they were all so busy trying to figure out what was on their plates. But everyone seemed to be beaming with the aura of good fortune, for being among the chosen few blessed with a confirmed reservation. And the different faces around the room belied Fat Duck’s global appeal: there was a group of Russians, a Japanese couple, an American family, and a handful of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian men (including two who left in fancy chauffeured limousines afterwards) among the British diners. The room was like a mini United Nations on lunch break.

We ordered the eleven-course tasting menu (115 pounds per person) which serves many of the jaw-dropping food combinations and liquid nitrogen dishes that have made Mr. Blumenthal famous.

Our meal began with the amuse bouche, in this case a series of small dishes including a fresh oyster with horseradish cream, sour passion fruit jelly and lavender; and spicy Dijon-type mustard ice cream that we were supposed to eat with a sour sauce made from red cabbage gazpacho. Each appetizer was unusual, if not unthinkable; but the real shocker was the nitro-green tea and lime mousse that came first. For this “dish”, a waiter wheeled a wagon to our table, puffed out a concoction made of egg white, lime and green tea into a silver bowl, and then poured a thermos full of minus196 degree Celsius liquid nitrogen (enough to instantly freeze the skin off!) onto it. The contents were then scooped up into a hard ball with a mushy ice cream-like substance inside, and deposited onto our plate. We were then supposed to eat this in one mouthful. Hesitatingly, we gathered our courage and popped the ball into our mouths at the same time. The cold exterior quickly melted, revealing tastes and sensations not unlike green tea and lime.

Next was a Blumenthal specialty: snail porridge served with Joselito ham and shaved fennel. Just the idea of snails and porridge together was enough to make me nauseous (I don’t like escargot), but I forced myself to try it. Happily, molecular gastronomy was probably at work because I could not make out one dreaded ingredient from the other. The entire dish tasted more like a pleasant pesto risotto peppered with the strong flavor of ham.

Three other outstanding dishes are worth mentioning because they were so unusual in combination, and yet also extremely delicious. For a fish entree, a juicy piece of salmon was wrapped in sticky dark green liquorice with the consistency of soft rubber, and then served with fleshy pink grapefruit and aromatic Manni olive oil. Who would have thought candy would pair wonderfully with salmon? And yet the entire dish worked, with no ingredient losing its identity to others. I can still taste the flavors as I write this, and the very thought of it is making me hungry.

Then towards the end of the meal, bacon and egg ice cream was one of five unusual desserts. Again, a wagon was wheeled to our table and liquid nitrogen was poured over a concoction of eggs and bacon to whip up another melty ice cream ball that indeed tasted like bacon and eggs. For special effect, a very serious young man served it on breakfast plates and grandly announced, “Breakfast is served, madam” -- as if it was nine in the morning and not five in the afternoon.

Finally, the last surprise in a long day of amazement -- Mr. Blumenthal clearly enjoys impressing guests with tricks. We each were served tea in a clear glass cup that innocently looked like any other herbal tea readily available in these parts. The moment we took a sip, however, we were hit with a sensation of hot and cold lemon liquid all at once. Again, “molecular gastronomy” was at work, somehow seamlessly placing these two very different substances in one cup.

By the time we left Fat Duck, we were literally overwhelmed by our experience. We’d sat there for close to five hours, paid a small fortune, ate the most unimaginable combinations of food (or at least what once was food!) possible, and lived to tell others about it. Yes, we’d survived dish upon dish of liquid nitrogen.

“I think we should go back, even just every few years,” my husband said. “If only to make us think more out of the box. That guy’s a genius.”

I replied: “Then why do I feel like I didn’t really have lunch?”


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