Our August trip to attend Loncon 3 was a thinly veiled excuse to get together with overseas friends, visit three countries, and, of course, eat. Thanks to the efforts of gourmand extraordinaire Scott Edelman, one of our eating destinations would be The Fat Duck. To say that I was excited about the meal would be an understatement. By the time the appointed day arrived I was quivering with anticipation. We took the train out of London to Maidenhead, and then a short cab ride to the village of Bray, home of chef Heston Blumenthal’s culinary empire. Was it quaint? You be the judge:
From the doorway of the restaurant you could look across the street at the unmarked building that houses Blumenthal’s research laboratory, and around the corner at the Hind’s Head, his pub:
Once inside, our meal began with an amuse of crispy beet foam with horseradish cream, a single bite that dissolved instantly in the mouth.
Nitro Poached Apertifs
Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Tequila and Grapefruit
Our server brought out a cart with foam chargers and a dewar of liquid nitrogen. After selecting one of the three apertifs, she piped foam into a spoon and dunked it into the nitrogen.
The result was a fragile frozen puff of foam that had to be consumed in a single bite.
The predictable (and unphotographable) result was puffs of fog escaping from everyone’s mouth and nose.
Red Cabbage Gazpacho
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
Blumenthal was one of the early pioneers of savory ice creams. This dish was a sophisticated take on peasant borscht, much less sweet than I expected.
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream
Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
This was a study in layering. The spherical dish had a rich, jelled quail consommé at the bottom, with a layer of crayfish cream over the top, garnished with chicken liver mousse. The other plate was truffle-topped toast.
The presentation also included a centerpiece:
The moss-filed box was topped with moss-scented “breath strips,” which we were instructed to eat before trying the jelly or toast. Once we tucked in, there was another surprise: The server poured a pot of water over the moss, which created a cloud of moss-scented fog.
Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel
Exactly what it says on the tin: oatmeal porridge prepared with a parsley-infused snail stock, topped with escargot, Iberico ham, and fennel. Complex, earthy, and not enough of it.
Roast Foie Gras
Gooseberry, Confit Kombu and Crab Biscuit
A beautiful preparation of foie gras with the requisite sweet accompaniment (in this instance, gooseberry jam) and two non-traditinal components: oil-poached seaweed and crab crackers for an extra hit of salt and umami.
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (c. 1892)
Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch, and Toast Sandwich
Blumenthal’s interest in historic recipes led him to the creation of Heston’s Feasts, in which he recreated entire dinner menus from different historical periods. His Victorian feast was a menu inspired by the food described in Alice in Wonderland, with this dish making the transition to the permanent menu. We were presented with what appeared to be gold pocket watches at the ends of tea bag strings, which we had to dunk into the teapot at the top of this serving piece:
The hot water dissolved the watch, revealing it to be a disk of demi-glace covered in gold leaf. When fully dissolved, we poured the stock into the bottom half, creating mock turtle soup.
The soup was accompanied by this tray of tea sandwiches:
There was a surprise in the sandwiches as well, a middle slice of toasted bread for an unexpected crunchy texture to the traditional cucumber filling.
“Sound of the Sea”
This course began with a non-food item:
The shell contained an iPod Nano playing ocean sounds. Once we all had the buds in our ears, the rest of the course arrived, presented on top of a tray of sand.
Raw octopus, tuna, sea beans, and salmon roe were garnished with seaweed foam. The illusion of eating on a beach was complete.
Salmon Poached in Licorice Gel
Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Golden Trout Roe
This one took a bit of sentence parsing to figure out. What at first appeared to be salmon poached in something dark – presumably licorice – turned out to be salmon that had been wrapped in a licorice-infused heat-stable gel and poached. The gel kept the salmon moist while adding just a hint of anise flavor to the dish. The pink garnish was individual pink grapefruit pips.
We had chosen to skip the three possible wine pairings, opting instead for a glass of white to go with the first half of the meal, to be followed by a red. Our white was a mersault:
The red that followed was a Portuguese douro:
Lamb with Cucumber (c. 1805)
Green Pepper and Caviar Oil
Another historic recipe, lamb loin with grilled cucumber.
There was a second plate with lamb marrow, crispy skin, and lamb consommé topped with spherified peas.
Hot & Iced Tea
A lovely stunt that marked the transition from savory to sweet, this was a glass of tea that was hot on one side and cold on the other. Because the glass was double-walled, you couldn’t detect the temperature differences by touch. It’s is prepared by pouring hot and cold teas made with different densities of gellan gum into either side of a divider in the glass. When the divider is removed, the teas remain separated for about a minute before they diffuse int each other.
Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile and Coriander Jelly, and Ice Cream Cornet
A perfect sumer dessert made with baby strawberries. The “tablecloth” is a printed rectangle of white chocolate. We were also handed two cornets of nitro-frozen ice cream.
This may be the best dessert I have ever eaten. The plate is mean to represent a bunch of grapes infected with botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot” fungus, which is responsible for concentrating sweetness in grapes used to create the great Sauternes and Tokaji dessert wines. Each “grape” was a different preparation: sorbet, mousse, jelly, chocolate, and a gold spun sugar sphere filled with citrus cream. The “stem” was cinnamon pastry, the “leaves” were molded sugar, and the “fungus” was Roquefort powder. It was a complex, but successful balance of sweet and savory flavors.
Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
This map of Scotland – and, strangely, Tennessee – held five bottle-shaped gums, each tasting of its regional whisky. They used a rotary evaporator to distill off the alcohol and concentrate the flavor components, since alcohol would have prevented gel formation. A very clever concept.
“Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”
Our final course was a sweet shop bag with three treats and a scented menu. The bonbon was aerated chocolate surrounding mandarin orange jelly, the caramel was apple pie in an edible wrapper, and the playing card was a white chocolate-wrapped strawberry pop tart. The wax seal on the tart envelope was also edible.
That was the conclusion of our four-hour lunch.
I had read The Big Fat Duck Cookbook when it was published, so I was already familiar with about half the menu (Gazpacho, Porridge, Sea, Tea), but that didn’t prevent me from being completely surprised by the intensity and complexity of flavors in each dish. Much like my dinner at Alinea, the menu was designed to appeal to the mind as well as the mouth, and it succeeded beyond my expectations. As one of our table noted a few days ago, “I keep having weird fever-dreams about the grape dish. It was quite something.”
I have to agree. It’s been a month since I ate there, and day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of one of those dishes.
And it wouldn’t be my last meal at Blumenthal restaurant, but that’s a story for the next post.