TL;DR summary – the Fat Duck is an incredibly theatrical experience that is as much about the “show” as it is the food. Highly recommended if you like complex meals and culinary surprises.
I first heard about Heston Blumenthal when I tried a sous vide recipe for scrambled eggs. The dish is one of my all time favourites and became a go to dish to show the power of sous vide. I then saw a few of his BBC shows and loved the way he does molecular gastronomy with a deep exploration of the science behind each dish. Plus The Fat Duck had 3 Michelin Stars and was consistently mentioned in the same breath as El Bulli and French Laundry in the late aughts. Though the ranking has diminished in recent years, it is still in the top 100 worldwide and I knew that I would have to try it first hand when I visited the UK. Usually when I do one of these fancy meals I just take lots of pics and post them to my Flickr collection but this particular meal was interesting enough that I decided to write up this more detailed blog post.
The hardest thing about getting to the Fat Duck is actually getting a reservation. Fortunately they release their tickets for an entire month in one shot which means that even though there is a lot of competition, your chances of getting a booking are still pretty decent. Since I knew which dates would work for us all I had to do was be up at noon BST (4am PST) with an existing tock account and I was able to get my second choice date. I wish the French Laundry would move to a similar system so that we dont have to deal with the daily Open Table bot fight that eliminates all real customers.
Once we had the tickets, the restaurant concierge got in touch to confirm and dietary restrictions and also asked us some questions about vacations, activities and hobbies which they said would be woven into the meal. The final step was to actually get to Bray and show up at right date and time. The restaurant is in an unassuming little cottage on a narrow street in Bray. Not only does it not have parking, it doesn’t even have a sign outside the door. There is a discreet logo hanging from the front but nowhere does it actually say “The Fat Duck”. There is a doorman who asks if you are here for the restaurant and ushers you into the front door. You then enter a hallway with all mirrors where the hostess confirms your name and reservation before opening the mirror at the end of the corridor and bringing you into the restaurant proper. The restaurant space itself isnt particularly unique, but it is noticable that it is almost completely cut off from the outside world. We arrived when it was still light but all the interior shades are drawn and you cant really tell what time it is outside. I really liked that each table has its own hanging light fixture spotlighting the table which we later found was not only dimmable but also colour adjustable to match the course (that’s why some of the pics below have really odd lighting)
We signed up for the wine pairing to go with the tasting menu and since nobody was driving, we started off with a glass of champagne. We were presented with a copy of the menu above which in the form of a map with some really tiny text that you can only read with the provided magnifying glass. The whole mean is based around the idea of a journey/vacation with a healthy dose of Alice in Wonderland thrown in.
The first course is one Hestons signature snacks and is very theatrically prepared tableside. The lights are dimmed and they bring a cart to the table that has 4 ISI siphons standing around a smoking bowl of liquid nitrogen. You are then give 4 options (Paloma, Campari Soda, Pina Colada, and Vodka Lime Sour) to chose from. Once you make your choice they spray out a little foam from the appropriate whipping siphon onto a spoon and drop the foam into the liquid nitrogen. After about 30 seconds of the stirring the foam has hardened into a shape reminiscent of a macaroon and is served to the diner. They recommend you eat it in a single bit and it is super refreshing with a great lime flavour under the cold and hard outer crust. Click here for a video of the process taken by a diner when the Fat Duck relocated to Australia.
After the fairly normal gazpacho, we move to another molecular creation – a “hot & cold” tea which is served in an ordinary glass with seemingly just a single liquid inside it. However when you drink it you find that there is both hot (warm) and cold tea in the glass simultaneously. The closest thing it reminded me off is swimming in an still outdoor pool on a cold day where you have a thermocline that your arms and legs dip into on the bottom of strokes. Another truly unique textural (thermal?) experience.
The next course is presented a shrink wrapped six-pack of cereal from which each diner is invited to pick a type of cereal. All of the packaging is obviously custom and even suggests swiping your preferred brand from fellow guests.
You then pour the cereal into a small bowl which has some of his amazing scrambled eggs covered with a thin layer of egg custard. Additionally the 3 types of cereal crisps taste like tomato, beans and bacon which combines with the eggs to give you a full english breakfast in a bowl
The cereal packets also contain a wooden puzzle that you complete to form a small coin bank. The best part is that the puzzles are customized to the diners and in our case one had my blog name while the other had pictures of the puppies. After you eat the dish you them spend the next 10-15 minutes putting the puzzle together. I have to say it took me an unacceptably long time to finish mine but I’m going to blame the delay on the wine 😉
Another one of Hestons signature multisensory dishes is the “Sound of the Sea”. This consists of assorted seafood served with a seaweed foam on what is essentially a shadowbox containing sand. The seaside experience is completed by giving folks a seashell containing an iPod that plays the sound of crashing waves to listen to while you eat the food. It might sound a bit gimmicky but the sound does enhance the visuals, tastes and smell of the dish.
They then continue on the seaside theme and present you with the two “candys” above. Apparently these are very well known british lollys but I have never seen them in India or the US and so I did not understand what exactly he was going for. The one on the left is a play on a “Zoom Rocket Lolly” but done as a Waldorf Salad with the 3 flavours being apple, celery and walnut. The one on the right is a Twister Lolly but with a salmon filling instead of the normal strawberry. The waldorf rocket had interesting flavours but was nothing to write home about while the salmon twister was little freakish as you are definitely not expecting a salmon flavour when you see it.
The incongruity between visuals and flavour continued with the crab ice cream which is an actual cold ice cream with a very strong crab flavour. The mix of the two is completely unexpected and was definitely my favourite of the small bites in the meal. Another bit of cultural context I missed is that the ice cream is “with flake” which is apparently a standard british way to consume soft serve ice cream.
The theatrical nature of the meal continues with this dish for which I unfortunately did not take a “before” pic. The dish originally has a ~1.5 inch orange and white crab made of white chocolate at the bottom left of an empty “rockpool”. The servers then pour a clear warm seafood bisque on the crab which causes the shell to dissolve into the bisque and reveal the roe and caviar inside the crab that become part of the rockpool seafood bisque. Incredibly creative presentation and I only wish I had been able to record the process on video.
The Boroughgroves/Forest course was impressive both from a customization standpoint as well as from the sensory/theatrical aspect. They start by placing a cylinder containing a postcard, moss and a mini tree of sorts in the center of the table. The postcard is from a waterfall that we actually visited when we went to Iceland last year. They then pour liquid (nitrogen?) around the cylinder which causes a fog to well out of it and bring with it forest scents like moss, leaves, etc…
The food served with this continues with the forest theme in both appearance (log on a dirt floor) and in the flavours (mushroom, truffle, beetroot, etc…). Another multi-sensory experience that takes advantage of their theatrical flourishes.
The next course was the “Mock Turtle Soup” that is probably the most theatrical dish of the meal. It starts off with you being served a glass cup and saucer containing an intricate “egg” (above) along with a glass teapot with hot water. You are then given a gold “pocketwatch/medallion” with a string that you dip into the hot water. The gold foil comes apart and inside it is essentially a boullion cube that converts the hot water into a beef broth.
You then pour the tea/broth from the kettle into the cup and have your mock turtle soup. Fantastic presentation which really involves the diners in the creation process and you never know what is going to happen next. One of the stars of the meal.
We them moved on to the main “dinner” portion of the evening with a scallops anna: grilled scallops and black truffle in a coral foam. This was a good dish and technically perfect but it still felt like a bit of a letdown since it had no flourishes in the serving/presentation.
Another highlight was this incredibly complex dish named Botrytis Cinerea which is the latin name of the fungus that causes Noble Rot and is the reason we have Sauternes, Tokaji and Monbazillac wines. This particular dish is built around the flavours of Chateau d’Yquem which incidentally is one of the most expensive wines in the world. The dish includes several “grapes” of different textures, flavours and acidities including jelly, sorbet, chocolate shell, etc… In total it has over 20 individual elements made from 80 ingredients and it apparently takes 2 months for a new chef to learn the dish at the restaurant. It was a fascinating dish to try but there were so many things happening at once that it is hard for to say anything specific beyond “it was great”.
A sampling of whisky gums made with single malt from different distilleries in Scotland and Australia. Even though I am not a whisky drinker I could clear taste different flavours in gums and I liked that they were labelled to go from least to most smoky.
I know I sound like a broken record but this was another impressive presentation of of “Bedtime: Counting Sheep” which pulled a few different items together. The magnetically levitating pillow in the background arrives first with two meringues and absolutely grabs your attention. The rest of the dish is inspired by baby powder and they start by giving you a furry spoon that actually smells like baby powder. The dish in the foreground contains ice cream, sponge, white chocolate and panna cotta. That said all you really remember is the levitating pillow and we even tried dropping it off the magnets and re-levitating it ourselves.
The final course is “into the sweetshop” where they roll out this very fancy doll house that splits open to reveal draws that contain mignardises. They give you 4 different items including aerated chocolate, wagyu nougat, caramel in an edible wrapper and a “playing card”.
The playing card is the most impressive as it is a perfect a queen of hearts playing card and comes in a little envelope sealed with a chocolate seal. It feels like it is made from simple white chocolate but when you bite into it you find that it is actually a jam tart. I have no idea how they make a hollow tart that is only about 2.5mm thick.
All in all the Fat Duck was definitely my favourite tasting meal ever. The theartical flourishes combined with multi-sensory dining made it a truly unique experience and one that will be hard to top. That said Nithya and I are doing the Kitchen Table at Alinea in December and we’re curious to see how it compares 😀