Monday July 6, 2009. The single most painful and least productive morning of my life. Don’t tell my boss. And get comfortable, this is a fat post (and I don’t mean phat).
10.00am. I pick up the phone and dial 01628-580-333. I’m trying to get a booking at The Fat Duck, the second best restaurant in the world. Engaged. End call. Re-dial. Engaged. End call. Re-dial. It’s ok, I’m gonna keep trying for a good 30 minutes. All good.
10.30am. Engaged. I need to do some work. I gotta stop, I mean who ever gets through anyway? But. What if I’m next, what if I hang up now and I miss my chance? I’ll do this for another 15 minutes. End call. Re-dial. Engaged. End call. Re-dial.
10.45am. Engaged. My neck hurts from cradling this awkwardly shaped Cisco IP Phone *ahem* in the nook between my shoulder and right ear. I’m getting RSI in my left wrist from repetitively pressing End Call and Re-dial. Ok 11am, I’ll go til 11am. End call. Re-dial. Engaged. End call. Re-dial.
11.00am. Engaged. The engaged tone is giving me a headache. But I can’t stop now. Surely, I’m close? Surely? Please? Can anyone hear me? End call. Re-dial. Engaged. End call. Re-dial.
Ok so you get the idea. If there is something I am, it’s s.t.u.b.b.o.r.n. I was born with it, and I have refined my stubbornness to within an inch of its life and by god, it is not something you want to mess with. I want to go to The Fat Duck. I want to go for my 30th birthday (ok so we went a day earlier). And I don’t want any-thing else. You see the shite my poor bf has to put up with? Thank goodness I’m endearing
11.45am. It’s wearing me down. My head hurts, my neck hurts, my wrist hurts, even my heart is starting to hurt a little. I’m giving up, I spill my resignation onto twitterverse “how stupid of me to think I could actually get through to The Fat Duck” and holy mother of Murphy’s Law! Literally the instant I am about to hang up for good, the phone rings! It rings!
And then I am on hold. But God I Love On Hold Music After Hearing The Engaged Tone For One Hour And 45 Minutes. I’m on hold, listening to a rendition of Alice in Wonderland for another 15 minutes and finally finally, someone picks up the phone. I want to curse and spit and dance with joy all at the same time. But I do nothing and give them my name. My date. My time. and hope to f**king god that after all my effort, they are not booked out.
And they are not. Friday September 4, 2009. 12.30pm. We are going to The Fat Duck!
The Big Day
The two month anticipation was painful to say the least and after much ogling at other blog posts and various outfit attempts, the big day arrived. I woke up early because yes, this is what I do when I’m excited to eat. Our strategy was to catch a train down to Bray for lunch, spend five odd hours degustating and head home. Not a bad plan and perfectly do-able, unless you are more inclined to spend the night in the countryside. After spending this much on lunch though, we would have had to sleep on the street, so wise choice catty, wise choice.
As we arrived and were seated, the sommelier endowed upon us stories of their crazy fat (and this time, I mean phat als0) wine list. Panu had a rose apéritif, I had sparkling water ~ cadbury kid that I am, it really would not have been cool to be a drunkskunk at The Fat Duck.
Palate cleanser and first course ~ Lime Grove and Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
Reknowned for Heston Blumenthal’s work with liquid nitrogen, the palate cleanser was an ideal show opener. A perfect dollop of egg white laced with lime is dropped into a pot of nitro and stirred, producing an icy-cold white ball, dusted with matcha, served and advised to be eaten whole and immediately. But I took a photo first, I mean, c’mon.
My tastebuds were momentarily frozen solid on contact, but as the ball (because I can’t think of a better word) dissolved, the contents evaporated across my tongue and the roof of my mouth so delicately, like a feather that you’re touching, but you don’t feel. The fresh sensation is crazy cool, and I’m ready for the ride.
The first course was hands down the simplest of the entire menu. But surprisingly, one of my favourites. Red cabbage gazpacho with pommery grain mustard ice cream, an intense flavour with an even more intense colour. The strong cabbage taste complemented nicely by the subtle mustard ice cream.
The second course ~ Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream with Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
This course gave us a sneak peak of the eccentricity to come. We were advised that to enjoy this course in its entirety, we had to first explore the aromas and flavours of oak. Yes, the tree. We were each given a small snap open box, much like these Listerine mint strips. We placed the strip on our tongues, it dissolved and ooooh oaky! Like I took a bite out of yee olde oak tree!
As we indulged in the food (jelly of quail, crayfish cream with chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast), the waiter placed what looked like a pot of oak moss on our table and poured water across its lush surface. The moss oozed that mesmerizing nitro-smoke and the aroma – oak! I’m not sure if it made the course better (the chicken liver parfait was ricidulously amazing anyway), but brownie points for interesting. And look at the teeny tiny radish bits on the truffle toast! Cute!
The third course ~ Roast Foie Gras with Gooseberry, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit
The star of this course was not the roast foie gras but the braised konbu. Every-one talks about umami, konbu is umami, baby. A source of glutamic acid, which is a type of acid responsible for umami, the taste sensation produced by the konbu is actually indescribable (because my unsophisticated palate only knows bitter, salty, sour and sweet). The flavour is apparently best described as meaty, in the most awesomeness sense of the word, but you get the idea. It was yum.
The roast foie gras also held its own. Rich, smooth and velvety, I preferred it without the sweet slather of gooseberry sauce, and the crab biscuit, I mean it tasted great but crab? I wasn’t feeling crab.
The fourth course ~ Mock Turtle Soup with Mad Hatter Tea
My favourite! My absolute favourite! I want to do this course over and over and over again. It’s a work of art, it’s amazing, it’s hypnotic, it’s really yummy.
The waiter first brings to the table a plate filled with various (edible?) bits. One looks suspiciously like an egg with three tiny mushrooms sprouting from atop its golden crown. There’s also something that looks like meat, some herbs and bits. We’re told not to touch this, dammit. He then sets down a tea cup, with a tea bag inside. Except instead of a tea bag, it’s actually a golden watch. The label of the teabag reads Mad Hatter’s Tea. Ah, we’re now at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
As the waiter pours hot water into the tea cup, we’re instructed to stir ~ and as we stir the golden watch dissolves into a brilliant concoction of gold flakes, spinning, drifting, dancing around the tea cup. The tea, we learn, is actually a broth to be poured over the mock turtle soup, resulting in honestly one of the most beautiful dishes I have ever laid eyes on. The colours of this dish are bold, the flavours are subtle and full all at the same time, and like I said, I wanted to do it all over again.
The fifth course ~ Sounds of the Sea
Winner of the weirdest course for the day. We’re each handed a giant shell, which houses a little ipod shuffle (question: wonder how many identical shells they have?) and are told to listen to the sounds of the sea. I plug the buds in my little ears and hope to god that for £130, they refresh the ear bud liners after each use. Anyway. The sounds are definitely of the sea ~ waves breaking against the coast, the influx of the ocean, and the retreat. Seagulls are squawking, birds are chirping, we’re definitely at the beach.
They bring out our meal, which basically looks like they’ve plastic-toy-shovelled a portion of the local beach onto a plate and served it as a michelin starred meal. There’s sand, there’s frothy remnants of the last wave, there’s seaweed, grass, and oh thank god instead of whole fish, we get slices of raw fish (yellow tail, halibut and mackarel).
Instructed to eat the meal while listening to the sounds of the sea, we proceeded to dig in and I cannot even describe to you how infinitely weird this course was. The sand actually tasted like sand. If I’d given you a handful, you’d be stupid not to bet that it was sand. The texture is bona fide to the nth degree and the sea! It tasted like sea! I know I’m not doing a great job at describing here, but just believe me. It was like I’d stuck my head into the beach and chomped. But it wasn’t bad. It was actually quite… appetising.
After we’d finished the course the waiter explains that the sand is made from tapioca and fried baby eels, and the sea from Japanese seaweed and vegetable stock. It’s actually just insane. Insane.
The sixth course and first main ~ Salmon Poached in Licorice with Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil
The sixth course was probably my least favourite in that it wasn’t different. See how pretentious I’ve become just like that? It was salmon, cooked to a perfect medium rare, wearing an outer skin of licorice. The accompaniments were good, and what to me appeared like little pomelo flesh toned down the otherwise very powerful combination of flavours ~ artichoke, vanilla, licorice and whole peppers.
The seventh course and second main ~ Powdered Anjou Pigeons with Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles
What are umbles you ask? Offal. Just another nice way of saying offal. This was a hearty dish, something I can totally imagine having in an English pub, except about 15 times the size of this dish. The quail was tender, the blood pudding tasted like a deliciously rich condiment, and the umbles were actually very nice. The accompaniments of baby onions and that thing that looks a little like a dried pork crackle both neutralised the heavy meatiness of this dish, and those two little bits of froth, I have no recollection of eating that! Maybe they vaporised in all my slowness.
The eighth course and first dessert ~ Tafferty Tart with Caramelised Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon
The Tafferty Tart was a little package of flavour explosions. Caramelised apple, tucked between fine sugared crisps, dabs of cream and a nutty finish. The sweetness is complemented exquisitely by the tart (don’t mind the pun) rose sorbet, fennel and candied lemon. Oh and the candied rose petal? What a novelty! *chomp*
The ninth course and second dessert ~ The Not-So-Full English Breakfast with Parsnip Cereal, Bacon & Egg Ice Cream and Hot/Cold Tea
Another course designed to bamboozle this little brain ‘o mine. Well the first part of the course was ordinary, as far as ordinary goes in The Fat Duck. We are given a little Fat Duck branded cereal box, which contains a Fat Duck branded bag of what looks like cornflakes but are in reality parsnip flakes. The bag probably contains about 20 flakes, a perfect anorexic’s breakfast. Luckily we have bacon & eggs on order as well!
The bacon & eggs are another Heston nitro-creation. The waitress wheels out her nitro-cart and removes two eggs from a very normal looking albeit Fat Duck branded (everything is Fat Duck branded) egg carton. She explains that this is no ordinary egg, the bacon is already inside the egg. Woah. She cracks the egg and releases a yellow custard-like mixture into the pot. She adds the nitro, stirs and voila! We have scrambled eggs! At this stage I’m still confused about how the bacon is in the egg, because, dude, it is clearly on my plate sitting on top of my adorable little mushroom shaped french toast.
Ah-ha. The taste tells a different story. The scrambled eggs actually taste like eggs and bacon all in one. It’s flavoursome and salty, honestly just like a mouthful of well, bacon & eggs! The sugary bacon strip and french toast counter these tastes and the chill of the ice cream actually does make this a dessert, not quite your average English breakfast.
Now the tea. Who knew you could have so much fun with a teeny tiny cup of tea? We’re advised to drink this tea immediately, and it is both hot and cold at the same time. Que? There are two types of tea in the cup, different consistencies and separated by physics, one warm (lower), one cool (upper). It seems a simple notion but I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever sipped on a beverage that is both hot and cold (and quite separately so) at the same time! Very weird, very cool.
The tenth course and third dessert ~ Chocolate Wine “Slush” with Millionaire Shortbread
I don’t know if you can read that ‘info sheet’ that we received – click on the photo, make it ginormous. This is an easy one – think wine, chocolate, ice cubes, blender. OMG OMG OMG right? Why don’t they serve this in bars??? If they did I would totally volunteer to be in a perpetual choco-wine-slush-stupor because this was so divine, but not even in the michelin star way. Just in the my-taste-buds-did-a-dance way.
Oh and the millionaire shortbread was also very good, but I was unfairly blind-sided by the slushie.
The eleventh course and fourth dessert ~ Wine Gums
This one’s kinda cute, although again thinking for £130 they better damn well wipe that frame clean each time. These tiny little wine gums, each with a different flavour (mead, cognac, madeira, sherry and rum) are stuck on a framed map showing the trade routes of olde England. You’re supposed to follow the numbers, 1 through 5. But I’m a little retarded, I did 1, 2, 4, 3, 5… but I don’t think (I hope!) I damaged the experience. Each little wine gum had its own unique flavour, my favourites were cognac and sherry. Yum!
The twelfth course and final dessert ~ Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop
Mr Blumenthal is kind enough to send us off home with a take home lollie bag, filled with delights to nurture my weeping because-we’re-finished-at-Fat-Duck heart. The pack contains a little aerated chocolate (think aero, yummm), an apple pie caramel which you eat with the wrapping (white rabbit style) and the two more impressive treats:
Coconut baccy ~ dried coconut strips infused with tabacco flavours and presented much like a pack of loose tobacco ready to be rolled. And Queen of Hearts ~ a stupendously detailed piece of white chocolate which looks like, well, the Queen of Hearts. The ‘card’ is about 2mm thick and somehow, they’ve squeezed a layer of fruit compote in between. Ridiculously cool. I didn’t wanna eat it. But I did.
The Damage, The Verdict, The Aftermath
The damage. At £130 per head for the tasting menu (and there is only the tasting menu), I would say this meal is worth every penny. The design, the detail, the packaging, the presentation, the actual food ~ it is once-in-a-life-time brilliant. Wines start at around £20/glass, we only had two but wow the table next to us paired wines with each meal, I think their bill is about £800. Ours totalled a very reasonable £360 including the pristine service.
The verdict. GO. It’s incredible. Taste-wise sure you might get better tasting food for a quarter the price but it’s not about the taste, it’s about the experience, the science, the show, and guys, it’s just fucking cool, there’s no other way to put it.
The aftermath. There wasn’t really one. I think I slept all the way home, although surprisingly (in a good way), we weren’t super stuffed like we normally are after a degustation. I came home and sifted through my photos straight away longing to go back. Realistically though, I probably won’t. Not while there is the same menu anyway and honestly, I am not going through that booking process again. EVER.
The Fat Duck
Bray, Berkshire SL62AQ
01628 580 333