Europe 2008, with the nieces

Dinner at the Fat Duck

We continued our visits to interesting restaurants with a visit to The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire (near Maidenhead), England, just a bit West of London. We had just sent Hillary back home, Marissa was not yet due to arrive, and neither was especially interested in this type of food. Debbie had secured the reservation; she and Charles came from Sydney via two routes. Debbie and Charles had joined us the previous year at El Bulli. We were also joined by Eileen from Ireland and her friend Bobby from Scotland.

My suitcase had died, so we went into London earlier in the day to see if Tumi could fix or replace it. The Tumi store was happy to repair it; we just had to leave it with them and then wait 6 to 8 weeks to pick it up. Of course we would not be in the UK at that time, so that was not a good option. So, I bought a cheap bag across the street, and we left the old one sitting (open - so the bomb squad would not get alerted) near a pile of trash, hoping that someone would adopt it. While it was no longer working well enough for the kind of trip we were doing, it was likely that someone else could still use it. Texting with Charles (to his Sydney phone), we were able to meet up and spend part of the rainy day hitting tea shops and looking for open WiFi points.

The train From Paddington to Maidenhead was a short 30 minutes, and the a taxi to Eileen and Bobby's hotel was only a few minutes more. We met them for a quick drink and a clothing change for Roswitha and me (we'd cleverly brought a change of clothing in my change of suitcases). Then we hopped into two taxis for a quick ride out to Bray Village.

Waiting for the train to Maidenhead

The Fat Duck is Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, lauded internationally for its creativity and use of modern cooking methods and materials driven by a deep understanding of the underlying chemistry (often described with the dreaded molecular gastronomy term).

We arrived at a nondescript, bland building, which looked a bit like an old pub. The only indicators were an odd, iconic sign and a small notice above the simple wooden door. While we were familiar with some of the dishes and anticipated excellent and interesting food, I don't think that any of us expected the theater that we'd enjoy in its presentation.


Outside the Fat Duck


Although the Fat Duck has an la carte menu, we all decided to order the tasting menu, and I informed them of my allergy to fish and seafood. We all (except for lightweight Roswitha) ordered the wine pairing. While we waited, we were offered cocktails, olives, bread, and some very tasty butter. We were each given a little essay on nostalgia, which was to be the meal's theme.

Please pardon our photos; although we had a relatively bright table, it was still on the dark side. We don't use a flash in restaurants. You can click on each photo to see more food and restaurant photos, and to enlarge the images. There are numerous videos on the gallery pages, shot by Roswitha.

1. Nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse

The server wheeled over a cart with a cauldron (well, OK, a dewar) of liquid nitrogen. She squirted foam from an ISI whippit onto a spoon, and then poached the puff in the nitrogen. Once it was ready, she placed the frozen mousse onto a plate, dusted it with maccha green tea powder, and presented the plate to the diner. As each of us ate our portion, she sprayed some lime essence over our heads so that we'd get the lime scent. The puff was very fragile and light, and several of us had problems picking it up without it breaking. When someone had a total disaster (and the puff could melt rather quickly), she quickly replaced it.

As you'd expect, the mousse was very light and airy. It was not too sweet, and the maccha added a complex bitterness. The lime acted as a subtle nose and palate cleanser.

The matched wine for this and all the appetizer items was a 1990 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese, Mosel, St. Urbans-Hof. Fruity, citrusy, and sweet, it matched the dishes well.


2. Oyster, passion fruit jelly, lavender

Lavender flowers were embedded in tiny panes of sugar. The hint of lavender and acid fruitiness of the passion fruit perfectly complemented the oyster.

I had some red stuff in a champagne glass. Sadly, I don't recall what it was, but I'm sure that it was excellent.


3. Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho

A perfect quenelle of dotted ice cream sat with green gel cubes of unremembered flavor in a huge bowl. The servers poured the bright red gazpacho around the ice cream. Our eyes said "sweet" but our tongues said "mmmm" as the complex interplays of tart and earthiness developed. This one was over much too quickly.


4. Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras
Oak moss and truffle toast

This dish was performance art, and played to sense memory and the nostalgia theme. A server placed a box filled with moss into the center of the table. Six little containers, like those used for breath strips, rested on the moss. The server instructed us to take out the film and let it dissolve on our tongues; it disappeared quickly, leaving behind the flavor of forest and moss.

Two dishes sat in front of each of us. One was a toast of brown bread with radishes, tiny parsley leaves, and a black powder. It was hard to tell if it was just grated truffles or truffles adjusted in some way.

A tilted bowl held a quenelle of foie gras parfait surrounded by a three-layer jelly; listen to the video for a description. (Mine substituted truffle cream for the langoustine.) Scooping out the jelly cut through all three layers.

As we ate this earthy, rich dish, the server poured liquid nitrogen into the moss; mist crawled out of the moss and carried the smell and feel of the forest.

5. Snail porridge

One of The Fat Duck's signature dishes, the porridge is an oat porridge with snail broth and garlic. It is topped by slices of snail rich with umami, then Spanish Jabugo jamón and shaved fennel. The combination of flavors and textures was outstanding.

The wine : 2006 Rully, Saint-Jacques, Domaine A.P. Villaine, Burgundy.

6. Roast foie gras "Benzaldehyde"

A smear of creamy almond gel. A line of cherry and chamomile sauce. Little clear amber cubes of amaretto gel. And roasted foie gras with shaved almonds, chives, and crumbly bits. A "cherry" that was a construct. Perfect. And then we discovered that the cherry stem was a sliver of vanilla bean. So perfect that I had to lick my plate.

2004 Pinot Gris, Rotleibel de Rorschwihr, Rolly Gassmann, Alsace


7. "Sound of the Sea"

A seashell was placed in front of each of us. Oddly, the shells had stereo ear buds extending out.

Servers presented elaborate serving vessels; the food was on a plate of glass which stood above another piece of glass over beach sand. There were three lines running into each other: sand made up of tapioca maltodextrin with some oil-based flavoring and crunchy fried baby eels, cockles, abalone, and several types of seaweed, and a seasoned foam. (I had granola crunch in place of the eels, and mushrooms substituted for the clams. I may have tasted caramel in the sand.)

We listened to the shells (once we got them working - we had some technical and physiological difficulties with the hidden iPod Shuffles) as we enjoyed the dish. Listening to sea waves and wind washing over us, the sound really did seem to enhance the flavor. (Maybe there was Kool Aid in the foam.) The accompanying sake, Shiboritate, Hyogo, Tatsuma-Honke definitely did as well, and it certainly was not Kool Aid.

8. Salmon poached in liquorice gel

This plate was among the most visually interesting. A rich, dark cube sat on a smear of vanilla mayonnaise. Grapefruit endocarps (juice cells) and dots of balsamic vinegar were scattered randomly around the dish. Artichoke hearts balanced the symmetry. Once the servers placed the plates, they drizzled Manni olive oil artfully around the plate and then loudly grated liquorice root over the top.

We commented that they must have a person with OCD teasing apart the grapefruit. (We have since learned that liquid nitrogen can be used to freeze the fruit, and then the endocarps can be separated with a simple hammer blow.)

I got the most perfect pork belly I've ever had, sitting on top of truffle macaroni and sautéed mushrooms. I could eat this dish every day for the rest of my (likely very short) life.

Wine: 2001 Quinta da Leda, Casa Ferreirinha, Douro.

9. Ballotine of Anjou pigeon

Sous vide pigeon topped with a crispy cracker of skin sat next to a puddle of blood pudding ("Made to Order"). Tender baby pearl onions (is that redundant?) were draped with pickling foam, and a dash of spiced juices highlighted the plate.

The accompanying wine was a 2005 Bolgheri Sassicala from Tenuta san Guido, Toscana.

10. Hot and iced tea

Slightly gelled, one side of the tea (served in a very cute thermal glass) was cold, and the other was hot. A clever palate cleanser.




11. Mrs. Marshall's Margaret Cornet

We were presented with a printout about Agnes Bertha Marshall, who wrote two books on the subject in the second half of the 19th century. In homage to her, the Fat Duck makes ice cream cones according to her recipes. Really tiny (but tasty) ones.


12. Pine sherbet fountain

Nostalgia seemed to be right on the mark for Eileen and Robbie, who recognized this instantly, but the Americans and Austrian found the sherbet fountain to be just amusing. Unwrap the paper a bit, and use the dried vanilla bean to dip out some pine sherbet powder. Lick the stick. Repeat. Eileen went nuts over this, and asked if she could have one to take back to her jealous boss. The server was very happy to. The powder tasted, well, like a pine tree. But in a good way.


13. Mango and Douglas fir purée

Douglas fir, in a dessert. At least we thought that we might be moving into the dessert phase, although there was a lot happening on this plate. The blackcurrant sorbet, topped with a beet crisp, was intense and tart. The bavarois of lychee and mango, with pine nuts, was light and fruity. Where was the Douglas fir? In the dollop (and line) of mango purée, of course, just as the name said. The little gel cubes were probably the best item on the plate.

This was served with a 2005 Breganze Toscolato, from Maculan, Veneto.

14. Parsnip cereal

"Good morning," said our server. "We have cereal for breakfast. In the box you will find parsnip cereal."

We looked, and, sure enough, there was a cello bag with (not very many) gold-yellow flakes of something. Parsnip...OK.

"In the jug is parsnip milk. Enjoy!"

And we did.

15. Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream

"Good morning," said our chemist as she came over with the liquid nitrogen cart. She cracked three eggs into the pan, although what came out was not just regular old eggs; it looked more like a custard base. She was making bacon ice cream, and pointed out that it was smoky bacon; the smoke poured over the top as she mixed the ice cream. She spooned out a dollop of ice cream onto each plate, which had already be arranged with Pain Perdu (french toast or "lost bread") and a paper-thin slice of what looked like candied bacon.

The ice cream was eggy, bacony, and smoky. The bacon was sweet and nicely crisp, but not in the normal way. A ceramic egg-shaped bowl held herby, slightly sweet tea jelly.

This dish was playful and slightly mind-bending. Oh, and quite tasty. The wine accompaniment was a 2000 Tokaji Aszu, from 9 Puttonyos, Oremus.

16. Petits fours

A small bowl held paper-thin, bright orange carrot and orange lollies (that's lollypops for the Americans). A wooden block held shiny Mandarin aerated chocolates. Violet tartlets and wrapped caramels were on a plate.

The chocolates turned out to be more complex (of course) than they appeared. There was a mandarin orange gel, and the chocolate itself was light, filled with set bubbles. The lollies were fun and tasted as bright as their color. And the tartlets tasted of violets. Each was perfect.

I don't know that the caramel was like; I took mine home and I'm waiting to eat it.

The restaurant called us two taxis. ("You're two taxis.") We paid (boy, did we), said a hasty good-bye to Eileen and Bobby, and headed back to Maidenhead station. As it turned out, we were going to get the last train of the night; our meal had lasted over four hours. The house we were staying in was in northeast London, the Victoria line was closed for repairs, and it was rather late. But, we thought that we could make it. From Paddington, we shared a cab with Debbie and Charles to Liverpool Street Station (near their hotel), and made it onto the last train back to Chingford. With my new suitcase.


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