The Fat Duck
‘A bit late, uh’. Johnny (chef of the restaurant) looks demonstratively at the clock, knowing perfectly well what time it is, and back at me. I notice a small smile in his expression. ‘Sorry chef! We rented a boat and went on the Thames to get the juices flowing. Sorry about the time. We’re real excited about lunch!’ Another smile. I’m back in the kitchen to say hello to the chef and all the cooks before lunch. Unfortunately we are a bit late. Isabelle had the wonderful idea to take a boat ride that day (the weather in England was much better than in the Netherlands where it was raining for two weeks non stop), but it all took a bit longer than planned.
At about 10.30am we left the B&B for Hurley. Isabelle found a small rental company at the river, where you can rent boats for 30 pounds an hour. We rent one from 11.00 to 12.00. Cruising, uhm, puffing away down the river it becomes even more apparent than riding to Bray. There is money here. Lots of it. We come across estate after estate only intercepted by the occasional, humongous house. I must say it’s all very stylish. Tasteful. Really important in my eyes when something is build from a mountain of money. The only exception is a small island, 30 puff minutes away from Hurley, where someone build a sort of shrine, Roman style, including a small statue you’d find on the most pompous of fountains in somebody’s garden. Now hope nobody who reads this has one in his or her garden.
At 12.00 we return the boat to the rental place and head back to Holyport. Before setting off to England we decided to suit up for the lunch, resulting in ironing our shirts with an ironer we borrowed from the owner of the house and Dion taking forever. The taxi to take us to the restaurant takes even longer than Dion. The result: a chef giving it to me in the restaurant a little bit later.
Entering the restaurant, one of the best parts of going to fancy restaurants (know what I mean?), we once again have a warm welcome. They all seemed to really appreciate we were there and of the work I’d put into the bigfatundertaking project. Maybe our appearance has a positive influence on our reception. They day before we came in as little boys in jeans, today in suits. When we sit down and are presented with the menus it is obvious there isn’t much choice food wise. None to be precise. The only influence comes from possible allergies or adversities to certain ingredients. None of us has either, so the tasting menu it is. Wine wise you can go for a bottle or take one of two wine pairings. Seeing as we’re all spoiled brats we went for a wine pairing, to get the full-on Fat Duck experience. After ordering the food starts to come and it is finally time for the real deal!
The first bite is a small, macaroon-like, beetroot thing with a creamy horseradish centre. Top notch. The glistering of the beetroot air is stunning. We wash it down with a complimentary champagne aperitif from Heston. Not too shabby. Following the beetroot, the cool, southern European maître d’ brings the first official amuse, the Nitro Poached Aperitifs. Great guy. He’s one of three serving us with food and drinks that day. Next to the maître d’, there’s a funny, German-looking sommelier and a stern, French waiter (a girl I think I saw a photo of in the book). We all decide to take the lime one to see how the ones we made rank up. Quite well to tell you the truth. Here they are poached for only a few seconds and are thus not as cold as ours and keep a more uniform texture. It’s also the first dish to prickle multiple senses. Just before you bite into one they spray an oil mixture of different citrus fruits in the air. Citrusy flavour compounds fill your nostrils while you bite into the cool meringue. Great.
Best photo of the day.
One of the dishes I was most looking forward to is next, the Red Cabbage Gazpacho. It’s way smaller than my version and the ice cream is shaped in the most beautiful rocher I have ever seen. I take a bite and am bewildered! It’s very delicate, packing no punch whatsoever. Has the amuse changed over time or did something go wrong in the kitchen? There’s no acid kick and I find it a bit underwhelming. Could somebody share his or her experiences with the dish?
Five minutes later all is forgotten, because one of the most memorable dishes of the day is presented. As a little addition to the menu we get three savoury versions of classic ice creams (Feast, Tangle Twister, Zoom), with the ‘Zoom’ served frozen. It’s the amuse as seen on an episode of Heston’s Feasts (do follow the link). I loved the series and always wondered what it would be like to be a diner at one of the feasts. We get a little glimpse. Some might call it a gimmick, but I loved the humour and playful aspect of it. Plus, it was goddamn delicious! Presenting something familiar with a completely different taste is a tricky balancing act, how many sweet eggs made of a coconut jelly and mango yolk can you eat, but here it works wonderfully. I also think I loved it to bits, because I was unfamiliar with the dish, in contrast with the rest of the meal. Cooking the entire book has its disadvantages. A surprise is a powerful tool and I was immune to a lot of surprises. This wasn’t one of them, so I could enjoy it without any preconceptions or comparison material. I can only imagine what the tasting menu would be like if you go to The Fat Duck completely oblivious.
The next dish is very powerful. It is the Jelly of Quail. Wow, it has got to be the strongest stock I ever tasted. You really need to dip into all the layers to get the cooling effect of the pea puree to temper the flavour of everything. The fig tuile is another welcoming, cooling effect. I wasn’t wild about the truffle toast. Fresh truffle (or properly frozen ones) almost all have had a woody, dirt like flavour and I didn’t really think these were much better than the ones I had in other restaurants. I only had really tasty black truffle at a workshop of The Librije. The other memorable truffle experience was eating white ones in Italy, which were packed full of flavour and smelled like the most powerful synthetic truffle oil. I don’t know if I’m right, but I feel truffles have a wonderful aroma and eating them raw doesn’t release it. With the exception of the freshest, best ones out there, but when do you come across those? Anyone any feelings towards truffles, do comment. Oh, almost forgot about the oak film and the smell of the forest. I loved those, especially the film. It has an otherworldly, unique flavour and really puts you in the mind-set of walking around a damp forest.
After the jelly we get the infamous snail porridge. The second, and last dish, where I think something went wrong. It was a bit bland, in desperate need of some seasoning. The snails in particular could have done with a bit more character. Recently I checked with the others and everyone thought this dish needed a kick in the nuts to wake it up.
Still haven’t learned to put a spoon to my head instead of pushing my nose in a dish.
I can’t remember exactly when the bread & butter came, but I think it was after the amuse dishes. Bright yellow unpasteurized butter is put on the table and we can choose between white or dark bread. I saw the bread the day before and the quality controls it goes through before ending up at the diners. It is reheated, sort of refreshed in the oven of the kitchen, where the lamb and stuff is finished, and is regularly checked by the cooks. Meaning it goes in and out of the oven dozens of times and each time someone listens if it’s ready: ‘Tok, tok, tok, tok.’ Not yet. A minute later: ‘Tok, tok, tok, tok.’ Nope. Some tries later: ‘Tok, tok, tok, tok. Ready!’ A piece is cut and the chef buries his nose in the bread, inhaling deeply and touching the piece from all sides. The final check. Like I said, attention to detail. The bread is great, full of flavour, but has nothing on the butter. The butter almost tastes like cheese. I never had butter with so much character and don’t know if I like it. A bit like drinking ‘real’, good quality milk, which suddenly tastes of something and throws you off. A few bites later though and the butter eats away like I have been munching on it my whole life.
To one of the best dishes, the Roast Foie Gras. I had it the day before and loved it. No exception today. There’s something about cryogenically frozen foie gras. It tastes clean, not at all fatty. I had a little preview at Restaurant Ivy and have to say it’s incredible. With all the additions, crab biscuit, balsamic and konbu, it tastes incredibly meaty, almost bacony. The slightly different version of the book is still my top recommendation for an at home treatment. I also read cryogenically frozen foie gras is becoming more widespread, even kicking the ass of ‘regular, fresh’ foie gras in France. Maybe it’s for sale in a supermarket near you. I’m definitely gonna check if my wholesaler is selling the stuff.
Another dish I had the day before is next. An Alice in Wonderland tribute. The watches come in a little suitcase and are stuck under your nose so you get to see them from close-up. Dion is the first with the watches right under his nose and follows his natural reaction to grab one. ‘No. You can’t pick them up. We put them in the tea cup’, our waiter almost shouts. Shocked by the waiter he pulls his hand back and sits uncomfortably in his chair. We joke Dion can’t do a thing right with the waiters after he tossed a glass of champagne over the table at the beginning of our meal, splashing champagne over Isabelle. As I said in the previous post, it is a lovely dish, but I loved the shellfish one of the book a bit better. A bit more out there.
You know a restaurant has made it when you have to write for almost all the dishes: ‘Another famous dish’. Well the next one clearly is. The iPod one. Funny thing is my brother thought someone was listening to music or talking on his iPhone when we walked into the restaurant, because he spotted the white earphones across the room. ‘Oh, they are used for a dish.’ We all put the phones on and start eating. It didn’t transport me to the seaside, but it did cut me completely off from the dining room. Just you and the food. A bit like eating a plate in the garden of The Fat Duck. A bit like listening to music in a car: nothing else to do, a confined space, giving a different experience to listening to music. I liked the dish. Delicious sashimi with lots of seawater flavours. The orange thing in the photo, about one third from the right side of the sand, is a prime example. When you bite into it releases a hit of seawater. Awesome.
If there’s one dish I wasn’t that keen on, it is the salmon one. Edible art, but not my favourite flavour combinations. The vanilla mayonnaise though was incredible. Thick, sticky, with a wonderful flavour. One thing did make it one of the most memorable plates of the day. I saw and smelled during my day in the kitchen cooks brushing the plate with a grapefruit essential oil (and some other aromas) to give the diners a hit of grapefruit. Sticking my nose in the plate, per usual when I eat, you get a wonderful grapefruit aroma. Absolutely, freaking great. Also, the sommelier mentioned the dish was ‘turbo-charged’ especially for us, but I couldn’t find any difference with all the plates I saw leaving the kitchen the day before. Maybe another lucky table got our plates?
After a lot of different white wines, the timid red wine from the salmon was a welcome change. We were all waiting for a big, bold red wine and before presenting us with the lamb they poured us a glass for the upcoming course. It was a red wine I always look forward to when I eat tasting menus. A proper, heavy red wine. Dion had the brilliant idea to make haste with the glass, so when they brought the food they would spot empty glasses and fill them up. Worked like a charm! I know you can always ask for a refill, but this was way more fun. Thinking back I should have done it for every course. I wouldn’t have made it out of the restaurant in a straight line though.
The lamb was exactly what you would want with a red wine. Delicious meat, ditto sauce, a puree (onion and dill) and a bit of offal (neck, sweetbreads and tongue). Delicious as the loin of lamb was, I absolutely adored the side dish, especially knowing of the attention to detail that went into the small slate. The jelly of lamb was one of the best things from the menu, accompanied by a small dot of mint puree I wrote about in the previous post (the one that takes 3 days to make). On top of the offal laid two fried pieces of quinoa. The day before I learned you have to overcook quinoa, drain it, dry it in a dehydrator until dry, but not completely, and fry it. As a cook explained, the drying step is essential. Too long in a dehydrator and it will fry to quick, resulting in a slightly bitter crisp. Not long enough and it will take too long, resulting in soggy crisps. Jesus. I didn’t ask about the other items on the plate, but if I go by the Fat Duck Cookbook it will probably go down a bit like the this:
Neck: 24 hours of brining, refresh for 2 hours in several changes of water, 12 hours of cooking at 65°C.
Sweetbreads: 2 hours of bringing, refresh for 2 hours in several changes of water, 50 minutes of cooking at 65°C.
Tongue: 2 days of brining, refresh for 2 hours in several changes of water, 2 days of cooking at 60°C.
Consommé: pressure cooker, freezing, 3 days thawing (I have a feeling they use a more efficient method now).
Dion and I were craving more food, a big savoury main course and had to savour every bite, because we were about to move into the sweet courses. Isabelle really took her time with this dish and at one point we all had to watch her nibble on every bite, like your cat or dog can look at you when you’re busy in the kitchen with something he or she likes the smell of.
The Hot & Iced Tea was the intermediary between sweet and savoury. I knew about the surprise, the others didn’t. They loved it.
After the tea came the most beautiful plate of food of lunch. Wow. Delicious strawberries with fresh coriander seeds, dried coriander seeds, an olive oil biscuit, pistachios, freeze-dried strawberries and a small cornet with an incredible strawberry jelly at the bottom and topped with earl grey ice cream. Fresh, with tons of strawberry components exploding in your mouth. It was great.
A close second to the strawberries as best looking dish of the day was the BFG with kirsch ice cream. It was tasty as hell, but I found it a bit heavy. I’m not a big fan of chocolate desserts in meals, because they almost always hit you quick and hard. The ganache especially was really thick and heavy. It would be the most perfect dish to go with tea in the afternoon, but I wasn’t convinced of it here. That’s of course just me. The kirsch ice cream was perfect. A super smooth, light texture, made it instantaneously disappear in the mouth.
I gave little hints to the maître d’, that there was one dish I wanted more than any other. When we finished the BFG and the plates were cleared, they put another glass in front of us and filled it with a dessert wine. Yeah! There’s something coming. Pushing a cart through an almost empty restaurant, dancing around vacuum cleaners and waiters ironing the linen for evening service, the maître d’ stops next our table. Egg and Bacon Ice Cream! Simultaneously waiters put plates in front of us with the most perfect pain perdu, and a small strip of caramelized bacon. The show starts. Maybe it’s the absence from the menu for some time, because the maître joyfully performs the routine of the dessert: mentioning the special Fat Duck eggs, saying the stove doesn’t work, but he has a solution, pointing out the sound of bacon sizzling when he pours liquid nitrogen in the copper pan and showing us the ‘scrambled eggs’. I don’t now if it’s the wine or the convincing performance, but it is the most fun presentation I’ve ever seen of a dish.
We start eating and Dion and I quickly agree the version we made is exactly the same. No question. David and Isabelle are not as convinced. Well, a few days later I talked about it with Dion and we also have to admit the flavours at The Fat Duck were more in harmony than our own ice cream. At least we know what to aim for if we’ll ever make it again. One thing that we made tasted the same: the pain perdu. It’s so tasty. Brioche dried in the fridge, filled with an egg mixture in a vacuum machine, fried in clarified butter and coated all over with caramel. Damn. In all, another highlight of the meal.
After the ice cream we get the Whisk(e)y Wine Gums. Number 3 and 4 have an incredible smoky flavour. Really complex. It funny how well you can tell the difference between the whiskey by incorporating them in a kid’s favourite sweet. They are also quite strong in the alcohol department and I immediately feel a rush to my head. My composure is starting to crumble.
Unfortunately the meal comes to and end with the coffee and tea. We all take the sweet shop bag with us instead of eating it right there and then and ask for the bill. After paying we thank everyone at the restaurant and are escorted out by the maître. We bump into Johnny, who some time ago came to say goodbye at our table when he left the restaurant. A second goodbye. A perfect moment for a photo in front of the restaurant. With the risk for his own life a young waiter stands in the street to take our picture. We talk some more, everything to postpone the end of our Fat Duck experience. At some point we have to let go of Johhny and with that our focus point of the trip.
After some more mandatory photos in front of the restaurant, we walk to a nearby cemetery to cool off, check the photos and smoke the cigar I just found in my pocket, still there from a wedding a few months earlier. It’s late in the afternoon, but the day has just began…
Returning to the B&B we talk about what to do in the evening and then it hits me: bowling! It has been years since I’ve been and everyone is up for it. Bowling is not really done a lot in the Netherlands, at least not that I know of. No Stateside popularity over here.
Isabelle finds a bowling centre in Maidenhead and after chilling for a few hours in the B&B we’re off. We’re lucky; tonight it is disco bowling night. Dark lanes, disco lights, black lights and pounding pop music. Oh black light, where have thou been all these years? Must say it is a perfect antidote to the over-the-top-in-a-good-way afternoon. Some hamburgers and a few pints are the perfect contrast to end the day.
Perfect shirt for the black light, haha.
As you can see, I, Heston, am bowling with little boys: Turbo and Gangsta.
So, the day ends and I start to replay some dishes and the overall experience in my head. I am relieved I found a lot of similarities between my concoctions and The Fat Duck, forgetting all about the overall huge difference between ‘me and them’. Apart from the Snail Porridge, Red Cabbage Gazpacho and Jelly of Quail (too powerful) all the dishes were on the money. It doesn’t mean I loved everything, there were definitely some favourites: the beetroot macaroons, the poached aperitifs, the mayonnaise, the savoury ice creams, the foie gras, the lamb side dish and the egg & bacon ice cream. If you strip all the theatre, which I loved to bits, and focus only on the food, is it the best or one of the best food places you can find?
I find it hard to make the judgement, because I’ve ‘only’ eaten at two other 3 Michelin starred restaurants (De Librije and Oud Sluis) and one or two 1 Michelin starred restaurants (unlike some bloggers out there with pages and pages of restaurants they visited all over the world, documenting the experiences in great blogs). I think I preferred the food of Oud Sluis more, although the style of the food is very different and therefore difficult to compare. As an experience though, The Fat Duck has no competition, at least in comparison to the restaurants I’ve visited in my life. I can’t see why some people see the place as infested with gimmicks. Sure, you have to listen to an iPod and they poach stuff in liquid nitrogen, but remember they did a lot of this stuff before it became fashionable. If you’ve become irritated by copycats and can’t stand the words liquid nitrogen I would not go to The Fat Duck. If you want classic, you could go to The Waterside Inn. I went, let go and went with it. If you can make that step you will love it.
Having an intimate knowledge of all the details that go into the recipes and the thought processes behind them I wonder if they all come across when you eat the food. It’s hard with everything going on to spot all the nuances and references of the food. It’s something I’ve asked Heston in the interview and will get to it in another post, but can say that he said all the details add up, although you might not notice them straight away. I have to agree after having eaten his food. It’s one hell of a well-oiled machine, from the food to the service, a place like no other. I feel completely reinvigorated to try my hand again at some Fat Duck recipes. An ode to our visit.
So, yeah, this is my Fat Duck experience. Over and out. Corny! Sorry, can’t come up with an original ending…