As a birthday present Thomas took me for lunch at Heston Blumenthal's three Michellin star restaurant in Bray. On one of the hottest days of the year we set off from London Paddington eager to see whether the food at one of the world's best eateries really would blow us away. I cannot justly explain how excited I was.
The train ride was awful, all too often on travels and culinary adventures I find I am scuppered by the inevitable failures of our nations transport networks. Once we arrived we breathed a breath of fresh air, literally fresh, it was such a beautiful day to get out of the city. Bray is a picture perfect little village with thatched roofed cottages galore, the perfect back drop for the much celebrated second best dining experience in the world.
When we arrived (early naturally!) we had a drink at The Hind's Head, a gin and tonic for me and a beer for Thomas. The pub (also run by Blumenthal) was great but today it was obviously all about the restaurant, we were seated in a window seat, shortly before 1pm and the fun began.
The small room, separated by a fireplace, is cosy, intimate and alive with activity, a gaggle of waiting staff flit around, all constantly aware of where they are needed and working in harmony. The service is excellent. We were offered water as soon as we sat down, opting for still (I don't think it's acceptable to ask for tap at a place like The Fat Duck, I certainly wasns't brave enough anyway).
June 30th was the final day that the à la carte menu was offered, July onwards it is tasting menu only. Having read the hilarious and somewhat shocking insider reports here from a fellow blogger we had already decided to order à la carte.
I challenge anyone to find the will power to decline the offer of the champagne cart. I certainly could not as it was wheeled over and we each had a glass of the Brut Reserve Taittinger which was amazingly smooth and drinkable. I've had this before but I swear it tasted better here! We were given some green olives to nibble on whilst perusing the menus.
Hefty as they are - it took us a while to get through them, the wine one in particular is a weighty leather bound beast. We selected a french Bordeaux which was fancily decanted into a bizarre looking glass pouring vessel, it was fragrant and full bodied, and we were regularly topped up throughout the meal.
Each course had 4 options to choose from, the maitre'd insisted we order all courses at once (I thought this was a bit odd, it's nice to consider your sweet after you've eaten the savoury courses, I suppose they require lengthy construction). In any case, to start I went for the crab biscuit with foie gras, seaweed and rhubarb. Each course was explained in detail by the waiter, so I knew that the star of this dish would be the fois gras, not the crab.
Before we got our starters though there were 2 of the tasting menu courses delivered to us which were spectacular. First up was the amuse bouche of red cabbage gazpacho served with a quenelle of pommery grain mustard ice cream.
This was a vibrant little red pool served in a large bowl with a small dip in the centre (this picture is all bowl, not all table!). The gazpacho was tasty and fragrant, they chefs have managed to retain the purity of both colour and taste of the red cabbage with none of the unpleasant odour that you usually get with the vegetable. There was a bed of finely diced shallot on which the pommery ice cream sat. This made me laugh. Blumenthal's signature dish being his savoury ice creams, I was sad to be missing out on the egg and bacon ice cream on the tasting menu. This was interesting in texture due to the seeds and certainly excited my tastebuds, I couldn't wait for the next installment.
We were offered bread on a regular basis but I was disappointed with the lack of variety. There was only white or brown in the basket however they were certainly livened up by the excellent welsh butter, slabs of both salted and non and the bread they do have (not made here I believe) is good quality. I had a few slices of brown.
Next came the rather explosive and slightly ridiculous jelly of quail with langoustine cream. This was presented in a white egg shaped bowl in which all that was visible was the cream and a dollop of chicken liver parfait but beneath which lurked the jelly and a layer of pea puree. The waiter instructed us to eat a sliver of paper (much like those wrigley fresh things that used to be free with magazines) which tasted of oak. As we allowed these to dissolve on our tongues he poured a liquid from a little kettle over the tray of grass which produced and a cloud of smoke that dramatically descended over the table in puffs. I'd conveniently failed to notice any of our fellow diners being served this course and so it came as a complete shock to me.
I was so excited that I actually neglected to take a picture of the dish, there was the egg and a small slice of truffle toast, with 3 teeny slices of radish and a little leaf on top. You can just about make out the eggs in the pic and a wooden board upon which the toast was served. The combination of the peas, the jelly, the parfait and the cream was the most 'alive' with flavour spoonful of food I have ever tasted.
Time for the starters, I thought Thomas' lasagne with pig’s trotter and truffle was the nicest by far and handily he liked mine so we swapped after the first few mouthfuls. I liked the flavours of the crab toasts and fois gras, it was especially interesting when eaten with a piece of the rhubarb but because the fois gras had been roasted the texture was not as smooth as I would have liked. I'm picking holes here really but I wanted to get my hands on the lasagne!
Thomas was happy with the exchange and loved the fois gras. I thought it was a generous chunk sandwiched between the toasts and it looked pretty. The lasagne was my winner though, weighing in with an £8 supplement. The langoustine were meaty and juicy and together with the pig's trotter sauce, again the taste really blew me away. Shavings of truffle were an added extravagance and this was a prime example of what you're paying for here, fine ingredients and molecular gastronomy.
So, I had only 2 mouthfuls (Thomas had eaten more than half of his) but what I had was really very special, delicate pasta sheets and a rich and thick meaty sauce in which to coat it.
For my main course I went for the duo of pot roasted pork loin and braised belly pork. This was sublime. The belly especially was meltingly soft and chewy, the perfect consistency, and this discs of loin were tender and full of flavour. The accompaniment with this dish was truffled gratin of pearled spelt which came in a small copper pot and was gloriously rich in flavour with a deep caramel colour. This was seriously good and the perfect enhancer for the pork. Again, Thomas preferred my choice and declared the pork belly one of the best things he's ever eaten but for me it was all about the spelt!
Shortly before the lamb main course came out Thomas was given a palate cleanser of ice filtered lamb jelly to prepare his tastebuds. The lamb itself was amazingly tender and served with some onion and thyme gel and a hotpot of lamb neck and sweetbread.
Again this was a faultless dish, the fluid gel provided a sweetness which offset the saltiness of the other ingredients. Another incredible combination exemplifing the abilities of the team of chefs to challenge traditional methods of preparation and cooking to deliver truly astonishing flavours.
Onto dessert, for me the macerated strawberries with black olive and leather puree and pistachio scrambled egg. It was the latter that which swayed my decision, I adore the flavour of pistachio. Here it's seen at the back in the egg shaped bowl.
This was really beautiful, each part adding something exquisite like the coriander seeds on top of each strawberry. Interestingly the waiter grated cheese over the strawberries in front of me which to my surprise worked very well. The strawberry wafer in the ice cream too was just perfect, there is such attention to detail. The pistachio egg was divine, my favourite part with raw pistachios on the top. It was smooth, warm and an ideal round off to the meal.
Thomas gave not a second thought to his choice of dessert, hailing from Bavaria he went for the B.F.G, black forest gateau. This was formed into a perfect stack and tasted pretty boozy, plenty of kirsch. There was also some kirsch ice cream and a small plastic atomizer to impart the smell of the black forest. This was sprayed liberally over Thomas' plate and in the air around us. Again, this was a nice touch, it can be seen here behind the plate.
At this point we thought espressos might be a good idea. The china in which they were served was beautiful. We were served a hot and iced tea, I think before the dessert but don't recall exactly, which was half and half in temperature, brilliantly the hot side went to the left of the mouth and the cold to the right, this was a great sensation. Following coffee I caught sight of the cheese trolley and we ordered cheese to share.
There were around 40 to choose from, I selected (clockwise from top) a camembert, a strong goatscheese and a welsh caerphilly and we had a good variety of crackers. The goatscheese was the best of the 3 and I was overwhelmed by the choice. I'd often prefer to have cheese instead of a dessert, but both is obviously the desirable option!
As a final treat the delectable petit fours, mandarin aerated chocolate (like an aero, good, but neither Thomas nor me are fans of orangey chocolate), and the violet and rose tartlets, were a triumph. Pretty and dealt with in one mouthful, I liked the rose tartlets the best, the pastry was so delicate, these were a perfect end to a wondeful meal.
Obviously I am unaccustomed to eating at such places and hence have little to compare it to but I would definitely visit again (for a special occasion naturally, this was a birthday meal after all, thank you Thomas) and I am keen to try the tasting menu. Everything we ate was incredible and more than lived up to my expectations. With Heston opening a restaurant here in London at the Mandarin Oriental in 2010, I'm sure he still has many ideas and tricks with which to wow and excite diners for some time yet. The Fat Duck will be left in the capable hands of Ashley Palmer-Watts, currently group executive chef.
The Fat Duck
High St Bray