The Fat Duck
High Street, Bray, Berkshire, United Kingdom, 44-01628-580-333, . Reservations accepted two months in advance. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $630.
Every girl harbours some desire to be a princess. I always have. If I were to wake up tomorrow a princess (fairy or otherwise), it would be in London, at the Ritz, where marble and gilding banish the ordinary, where my wish is their command, where we breakfast under a frescoed dome with statues in marble niches. For the icing on the cake, I would take the train to Bray for dinner.
Heston Blumenthal is a British country boy who worked in office equipment until he was 29, was never trained as a chef, and worked for one week in a restaurant kitchen before opening the Fat Duck in 1995. Michelin gave him the coveted third star in 2004, Gault Millau awarded him a stellar 19 out of 20, he was named to the Order of the British Empire, and last year Restaurant Magazine called the Fat Duck the best resto in the world.
Cynics make fun of Blumenthal's famous snail porridge and his "sardine on toast" sorbet. Little do they understand. A pilgrimage is necessary in order to get it.
We schlep from London to Bray (an hour by taxi and train), ready to scoff at the kitchen acrobatics. The first surprise is the maître d', who introduces himself, shaking everyone's hands. This is not normal three-star hauteur. Which, he explains, is part of their mission -- to break down the intimidating formality of fine dining. The second surprise is the card on the table labelled "Nostalgic Foods." It reads: "No stone should be left unturned in the quest for a childhood flavour hit," and asks us to list our favourite childhood memory foods.
A server brings a vat of smoking liquid nitrogen and a seltzer bottle. "In the bottle, I have meringue of green tea, lime and vodka," he explains. "Green tea to open the pores of the palate, lime to stimulate the taste buds and vodka to cleanse." He squirts raw meringue onto a spoon, stirs it briefly in the liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees) and says to put it in my mouth at once, whole. The ball explodes, barely crisped on the outside, a phantasm of wet contrasts inside.
Then comes a local oyster atop horseradish cream and scintillating passion-fruit jelly, with a tiny, transparent lavender tuile. Then a small scoop of seedy mustard ice cream (!!) in a pool of red cabbage gazpacho (!!). This crazy combo is sweet, hot, with a velvet tang holding it together like a dream.
A server explains that Blumenthal works with chemists to invent techniques to draw out the essence of flavours, to discover which foods awaken similar receptors among our 10,000 taste buds, and therefore combine in magical ways. Like Picasso with painting, he refuses classic cooking assumptions, takes things apart and puts them together in new ways. (For this he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Reading last year.)
Out of this alchemy comes snail porridge. We see green oatmeal under snails, julienned Spanish ham and marinated fennel. Why? Chef deconstructed traditional snails with garlic butter and uncorked history (snails were traditionally cleaned by having them digest a bed of oatmeal). The green porridge is "risotto" of oats with chicken stock, garlic butter and parsley, a heavenly marriage.
Conventional kitchen wisdom holds that meat and fish are seared at high temp to seal in flavour and juices. When Blumenthal opened the Fat Duck, he served steak 'n' chips to survive and turned the kitchen into a laboratory to experiment with his chemist helpers. They knew proteins in meat and fish retained their moisture (and hence flavour) better if cooked slowly at low temp, and they took that knowledge all the way. Nothing is sautéed here, no grill is employed.
So we get slow-roasted foie gras. But first our server hands us a small plastic box labelled "Fat Duck Films." He tells us to put the small transparent "film" it contains on my tongue, where it melts. "Essence of oak," he says. "It has the same taste receptors as foie gras." With the perfect foie gras is barely sweet almond gel, cherry purée and three tiny cubes of amaretto jelly (almond flavour). The cherry and almond flavours are twins, the result divine.
Up next is sardine-on-toast sorbet, the ultimate example of edible homage to childhood treats. They start with canned sardines and white bread, and by sorcery turn them into silken sorbet. It's unimaginable that such a travesty ofgastronomy should taste so great. We ask our waiter why this dish. "Sometimes you have to go back to go forward."
Is Blumenthal an avant-garde genius? Taste his salmon poached at low temperature in licorice jelly and dare to disagree. Or his slow-cooked ruby red French pigeon breast, its leg confit with sweet spices in puff pastry, surrounded by a moat of onion and thyme foam with candied pistachios.
Blumenthal loves to intensify flavours and play games with the palate. The waiter sets down a crystal shot glass and says, "Please confirm that this is cinnamon vanilla ice cream." I taste and concur. He then proffers two plastic squeeze bottles, one filled with cinnamon sticks, one with vanilla beans. He tells us to squeeze and inhale one repeatedly, then taste the ice cream. After inhaling vanilla, the ice cream has no vanilla taste, and so with cinnamon. It's a play on the psychology of flavour.
As is the small box of "Fat Duck Cereal," containing sweet parsnip "flakes" to be eaten in a bowl of milk. And the small cardboard cylinder filled with powder of pure vanilla essence, another "memory food," this time of the penny candy we called Fun Dip.
And the meal's grand finale: smoked bacon and egg ice cream! The maître d' brings a trolley tableside with eggs and a frying pan atop a chafing dish. "How do you like your eggs?" he asks. He then breaks an egg into the frying pan, squirts in liquid nitrogen and stirs with a wooden spoon while smoke rises. "They're cooked" he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "It's a proper English breakfast. I should have served it to you at the beginning. I'm sorry." Why shouldn't grand gastronomy have a sense of humour? Until Blumenthal, it hasn't. It's about time somebody lightened up the proceedings.
The "eggs" are indeed bacon-and-egg-flavoured ice cream -- mysteriously, improbably delicious. Why? Because they go together? Nostalgia? Chemistry? The waiter explains the how: They empty out the egg, infuse milk with bacon, and use the milk to make a custard, which is overcooked on purpose in order to scramble the egg. They then purée the custard, strain it, and put it back in the apparently intact eggshell. The waiter then freezes it tableside with liquid nitrogen.
Under the ice cream was yummy "ketchup" (sweet tomato confit), beside it fab French toast with brûlée carapace, and caramel spread topped with tiny morels. A proper English breakfast turned upside down by molecular gastronomy. Alice fell through the looking glass at the Fat Duck, but she landed on her feet, at the most delicious tea party under the sun.
Correction: Houston Steaks and Ribs is not part of the U.S. chain of Houston's restaurants, owned by Hillstone Restaurants. It is part of a Quebec-based chain.