Saturday, 26 April 2014

Tapas at Ember Yard

Among family and friends I've garnered a bit of a reputation as a foodie. I'm of the opinion that this might be due to the slightly crazed gleam in my eye that appears whenever people around me start discussing all the best places to eat. In practical terms, this means that whenever I play tour guide it becomes my sworn duty to bring people round for good grub. 

Uncle K & Auntie B were in town for the weekend, and after all our extended conversations about the London food scene, I knew I had to step up my game. We made plans to lunch together on Saturday and Sunday, and for our first meal I decided we ought to go someplace I was certain we'd all enjoy. 

Spanish Tapas hor d'oeuvres

This story begins with the mutual love D & I share for tapas. After a glorious dinner we once had at Salt Yard when he came to visit me one term, I began receiving emails from the Salt Yard Group. Most of these detailed lavish dinners or gastronomic tours of Spain completely out of my student budget. I'd read over them and sigh wistfully, but one day I received an announcement from them regarding the soft opening of their brand new restaurant Ember Yard. Everything would be 50% off for a limited period! I had to go, and got E & M to come along with me. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, so I figured Uncle K & Auntie B (Who both love Spain and its cuisines) would like it there too, even if the half-price offer was over. 

We started with olives and a nice bottle of wine, and pretty much ordered whatever we were told was good that day. We kicked off the meal proper with piquant orange and beetroot salad, perfect for the surprisingly sunny spring day outside. I must confess that part of the reason why I wanted to go back to Ember Yard for lunch was to take advantage of the natural light available in order to take pictures that would turn out alright. The warm, woodsy decor takes on an ultra-romantic cast in the evening when they dim the lights, but it rendered all the shots I took the first time around unattractive dark blobs. This time, I was able to capture rather better looking food photos, like this platter of char-grilled squid served with mint, pancetta and spring peas. 

I'd always refused to eat squid or octopus or peas, but London has given me an excellent education in understanding that it's not so much the ingredients I dislike, just bad cooking. Here, the squid had that delightful texture - soft yet with a bit of a crunch, while the octopus was moist and enjoyable chewy. Spring peas with enough bite to them provided a sweet counterpart to the meaty pancetta, and the mint leaves lent an extra hint of freshness to each bite of squid. Two seafood dishes with such similar main ingredients might seem like overkill, but they were so distinct that we had no regrets whatsoever. The octopus came steamed and chargrilled with peperonata and mojo verde aioli, and proved to be a much richer dish, and oh-so flavourful. 

Ember Yard stands out from the rest of its sister restaurants for its focus on chargrilling and roasting, harking back to a time when cooking was primitive and done over a wood fire. Of course, this being London, nothing remains quite so simple for long. The grill is bespoke, since we diners expect nothing less, and the cooking isn't done over the composite bag of coal you'd get out of the supermarket for a BBQ. Instead, only single-species charcoal and wood is used. When we were there, it was printed on our menus that apple and birch woods were being employed. While it does make perfect sense that woods made up of different combinations of compounds would give off smoke that flavors food in unique ways, our taste buds definitely weren't sensitive enough to pick up on the subtle distinctions in our food. Like primitive man, we were happy enough to have perfectly cooked fatty Iberico pork ribs to sink our teeth into. Unlike primitive man, we also had an artfully served dollop of creamy celeriac puree to go along with it. Ah, the small joys of modern life.   

It's not every day that you go to a restaurant and the one item the waiter strongly recommends is the bread, but there's a time and place for everything. They're generous with the thyme, almost excessively so, but it's easy to dust some of it off. Honey and smoked butter gets spread atop the flatbread prior to grilling, and the result is delectable. We'd thought to eat the bread together with the rest of the dishes as an accompaniment, but wound up demolishing the whole thing on its own. 

Ember Yard Flatbread

Grilling and roasting might be the order of the day, but not everything comes charred. Take the deep fried courgette flowers - stuffed with goats cheese and drizzled with honey. None of us had tried courgette flowers before, and had no idea what to expect, but our leap of faith paid off. Crisp petals were wrapped around a generous spoonful of soft cheese that was salty enough to match the sticky honey, and the juicy stems were delicious as well. I've since tried to make these at home after finding a a bunch of courgette flowers at a Mexican supermarket one week when they were in season, and though imperfectly done (I wound up with blobs of cheese floating in my oil. Oh well.), they brought me back to this lovely day. 

Courgette Flowers Stuffed with Cheese

Another deep fried dish we shared was the broad bean, smoked ricotta and mint croquettes with basil pesto. They disappeared so quickly. An important PSA: These are perfectly sized to be popped in your mouth, but you're pretty much guaranteed to burn your tongue if you do. So cut them in halves and enjoy them slowly after cooling them a little.

Ember Yard Croquettes with Basil Pesto

The move to communal dining has made sharing plates a fairly easy experience, until you get to dishes like burger sliders. Why, in the name of all things good, do they have to be stacked as tall as possible? Like Jenga towers, it pretty much guarantees that no matter how you cut it, sections are going to collapse all over the place and make a mess. I did the honours, and attempted to expertly wield my knife through the smoked beef burger with chorizo ketchup. Mentally, I renamed the dish "Disassembled Masterpiece" after chopping everything up, which sounds a great deal better than "Roughly Hewn Bits of Burger Scatterered Around a Plate". All things considered, everyone managed to have a bit of everything, nothing rolled off of the table and out through the door, and it tasted divine, so it was an overall success. 

Best Tapas Bar Soho London

I sometimes fear for my arteries, especially when I'm confronted by dishes like the grilled Iberico Presa with jamon butter. The meat was good, but I couldn't stop eating the smoky, aromatic butter. One little taste turned to me nearly licking the stone plate like a starving savage to chase the last slicks of oil. 

Best Tapas Bars London Soho

The rest of the family aren't really dessert people, which is why I always love dining with those who are. Instead of getting just one dessert, they're always amenable to getting as many desserts as there are people round the table. Any occasion where I get to taste an array of desserts is a good occasion in my book. The first dessert was brown panna cotta with spiced bicuits, raisin ice cream studded through with properly plump and juicy raisins and thyme. After the over abundance of thyme on the flatbread, I was slightly wary, but I had no cause to worry in this case. Here it was just a tiny sprig, lending an earthiness to the panna cotta, which I found amusing because it looked almost like a terrarium. There's a recipe for this that's available online. Make it if you're in the mood for something light but creamy. 

Ember Yard Soho Desserts

Sometimes you read menus and wonder "What on earth is this thing?" People then fall into three camps: those who skip over the item because it contains something unfamiliar, those who order the item because it contains something unfamiliar and wait to be surprised, and those who ask the question aloud of someone who does know better. We fall into the last camp, and found out that Mahon is a kind of Minorcan cow's milk cheese, saltier than most because of the high salt content in the grass that the cows on the island eat. It sounded good, and tasted even better. The grilled wedge of cheese was served with half a baked plum, a small piece of honeycomb and crisp, thin cracker bread. 

Ember Yard Soho Desserts

We rounded off the meal with something more traditional: Valrhona chocolate ganacha with salted caramel ice cream. I fully approve the rising popularity of salted caramel, and the application of it here. It was wonderful to see Uncle K & Auntie B again, and the meal gave us the perfect opportunity to catch up from when we'd seen each other the previous year. It was one to linger over, and we savoured it at a relaxed pace. 

Ember Yard Desserts

Touring Aldwych Station

Tubing round London's how most of us get by, but it's not every day you get to visit a station that's been closed off to the public. Public tours of Aldwych Station are only very rarely organized by the London Transport Museum, and with so many people champing at the bit to get the opportunity to run amok in a Tube Station without having to jostle with hundreds of other commuters, the £25 tickets sell out faster than the trip from Covent Garden to Leicester Square. Luckily for the London Google City Experts (Or Local Guides, as we're calling ourselves nowadays), our Community Managers put together an exclusive tour just for us. DS and I signed up for it immediately. 

Tube Station Shutters

The station's been closed for over 20 years now, with the last commuters going through the gates in 1994. A lot of big plans were made for Aldwych Station, but financial issues and parallel developments always got in the way of them taking off. For most of its run, the trains coming in were bringing people down from Holborn, which isn't terribly far away. I suppose a great deal of people figured it was faster or more pleasant just to get out from the Underground and walk. There was a photo booth right outside the station, and what with the Indian Embassy up the road, it got to the point where the photo booth was being used more than the station itself.

Old Telephone Booths

Although Aldwych is no longer a functioning station, much of the infrastructure has been preserved for its historical value. If you go on the tour, you can see the original telephone booths that had been installed in 1907. One of its other important features is the ground floor women's bathroom, which had extra large doors so ladies bedecked in wide bustle skirts could fit through. Oh, to have that much space in public loos nowadays. 

Vintage Toilets

Since its closure, the station's been used as a filming location whenever a scene is set in an old tube station. The James Bond chase scene from Skyfall needed something a little more up to date, so filming for that took place on the closed Jubilee Line section of Charing Cross, but for period pieces, Aldwych station invariably provides the backdrop. The first time I'd seen it on screen was in Atonement, where it stood in for Balham station. Our tour docents' usual day jobs involve dealing with filming companies, and overseeing the movement of logistics crews and extras. A part of that includes making sure absolutely no one brings food down to the tracks. The station's been happily rat free for years, and they're determined to keep it that way. 

Aldwych Station Lobby

The lifts at the station don't work, and the sheer cost of replacing them was one of the many reasons why the station was ultimately shuttered. That means every single person and piece of equipment that heads down to the tracks needs to go down the winding 160 step staircase, and back up again once filming is completed, or in between if they want to eat or use the loo. It all sounds quite grim. The story goes that a big name director didn't want to go down the dozens of stairs, and offered to replace the lifts before balking when presented with an estimate of the bill. £3 million to replace two lifts does seem rather absurd doesn't it? 

Lifts from 1907

The carriages (Still the original ones from 1907!) are stuck at ground level, and all of us had a good wander through the both of them. With a bit of imagination, you can even simulate them working. While filming Mr. Selfridge, the actors all bent their knees to make it look like they were heading down to the trains. Ah, acting! With the ground floor quite thoroughly covered, it was time for us all to head properly underground, and we were herded down the stairs. Aldwych doesn't have quite as many steps as Covent Garden (160 to 193), but it was quite a hike nonetheless. 

Tube Staircase Aldwych

Our backstage pass took us through all the hidden passageways that commuters of the early 90s would never have seen, and there were stories to accompany the rather spooky effect of bare walls in the abandoned station. 

Aldwych Station Abandoned

It turns out that a theatre was shut down to build the platform, and one of the actresses threw herself under a train in response. Her ghost does haunt the station, but it seems you need to be dressed in your 1910s finest before she'll deign to appear. She doesn't care much for modernity it seems. 

Aldwych Station Unfinished

Here and there were unfinished tunnels. When the station wasn't under threat of closure, it was always the centre of one expansion plan or another, even if nothing really ever came of it. You can see where they tried to get started on planned extensions to link it up with Waterloo station, but the southbound tunneling never went anywhere. I'm not an engineer, but it was fascinating to see the marks left behind as they bored through the ground one section at a time. You can't quite mistake the place for a work in progress though. 

Incomplete Tunnel Extensions

Stripped of an endless stream of people and free from a civilizing coat of paint or layer of tiling, there was an unsettling almost-wildness to the yawning chasm of abandoned lift shafts and tunnel networks. Undiscovered caves are one thing, but abandoned man-made places always set off some kind of alarm in my lizard hind brain, leading to such unhelpful thoughts like "What if it's been cleared out because of some unspeakable Eldritch horror lurking in the darkness?". All the same, it was terribly interesting to have the cosmetic smoothness of everyday experience stripped away, leaving the bare sinews of the city exposed. 

Aldwych Station Lift Shaft

Stepping onto the main platform proper was like entering a time warp. Posters used on the various film sets located had been left plastering the walls of the station, and it was like going backwards and forwards through time. And while the original signage announcing Aldwych station had been taken off, makeshift replacements adorned the walls. The only constant seems to be the tiling that remained from when the station was first opened, at a time when a significant portion of the population was still illiterate and recognized stations based on the patterns formed by coloured tiles. 

Aldwych Station Posters

The station's been maintained well, and the tracks are still operable. If you have the money, you can even hire an actual train to drive into the station. We weren't allowed to walk on this section of live track, but if you did follow it all the way, it would take you all the way to Holborn Station. From there, it seems you have to exit by a secret side door that leads out to a platform on the Central Line. I've walked up and down both Central Line platforms at Holborn, and have yet to discern where exactly this secret door is. They've hidden it well. 

Aldwych Tube Station Platform

We were brought to the Eastern Platform of the station, which has been in disuse since before the First World War. It had a bit of an 'underground lair' feel to it. 

Abandoned Tube Station Platform

The tracks here are perfectly safe to walk on, and once we were given the go-ahead, we scrambled onto the track to take pictures. Most of the people I know are so law-abiding that telling them I've walked on tube tracks does nothing for my street cred, but it was the one chance I got at playing at being edgy. 

Rail Track Photography

This far down, there was no signal, so everyone had to delay our Instagrams. Still, all cameras were out and the questions flew thick and fast. Someone wondered about which tube station was furthest underground, and when the docents weren't quite sure ("Although I think it should be along the Northern Line somewhere"), we all figured we'd Google it once we got out. 

Answer: Hampstead. 

Abandoned Underground

The staff have been excellent at policing the presence of food, but something else had been left behind by a previous visitor. Not sure whether the graffiti was done by one of the passengers or one of the extras or film crew though. 

Aldwych Station

Towards the end, our guides switched the lights off to show the cool glowy paint that lined the stairs, which would help us all get out in case of an emergency. Thankfully they switched the lights back on or there would have been an actual emergency on their hands. Climbing all 160 stairs all the way back up was bad enough. Most of us are foodies or soft artsy types. We were never meant to climb so many stairs. 

Glow In The Dark Stairs

There was a bit of panic during the head count at the end when we seemed to have an extra person for a moment, but a quick recount soon put it to rights. Uncle K and Auntie B were in town, so I flitted off a tad bit earlier than everyone else, but the whole experience had been marvellous. There's so much still undiscovered in London, and the excursion was a real treat. 

Aldwych Station Strand

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Tommi's Burger Joint

On the basis of five reviews I wrote on Google+ Local, I won the London Google City Experts Burger Contest, and was sent four vouchers to use at Tommi's Burger Joint as a result. Wrangling my friends to go for lunch with me proved a bit harder than writing all those reviews. Coordinating our schedules in the middle of the exam cram period (Because it's not so much studying as shoveling as much information as you can inside) was a much bigger challenge than initially expected, but we managed. Eventually. 

"I have to be in the library before 1 pm!" - MF
"I can't make it before 11.30 am!" - DS
"Ok everyone, be there at 11.45 am, and we will get this done." - Me

Tommi's Burger Joint Decor

Of all the countries in the world for a successful burger franchise to come out from, Iceland doesn't really spring to mind. Tommi's Burger Joint quite deftly defies these foolishly narrow-minded expectations, with outlets thriving across Europe. Their philosophy? Good beef, a properly cooked patty, and prices you can't fault. Simple, but so effective. A group outing I went on to their pop-up store last year was still an occasion remarked upon fondly by all who attended, and I was quite keen to see how they'd transitioned from pop-up to a permanent home. My verdict: Very well indeed. The decor was simple but bang on trend, with a shot of disco flavour and a few tongue-in-cheek witticisms gracing the walls. 

The menu is simple - save for a few rotating specials, your options are 1) A (Cheese)Burger 2) A Veggie Burger or 3) A Steak Burger. Our vouchers were for The Offer Of The Century - a Cheeseburger, Fries and Soft Drink combo, so all we had to do was pick out what we wanted to drink from the cooler near the door. Because we got in at 11.45 am as planned, we managed to snag a table that would fit the four of us comfortably, right before the lunch hoards rushed in. Watching all the harassed office people search in vain for seating while we waited for our burgers to arrive was quietly satisfying in a way that possibly hints at a streak of mild sadism. I chose not to think on it, and to grab some ketchup for our fries instead. For all the simplicity of the menu, there's a pretty wide array of sauces you can layer on to trick out your burger. Not that it really needs it though - leaving it untouched is actually best. 

The burger is cooked to perfection, meaning it's medium and juicy. The accompanying vegetables are crisp, and the bits of red onion added a crisp spiciness. No issues with the soft bun. I had one gristly bit of tendon in my patty but no one else had the same issue, and the rest of the burger was just fine. Since I ate my first Tommi's burger, new burger places have mushroomed across London, filling the city to saturation point. Some of the newer places I've tried may have been more of a revelation, but a burger at Tommi's still hits all the right spots. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Fat Duck - An Extensive and Indulgent Lunch (Part 2: The Desserts)

Lunch at The Fat Duck had been an exercise in extravagance, and the desserts rounding off our meal kept up the luxe factor while also being a great deal of fun. The first was named Verjus in Egg, Egg in Verjus. My brain immediately screamed "Meta!" and almost wandered off to the vicinity of strange loops, but I quickly pulled it back from pondering the mysteries of the universe - I had this plate in front of me to consider first. Much like the Meat Fruit, this egg-that-was-not-an-egg had been beautifully rendered to resemble the real deal, complete with a smattering of "excess calcium" you sometimes see in eggs. When I ran my finger gently across the surface, it was exactly as smooth-rough as an actual egg shell. The egg sat atop a nest of spun sugar and verjus jelly. I'd never even heard of verjus before this lunch, but the sour grape juice had featured in two of my courses already. Fragrantly fruity and mildly acidic without being citrusy, it was quite a delightful discovery. The dessert proved to be extra amusing for me, because I'd once had a cocktail at the Ritz's Rivoli Bar called the Ramos Fizz, which involved a frozen goose egg cup set similarly on a bed of spun sugar. Not quite a chicken or egg question, but I wondered which came first. 

Fancy Kinder Surprise at The Fat Duck

To eat it, we were told to gently tap the shell open with our spoons, much like you might do with a poached egg. Things were a little harder than that, which resulted in a bit more violence than you normally see at Michelin-starred dining table as we attempted to crack the shells open. I was just thankful everything managed to stay on my plate, rather than flying across half the table. Much like a Kinder Surprise, this had a layer of white chocolate on the inside, but instead of a plastic capsule containing a toy, there was a spoonful of parfait that had been hidden in the base of the shell, and what looked like so many of the slightly ruined boiled eggs I've made, the yolk sadly dribbling out. Bonus points for realism! The creamy cool parfait was a contrast to the egg-white textured vanilla panna cotta, and surprisingly not quite as sweet as the sweet verjus yolk. The sweetness of the chocolate shell was also tempered by the verjus jelly, for an overall dish that was remarkably well-balanced. 

Opening the Chocolate Egg To Find Verjus Within

Our next dessert was perhaps my favourite of the whole afternoon. Originally created for a dinner organized by Chateau d'Yquem, it was the result of a collaboration between the head sommelier and the pastry team to create a dish reflecting the rich and complex taste of the wine house's Sauternes. I'm not keen on sweet wines in general, and the closest I've ever come to a Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes was at Hedonism, separated from the bottles by a wall of glass as I gaped at the astronomical prices. Here, I finally understood what the fuss was all about. Like Tokaji, Sauternes is made using grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea, and the dessert paid homage to this noble rot, which concentrates the flavours in the grapes. For all the human effort put into viticulture, there remains something wild about the spread of this fungus, and the resulting wine is never quite the same from year to year. The dish captured this perfectly - artfully arranged as each element was to resemble a bunch of grapes, one false move and the whole thing would crumble apart. 

Tokaji Grape Dessert The Fat Duck

Each individual 'grape' piece represented a different aspect of the Sauternes flavour profile, from caramel oozing out of a green grape chocolate, to a decidedly alcoholic gummy. I personally love the taste of frozen grapes (Stick a bunch in the freezer, take them out a while later, enjoy. You're welcome.), and there was a purple ice ball that tastes exactly like it. There was also a mouthful of popping candy, and some honey meringues, but what I thought was the grooviest bit were the cheese flakes housed in a broken candy ball shell that represented the blight. Taken individually, everything was grapes or a straightforward sweetness, but scatter some of the cheese over and the savoury-saltiness just elevated everything. It was marvelously poetic, and so deliriously tasty.

Chateau d'Yquem Inspired Dessert at The Fat Duck

Our Whisk(e)y Gums were served on picture frames, with each bottle-shaped gummy laid over a map indicating where their respective makers hailed from. Four were Scottish, while the extra (e) in the title was a nod to the odd one out from Tennessee. The gummies had been arranged almost by their levels of peatiness, before being rounded off by the Jack Daniel's, so we followed the key to get the most out of our mini cross-country boozefest. 

Whisky/Whiskey Gummies

For gummies, they were rather delicate, and as I peeled each off the board I kept worrying that I might accidentally mutilate them. Thankfully, nothing untoward happened, and each one remained whole before gently dissolving away on my tongue. We began with a mild, smooth Speyside Glenlivet, to a slightly richer West Highlands Oban. There was a greater hint of peatiness in the Orkney Highland Park, but the real kicker was the beautifully smokey Islay Laphroaig. After that, I'm afraid the Jack Daniel's didn't quite compare. 

Orkney Whisky Gums

Some people take their Sweet Shop bags to go with them, but we were determined to stick the entire meal out at the restaurant proper. The cheery pink and white bags might be reminiscent of a time and place I've never personally witnessed, but my inner child exulted all the same. The bags all came with a little card saying "Smell Me!", and though the Alice in Wonderland connection we'd had all afternoon did plant a tiny seed of doubt in my mind, we all obeyed. It smelled plummy with a bit of bubblegum and cake, and at no point did anyone shrink or expand. 

Smell Me!

I knew that one of the sweets had an edible wrapper from the special signed menu card that HE'd received after we mentioned we were partially there to celebrate her birthday, but at first glance, I didn't know which one of the three items it was. Two of the sweets had been wrapped in clear plastic, so my eye was drawn to the only one that wasn't, helped along by the very eye-catching bright red seal. "Maybe the envelope is made of some kind of ridiculously smooth and thick rice paper," I thought to myself, and nearly bit into it before TK put a halt to my folly. 

TK: Abigail, stop, no! The edible wrapper is the one around the brown candy. What you're holding is actual paper, don't eat that. 

Not Quite Edible Wrapper The Fat Duck

The Apple Pie Caramel was the one with the edible wrapper, and when I took it out of its plastic holder I was astounded at how I managed to miss that. It was a good candy, with a welcome bit of teeth-sticking toffeeness to it

Apple Pie Candy With Edible Wrapper The Fat Duck

The other little sweet was an Aerated Chocolate with Mandarin Jelly, deceptively smooth until you flipped it over and discovered the bubbly inside. It was an airy truffle, and for all that I'm not a fan of oranges in my chocolate, this went in some way to winning me over. 

Bubbly Chocolate Orange

After the Inedible Envelope near-miss, I saved the white envelope for last. Called The Queen of Hearts: She made some tarts... the dessert in the form of a playing card was a sight to be hold when I finally took it out. We were duly informed that the red seal affixed to the paper was not made of wax but chocolate, so at the bare minimum, there had been something I could have rightfully consumed. I decided to try the chocolate seal first. The red dye used must have been some powerful stuff, because my fingers were stained for ages afterwards. I probably could have used it to rouge my cheeks. 

Edible Chocolate Seal The Fat Duck

The Queen of Hearts was a Strawberry Tart, both sides stamped in intricate detail, encasing an evenly spread out compote center. It was a brilliant end to the meal. 

The Queen of Hearts Strawberry Tart The Fat Duck

Before we left, we received menus in envelopes that were buttery-soft to the touch. The staff took great pains to inform me that this particular seal was wax and that nothing about this envelope was edible, so I definitely wouldn't try putting this in my mouth as well. Full and happy, we opted to take a walk back to Maidenhead instead of getting a cab, the better to settle our stomachs. It had been a wickedly fun once in a lifetime experience, and one we'll remember fondly for a good long while. 

The Fat Duck Menu

The Fat Duck - An Extensive And Indulgent Lunch (Part 1)

Our Fat Duck experience began the day Y forwarded the exclusive link (Only three views per person dining!) from the restaurant, for us to visit their extraordinary virtual "Sweetshop", ages before our reservation date, which had been set over a month in advance. At least, it began for me.

On our ride to Maidenhead from Victoria station, I found the rest hadn't opened the forwarded email and watched the video nestled within, so I sought to rectify the situation best as I could. The iPhone 5 wasn't made for communal viewing, but with a bit of luck and determination, we crowded around it, and whetted our appetites on the dizzying, delightful swirls of colour and hypnotizing commentary. The brief preview of what was to come was highly effective at drumming up our excitement for the meal ahead. Perhaps a little too effective, we rued not long after - by the time we pulled into the station, all five of us were utterly famished. 

Restaurant Sign Fat Duck

We made it to Bray fifteen minutes before noon, and walked in on the restaurant's team meeting quite by accident. We were gently nudged to explore the neighbourhood for a bit, so we walked across the street to have a peek at the Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal's other Michelin-starred offering in Bray. We peered through the windows and studied the menus in between taking pictures of the pub exterior. While we were doing this, one of the men hard at work carrying boxes of stuff into the pub rather cheekily suggested we should take a picture of the staff instead, if we wanted a more interesting shot. When we laughed and said alright, he gamely mugged for our cameras, and you can see the result here:

Hinds Head Bray

We did a circuit around the garden nearby before heading back at noon sharp. We were seated arguably in the centre of the restaurant, and from this vantage point we were able to observe all the other diners throughout the afternoon. There were five of us seated around the table, one of the bigger parties in the restaurant. It seemed like everyone was celebrating some sort of special occasion. For us, it was in honour of HE's birthday, recently passed, as well as the magical year we'd had studying together in London. 

The Fat Duck Restaurant Interior Yellow Painting

For all its modern sensibilities, The Fat Duck is located in a 16th century cottage, and its gently rustic charm isn't feigned. There was an unexpected extra guest at our table, which wasn't immediately squished because I'm rather partial to spiders. Instead, it was captured under a glass then quickly whisked out the back and (hopefully) out a window by one of the staff. 

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck was awarded three Michelin Stars in 2004, and has held on to that ranking for the past decade. If there's one restaurant in the UK where the splurge is completely justified, this is probably it. Still, the price did cause some heartache. I took the plunge in the end though - dining at The Fat Duck was on my bucket list, reservations are hard to come by, I figured I wasn't going to get the chance to go back to London for a while and they were going to move away for half a year! So what the hell.

When I told M I was going to The Fat Duck, our conversation went as follows -

M: How interesting! Will you be going for lunch or dinner?
Me: Lunch. They only serve a tasting menu, and it's the same price for lunch and dinner. It's going to be a once in a lifetime culinary adventure for the five of us! It's also going to be over £200 each.
M: Wait, you still have enough money left over from what we left you with at the beginning of the year? 
Me: Well, yes. Ever since we decided to go for this lunch, most of the meals I'm not posting on Facebook or Instagram involve mainly boiled pasta. I think it's all I'm going to be eating for the rest of the term. 
M: Good budgeting darling, I'm proud of you.  

The Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal Napkins

None of us had breakfast that morning in anticipation of the four and a half hours-long lunch we were going to have, so filling out the card with Nostalgia Foods seemed at the time a particularly cruel exercise for us all, filling our heads with visions of childhood comfort foods and snacks. It was an interesting activity though, to note down what everyone remembered off the top of their heads. 

Nostalgia Food Survey Cards Fat Duck

I was overjoyed when our canape arrived, because it had reached the point where I could feel my stomach doing its darnest to digest itself. It was a morsel of Aerated Beetroot with Horseradish Cream that we needed to eat immediately and in one go to catch the most of its crisp texture. JH had popped off to the bathroom so her dish was withheld in anticipation of her return, but the rest of us were told to eat up first. The delicate spheres could wait for no one.  It was like a savory round macaron that dissolved on our tongues. "Mmmm," we all went, nodding at each other, a hint of spice from the horseradish warming our palates, the sweet and earthy flavour of beetroots filling our mouths.

Aerated Beetroot with Horseradish Cream at the Fat Duck

The Nitro Poached Aperitifs trolley was rolled up to our table for a first course that would leave our palates cleansed and refreshed, prepping it for the culinary journey ahead. Between the tall white candle, the sleek silver canisters and the bowl of liquid nitrogen oozing tendrils of smoke, the trolley felt like it belonged in an alternate Steampunk universe. Each canister held an egg white base, with different flavours: tequila and basil, vodka and green tea, as well as prosecco and Campari. 

Liquid Nitrogen Aperitif Trolley

Everyone had a choice of one of the three aperitifs, and once the selection was made, a fat dollop would be dispensed, whipped to perfection with the help of the nitrous oxide chargers in the canister. The ball would then be quickly cooked in the liquid nitrogen, bobbing along while a corresponding bit of rind was peeled off. Grapefruit for tequila, lime for vodka, and blood orange for Campari. Once the frozen aperitif was scooped up looking for all the world like a meringue, the rind would be wafted over the open flame and puffed over the aperitif ball, coating the top with a liberal amount of zesty aromas. 

Nitro Aperitif Trolley at Work

This was yet another thing to be eaten in one go, so we had to be quick with our camera work lest it melted clean away. It was quite a lot bigger than the aerated beetroot, but we managed without mangling anything too badly. My choice of vodka, green tea and lime was shot through by a burst of icy freshness. Our palates were ready. 

Vodka Lime and Green Tea Aperitif ball cooked in Liquid Nitrogen

Our next course followed on soon enough, and everyone got a dish of Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream with finely diced cucumber at the bottom. If you notice the diced bits of green under the ice cream, you're probably far more observant than the five of us put together. All of us were so taken by the mustard seeds in the ice cream that we missed it entirely. Once everything had been covered by the Red Cabbage Gazpacho and the colours obscured, all of us were cracking our brains guessing what the little bits floating around the soup were. I thought radish somehow. None of us got cucumber. 

The Fat Duck Gazpacho

The richly purple Red Cabbage Gazpacho was poured gently around the ice cream, and I let mine melt a little, and watched whorls of ice cream swirl out like actual patterns on a red cabbage. This was the first dish that didn't get an overwhelmingly positive response from all five of us. Y isn't a fan of red cabbage at all and wasn't too keen on the dish beyond the ice cream, which hit the perfect sweet-savoury balance. I really enjoyed it though, and thought the acidity of the cabbage gazpacho was an excellent counterpoint to the smooth creaminess of the ice cream. 

The Fat Duck Red Cabbage Gazpacho

Our next course evoked a walk through a forest, a mossy oak forest in particular. A box packed with dry ice and laid over with greenery was set in the middle of our table, and hot water was poured over it from a beautifully crafted pot. A cascade of fog flowed from the centre of the table, looking and smelling like a misty morning out in the woods. Not content to just look and smell, we wafted our hands in and out of the cool, cool plumes of smoke, till our fingers too smelled like they'd been plunged into clean beds of moss. At the Fat Duck, you get food and a show, though the extra don't do much detract from the food as put you in a state of mindfulness when you do taste it. 

Dry Ice and Moss Smoke

Each one of us got a small box of edible films to eat as the fog continued to float across the table. It was a massive throwback to my childhood, when I was addicted to some peach flavoured film strips until they got pulled from the shelves, and flipping the cover back to get to the film sent the same frisson of excitement down my spine. These had a smoky, tannic, oaky flavour, complementing the earlier smells. 

Oak Moss Edible Films

The main dish of this course was a Jelly of Quail topped with Crayfish Cream and a Chicken Liver Parfait with pea puree and a meat flake, served with Truffle Toast with radish and parsley. The truffle toast fit well with the theme, looking like a strip of garden. We were encouraged to nibble on it between bites of quail jelly, and mingle the various flavours. It was very, very lush. 

Crayfish Cream and Chicken Liver Parfait

Unlike the Meat Fruit at Dinner, this chicken liver parfait was ice cream-like, providing a hint of coolness to the quail jelly, thought it was no less rich or smooth. A layer of pea puree separated the quail jelly from the crayfish cream. It was like the essence of each element had been distilled - the smoky juiciness of a well-roasted quail, the smell of the sea and a hint of cream from the crayfish, and a garden in spring from the peas. Yet rather than one particular aspect overpowering all the rest, the dish was perfectly balanced. An astonishing amount of work goes into engineering and reverse engineering each dish at The Fat Duck, and here the effort paid off tremendously. 

Fat Duck Quail Jelly

I know a lot of people who visit The Fat Duck are massive fans of Heston Blumenthal and his various cooking programmes, but somehow I never really found myself among their number. The closest I've ever come were some products from his Waitrose line (A travesty according to some, though I quite enjoyed his take on fresh ponzu sauce) and an episode of Junior MasterChef Australia where one of the contestants prepared his classic Snail Porridge. Here, I was finally trying it myself. It looked a little like industrial sludge but tasted divine. Each snail was meaty, and textured for a good amount of bite without veering towards rubber-like consistencies. The shaved fennel provided a dash of crisp sweetness. The parsley and oat porridge was topped with slivers of Iberico ham - very moreish. I'm still not entirely used to savoury porridges that aren't rice based, but it was lovely and warming all the same. 

Heston Blumenthal Snail Porridge

Our Roast Foie Gras had a distinctly Japanese influence to it. Stacked on top a rectangle of kombu (seaweed), it was dressed with furikake, a dry seasoning most commonly served atop steaming bowls of rice. I tasted each part of the dish separately, from the melt-in your mouth foie gras to the tart barbary puree (Oh how I loved the barbary puree!) and the seafoody balsamic vinegar reduction, before shaving off bits of foie gras and eating it with different combinations. 

Roast Foie Gras with Kombu, Furikake, Barbary Puree and Balsamic

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that a little bit of everything worked best, tying together the richness of the flavours. I'd break off a bit of crab biscuit and place it against a nibble-sized bunch of foie gras with some braised kombu underneath, before smearing on a bit of each of the sauces. I stretched that piece of foie gras out as long as I could. 

Japanese Roast Foie Gras

The Nostalgia Foods card asked us to list foods from our childhood, but Heston Blumenthal mined his for inspirations far beyond the mundane, with a course constructed entirely around a fusion of elements from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with all the whimsy and none of the chaos or violence. Everyone got a bookmark at the beginning of the course, each side depicting a different scene from the book with the classic Tenniel illustrations, and a short quote. One contained a moment of The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, while the other side was dedicated to the Mock Turtle - both expertly combined for the most playful dish yet. The servers next brought out glass Tea-For-One sets each pot filled with an equal amount of hot water, a colourful arrangement in the cups underneath. 

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party Heston Blumenthal

The ticking sound emanating from the luxurious jewellery box they brought to our table brought to mind the crocodile and alarm clock from Peter Pan, but that wasn't quite the literary reference they were going for. Instead, when the lid was lifted, five gold pocket watches were nestled within, thrumming along with a steady stream of tick-tick-tick. It was the Mad Hatter's rather wonky watch ("Two days wrong!") that met with a rather decisive end. 

"The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily, then he dipped it into his cup of tea" - A Mad Tea Party

Our servers played the part of the March Hare for us, dropping the rather solid looking golden watches into our pots of water. And then, the magic began. 

Fat Duck Gold Watch

As the gold foil disintegrated, the stock within began to unfurl, seeping across the bottom of the pot. It felt like a metaphor for time slowly dissolving away, which seemed a little grim. I put that thought away and concentrated on swivelling the pot so the stock would spread out evenly. It broke my heart a little when the beautiful watch surface crumpled into itself, but it had to be done, if not our 'tea' would have gone cold by the time we finally drank it. 

Rather like Dinner, there's an element of the historical to the dish. As the British Empire grew, it became fashionable for the upper classes to sample delicacies from around the world. From the Far East, turtle became one such luxury food item, and the middle classes scrambled to copy as much of the dish as they could, winding up with Mock Turtle soup, made out of the bits of veal people weren't too keen on eating - the Tenniel illustration of the Mock Turtle as a turtle with a calves head, hooves and tail quite smartly played on the origins of the dish. The Fat Duck's iteration is a rather posher and more complicated take on this late 19th century dish, with special centrifuges used to reduce their rich beef and mushroom stocks to a syrup, which is then gelatinized, placed in a watch mould and covered in gold leaf. It's a great deal of effort to go for what effectively becomes a beef consomme, but gosh is it worth it to be on the receiving end. 

Mock Turtle Soup at The Fat Duck

At the bottom of the cup sat an egg which was not an egg, surrounded by delicate cubes of pickled turnip and cucumber, ox tongue and some micro parsley. The Mock Turtle Egg consisted of a swede and saffron egg yolk and a turnip egg white. It was absolutely marvellous how meticulously the dish was prepared. Once all the soup was poured in, if you looked at the cup from the side the Mock Turtle Egg Yolk looked like an island in the middle of the ocean, with little mushroom 'trees' on top. Everything was planned down to the very last detail, and it was astounding. 

Mock Turtle Egg with Pickles and Ox Tongue The Fat Duck

As we sat there taking dainty sips of our 'tea', interspersed with bites of Mock Turtle Egg or a cube or two of pickled vegetables, ever so often I'd become consciously aware of the flecks of gold leaf floating around and giggle rather dementedly at the madness of it all. The consomme had a robust flavour with lots of depth but it was just a tad salty for my taste (Should have asked for hot water, alas), but the dish was thematically flawless. 

In the middle of the table sat the Mad Hatter's Hat atop a tall and rather artistically shaped cake stand on which some crunchy Toast Sandwiches had been lovingly arranged, because what would tea be without toast or sandwiches? 

The sense of sound isn't usually considered when we think about eating food, but our next course was a little experiment in how greatly it can influence what you think you're eating. We each got our own conch shell with an iPod Nano tucked inside, and for a few minutes, we needed to listen to The Sound of The Sea being played on it. What I heard felt like a cloudy day at the beach, with gulls squalling and rougher than usual waves crashing against the shore, everything awash with grey. I wonder if I got too into it, which might have explained what happened when I finally tasted the dish. 

It arrived so beautifully arranged on a glass plate suspended over a bed of sand, looking like sea foam gently caressing the sand, with all kinds of fish and seaweed washed up by the water. There were at least four different kinds of sea weed alone, as well as tender slices of abalone, mackerel, kingfish (Which is supposed to be more sustainable than tuna), and the odd vegetable which fit the theme, including a luscious green-blue oyster leaf, which tastes exactly as its name suggests, and a sea bean, which gave a burst of flavour.

Sound of the Sea Tastes Like Sand and Salt

I'm aware that I'm very susceptible to priming, but even I could not have predicted how strong a reaction I'd have to the food. I thought it would be amusing to have my first bite be of the 'sand' and the 'sea'. It left me spluttering, completely convinced I'd eaten actual ground up bits of sand and salt foam. Imagine my surprise when a server came over to explain the dish and the 'sand' turned out to be a mixture of tapioca and fried baby sardines, and the 'sea' a frothed up vegetable and seaweed broth. JH said one of her friends thought this was the best dish of the entire tasting menu, but apart from the fish and the odd nibble of the herbs and seaweed, I left most of mine untouched. I couldn't bring myself to like the taste of it at all, but I could admire how pretty it was.

Sound of the Sea The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck is the first place I've been to that asked if there are any ingredients things we didn't like before the start of the meal, rather than just what we were allergic to. I immediately declared my lifelong hatred of liquorice, and it turned out that Y can't stand the stuff either. It was a good thing we mentioned it, because the next course was Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel, topped with Golden Trout roe, and served with grilled artichoke and a vanilla mayonnaise. The other three had neutral to positive feelings towards liquorice, and quite enjoyed the dish.

Salmon Poached in Liquorice Gel The Fat Duck

For Y & me, the dish was replaced with Roasted Turbot with Verjus Jelly, with grilled artichokes and mushrooms on the side. It was perhaps the simplest of all the dishes I had that afternoon, but with a deeply satisfying sense of understated elegance to it and very well executed. The verjus jelly was an impeccable counterpoint to the slightly smoky sauce accompanying the turbot. I very nearly licked my plate. 

Replacement Dishes The Fat Duck

Our main course was Sous Vide Duck Breast, a fitting dish for our location. Cooked to a juicy medium as duck breast rightfully ought, the sous vide style rendered the meat tender yet the skin crisp, a winning combination. Accompanying the duck breast were chunks of duck hearts, which tasted like duck meat just more concentrated, and an utterly sinful blood pudding puree. It was decadence on a plate. 

Duck Breast and Duck Heart at The Fat Duck

Our side dishes were a bowl of crackling and some ridiculously creamy mash, as well as a crisp wafer roll of duck with plum sauce. For all that we spent our morning starving, by this point we all felt stuffed to the gills. Still, we couldn't really stop eating, not with food this good. 

Main Course Side Dishes The Fat Duck

After the plates were cleared away, we sat at the table, not quite able to move and wondering how we'd ever manage to finish dessert. This was when we were presented with the Hot & Iced Tea, a very clever little palate cleanser. Sip from the right angle, and either side of your mouth will get a hit of either hot tea or a cold tea jelly, and the whole thing needs to be consumed before it collapses into a vaguely lukewarm mass. It took a few tries of mostly hot or mostly cold mouthfuls before I found the sweet spot, but once it worked I found myself ready to eat some more. 

Pre-Dessert Palate Cleanser Hot & Iced Tea