Bethnal Green to Holborn. Holborn to Knightsbridge. Destination: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. My mind is going a thousand miles an hour: I have a slight buzz from a couple of beers a few hours earlier, we had to race to the restaurant and our party changed from four to two. Me and my brother step into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Not at all in the relaxed mind-set I thought I would have. The reason lies a few hours earlier in the day…
We arrive at RE Shoreditch Hotel in London from Moor Farm in Holyport. At the back of the hotel there’s an elevator to transport one car at a time to the parking space a few meters below street level. It’s a clean, modern, new hotel, a completely different atmosphere than our B&B in the countryside. At no point in the hotel I have to drop my head a meter to get through a door or take a shower. We relax for an hour before heading out to the streets of Shoreditch.
Walking through the neighbourhood all the texts I read beforehand make total sense. I thought some websites proclaiming it as overtly hip and alternative were exaggerating, but they are right on the money. You get hit over the head with fashion stores, funky hairdressers, art galleries, males in very short shorts, women in tights and even bouncers at cafes in the middle of the day! I’ve never been to any city with such a strong, ubiquitous vibe in a clearly, identifiable area. At one point I wonder with my brother across ‘the border’ of Shoreditch into The City and the change a few meters can entail is extremely obvious. Guys in shorts on one side. Males in suits on the other. No shorts in the City. No suits in Shoreditch. So if the style of Shoreditch is your thing you’re not damned to wonder the whole of London to your favourite shops, you just go to East London.
This is the backdrop of our afternoon in London. After splitting up for shopping we all join up at a small café. At that point Isabelle starts to feel unwell and decides to head back to the hotel. We just think she’s tired and sleep will get her in shape for the evening at Dinner. After she leaves we meet up with an old football teammate of Dion and David, Geert, who lives and works in London. We have a few drinks drinks at a place near the café we were just sitting. We stay way too long for us to make it to Dinner in a stress free state of mind. Some simple calculations add to the stress: get back to the hotel + get fresh and clean + walk to the subway + take it to Knightsbridge. Oh fuck.
After racing to the hotel it becomes obvious Isabelle is feeling really shitty and she and Dion will go to the hospital. What to do? No point in going with all four to the hospital. Still go to Dinner? Dave and I decide to go the restaurant and keep in touch for going out later in the evening, as originally planned.
David and I step out of the Knightsbridge subway station. Here we are again, inside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. We explain it’s just the 2 of us and instead of giving us our original table, they arrange a table for 2. Good service, but unfortunately the (possible makeshift) table is located at the main hub of the waiters, leading to waiters buzzing around us at all times. On top of that I feel bad for Isabelle and the fact we are not with all 4. To finish everything of Ashley is not working that night, so no chance to say hello. I figure Jorge, the sous chef, is working, but I only talked to him a minute when I was there months back and with my mood I leave the kitchen for what it is. If you’re thinking what is this guy whining about when he can eat at Dinner I have to quote the good Mr. Murthaugh: ‘Go spit!’
Within minutes we’ve talked to 4 different waiters to check: how we’re feeling, to see if we want an aperitif, decided on still or with a sparkle, ask about our wine preferences, bring the menu and again, probably due to my facial expression, if we are ok. We decide swiftly on the courses and wine: Meat Fruit (of course), Roast Scallops, Rib-Eye, Spiced Pigeon, Taffety Tart and Tipsy Cake and a bottle of Riesling. Here ‘s how it went.
What original lines can I feed you about the Meat Fruit? That is sucked? Would be original, but completely untrue. It looks stunning (kicking the ass of the Gisele Bündchen ice cream rochers of The Fat Duck Cookbook). It tastes stunning. It is stunning. ‘Nough said.
Fresh scallops are one of my all-time favourites and here they are treated with great understatement. Very fresh, with cucumber and hints of dill. In fact very similar to the flavours of the lamb dish of The Fat Duck a day earlier.
The Roast pigeon is tasty with rare pigeon breast, artichokes and an ale sauce. Like the scallops it was good, but a bit steep for 32 pounds, especially after finishing the plate after a few bites. I still lovingly think back to Ivy where I got a proper pigeon dish. A whole one just for me, no mocking about. Ordering a pigeon, getting a pigeon.
I saw some evidence beforehand and when the meat arrives in front of my brother I see real-life evidence. The steaks are huge here. A big slab of rare beef, with mushroom ketchup, a pitch black sauce and fries. Yes, fries! I noticed it immediately from the menu. All the beef came with fries and I couldn’t spot ‘triple-cooked chips’ on the side dishes either. This sucked beyond belief. If I had known I would have made sure to get a taste of them at the Hind’s Head. The fries were some of the worst I ever had, minus the ones you buy in a cheap eatery, take home with you and eat after steaming them in a plastic bag for a good 5 minutes. At The Crown they were a hundred times better.
The chips in the photo are triple-cooked ones, not the fries we had. The steak is also different, we had a piece of Rib-Eye.
This may sound like talk from a cranky man, but my brother could not believe the quality of the chips as well. He was the first to mention they were bad, bringing down the entire dish, making it all feel cheap. The fries even included ones cut from the edges of the potatoes. Some were as small as 2,5cm long and 2mm high. Stuff for frozen potatoes, not an upscale restaurant. Ugh. I should have mentioned it to the waiters, but was not really in the mood for a discussion about the food.
Luckily the other components of the dish were great. The mushroom ketchup was sweet, sour and savoury, blasting away any memories of tomato ketchup. Maybe you guys in England are lucky enough for a ‘Heston Mushroom Ketchup’ at Waitrose. As far as sauces go, this beefy one was extremely powerful, but not a jellied mess. You couldn’t even see the white plate below the pool of sauce! Must be the humble pressure cooker. Great.
My enthusiasm started to pick up when I saw the desserts. Taffety Tart belongs to plating elitetm. A real beauty. It was the dessert of my brother, but I made sure I grabbed a piece of the arlette. I was pretty chuffed with my version of the thin, caramelized puff pastry when making the Cox’s Apple. Should not have been. Here they are incredibly thin, with a very crisp caramel coating. Perfection. At least I know what to aim for with a next attempt. Without sounding too cocky the rest reminded me of the apple desert I made: the apple pâte de fruit, caramelized apples, blackcurrant sorbet and what not.
To one of the most talked about desserts ever. It comes in a small, black, cast iron pot, looking deceitfully simple. Rich brioche, fueled with alcohol during cooking. French toast for adults. Very, very tasty. The pineapple on the other hand looked great, but was incredibly sweet. I wouldn’t be surprised if they measure the sugar level of each one with a refractometer to see if they are up to their standard. Sweet pineapple with sweet caramel means sweetness galore and a bit too much for me. Still one of the most original and fun desserts I had in a very long time.
As long as the lunch at The Fat Duck took, this dinner was over was over in no time. A few nibbles on a caraway biscuit and an earl grey, white chocolate ganache later, which by the way was one of the best things of that night, and we were out the door. ‘Done’, as Ramsay would say.
Looking back I can understand the anticipation to the opening of Dinner. The mass hysteria not so. Good food in a great setting, but I struggled to be blown away by it. Maybe it were the awful fries or my mood. Don’t know. Still, these guys just opened! In a few years they will be a gastronomic machine, pumping out one great dish after another. I feel the reviews they get now will be appropriate at that time.
Leaving Dinner we call Dion and hear he’s still in the hospital with a morphine-induced Isabelle. No night out in London for all of us. Dave and I decide to roam the streets of London alone and end up at Ronnie Scott’s. Use your imagination to what happened that night.
What I do have to share is the state of London girls late at night. I’m not completely unfamiliar to the nightlife, but the women on the street after a night out in town in London is a new experience to say the least. The freaking streets are littered with girls not knowing right from left. You have step over one after the other, sort of performing a military training exercise. All made difficult by the fumes of puke. Really have to spend a night with a group of girls in London some time.
We find the bus stop for a ride to the hotel and I dream of drunken girls. The next day we reschedule our trip through the Eurotunnel and leave London after breakfast instead of spending the day there. Home in couple of hours. Trip over. Fuck! Hard to adjust after eating our way through three days.
It feels a bit corny to write a summary of The Fat Duck trip a la ‘what did I take with me’. I just can’t find the strength to stop myself though. There a couple of things that really clinged on to me.
One thing that stuck with me the most from the book is the preparation of the dried orange zest for the Carrot and Orange Lolly. The instructions are: ‘Prick the orange all over with a needle and place in a saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover it and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat, remove the orange and set aside. Place the measured water, sugar and glucose syrup in a pan and bring to the boil. Add the blanched orange and simmer, covered, for 2½ hours. Remove, allow to cool, then wrap in clingfilm and freeze. Preheat the oven to 60°C. Finely grate the zest off the frozen orange. Place the zest on a baking tray lined with parchment and put in the oven to dry for 2 hours. Store in an airtight container until needed.’
Are you kidding me? Is this a classical French technique? Couldn’t you just zest the **&*ˆ%ˆ$%$,@!, blanch and dry it? I had to ask. Heston replies in the talk I had with him after observing the lunch service in the restaurant: ‘With the oranges there was a bitterness there. You can take the zest and try to boil it down, but you loose a lot of the orange essential oils that come out. With any of these preparations, you can ask yourself if it makes a massive difference or not. If you serve 15 courses the attention to every little thing, which might end up making only a 15% difference, could count for a lot.’ I tell about my apple puree post Fat Duck, containing malic acid, fructose and raw apple and say I wonder if anyone will notice the difference with traditional apple puree. ‘You know it. People have said that to me in the past and in a restaurant environment especially it’s all over when you start to ask these questions.’ The answer resonates with what I saw during my day at The Fat Duck. Maybe you can’t spot all the nuances as a diner, but the cooks are aware of them and are imprinted with a quest of perfection. No second-class bullshit. It may be one of the key lessons you learn if you work there. No satisfaction with second best. I could easily see myself as one lean, mean kitchen machine after a few months there. If one can get through the grapefruit prep of course.
The other main question concerned the restaurant as an institution and the future of the Fat Duck. I ask: ‘Is there a pressure to keep certain dishes on? Is there there pressure to keep the menu as it is?’ ‘We took Snail Porridge off a year ago and we had a big problem. The Fat Duck is not designed for a visit once a week or once a month. Maybe once a year or two years or even once a lifetime. Then people read about Snail Porridge and when we didn’t serve it we had problems. It was back on the menu in no time. With the Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, we took it off, but we make about 10 portions for every service, so if someone really kicks up a fuss (me!) we have it hand.’ I should have dug further at this point, but my interview skills suck (especially after hearing the interview back on tape) and I change the subject. It didn’t help I only had 25 minutes for the talk and wanted to get to other questions. So I have to guess at the future of The Fat Duck. Taking other restaurants in account and deducting a prediction from his answer on the Snail Porridge affaire I think The Fat Duck will evolve, but never change dramatically. It’s the natural way of life for restaurants to get overtaken by others. Everyone forgets who started what and gets saturated with new techniques and ingredients by copycats. But in the end, who knows? I will definitely keep a close eye on the restaurant and its future.
This is it. With the post ‘The End My Friend’ I knew I was going to write about my meal at The Fat Duck. This, however, is the end for the blog. No more posts. I promise. A bittersweet experience. Thanks you all for following my endeavours. Maybe I’ll see some of you in the future. Do shoot me an e-mail when you’re in Amsterdam.