Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Fat Duck

It's not really the kind of place that needs a jokey headline, or much of an introduction. But it does make a rather worthy subject for my 100th post (yay!).

We planned the trip for months in advance, the booking line on speed dial for The Day Three Months before THE Day (they take bookings up to three months in advance), credit cards at the ready.

A rather unglamorous train trip from Paddington to Maidenhead, followed by a £5 taxi ride and we were standing on a narrow pavement outside an unassuming white washed, centuries old house. Inside, it was all white walls and tablecloths, sparkling glasses and dark wooden beams. The clientele was a mix of those for whom this was clearly a special occasion and those who looked they could afford to become regulars. There was a slight awe in the air, but it wasn't a stuffy, must-wear-jacket-and-tie kind of place.

We decided to go the whole hog -- aperitifs of champagne (we didn't like to ask how much, but the bill shows up about £17 a glass), the tasting menu (£115) and the accompanying wine selection (£90). I wanted to ask for tap water, but was over-ruled, so we had the £3.50 bottled stuff instead. All in all, it added up to about £250 a head. But was it worth it?...

At the end of the meal you each get an envelope of posh, strokeable paper with a Fat Duck seal, a copy of the menu concealed inside. So even though I've put off writing the review for months -- overwhelmed by the task -- I can tell you exactly what we had.

It started with nitro-green tea and lime mousse . The waitress produced a little blob, not dissimilar in appearance to hair mousse, out of an old-fashioned looking metal dispenser. She then zapped it with liquid nitrogen and told us to put the whole thing in the mouth in one go. On the tongue, it had a crunchy, frozen shell and then melted into lemony, liquidy refreshness.

A single oyster was served in its shell with passion fruit jelly and lavender , the textures matching nicely to create a slightly sweet, slithery, but not unpleasant sensation.

The pommery grain mustard ice cream was served a small, creamy coloured blob in a large white bowl, with the red cabbage gazpazcho added a little later in keeping with the theatricality of the place.

The parade of appetisers also featured jelly of quail, langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras before culminating in a three-way experience of the forest. A wooden tray of oak moss was placed on the table and "watered" with dry ice to produce clouds of foresty, mossy mist. We inhaled this while treating our taste buds to a tiny, earthy square of truffle toast and a sliver of moss jelly served in a little plastic box and eaten by letting it dissolve on your tongue. All that was accompanied by a German white, 2005 Iphofer Kronsberg Silvaner Spatlese Trocken (though I don't remember it tasting of celeriac!)

But even though the portions are tiny, this is certainly not a place you leave huyngry. Firstly, the dishes are numerous (including the appetisers, we counted 18!) and secondly throughout the meal, you can choose from a tasty bread basket selection.

Next came one of the Fat Duck's signature dishes, snail porridge. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but of all the dishes, this was the one that disappointed me most. It actually consisted of some normal-tasting porridge (though, to be fair it an unnatural shade of green), topped with normal, de-shelled snails and decorated with Joselito ham and shaved fennel and washed down with a glass of red, the 2004 Vin de Pays des Cote Catalanes, Le Soula, G. Gauby, Roussilon.

Then, to show that even molecular gastronomes aren't averse to using top-end ingredients, came the luxuriously creamy roast foie gras, served on plate decorated with streaks of cherry and chamomile sauces and tiny cubes of almond fluid gel. I was unconvinced by the jelly, though the Husband (generally a bigger fan of nursery food!) complemented it for the strong flavour. The 2003 Vinoptima Gewurtzraminder Reserve from Gisborne in New Zealand was a surprisingly nice accompaniment, considering that I don't like sweet wines.

Next another much-written-about dish. The "Sound of the sea" came accompanied by a tiny little ipod, hidden in a conch shell and programmed with swooshy sea sounds. The dish itself looked like a pebbly beach, topped with some foam and some things that may have been sea weed or sea creatures, and matched with a pungent, maritime smell. While I was not convinced by the flavours, you certainly couldn't fault it as a recreation of the sea for all the senses. It was served with Rashiku Junmai sake, which apparently has similar flavour characteristics to a Sauvignon blanc.

Salmon poached with liquorice featured a delicately flavoured (cooked sous vide?) piece of salmon, encased in sticky, sickly brown coating of (admittedly relatively mild flavoured) liquorice. It was served with two rather gorgeous spears of asparagus on streaks of vanilla mayonnaise and Manni olive oil , the latter fittingly created as part of a science project! Whether you enjoyed the dish or not I think boiled down to which side of the fence you are with regards to liquorish. The glass was topped up with 2001 Quinta da Falorca Reserva from Dao in Portugal.

Next was the Ballotine of Anjou pigeon with a very bloody black pudding, Chinese pigeon cracker, picking brine and spiced juices and a glass of gutsy 1999 Barolo from Piedmont.

The hot and iced tea was a truly amazing feat of science. The left half the cup of lemony, black, slightly sweet, slightly solidified liquid was hot. And the right half was ice-cold. You could feel the divide on your lips as it slipped down. Another one to file under "how the heck did he do that?!".

Then it was time for some rosy-coloured British nostalgia, a concept which in my mind is always illustrated by idyllic images of the British seaside and those mildly smutty seaside postcards circa 1950s. Mrs Marshall's Margeret cornet was a dinky little ice cream cone accompanied by a little leaflet. From there, we learnt that the rather pretty looking Agnes Bertha Marshall may have invented the edible ice cream cone back in 1886 and who suggested making ice cream using liquid gas more than a century ago.

The Pine-sherbet fountain was just a cute hark back to childhood, not dissimilar to those sugar fixes from the local corner shop of old.

The Mango and Douglas fir puree, Bavarois of lyche and mango, blackcurrant sorbet looked very pretty was ultimately a bit forgettable, but luckily its accompanying beverage was not. The 2003 Icewine from Pelee Island Winery, Ontario was for me the most bizarre thing on the drinks list -- they make wine in Canada?? Icewine, I discover is actually made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine, so perhaps it's ideally suited for cold climes. It was sweet, but clean and refreshing tasting, though that could have just been a psychological reaction to the word "ice" in the name.

The Carrot and orange tuile came as an odd-looking crispy lollypop, contrasted with a cube of beetroot jelly.

The Parsnip cereal came in a cute little pale green cereal box with the Fat Duck logo, and looked a bit like cornflakes. It came with parsnip milk.

The Nitro scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, pain perdu and tea jelly was truly amazing. The waitress came up with one of those shaped cardboard egg boxes, full of whole-looking egg shells into which they had cunningly put the egg and bacon ice cream mix. She then cracked the eggs into a shiny copper saucepan and zapped them with the nitrogen into ice cream. It tasted nice too - a luxurious take on breakfast in the middle of a very extravagant lunch. The accompaniment was a sweet, fruity glass of 2004 Jurancon, Uroulat, C. Hours, France.

We just about had room for the Whisky wine gums, violet tartlet before stumbling out into the daylight, about four hours after we first went in! And the verdict? Well worth the money (though probably as a once-in-a-lifetime treat).

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