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.
A typical meal lasts around 30 courses ranging from improbable delights such as vegetable jellies or freeze-dried foie gras with consommé and tamarind, as well as versions of more classic dishes such as risotto à la Milanese.
Together, El Bulli and The Fat Duck have started a trend in European food, as other restaurants follow up their ideas. I recently ate at a restaurant in Granada, Spain, where the starter was a trio of different gazpachos with contrasting ice creams floating in them, an unmistakable Bulli influence. And Midsummer House, near Cambridge, has even been nicknamed the Fat Duckling.
Midsummer House is run by Daniel Clifford, who gives his diners a leaflet describing his intent, and crediting his influences, including Adria and Blumenthal. The dishes credit his inspirations too -- popping candy shows up in a banana pudding, for example, or pink grapefruit and champagne foam. It has had some good reviews, but it has some way to go before reaching the stature of The Fat Duck, or winning three Michelin stars.
The restaurant itself is quietly unspectacular. Bray is a neat, well-preserved village, with a pleasant green, a few half-timbered Tudor-style buildings and not much else. It's the kind of place directors might shoot 1930s period dramas. The restaurant is in a low-ceilinged room, decorated with some frankly rather unpleasant abstract oil paintings, predominantly a kind of greasy yellow.
Forget the surroundings, though -- you're only here for one thing, the food. (And Blumenthal's menus aren't just about strange but tasty amalgamations. He recently acquired the lease on a pub across the road from The Fat Duck, which is expected to open this month and will serve traditional British food such as ham and pea soup and steak and chips.)
But however creative and stimulating the thinking behind the food is, it's worth it only if it tastes good. I visited it for the first time this past summer with high expectations, and it didn't disappoint.
Some dishes, such as the parsnip cornflakes, were interesting, rather than actually pleasant. The best dishes, however, were sublime. A veal sweetbread in a pollen crust was delicious. In one dessert, a combination of bacon-and-eggs ice cream, sweet toast and tomato jam assembled in homage to the English breakfast, the different flavours fitted so perfectly together that the effect was astonishing.
For all this culinary creativity, the most delicious thing on The Fat Duck's menu for me was the unpasteurized butter served with the bread. This was how butter used to taste, I imagine, before industrial farming took half the flavour away. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.
Sorry, Heston, but for all your scientific wizardry and Michelin stars, even you can't improve on the simple fruits of mother nature.
Pack your bags
The Fat Duck: High Street, Bray Berkshire, England; 44 (1628) 580 333; fatduck.co.uk. Hours: Tuesday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; open till 10 p.m. on Saturday and from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Monday. To get there from London, you can take a 50-minute train ride from Paddington Station to Maidenhead. A cab from Maidenhead costs about $11. A taxi from Heathrow would cost about $114.
The tasting menu covers more Fat Duck specialties -- from egg whites frozen in liquid nitrogen to leather-flavoured chocolates. It costs $205 a person. A selection of wines costs $114. The Fat Duck also has a simpler, less exotic three-course à la carte menu for $148, and an even cheaper $80 du jour menu. Or you can cook some of his dishes yourself. Consult Heston Blumenthal's weekly column on the website of the Guardian newspaper: . Look out, though -- they're not easy.
MORE UNUSUAL DINING
El Bulli: Cala Montjoi Roses, Girona, Spain; 34 (972) 150 457; elbulli.com. El Bulli's Ferran Adria has been dubbed the Dali of cooking. A degustation menu, featuring 11 dishes and 25 tastes, can include openers such as "cracklings" of fish skin, pine nuts with caramelized beetroot, jellies and foams. More substantial portions include exotica like sea-urchin ravioli, served with a sea-urchin jelly.
Midsummer House: Midsummer Common, Cambridge, England; . Sometimes referred to as the Fat Duckling because of its experimental cuisine, Midsummer House offers unusual pairings such as roast foie gras with smoked eel and pot roast pigeon with cumin caramel.
Bikki: 736-738 Bellefonte St., Shadyside, Pa.; (412) 683-5756. Consistently rated as one of the best restaurants in the Pittsburgh area Bikki offers Euro-Indian fusion cuisine: an unusual blend of European classics -- soufflés, paella, fish en papillote -- with Indian spices and ingredients including curryand garam masala.
Edna's Table, 204 Clarence St., Sydney, Australia; 61 (2) 9267-3933. Edna's serves up what could be called sophisticated bush tucker, an artful experimenting with the ingredients of traditional Aborigine cuisine. The degustation menu features dishes such as seared scallop prepared with lemon myrtle followed by a cheesefruit tartlet. Meat dishes include a grilled kangaroo fillet served with warm beetroot and kumera.