I first ate at The Fat Duck in March 2001. I posted my review on this site soon after (click here to read)
, along with as several messages on the Chowhound.com international discussion board. My opinion was that the meal was not worth the money charged for it, and that Blumenthal's much vaunted scientific approach was so much smoke and mirrors.
Other "chowhounds" agreed, with one going so far to say that menu items at The Fat Duck had been copied from other European chefs. Heston Blumenthal was alerted to these negative messages by a disallusioned regular customer and asked to respond. He did so, stating that he was employing totally original method in his restaurant kitchen and that all his dishes were his own. He offered to enter into correspondence with anyone interested enough, to explain himself and his food further.
I took up the offer and as a result of the correspondance, I was invited by Mr Blumenthal to give The Fat Duck a second chance on the house. As a dedicated "foodie" it was an offer I couldn't refuse. What follows therefore is not a review of The Fat Duck, circumstances mitigate against that. All food and drink were free of charge, I had lengthy discussions with Heston before during and after the meal, and to top it off, I went to the pub with him after. Hardly a sound basis from which to form an objective view.
What is useful however is to compare and contrast the two experiences of the same restaurant. A different night, a different mood, the chef actually in the kitchen, a better choice made from the same menu, all made for a much more enjoyable dinner.
You may believe that I have simply succumed to a charm offensive, a PR exercise or a piece of obvious manipulation, but I will leave that for you to decide.
I met Heston in the lounge area at The Fat Duck, and over champagne (for me) and tea (for him) we discussed my review, the chowhound postings and his culinery philosophy. He provided me with some extensive notes, which you can read for yourself by clicking here, and the results of a chemical analysis performed by the flavouring company Firmenich of cocoa and caviar. These were provided to demonstrate the thinking behind Blumenthal's latest creation, white chocolate and caviar buttons, which I was to sample later that evening.
The second meal began in the same way as the first, with the green tea and lime sour doing a nice job of cleansing the palate. I still disliked the crab, pigeon and pea creation for the simple reason that it reminded me of the texture of the chivers jelly and evaporated milk that my mother used to give me for dessert occasionaly. On reading his notes, it turned out that this childhood taste memory of jelly coated with cream was exactly the sensation that Heston was trying to emulate. He loved it, I hated it.
The grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho has been through a rethink since my first visit. The flavours are now much more pronounced and as a result the dish works a treat. I could have eaten twice the tiny portion offered, and Blumenthal informed me that he already had intentions of doubling it's size.
Next came the crab biscuit. Again, the dish had been reworked, with a new supplier of ultra fresh foie gras which is frozen the moment it's removed from the bird (as fresh as the moment when the duck went quack perhaps). The liver is poached in a water bath, then seared directly on the hot top. It's the definitive way to cook the product in my opinion. The completed plate now includes some borage flowers, which apart from looking very pretty, mimick the flavour of oysters and round out the dish.
On Heston's recommendation, I ordered the "Saddle of Lamb Cooked At A Low Temperature". This was another outstanding plate of food and knocked the sweetbread and cockles I tried on my first visit into a cocked hat. You can read Heston's notes for all the technical details, but the combination of the completely pink and tender saddle, the roasted tongue and a sauce made from the shoulder was just perfect. Garnishes of a confit tomato stuffed with onion puree and a coffee and garlic dentelle (sounds horrible but was actually fine) completed the picture.
This is where things get really interesting. The table was cleared and set for dessert. A waiter arrived with a spoon on a glass plate. He explained that the spoon contained potato puree with some dice of lime jelly. He then fed it to me. Not content to challenge expectations of what arrives on the plate, Blumenthal is testing the whole idea of eating in public and what restaurants are for.
Another arch reference to childhood followed the aforementioned white chocolate and caviar button (a perfect combination. No, really!) with a small bowl of parsnip chips onto which was poured parsnip flavoured milk. I was eating cereal in a Michelin starred restaurant. Very funny. The humour continued with a chocolate delice that contained "space dust" which crackles at the back of the throat. A second chocolate pudding came next, this time a hot fondant with avacado risotto and sweetcorn puree.
It all added up to great deal of food, a great many ideas and a number of what appear to be genuine innovations. Blumenthal and his team operate in fundamentaly the same way as any other restaurant. Produce is sourced, arrives in the kitchen, is prepared and then served to the customer. Overlaying the usual set up however is a network of scientists, food psychologists and flavouring experts which feed directly into the menu development process at The Fat Duck. I am convinced that the food offered in Blumenthal's restaurant is a direct result of his own investigations and experiments.
It's a trial and error process with some great ideas and some not so great ones. Heston assured me that nothing went out to the dining room unless he was happy with it. He doesn't like the idea of his customers as guinea pigs, a I described them in my first piece. But it's a high risk strategy and there are bound to be some failures (for me, it was the pigeon and the avocado risotto).
Bearing in mind that The Fat Duck has a Michelin star, 4 AA rosettes and numerous ecstatic reviews from the likes of Matthew Fort et al, you may wonder why Heston would go to all this bother as a result over a little adverse reaction from someone like me.
After our meeting, my conclusion is that he simply hates the idea of anyone coming away from the restaurant having "not got it". The Fat Duck is unlike anywhere I have eaten before. Significant changes had been made in the two short months separating my first and second meal. Nothing stands still at the Duck, it is probably the fastest evolving restaurant in the UK. Heston told me that he was gearing up for "another big push on the menu" so you should expect further changes if you decide to give the place a go.
Andy Lynes May 2001
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