The last time I ate out of necessity was in 1985. I was six months old at the time, breast-feeding, and as yet unable to reach the refrigerator door handle. I eat for pleasure now, which is to say I eat incessantly. Hell, I’m having trouble typing this sentence because I’m eating right now.
It certainly wasn’t out of necessity that I went to the Fat Duck. For a reasonable person, the prior day’s feasting might’ve warranted an extended fast. But for me, fun trumps reason. And fun is exactly what I found in Chef Heston Blumenthal’s tasting menu… which may or may not have changed since 1985. (As you’ll recall, I was six months old at the time.)
I’m exaggerating, of course — the restaurant’s only been open since ’95 — but the menu rarely changes. Instead Blumenthal seems to obsess over perfecting his current repertoire, endlessly tweaking his recipes and refining his methods. He presents the same food in new ways, manipulating the smell in the air, the sound that hits your ears, and the story into which you’ve unknowingly been scripted. He’s probably more tuned in to your senses than you are.
At first, I was tuned out. I stared blankly at a dish of olives while our waiter wheeled over a cart with an ice bucket, a pitcher, and a siphon. Not for nothing had we booked this lunch two months in advance, I mused — this was some world-class water service. Did I want still? Sparkling? Tap? I didn’t even know.
Just kidding. (And who needs water when there’s Four Loko?!)
This was actually the first course — something they called NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE (2001) – and the first thing that afternoon to take a short swim in a pool of liquid nitrogen…
The mound of meringue infused with green tea, lime, and vodka felt fleetingly cold but persistently aromatic. It tingled like a particularly peppy breath mint, refreshing and sour and even slightly bitter from a final dusting of green tea powder. Within moments the snowball dissolved into nothing on my tongue, and just as quickly it was replaced by two small squares of jelly — one red, one orange. A sort of culinary trompe-l’œil, the red jelly was made from blood orange, and the orange one, from beetroot. Sneaky.
Passion fruit and lavender sounded more like a Yankee Candle than something I wanted to eat with oysters. But luckily, some unadvertised horseradish rescued the passion fruit jelly from cloying sweetness and the lavender was barely discernible. And interestingly, the oyster was cut into pieces before being reassembled with the other ingredients in the shell, making it easy to savor over a couple of bites instead of sending it down the hatch in one gulp.
A chilly quenelle of Pommery grain mustard ice cream, like the horseradish before it, packed a latent surge of heat. The pool of bright red cabbage gazpacho around it was an almost acerbic counterpoint. Though rather thin by itself, the soup combined with the ice cream and a tiny brunoise of cucumber had crunch, character, and a lingering creaminess on the tongue.
I didn’t bat an eye when they put a bed of oak moss on the table. I eat that stuff all the time. Don’t judge.
The moss was topped with little plastic dispensers of moss-flavored breath strips. And while we let the film dissolve on our tongues, the waiter poured a liquid over the bed, casting an eerie veil of mist over our table.
I think this was supposed to transport us to the damp, shady base of an old oak tree. But somehow it brought me back to a holiday party in college where a bunch of lanky physics nerds hopped up on Red Bull and gummy worms got their hands on some dry ice and decided to make it the evening’s “entertainment.” It wasn’t a pretty sight. But I digress.
While our table filled with more smoke than a Snoop Dogg concert, we crunched through a thin piece of toast topped with black truffles and radish. Layered in a separate bowl were quail jelly, langoustine cream, and foie gras. Meaty, buttery and salty, the parfait probably would’ve made a nice spread for the toast. Pity that I had already eaten it. And a bigger pity that this flotilla of plates was so bloody difficult to photograph. I feared the scorn of the wait staff as Chef’s creations risked melting, thawing, smoking less dramatically, or otherwise deteriorating before our eyes in those precious few seconds.
In that spirit, I shot this 60-second montage of this dish and a couple of others…
Snails and parsley have a mutual affinity, as the French have long known. But when a Brit bombed them with sweet ribbons of shaved fennel, salty Jabugo ham, and some nutty porridge, it was more than just a good match. It was a love connection.
There is also much to love about C6H5CHO a.k.a. benzaldehyde. A chemical compound present in almonds and several stone fruits, it was all over the place in the ROAST FOIE GRAS “BENZALDEHYDE.” The foie, pre-cut into three fat slices, had the texture of a jiggly custard. Chamomile and chives made it sweet and snappy. The almonds — shaved on top, and whirred into a silky fluid gel on the side — tasted of Sicily. Amaretto jelly and some intensely flavorful cherries elevated this dish higher still, making it easily one of the best foie gras preparations I’ve ever had.
When the conversation of an obnoxious couple nearby climbed well above the din in the room, I scanned the room for a blunt object with which to beat them. The waiter, ever so helpful, brought over a large seashell with an iPod inside it. Fortunately, the soundtrack of seagulls and crashing waves had a calming effect, and I’d forgotten the neighboring knuckleheads by the time a glass-covered sandbox was set in front of me. The edible sand on top (a mixture of tapioca, fried breadcrumbs, crushed fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine oil) formed a reef where all types of shellfish had washed up — oysters, winkles, razor clams, and mussels among them. A dish to re-awaken the brain as much as the palate, all sorts of different stimuli here successfully brought us to the seashore.
I’m being more than a little diplomatic when I say that salmon poached in licorice gel was not my favorite course of the meal. Visually, it was stunning. The vanilla mayonnaise — as heroically terrible as it sounded — was actually quite good, especially with the artichokes. And the salmon, enrobed in a thin layer of licorice gel, had such a beautifully tender texture that I wondered how it stood intact on the plate at all. The problem was that the fish was also — to my taste at least — horribly, unforgivably under-salted. That was an issue that unfortunately no garnish could eradicate.
Redemption flew in quickly. Garnet-red pigeon meat and an oblong pigeon chip (made with tapioca powder just like shrimp chips) shared the stage with a diabolical concoction they called black pudding “made to order.” Thick, smooth, meaty and obviously a bit bloody tasting, I knew neither what all was in it nor how it was made to order. But I did know I could spread that on toast every day and die (prematurely, of congestive heart failure) a happy man.
Of the first few sweet snacks, it was the HOT AND ICED TEA (2005) that most made me smile. An oxymoron in a shot glass, the left half of it was cold while the right was hot. My brain didn’t believe my tongue, my tongue didn’t believe my brain, and I didn’t believe either one of those lying scoundrels. I still have no idea how this tea was made, but I’m happy in that ignorance because I loved it.
Next came a thimble-sized cone of ice cream and a pine sherbet fountain. The ice cream was good – apple on top with a spicy ginger-orange granita hidden below — but I had not a clue what a sherbet fountain was. Hesitatingly, I took the dehydrated stick of vanilla in hand. I licked, dipped, then licked again. Pine flavored. More sour than sweet. That, sir, is what Americans know as Fun Dip.
And douglas firs are what we know as Christmas trees. Somehow this conifer snuck into the pastry kitchen and mingled with mango, lychee, and blackcurrants. But sadly, there were no presents to be found under its branches. I found this dessert to be surprisingly bland.
The clock inched toward dinner time and we finished up lunch with some breakfast. We started our day with cereal: parsnip cereal, with the characteristic crunch of corn flakes but an altogether different kind of sweetness — a natural one, with a slightly earthy finish that reminded us that, yes, we were eating a root vegetable for dessert.
Then came was the creation for which Blumenthal, and the restaurant, are most widely known: NITRO-SCRAMBLED EGG AND BACON ICE CREAM (2006). Essentially a flash-frozen, bacon-infused custard, the ice cream was yolky and smoky magic. The pain perdu beneath it was heavily caramelized on the outside but super moist within. Add a dab of tomato compote, a crispy crown of bacon, and some (jellied) tea, and we had ourselves a full English breakfast, or at least a mighty tasty reinterpretation of one.
Petits fours were presented all together and devoured one by one – mandarin aerated chocolates, violet tartlets, carrot-orange lollies, and apple-flavored caramels with edible wrappers were our victims. Or perhaps we were the victims of our own gluttony.
But I think even gluttons like me add years to their lives with meals as fun as this. There of plenty of restaurants wholly incapable of imparting this feeling with such grace, plenty of restaurants where technology overshadows taste, and awkward, forced whimsy comes with a side of failed irony. But those places aren’t backed by chefs as brilliant as Heston Blumenthal. His deep understanding of (food) science and (food) history is instantly noticeable. His dishes are relentlessly researched and yet playfully nostalgic. His cuisine, simply put, demands attention — eyes open, ears perked, and taste buds raring — because the entire experience at The Fat Duck, perhaps more than any other place I’ve been, hits you from so many directions and on so many levels at once.