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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.