- to use the following words as many times as possible in the review: Willy Wonka, mad professor, wizard, alchemy, second coming etc
- to prostrate oneself at the temple of Heston and gush like the lives of your loved ones depend on it.
We'll certainly avoid the first here and seek to avoid the latter though up front, I'm prepared to say that this was a very good meal indeed, I have no hesitation in recommending it to all and sundry, am glad I went and will certainly go back. At this conclusion, I admit to being a little surprised with myself but contrarian views for the sake of it are only ever pointless.
My initial reservations centred around the idea that I was already too familiar with the offering without having even eaten there. I'd seen the TV programmes, read the books and stopped only short of buying the T-shirt. How can I squeal with delight when I already know that it's not an orange but in fact a chicken liver parfait?
What's more, triple cooked chips are now widely available across the country and even Heston's special brand can be sampled in The Hinds Head pub in Bray while Tafferty Tart has been on the menu at The Fat Duck for something like three years now.
Finally, I'm wary that Dinner as a walk through British culinary history is at best a gimmick and at worst a liability. Consider, the main course of Cod in Cider is dated as c1940 so that a mere 70 years on from its first appearance on menus, it was until now both obsolete in homes and restaurants and no one's cherished fish dish from childhood. Put another way, within a generation of its first appearance, the good folk of ye olde England had stopped making and eating this dish despite no shortage of cod or cider with the only reasonable explanation for this being that they never really liked it in the first place. Why then revive it? I wonder if three centuries from now in the year 2350, Britain's then leading chef will unveil 'pukka risotto' (c2011) with a bibliography on the back of the menu sourcing the dish as 'Jamie's 30 Minute Meals' to much cooing?
Whatever reservations you might have on entering, how though can you not order the Meat Fruit? Here's where I started to change my mind. Despite it all and despite knowing the tricks, the twists and the turns, when they set it down in front of you you can't help but be impressed. The accurate representation of a mandarin has to be admired as a simulacrum (c1600) and a thing of beauty. So much so that as you take the knife to it, your brain is already registering the force needed to cut through it with a knife as if it were an orange but then it simply glides through the parfait so mocking you that you fell for this sleight of hand, despite knowing that it's practical joke from the very start. It's a highlight of the meal.
All were fine dishes though all much closer to normal restaurant fare, or should that be the pseudo-archaic fayre? Broth of lamb is something that will be more familiar to most than Salamagundy and I wonder if Heinz have missed a trick in not marketing their own Big Soup Lamb and Vegetable with similar historic reference for added selling power. The slow cooked hens egg is we assume prepared sous vide and we wonder how they kept the water baths at constant temperature back in George II day. Joking aside, the egg bursts wonderfully into the broth and the dish works well.
In contrast to the winter warmth of the broth, the scallop dish is quite literally as cool as a cucumber sitting as it does in its own cucumber ketchup. Here's where I think Dinner hits another snag though, this is distinctly a summer dish and it is easy to imagine come June sitting on the terrace overlooking Hyde Park and enjoying this dish with a suitably chilled Chablis. Its presence on the menu in February however strongly implies that seasonal menus will not be a feature of Dinner which cares only to ground its food in history rather than suitability. It's good but it's the wrong dish for winter and the lamb broth, unlikely to disappear any time soon, will similarly be the wrong dish for summer.
Salamagundy meanwhile continues to score high on taste with the bone marrow wonderfully complimentary to the chicken oysters but when it comes to plating, it looks chaotic and unsure
Before Heston became the gastro time traveller he is today, he did the TV show and book In Search of Perfection where amongst other things he went in search of the perfect steak. His chosen cattle breed for the purpose was Longhorn since it 'had it all for me... the oldest pure breed of cattle in England had come up with the goods'. Slow cooking for about 20-30 hours was then sufficient to give him the perfect steak. Scaling considerations may apply for here he has to prepare the dish on an industrial scale but again, does his bondage to historic recipes deny us Heston's absolutely perfect steak per his own previous words? Given the choice, I'd rather ditch history and go with perfection.
Cod in cider has had little if any attention in reviews of Dinner and was worth ordering on that basis alone. A good piece of fish well cooked but it was the one dish that as we ate, it failed to elicit any real comment between us (my dining companion for the meal being Twitter foodie @manne) and we both felt it was a plate that could have originated in any decent professional kitchen and go unnoticed in any of them.
Chocolate Bar with passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream followed. While the chocolate bar alone was excessively chocolately and the ginger ice cream slightly strange with an edge to it that was at first off putting, together they sang in harmony. Nevertheless, so rich a dessert was it that it was something of a challenge to finish even when sharing between two a single portion.
Finally, Brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel malted yeast syrup; quite a mouthful in every sense. It delivered not only the brown bread flavours but the dry slightly course texture of brown bread also and we both wondered if some things are just not meant to be made into ice cream. An ancient and historical recipe maybe but again, I would suggest that there's a reason why Ben & Jerry's have not travelled the brown bread road but instead favour Chunky Monkey.
We did though have a chance to look into the private dining room which is beautifully crafted and will no doubt be booked up as fiercely as the individual tables are. The chef's table, less sumptuous than the private dining room of course, will still undoubtedly offer huge appeal though with the kitchen behind glass, most diners will still feel much closer to the action than they've ever been.
One disappointment however was the wine list simply because the mark up is so high: you'd struggle for example to get a bottle of Bordeaux much below £100 while even for middling classified growths you're looking at hundreds.
While I leave the restaurant changed in my view about how good an experience Dinner can offer, I am unchanged in the view that grounding it so forcefully in historical dishes may yet prove a liability. That said, they market lamb broth with a sous vide egg as c1730 so I guess they've given themselves enough wiggle room to get away with most things and who's to blame them for a gimmick or two. Happy diners are also likely to overlook incongruous seasonal menu offerings though I wouldn't place huge bets on the menu changing that much even over a period of years (but I hope I'm wrong).
But credit where credit's due, in the face of overwhelming expectation for a restaurant that was never meant to be Fat Duck 2, this is a genuinely exciting offering that deserves praise and is most definitely worth a visit.
Related posts: The Fat Duck
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