Get plucked: The Fat Duck, Bray, UK

WHO KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS, but I’m sure you’ll never find a futures market as much fun as Heston Blumenthal’s oyster with passionfruit jelly and lavender at The Fat Duck. 

Just Ducking out for lunch

Trust me, I’ve tried. And I say that as someone who believes lavender should only be found in your grandma’s undies drawer.

There are times when Blumenthal’s food seems to defy logic and certainly confounds my understanding of flavours. He’s a genius who makes me feel mortal, but unlike chefs with bigger egos, doesn’t belittle me in the process. He’s having fun and makes sure he takes you with him, rather than having it at your expense.

For several years, The Fat Duck was the world’s second best restaurant, behind El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s Spanish gastro-temple . That makes Blumenthal Buzz Aldrin to Adria’s Armstrong, but then, you have a better chance of flying to the moon than getting a table at El Bulli. 

The Fat Duck, a low-ceilinged, no-nonsense Tudor-style building just outside London, is at least accessible. It’s an unlikely three-star setting serving food that grabs headlines for its quirky approach. 

Spectacled Blumenthal, often portrayed as an eccentric boffin, is a philosophically adventurous chef with a rollicking sense of humour. Most likely he was the naughty boy down the back of the classroom when you grew up. I suspect he had quite a few lollies in his bag too, judging by his love for sweet treats. He’s the brash Brit who sits in stark relief to the grandfather of modern British food, Frenchman Michel Roux, at the nearby Waterside Inn, which opened a year after Blumenthal was born.

At Fat Duck, he grabs haute cuisine by its over-starched collar to give it a thoroughly enjoyable shake. His food it rooted in classical French cuisine, but he’s added a showman’s pizzazz in a highly entertaining approach sits somewhere between Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and Las Vegas conjurer. This is dining as burlesque and you’re one of the cast.

Yet there’s a strong sense of whimsy and yearning too. He explores themes of memory and childhood in a jubilantly informed yet guileless fashion. 

Get me the iPod with Kate Bush singing Wuthering Heights please.. the homage to Alain Chapel: oak moss and truffle toast, quail jelly, langoustine cream & foie gras parfait.

His dishes – scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, snail porridge, hot and iced tea – have assumed their own mythology. Yes, there are relatively sensible a la carte options, but most come here for an 18-course tasting menu of his greatest hits.

After all, who goes to a Bob Dylan concert for his new album? 

Self-taught Blumenthal wants to engage all the senses while eating. That’s why the ‘sounds of the sea’ – a glass plate of malty tapioca ‘sand’, shellfish, samphire and seaweed, with a ‘surf’ foam – comes with an shell containing an iPod. Chew to seagull squawks and crashing waves. The loop of synthetic sounding aquatic acoustics reminds me of Jean Michel Jarre’s 1976 work Oxygene Part VI.

Does the soundtrack make the seafood taste fishier? Well, music is evocative. It’s more likely to make you think of fish and chips on the beach at the expense of this fascinating dish, but I don’t mind being part of the experiment.

So what would your serve with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit? Spherified McDonald’s?

Blumenthal’s homage to Alain Chapel – oak moss and truffle toast, plus a splendid combination of quail jelly, langoustine cream, foie gras parfait and pea puree – evokes the Yorkshire moors as mist from a tray of moss pours across the table.

To sea or not to sea, that is the music... Sound of the Sea is served with a side of iPod in a shell.

Over more than three hours, there are numerous moments of levity and surprise, such as the sleight-of-sight in beetroot and orange jellies. I won’t recount the details and spoil the moment, but there’s also some interesting subtext too.

A small cornet of sorbet is presented as a pre-dessert, and is named in honour of the 19th century cookbook writer Agnes Marshall, who Blumenthal champions as the pioneer of ice cream cones. She invented the world’s fastest ice cream churn and even suggested, in 1901, using liquid gas. The next course, the scrambled egg ice cream on French toast, with toffee ‘bacon’ and tea jelly – part of a ‘breakfast’ that begins with parsnip cornflakes and parsnip milk – realises her vision, when an egg is cracked into liquid nitrogen, then served seconds later.

It’s exuberant, startling and sweetly delicious.

The only shortcoming to Blumenthal’s wit is its delivery by French waiters with all the joy of an existentialist. They do their job professionally, but a good jest is all in the delivery. I’m not convinced. Perhaps it’s because I lived in London’s East End in my twenties and I’m craving Arthur Daly and a wink as he serves me.

The wine list, heavy as an ancient manuscript, is encyclopaedic and I admire sommelier who matches pigeon ballotine with a South African red.

I came to The Fat Duck with high expectations and loved it, even if, on occasion, the showmanship eclipsed the food. Blumenthal is an original thinker with an ability to defy conventions yet keep you smiling. His flavours dance, intrigue and entertain. It’s a restaurant everyone should put on their bucket list and is remarkable for what he’s achieved in just over a decade, especially when Chef wasn’t a chef until that moment. 

THAT egg & bacon ice cream - single-handedly responsible for the revival of gueridon cooking by waiters at your table & oh-so-worth-it

The woman at the next table is thrilled. She beams as she engages in conversation, declaring this the best meal of her life.

“So when are you coming back?” I enquire.

“Oh no, once is enough,” she declares.

And that’s the problem with jokes, once you’ve heard them it’s never as funny again.

But the last laugh is on her. Blumenthal is restless and already dreaming up new ideas.

I’ll be back.

 

 

* Reviewed, Sept 2008

 

 

Score 9.5/10

Where High Street  Bray, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 2AQ, England
+44 (0) 1628 580 333; www.thefatduck.co.uk

When Lunch & dinner, Tues-Sat

Food Spectacular

Wine Impressive 2500+ bin list from around the globe, featuring all the marques. 

Service Personable and chatty

In a mouthful Wow. Yes, you can believe the hype. Deservedly one of the top 5 restaurants in the world & utterly unique

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