Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have heard about Heston Blumenthal. The Willy Wonka of haute cuisine, the prince of invention, the master of dining trickery. He’s had such a big part in putting British food on the world map that makes us wonder why he hasn’t been knighted yet.
Last summer we got a reservation to his London restaurant, simply called Dinner. But don’t let the name fool you. There’s nothing simple about Dinner. First off, you walk into this splendid dining room at the Mandarin Oriental, overlooking Hyde Park. Dark brown furniture and enormous light fixtures give the room a sense of opulence. The food is based on old English recipes, and information about each adaptation is found on the menu. At the end of the meal we were even offered a quick visit to the open kitchen since we weren’t able to properly see it from our table, and given an explanation about the lengths the staff go to keep it as spotless as it was by the end of service.
Our fist taste of Blumenthal’s food (and that of Dinner’s brilliant head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts) left us salivating for more. So once The Fat Duck opened after a months-long hiatus during which the whole establishment was moved to Australia while the restaurant was being renovated, we bought our tickets. Yes, tickets. That’s how the new system at The Fat Duck works. You buy two tickets for the event, for a hefty £255 per person including VAT but excluding drinks and a 12.5% service charge. We managed to find a spot for lunch on a Wednesday, the week before Christmas and fit for a Xmas present for the two of us, and eagerly started counting the days. We read others’ reviews about the restaurant, talked about it, and were so excited to make the trip to Bray. Aside from its three Michelin stars, The Fat Duck was at one point ranked the second best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The fact that it had slipped to number 47 by 2014 didn’t throw us off our excitement.
Before we talk about our experience at The Fat Duck, we need to underline why we’re willing to periodically (make that very periodically) splurge on a meal. We believe in experiences, those instances that remain ingrained in your memory, that you talk about for years afterwards, with a smile and a drool. Last summer while in Spain we dined at Martin Berasategui and it was fantastic. We still talk about it with a lot of fondness, reminisce about the chef coming to speak to each table at the end of service, even though he doesn’t speak English. A for effort!
Because what differentiates a three star restaurant from the rest is, well, everything. It’s not just about the food. You’re dining at a three star restaurant, the food has to be good. Well, not just good, but absolutely exceptional. No, what makes the experience so incredible is the ambiance, the attention to detail, the ability of the staff to make you feel special. When we lived in NYC we were lucky enough to dine at Eleven Madison Park twice, once just before it was awarded its third star. From the moment we entered the art deco dining room that was formerly a bank, were transported into excellence. Miles Davis was playing in the background, and we were told during a kitchen visit at the end of the meal that an early reviewer had pointed out the restaurant needed more soul, more Miles Davis. The owners took that comment to heart and made a list of all the words that encapsulate Miles Davis, hung them in the kitchen and use them as inspiration. It works. As we sat at the front of the restaurant, a bottle of grappa in front of us (it’s a treat by the restaurant to lessen the shock of the bill) there were smiles on our faces that couldn’t be wiped off even by the thought of our credit card screeching in pain. EMP ticked all the boxes and we couldn’t wait to go back.
And yes, that’s one of the attributes of a three-star restaurant. It needs to leave you craving more, wanting to go back, to revisit the experience. That’s how we still feel about Per Se. The dining room is simple and kind of old school, a little stuffy maybe, but the view overlooking Central Park cannot be beat. Service is out of this world. They even brought a small stool for a handbag. The wine list is on an iPad — our visit was a few years ago when the idea was still novel. And the food, oh the food. It’s divine. We still remember fondly the pastry stuffed with cheese (somehow calling it cheese puff doesn’t do it justice) that was probably the best part of the meal. Even though we didn’t want to do the full wine pairing, the sommelier matched two half-bottles of wine perfectly with our courses. We left the restaurant stuffed (which doesn’t always happen at fancy restaurants) and years on still talk fondly about the meal.
So what about The Fat Duck? As mentioned earlier, we were looking forward to it and our expectations were high. While comparisons are odious, we had a benchmark in mind. It helped that a week or so before the reservation we received a call asking questions about our favorite holiday. Oh the excitement! We didn’t even mind waking up early to take the train to Bray, which by the way, is so quaint and lovely. A host greeted us at the door, and asked us to wait just outside the restaurant until we could be shown in. Good thing it was not raining. We were taken into a small entryway and given a folded up menu. It’s not a menu really, more a map. Because dining at The Fat Duck is a journey that brings back memories of childhood trips to the seaside. It’s a great idea, but for £255 the menu felt cheap. Yes, fine, it’s trying to recreate the experience of a childhood vacation, but a flimsy piece of paper falls short.
Onto the decor. The newly refurbished dining room is simple, perhaps too simple. White washed walls don’t exactly exude excitement. It feels clinical and makes you forget that you’re actually inside a 16th century building. No natural light is allowed to seep in through the windows, mostly because they want to control the lighting. In fact, a light fixture above each table changes the light to signify the different times of day during the journey. It’s a clever move but it still left us feeling like there was something missing when it comes to ambiance.
The journey started with cocktails poached in liquid nitrogen, prepared tableside. The theater of the preparation is enough to make one feel giddy with excitement, and the actual cocktail was quite good as well. There was rabbit tea, a clever concoction where half the liquid in the cup is cold while the other half is hot. An interesting shock to the senses but still, you’re drinking rabbit broth. And as part of “breakfast” we were given a pack of mini cereal boxes.
Each pack has a small toy, a tiny piggy bank in which you put the plastic coin you are given to be used later during the meal. It was fun to assemble.
But as for the cereal, which brings together the tastes of an English breakfast, it was nothing to write home about.
On the other hand, the aerated beetroot with horseradish was extraordinary. Yes, it sounds simple, but the small bite left a lingering taste that made you crave more. And there was a Jerusalem artichoke dish that made our mouths water. The mock turtle soup is an artistic creation that almost makes you want to frame it rather than eat it.
The salad course is no ordinary salad, but lollipops flavored as a Waldorf salad. Quite fun.
There’s a dish that evokes a walk in the forest, that is made of delicious mushrooms and truffles.
The Wagyu beef was tender, as you would expect, and the oat risotto had a generous shaving of truffles — possibly the best savory dish.
Desert included a take on cheese and wine, a beautifully presented dish that also tastes great.
And for the kid inside each of us, there’s a take on wine gums, but this time made of whiskey. It was a little disappointing that the one of us who was not drinking was not offered an alternative desert but coffee.
Then came more theater, a fluffy pillow with two meringues on top of it is brought to the table floating, signifying night time, as the lights that have been changing throughout the meal, start dimming.
But as fun as it was, there’s fault with this part of the meal. There were two tables served before us, both of which got the same dish, so by the time the floating pillow was brought to our table, we’d already seen the trick. The excitement was not the same. Of course we understand that a restaurant cannot give each diner a unique experience, but it still sapped some of the excitement. The same can be said for the enormous doll’s house that is brought out at the end. The intricate house is a replica of Blumenthal’s childhood home, recreated as a candy store. You use the coin handed earlier to get a bag of sweets. A cute touch, but again, not as exciting when you’ve already seen it.
We left The Fat Duck somewhat disappointed. It was a fun meal but it didn’t live up to our expectations. Yes, the food was good, the service attentive. But is that enough? Not really. The only really personalized part of the meal was when our server brought us a postcard with a photo of the same hotel we stayed in St Lucia, which we had revealed to be our favorite holiday (and as a favorite holiday, we have plenty of similar photos… easily accessible on our phones). Other than that, and some adjustments for food allergies, our journey was the same as that of the table next to us. The minimalist and underwhelming decor simply didn’t cut it. And while the food was good, it wasn’t enough to make this a meal to remember. Two months on and we’ve already mostly forgotten it.
Was it worth the splurge? No, for us it wasn’t worth the money. It’s certainly not a £500+ meal, excluding drinks and service. Someone else might have a better experience, but we’re not falling over ourselves to return to The Fat Duck. Although we will return to Bray and have lunch at Blumenthal’s pub, The Hind’s Head.