Snail porridge? Parsnip cornflakes? Bacon-and-eggs-flavoured ice cream? British food sounds more disgusting than ever, and people are flocking from around the world to try it. The Fat Duck, a small restaurant a few kilometres from Heathrow airport in the village of Bray, has been enticing a steady stream of adventurous diners across the Atlantic.
Some make it part of a business trip or a vacation, others drop by on a tour of the top restaurants in Europe. Some even make the trip specially. As one diner (writing on a website ) put it, "My friend and I flew in from the States just for dinner at the Fat Duck. We could have saved money on our return flight and just flew home on the pure joy the whole experience filled us with."
They come to eat salmon coated in licorice jelly, sardines-on-toast sorbet, red-cabbage gazpacho and chocolate dessert with popping candy (that sugary delight rarely enjoyed by anyone past the age of 12).
In short, they're some of the most unusual dishes ever to appear on a British menu. But The Fat Duck has received the highest honour a restaurant can get: three stars in the Michelin Guide. It won the third star in January of this year and it's one of only three restaurants in the United Kingdom to have this distinction. (The others are Gordon Ramsay's in Chelsea, and The Waterside Inn, run by Michel Roux, which is also in Bray.) The Fat Duck has also been named the top restaurant in Europe -- and No. 2 in the world (second only to French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif.) -- by Restaurant magazine.
The establishment is run by a largely self-taught chef, 38-year-old Heston Blumenthal. His public profile seems almost non-existent beside the pack of British celebrity chefs who are a constant presence on TV screens, such as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.
A father of three, Blumenthal taught himself to cook while working as a debt collector and photocopier salesman. He opened the restaurant in 1995, building a reputation on serving traditional French food -- steak and chips with bordelaise sauce, or rillettes (a rich pâté) of salmon, before branching out into an exploration of the most outré gastronomy.
Among the more daring class of diner, his food is spoken about in hushed tones. His methods challenge the inherited traditions of cooking, taking a scientific approach on how the brain perceives flavours and how food behaves when it's cooked. It's a philosophy he calls "molecular gastronomy."
This is illustrated by his search for the perfect French fry. How do you get the perfect crunchy, golden outside and fluffy white interior? He tried various unlikely techniques, such as drying the potato chips with a special machine called a desiccator, or perforating each one 25 times with a pin (even he dismissed that as too elaborate). Eventually, he settled on a complex three-stage process: boiling them, then frying them twice at two different temperatures. And how do they taste? According to The Observer newspaper critic Jay Rayner, "The best, most luscious chips" he had ever sampled.
Likewise, the bizarre flavour combinations aren't just random. Things often taste good together because they have a similar chemical makeup, even if they sound like a strange mix. So the menu mixes white chocolate and caviar, or licorice and asparagus. It may sounds odd, but it makes sense on the tongue.
And the psychology of food at Fat Duck is just as important as the chemistry. Some of the dishes play games with the diner's expectations, and how they affect the taste of something.
Even the same mouthful can taste radically different if your expectations change halfway through.
For instance, snail porridge sounds like a deliberately disgusting joke. But if you've paid $70 for it in a top-end restaurant, you're much more likely to enjoy it.
The Fat Duck's cooking is full of perception jokes. One of the starters consists of two little blocks of jelly, one flavoured orange, one beetroot, one orange coloured, and one beetroot coloured. Of course, the orange one actually tastes of . . . well, I won't spoil the surprise. Let's just say that when an ice-cream cone later arrives that tastes of nothing stranger than old-fashioned Victorian-style ice cream, it's the biggest surprise of all.
Blumenthal also believes that hearing is the "forgotten sense" in eating, and that sound accentuates his customers' gastronomic appreciation. Customers can now request a special set of headphones and a microphone that pick up every crunch and slurp.
The Fat Duck isn't the only restaurant exploring new gastronomic frontiers. El Bulli, in the countryside near Barcelona, has been exploring similar territory for some years, and the two are often compared. Run by Ferran Adria, El Bulli is only open half the year. The chefs spend the rest of the year researching new dishes.