With only about a month and a half before I left London for home and dissertation writing, it almost didn't matter that exams were upon us as well - I had to explore as much of London as we could, and fast. Y had the same idea, so the both of us embarked upon a series of eating adventures together. We never knew when the studying whim would take us, so all of our outings together had a touch of spontaneity. When we both realized we wanted to try Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, we decided to go together. A table for two wasn't too difficult to procure on a Saturday afternoon, and though we were due to visit The Fat Duck in only a matter of days, we were convinced that the two restaurants were different enough we wouldn't get overwhelmed. Rather, we'd be better able to compare the concepts. And so it was.
Conceptually, Dinner seeks to usher in a new age of British culinary greatness by looking deep into its past. All the items on the menu have dates and sources (where available) printed alongside them, traversing gastronomic highlights through time from the 13th century to the early 20th. The placards holding each menu nice folded up also had bits of trivia printed on the back, other fruits of the research done. Y had a bit of information on the origins of ketchup, originally any sweet-sour sauce inspired by the condiments British sailors encountered when they travelled to the Malay Peninsula, before the 19th century tomato-based American invention came to dominate. Mine
looked like a piece of jingoist fan fiction was quite surprising.
We were seated almost smack in the middle, with partial views of Hyde Park from the massive windows. It was a brilliant day outside, and the sunlight streaming in brought out the clean lines of the high-ceilinged dining room. Here and there though, were touches of whimsy - jelly (or cake) molds attached to the walls, reminiscent of deer head trophies somehow. We almost didn't even need to look at the menu because we'd received so many recommendations on what to try, and they all said the same thing: try the Meat Fruit and the Tipsy Cake. It seemed a bit silly for the both of us to order the exact same things when there were so many other dishes to try, so Y decided to try the highlights and let me have a taste, while I got the set lunch, which looked very seasonal and had dish names that appealed.
I had a starter of Lemon Salad (c. 1730) which came with some very moreish pieces of smoked artichoke, luridly pink candied beetroot and hearty crumbled goat feta. The lemon dressing brought it all together with the crisp greens, each leaf a flawless specimen. Fresh and zingy, it set the tone for the rest of the meal, where each dish was really brought out by hints of acidity.
The legendary Meat Fruit came to us on a wooden board, looking for all the world like an actual mandarin orange, dimpled skin and all. The shape was a cute nod to the location of the restaurant within the walls of the Mandarin Oriental and as we turned the board this way and that, we were assured that yes, we could eat the orange gel casing, though the stem and leaves were purely decorative. It was an edible work of art, and we were wroth to destroy it, but destroy it we had to in order to fully appreciate its brilliance.
Of all the items on the menu, the Meat Fruit's inspiration stretches back the furthest in time, to the old English tradition of making one item of food look like another, E.G. Making fake eggs out of almond milk and fish roe. It doesn't sound quite as exciting as other Middle English recipes, like making a peacock look like it's alive and breathing fire, but the surprise is still quite a bit of fun. Even though we knew full well what to expect, the soft pink that emerged under Y's knife still inspired a heady frisson of dissonance. The Meat Fruit was accompanied by a perfectly charred slice of bread, on which we spread the silky smooth chicken liver parfait and mandarin gel. I loved each delicate nibble I took, endeavouring to make the experience last.
I love quail, and effectively chose to go for the set menu because of it. I wasn't disappointed. The Slow Roasted Quail (c. 1590) with smoked chestnuts and versatile hispi cabbage was insanely tender, even if the bones lacked the crunch the would have had if the quail had been deep fried. The accompanying sauce was rich and meaty, but the flavours of the quail were more than a match for it. So many places only give you morsels of quail, but here you get almost the entire bird, which I was well-pleased with.
No one really discusses specific main courses at Dinner, so Y chose what she liked the looks of best on the a la carte menu - the Cod in Cider (c. 1940). She cut me a piece to try, and the firm, juicy flake was an enjoyable mouthful.
I now have to admit to something utterly shameful - I usually take down notes so I can remember the details of each meal beyond "Liked this part", "Loved this part", but I was somehow remiss in my duties that afternoon. I didn't take a picture of the set menu, and for the life of me I can't remember the exact name of my dessert. It had an odd sort of name (Junket? Or something like that) that I was so sure I would remember, but alas, I did not. Either way, what I do remember was that it was a delightfully wobbly mascarpone and vanilla pudding with a crisp, spiced sauce with stewed rhubarb and grapefruit, covered in crumbled nuts.
When it was brought to me I couldn't help but shake the plate a little to watch the entire cone shaped pudding jiggle. Fun aside, it was also based on an old recipe, further working to rubbish the idea that British desserts have to be cloying things. The pudding was creamy, but almost airily light. Its sweetness was also tempered with some bite from the fruity soup it sat in. A refreshing end to the meal, with just about enough space left over for the rest of our desserts
Y made quick work of her Tipsy Cake (1810). At the beginning of our meal, we saw rows of pineapples being cooked in an elaborate production within the specially designed rotisserie, powered by the massive gear mechanism we'd noticed on the way in that looked like the blown up back of a watch. With the Tipsy Cake came a bar slice of pineapple, one of the many that had been lovingly caramelized in the specialist contraption. Y cut a a piece of fluffy brioche to go with the sliver of pineapple she'd artfully arranged on my plate, generously spooning over a scoop of rich syrup from the bottom of the pot. It made me tingle right down to my toes.
Our penultimate dish was the very fragrant gratis dessert, Chocolate Ganache with Earl Grey Tea, and a Carraway Biscuit on the side. It was a lovely touch, and the ganache melted on my tongue.
We ended with the Nitrogen Ice Cream, which J had strongly encouraged us to get. Our waiter wheeled the sleek ice cream trolley over and told us that he would be in charge of making it. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm Italian. Any ice cream I make will be amazing."
First, a tea spoonful of stewed rhubarb went into each of our home-made cones.
Then, the yogurt-based custard was poured into the mixer. As the condensation flooded out, he cranked the wheel and churned the custard. Everyone around us turned to watch. It was quite the show.
We had our choice of two toppings each, with the cones dipped half into each. Y & I knew for certain we both wanted the Apple Pop Rocks, but we diverged on the second topping. I went for the Chocolate Hazelnut Praline along with my pop rocks - the exemplary combination, I was assured.
Y had the dehydrated raspberry bits with hers. The nitrogen process resulted in especially smooth ice creams, and we both agreed that getting the cones had been a very good idea indeed. It was an excellent end to the meal.
I spent the week telling people I was going for lunch at Dinner, just to see the confusion on their faces while they tried to parse that. Dinner used to just mean the main meal of the day, often taken at mid-day, before shifting over time to signify the evening meal, and greater formality. Ironically, our luncheon turned out to be my main meal for the day, substantial enough to sit pleasantly in my gut until late evening. To use the old terminology, I suppose I technically did have dinner at Dinner. It's an amusing thought.