I left my third meal at The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, somewhat the poorer financially but with such strong memories of what proved to be not only the best meal I have ever enjoyed there but probably the most exciting meal I have ever eaten.
And I can still enjoy four tangible memories of the four hours we spent at the table.
The first is the bag of sweets that you choose from an intricate sweet trolley that is wheeled to your table at the end of the meal as your appetite is definitely flagging. (This and all other photos courtesy of John Carey.)
The second comprises two boxes of cereal, Brisk Bites and Quispy Quackers. These are not commercially available despite being served wrapped like a Variety Pack (above right), as the second course of an itinerary called ‘Morning: Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time’. On the side of the package are listed these ingredients: Adventure, Discovery, Playfulness, Curiosity, Memories of childhood and some flavouring. These descriptors seem to sum up Blumenthal’s whole approach to hospitality, cooking and the overall design he has in mind for his customers.
The journey began at 7 pm as we were let in and stood in the mirrored vestibule. Here a young waitress, dressed rather primly in a white top and brown skirt, welcomed us and handed me, as the host, a folded-up copy of the menu that was also to come home with me. Once shown to our table, I was also handed a personalised magnifying glass that stood on three duck’s feet for reading the small print that listed each course’s ingredients.
The current interior of the restaurant, as well as the duration of the journey Blumenthal leads you on, are manifestations of the direction he himself has been travelling along since he first opened here in 1995. After closing, and taking his team to Melbourne in Australia for six months, Blumenthal returned in October 2015 to a highly prestigious setting in which particular emphasis has been given to state-of-the-art kitchens, and a transformation of two elements of the customer experience normally beyond any chef’s influence. The first is the lighting above each table, which here is controlled via a time switch that changes from simulating night to day, and the ultra-comfortable, leather swivel chairs reminiscent of those in a sports coupé, specially manufactured in Italy.
Added to this is Blumenthal’s philosophical approach to food, that what we best remember as adults is derived from our memories as children. Hence the journey itself; the map that unfolds from the menu with the seven different headings clearly delineated; and the behaviour of the waiting staff, whose roles switch from their normal one to that of benevolent parents. Those expecting a conventional restaurant experience will be disappointed but my advice is to go along for the ride.
The third memory is the meal itself. We began quite gently, with a beetroot macaroon with a creamy horseradish centre. What followed was the first of Blumenthal’s trademark creations, as a waitress wheeled a trolley towards our table that contained liquid nitrogen and created from it a concoction with the strong tastes of the cocktail each of us requested, whether of Campari, vodka and lime or a Pina Colada.
With the clock on our menu-map now showing just before 8 am, there came a clever dish of a small, clear, plastic cup of rabbit velouté, in which one half was served hot, the other cool (explained to the table by our waiter as the result of the cup having a divide fitted in the kitchen that was lifted out just before the cups were delivered). This was followed by our encounter with the cereals, served with a ‘milk’ that had overtones of bacon under the heading ‘Why do I have to choose between a Variety Pack and a Full English?’
These encounters with the Blumenthal of old continued with his extraordinary dish, ‘The Sound of The Sea’, an edible seafront of small pieces of mackerel and kingfish on a bed of tapioca, eaten while listening to an iPod of gentle surf, followed by his complex but elegant Mock Turtle soup. Between them came two ice lollies, one of salmon and avocado the other of crab and passion fruit, before what was possibly the most imaginative new dish. Headed ‘Then We Went Rockpooling’, a dark brown cast of a rock pool was put in front of each of us with the shell of a crab in it. On to this was poured a velouté of white chocolate and sea vegetables that broke the crab’s shell and was surprisingly successful.
It was just after 9 pm that ‘dinner’ was served, the details of which were revealed on a briefer, separate menu. That was the fourth piece of paper. Two weeks before our booking, I had had an email correspondence with the restaurant in which they had asked for my, and my guests’, childhood experiences. Being English, our responses were muted so the restaurant decided to take the initiative and served dishes from our previous visit. These included Blumenthal’s famous orange and beetroot jelly; a lasagne of langoustines; and as dessert, ‘botrytis cinerea’, the edible replication of a plate of grapes attacked by noble rot.
All of which, including sommelier Isa Bal’s wine recommendations, made for an extraordinary night out.
The Fat Duck High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ; tel +44 (0)1628-580333.
Menu £225 per person. Isa Bal’s wine pairings an additional £155 per person. The bill was the fourth memory.