||[Apr. 21st, 2011|12:26 pm]
I'm not sure if a meal can be said to include "spoilers" but for me a part of the Fat Duck experience was the unexpected things. Perhaps, therefore, if you want to eat there you might not want to read this. Thanks so much to Kriss, Claire, Helen, Sarah, Ed (I'm sure I missed someone there and will be horribly embarrassed when I remember) and especially Caron for organising. Executive spoiler free summary: If what you want from your food is a taste experience you will always remember then this is likely unbeatable. If what you want from your food is "delicious" then you might be less impressed. If you're pescetarian it's less satisfying and if you're vegetarian I imagine this problem is exacerbated. If you're not someone who relishes unusual tastes it would probably count as a bad meal. I would definitely go again (not that *I* could afford to go even once) but only if I knew the menu had changed significantly. Caron has pictures (they allow/encourage pictures but no flash so as not to disturb other diners) but since she's around 6 months behind putting pictures online then don't hold your breath for those. I'm going to steal someone else's pictures.|
So, Caron and I were at the Fat Duck for the "tasting menu" experience which is 14 courses with wines chosen to match (there are three "wine accompaniments" which you can pick from, ruinously, ludicrously and gibbering-insanely expensive).
After you are seated, the waiter asks you about any food allergies or no-nos. For me amongst foods usually eaten this is only mussels (make me ill) and cephalopods (ethical reasons) none of which were on the menu (but see later).
1) Nitro Poached Aperitif -- this is quite famous I believe. It's a foam of your choice (from three drinks, I had vodka and lime) "poached" in liquid nitrogen at your table. This produces a cold white disk which you place whole into your mouth where it then "pops" like sherbert. While this happens the waiter sprays a citrus perfume over you. The sensation is momentary but fascinating. It feels cold on your tongue, suddenly pops, dissolves and is gone in a sprinkling of fine powder. While it does have an attractive and delicate taste you only get a momentary whisper of the sensation and it is gone. The point for me is the theatre of watching the white disk poaching in the evaporating nitrogen as it bubbles away.
2) Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream -- cabbage, mustard and ice-cream together at last. Individually the tastes aren't what I would call nice but boldly tasted together somehow the fusion of it works. Still, not my favourite course and Caron declared it "minging" (but she doesn't like red cabbage at all).
3) Jelly of Quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast -- the serving here is amazing. You get a little white pot containing three different layers of flavour and also a tiny thin slice of toast with truffle coated over and an arranged to look like a blanket at a picnic with plates. Before you eat it you place an edible film (rather like those "breath freshen" things you get in boots) intended to give you a flavour of earthiness. Meanwhile the waiter drizzles dry ice over a bed of turf so you eat this course with cold refreshing dry ice falling across the table falling out of what looks like a swamp bed. This was the first "veggie substitution" for Caron (something involving, weirdly, frozen peas -- yes, still frozen as she ate them). We both loved this, excavating the layers of taste in the little pot gave it a feel of an archaeological dig and they were all exquisite.
4) Snail porridge, Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel -- the snail porridge is probably the most famous thing about the menu but it's not really that memorable as a taste. I've had snails before and never been terribly impressed (my friend Pete Fenelon once described the taste as "like pencil erasers in garlic" -- snails really only taste of the sauce they're in). Here, though the snails are rather a side issue to the luscious green pea coloured sauce. Caron felt the vegetarian substitute was not much to write home about.
5) Roast Foie Gras, rhubarb, braised konbu and crab biscuit -- Actually, I don't these days eat foie gras (after reading an EU report on the matter). However, I'd inadvertently already ordered it and the goose in question wasn't going to be untortured so I decided to press on. This was absolutely delicious. The crab biscuit was some kind of crunchy caramelised flat slim plane sticking out of it. The foie gras melted in my mouth as it should (indeed it was the best foie gras I have ever had). The rhubarb was a surprisingly attractive accompaniment. Probably the best tasting of all the courses so far -- which doesn't mean I'm going to change my mind about foie gras (I already knew what I was missing) just that I will be more careful not to order it. Caron's veggie version of this was "OK but not amazing".
6) Mock turtle soup "mad hatter tea" -- this is inspired by Lewis Carroll. For those not in the know "mock turtle" soup was actually calves head and feet. In the spirit of the mad hatter tea party a gold watch (genuine gold leaf) filled with something cow derived is dissolved in hot water then poured over your dish to make the soup at table. It's fascinating to watch the watch -- beef consomme is not at the end of the day, that fascinating a taste though and gold foil (even quite large bits) don't taste of anything. But who cares, look at it. Again here the vegetarian version was less good. For physics reasons the gold watch arrived pre-dissolved (apparently the veggie version needs more stirring and dissolving) which I know would have made me pout in disappointment. I did, however, love the crazed experience especially of the mushrooms growing through jelly, as a food it felt "mad".
7) Sound of the sea -- the presentation here is beautiful. The waiters do not tell you what you are eating until after you finish it. You get a wooden tray filled with sand covered in glass on which rests something that looks like foam and flotsam on sand. Where the sea meets the shore is sushi and what looks like (and indeed is) seaweeds of various types. While eating you listen to an mp3 player playing sea-sounds (in a conch shell) and drink sake (I got a double helping as Caron hates sake). The "sand" turns out to be ground tapioca, a surprisingly delicate flavour (I thought it had some crab taste to it but this is surely auto-suggestion bought on by the sea theme). The foam was seaweed flavoured (a little salty if anything). The point though is the experience which I genuinely savoured. My love of the sea meant that I enjoyed the sensations and memories evoked by this dish as much as the tastes. Irritatingly though the ipod nano clicks when the track loops (after about 1 minute) -- I'm a bit of a freak when it comes to audio glitches (I just can't listen to a badly tuned radio). Overall though a wonderful experience and the sort of magic this meal should be about.
8) Salmon poached in a liquorice Gel, Asparagus, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe -- the taste was great but I've not too much to say about this except for my bafflement as to quite how it was made. I love the feeling of roe popping in my mouth. It's the sort of food you would get in a restaurant that was merely very very very good.
9) Anjou pigeon, blood pudding, risotto of spelt and umbles -- umbles as I guessed (and you may have too) is code for offal (which I mostly love) and this comes with a little teapot filled with various things which might be reassembled into the working parts of a pigeon. Spelt looks (and tastes) curiously like sugar puffs it seems. The pigeon was gorgeous though. A great tasting course although devoid of too many "tricks". This was the only point where the pescetarian version departed significantly and Caron had turbot which she loved (although we both noticed that the "selected wine to accompany each course" was the same for mine and hers).
10) Hot and Iced Tea -- I didn't know what this when it was served was but it was genius. By making tea into a thicker gel it could be served so that one side was hot and one side cold. This produces a mild version of a tactile illusion I first experienced at the Exploratorium in San Francisco where hot and cold together feels different to the sum of the two. (Indeed done in a certain way can feel like scalding pain while not being very hot at all). This is a wonderful experience I thoroughly recommend even though it actually tastes merely of thick tea. This course made me go "Wow!"
11) Taffety tart, Caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon -- this tasted excellent and beautifully presented. Caron was in raptures over it though I do not have much of a sweet tooth.
12) The "BFG" black forest gateau -- a second dessert and this one again very sweet. The accompanying icecream had a gorgeous aftertaste of kirsch but only at the last minute as it dissolved in your mouth.
12.5) Cheese course (unpictured) -- because we felt that only 14 courses wouldn't be enough we added a cheese course. There was a brilliant selection including a rindwashed monstrosity that I recalled stinking out my whole flat a few years ago despite being in a tupperware container in the fridge (it was still able to make a smell detectable from the hallway after only a half day). What can I say, if you like cheese, they've got cheese.
13) Whisk(e)y wine gums -- this was my favourite dessert. Some years ago I got into my whisky (but never whiskey) and went to tasting sessions. These days I almost never drink it and could probably barely distinguish. However, the concept here is beautiful. Five "wine gums" are stuck to a map (mostly Scotland but also Tennessee to get Jack Daniels, a Tennessee Whiskey not a Bourbon as many people believe). You peel each off the map in turn and let them dissolve on their tongue. While a whisky purist might sneer I genuinely think I could have placed the Laphroaig (always a favourite of mine) and probably the Jack Daniels (never a favourite of mine). Highland Park had its distinctive creaminess which I also remember well from my whisky days. This was an absolute delight and we couldn't help giggling despite disagreeing on whether to eat them in numeric order (Caron's choice) or "nicest last" (mine). We compromised on numeric. I'd have preferred to end on Laphroaig but Caron hates that and we wanted to be tasting the same one at the same time. This course made us giggle.
14) "Like a Kid in a sweet shop" -- to go home you get a candy stripe sweet shop bag of goodies. This includes "Aerated chocolate" (lovely taste but not that exciting), "Coconut baccy" (tobacco infused coconut shavings which look like rolling tobacco -- lovely if you like coconut), "Apple pie caramel" (which you eat with the wrapper on and it tastes divine) and "the queen of hearts" (an edible playing card in an envelope with an edible seal -- I have no idea by what magic this is made as the picture does not appear to be an edible transfer. Caron: "How did you know the seal was edible?" Me: "I ate it." Caron: "!")
Overall would I recommend it (bearing in mind I wasn't paying and can't afford it)? Absolutely, yes, but with many qualifications. If you're the type of person who regularly goes "I don't like that" about food you're not going to enjoy this too much. It's an experience of unusual flavour combinations not all of which you will necessarily like. The menu doesn't "play safe" by giving something that everyone will like. They will cater to all your food quirks for sure but you may feel you're not getting what you're meant to be getting -- you will still receive a printed menu of what you ate on the day (specially printed for you) but occasionally it was clear that the vegetarian version was a "copy" not the real meal. In many ways this is not laziness but simply a hard problem to avoid, the tasting menu is a particular journey, there are fourteen courses you are meant to be eating in a particular order. If you have to take another path because you don't eat (or like) a particular food then it's always going to seem like a side road and I don't see a way around this apart from making all the food inoffensive to any taste (which would ruin it for everyone). On occasion, the theatre went ahead of the taste. I am glad because I was there for the fun, the theatre and the spectacle of it, many people can make things that really taste jolly good but you know, I can get that in loads of places. This meal feels more like an adventure than simply an attempt to consume pleasant taste sensations and, for a special occasion, that's quite definitely how I prefer it.