This all started when my sister asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few months ago. For her birthday, I had paid for some cooking lessons, so (eventually) the topic of The Fat Duck came up. I would have been foolish to say no, so on the phone we were, a month or two back trying to get through to their reservations line. We both tried calling up over several days, and fate being what it was, it was my sister who finally got through and booked a week day lunch.
Strangely I didn’t actually have many expectations about The Fat Duck. I had read a few different reactions to them via the blogosphere yet I think I unconsciously avoided reading any of it in any great detail. I knew that it would be different, I knew that it was going to be exciting, and I knew it was going to not only about the food, but the entire dining experience. Having been, I am glad to say it met all of those expectations and even more.
Our day started off at a very leisurely pace, where we caught the 11 o’clock train from Paddington to Maidenhead. Having caught it many times before for work, the lack of commuters, students and general bustle almost made it enjoyable. From Maidenhead, we caught a taxi (£5.60) that dropped us off right outside, alongside the other diners that we shared the train with. Note that the taxi The Fat Duck ordered us cost £7.50 on the return trip (unmetered).
We took a brief stroll through the village, having heard about other Michelin starred restaurants in the area, and just saw that the high street really wasn’t that big and mostly filled with mothers and their prams, a fair number of cars and lots of gorgeously green scenery. We didn’t stop in Heston’s pub instead choosing to step in for our lunchtime appointment.
The insides of The Fat Duck are fairly non-de script, being converted from its original housing shell. The kitchen is far in the back behind the coats, with the amenities upstairs and a enough tables to seat up to eighty people or so. No wonder it’s so hard to get a booking for this place! A maître de took our coats and led us to our table, perfectly situated next to one of the street side windows. Not only did that guarantee us a fair amount of privacy with tables behind and far to the left but it also meant we had plenty of light to take some great photographs. Fortunately The Fat Duck is one of those places that don’t prevent you from taking photos, and so photos we did take.
We had come for the tasting menu and so we didn’t need to look at the menu very hard. We didn’t go for the wine tasting course with it, partially because I don’t normally drink if we go out for a family meal, and frankly when you’re having this sort of exquisite food, I wanted to enjoy every last bit without dulled senses. Looking around it seemed like most other tables also went for the tasting menu and we only noticed one single table who ordered a la carte from the menu. Even compared to the meal that we had at the seven star Burj Al Arab in Dubai, this had been the most extravagant food I had paid for with the tasting menu costing £125. I owe my sister big time for this (since she paid my share of the meal as well).
I lost sense of exactly how many courses that we had, with some of them arriving in quick succession to form a continuous gastronomic experience. For those that may have been fortunate to go already, I don’t think the menu has changed that much. I warn you that the rest of this post is going to describe the rest of the dishes and what I thought of them, so expect it to be fairly lengthy. Read on otherwise!
The first dish required a waitress to drag a small wooden bench to sit beside the table. On it, they brought the ingredients needed for the first dish, a palette cleanser, called “Nitro-green tea and lime mousse”. The waiter, who looked to be the only one qualified to make it as he did it for everyone, introduced the dish explaining how to eat it (whole) and what senses it was meant to provoke. Using a pressurised container, the waiter quickly formed a twirl of mousse on a silver spoon, only to quickly plunge it into a bucket containing bubbling liquid nitrogen. He moved it about, explaining how it was cooking it, before scooping it out, placing it on a plate, dusting it with matcha green tea powder, and passing it to you to eat. As you reach forth, he lightly sprays a lime scent above the table, used to heighten the flavours as the mousse collapses in your mouth. Much more like a very light meringue, this mousse almost instantly dissolves as it touches the tongue. Packed with the powerful zesty flavours of lime and surrounded by the scent slowly floating down, it was a wonderful way to start the meal. It also helps that it’s somewhat of a novelty to eat something still smouldering from the liquid nitrogen.
Shortly afterwards, a waiter came around offering two types of bread (white and brown) and placed salted and unsalted pasteurised butter on the table. I have to admit that this was (fortunately) the most disappointing part of the meal. I had a slice of both breads and it wasn’t as dense or the crunchy loaf that I had expected them to prepare. In many ways it was strange to have something so plain when so many other exotic combinations of flavours floated around. The butter that they brought to the table was awfully disappointing as well, perfectly creamy yellow but lacking the strong taste I would have expected from their “unpasteurised” version.
Soon after, the waiter brought out the second dish, two small squares of jelly on a plate, described as “orange and beetroot jelly”. The waiter indicated it would be best to try the orange one. As simple as it sounds, the twist to this dish was that the orange coloured jelly was actually the beetroot jelly and vice versa. Both jellies had extreme flavours with the beetroot one being quite unnatural.
Our next dish had an extraordinary number of different layers, being an “Oyster, passion fruit jelly, lavender”. It was a little bit too easy to eat this one in a single bite as the spoon fit snugly around the oyster and everything else happened to sit on top. We could taste the strong flavours of the oyster and I was surprised how overpowering a small number of lavender flowers could be. The presentation of this dish great – as you can see from the photo above, a small bit of lavender sticking out from a bed of salt where the oyster shell had been securely placed atop it. I don’t think the passionfruit jelly added that much to the dish, or at least it was at little too delicate to appreciate.
After the oyster came “Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho”, a dish where the typical sweet and savoury dishes had been inverted. They also served it with tiny cubes of crunchy fresh cucumbers. Although the scoop of ice cream had been made with lots of grain mustard, it had a surprisingly mellow flavour that oozed into the gazpatcho. The very tiny cubes of cucumber added an interesting contrast to the rest of the dish and I liked trying to nibble on them in the mouth with a small bit of soup and ice cream slowly melting in the mouth. Very distinctive and unique.
Our next round of food was actually a trio of dishes, with a large bed of moss brought to table carrying two small packages. Inside of each of these had a solidified gel, apparently made out of oak moss though it didn’t really have taste.
The other two dishes, an “oak moss and truffle toast” and a bowl containing three layers ended up a pretty complicated dish to eat. While we ate, they poured on more liquid nitrogen onto the bed of moss to help deepen the flavours of the truffle and moss in the number of dishes by trying to stimulate the bed of moss they had left at the table.
The bowl contained very strong flavours made up of “jelly of quail, langoustine cream, and a parfait of foie gras”. They also had a pea puree sitting as the base layer, recommending we eat each layer in combination, a feat that quickly became difficult as they all melted into each other. I lost the truffle flavours in the toast from the strong flavours in the small bowl.
Following on from the very complex dish involving intensely earthy flavours, we ended up with The Fat Duck’s famous “snail porridge, jabugo ham, shaved fennel”. In many ways, I thought it looked like a very intensely green-coloured risotto. On top of the porridge sat the snails, not as small as I thought they would be, dark in colour and barely recognisable without their shell. I have to admit that this was a really easy dish to eat and went down far too quickly.
I’m not a particularly big fan of foie gras, so I braced myself as a waitress put down the “Roast foie gras, almond fluid gel, cherry and camomile”. The cherry and almond gel smeared down both sides of the plate, and three small cubes of almond jelly providing a naturally sweet contrast to the richness of the roasted foie gras. I didn’t really taste the camomile shavings on top of the foie gras, though it added another dimension of texture to this dish.
Our next dish, the “Sound of the sea” really focused on the entire experience, with a conch shell fitted with an ipod nano bringing the seaside to the table. They first asked us to enjoy the experience, eating while listening to the crashing waves and noisy seagulls, before describing was it was actually made out of.
I remember them saying the sand was made out of tapioca, some sort of flavoured foam and very fresh seafood including an oyster, mussel and some seaweed. This was a beautiful dish and really worked well.
Despite being listed as “Salmon poached in liquorice gel, artichoke, vanilla mayonniase and ‘Manni’ Olive Oil” on the menu, the noticeable addition to this dish was the tiny bits of grapefruit sprinkled delicately over the entire plate. I liked how the salmon hadn’t been fully cooked and the interesting textures created by the tiny bits of grapefruit and the perfectly placed drops of liquorice.
Our final course before dessert came the very strong gamey “Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon, black pudding, pickling brine and spiced juices”. Very rich and luscious and a good way to finish the meal. The black pudding wasn’t a typical black pudding, instead a very rich paste that seemed more like foie gras or liver pate than a normal black pudding.
I was literally whisked back into time with their “hot and iced tea”, presented as the transition to the many desserts that would follow. It brought me back to my childhood when I read Enid Blyton’s books about the Faraway tree and the adventures they would have involving strange foods like this. I can imagine that the current equivalent would be very Harry Potterish. I have no idea how the chef pulled this combination off, because you could distinctly experience both hot and cold sensations as you drank the tea.
Our waitress presented us with a small pamphlet, talking about the history of ice cream, and the achievements of a, one, Mrs Marshall. It made frequent references to a Mrs Beeton who we didn’t know of, yet seemed to make her out as a huge villain in the grand history of ice cream making. Shortly after, they presented us with “Mrs Marshall’s Margaret Cornet”, a tiny ice cream cone lavishly decorated for such a tiny morsel.
The dishes continued the Willy Wonka-like trends, with the next being a “Pine Sherbet Fountain”. Using a small vanilla pod as the vehicle for picking up the sherbet powder, we weren’t sure if we were supposed to keep dipping into the little pack. It didn’t really stop me from trying though.
Our next dessert dish was “Mango and Douglas Fir Puree, bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet”. Sweet strong flavours came out of everything although I think I liked the lychee flavoured part the best as it’s one of my most favourite fruits. The blackcurrent sorbet was appropriately tart and the dish impeccably presented.
Out of all of the dessert courses, I enjoyed the next set of dishes the best, presented by the waitress as our “breakfast” dishes. They brought out two bowls, accompanied by a large box labelled “Fat Duck Cereals” as well as a small pitcher of milk.
Inside the box sat a tiny plastic parcel (we went through quite a lot of packaging in this meal) filled with even tinier flakes of their “Parsnip Cereal”
Unusually it was served with “Parsnip Milk” and the intense flavours of both the milk and cereal literally blew me away. It’s hard to imagine the heavy root vegetable transformed into this sweet delicate (dessert) “breakfast” item yet it worked amazingly well.
Like most English breakfasts, the course would not be complete without the equivalent of the great British fry up, this time in the form of “Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, pain perdu and tea jelly”. Bringing the tiny little bench again beside the table this time with a copper pan sitting atop, they showed us the egg they were going to “scramble” using liquid nitrogen. Labelled with a tiny Fat Duck stamp, inside they described it containing the ingredients for the egg and bacon ice cream.
With much drama, the waiter cracked the egg into the pan, pouring the liquid nitrogen in, and much like real scrambled eggs, proceeded to stir the mixture. What an impressive sight to see bubbling gas rolling out of the pan and the waiter then scooping out the “scrambled eggs” only to put it on top of a tiny french toast and bacon rasher.
My brain could barely compute that what looked like scrambled eggs really tasted like eggs and bacon, yet was also freshly made ice cream slowly melting against the warmth of the french toast. It all seemed so wrong yet it all just worked. Cleverly, they brought the french toast closer to being a dessert by dusting with sugar and caramelised it with, most likely, a blowtorch to add a crunchy dimension. I can best describe the bacon rasher more like a toffee strip that looked and tasted exactly like bacon than anything else. At the end, the bowl of tea jelly helped provide a lighter, refreshing contrast to the rest of the sugary dishes.
After our “breakfast”, we ordered some tea (at an additional cost) and out came the petite fours, a collection of four bite sized items. First in the collection, I had the “Carrot and orange lolly”, a wafer thin candy that had been set on the tip of a toothpick. The candy was both just sweet enough and subtle flavours that made it a good start to the desserts.
Looking a lot more like an Aero bar, the “Madarin aerated chocolate” was another part of the petite fours. I can imagine how difficult it might be to actually do this at home and the slight tang from the mandarin went well with the chocolate. What a shame there wasn’t more of these.
The last two parts of the petite fours were the “Violet tartlet and apple pie caramel ‘edible wrapper’”. I left these to the last, figuring that the caramel and the sweet sticky filling of the tartlet would be the strongest flavours left. First, the caramel a soft chewy texture though the apple flavouring wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. The edible wrapper simply dissolved on contact with the tounge, probably some sort of gel, or rice paper like wrapper it added a fun dimension to this dish.
Finally, the tartlet, a dark though delicate pastry holding a vibrantly dark purple colour. I tipped it slightly to see the filling creep slowly towards the edge, telling me that it wasn’t completely set. Tasting just the filling, the flowerly flavours were strong and although sweet, wasn’t sickeningly too sweet. Just the right amount.
The Fat Duck was a wonderful dining experience, everything from the service being lovely, to the myriad of senses stimulated throughout the numerous courses. The food is exceptionally consistent as we noted from looking at other diners around us and they did their best to win us over, and succeeded.
Certainly not for an everyday sort of meal, but an amazing experience nevertheless.
TheKua.com Rating: 10 out of 10