One of the highlights of my recent trip to England was a meal at The Fat Duck outside London in the tiny hamlet of Bray. Considered one of the top restaurants in the world, the Duck not only lived up to its reputation, it exceeded it.
Chef and owner Heston Blumenthal has created truly unusual flavor pairings and a playful dining experience akin to a Post doctoral thesis on the art of eating. Memory is one of the key elements to his thesis. A number of creations were reminiscent of childhood favorites, like the Nitro Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream as a dessert. The sweet and salty maple syrup and bacon combined with the custardy texture of egg ice cream is a transporting experience that took me back to those carefree nights in my youth when we had breakfast for dinner.
We were presented with a raw oyster with horseradish and passionfruit jelly, a snail porridge, and a parsnip breakfast cereal, like “Special K”, with parsnip milk. These were just a few dishes which challenged your notion of what sounds like it would taste good. And they all were delicious. A large white plate with two tiny, precisely crafted, colored squares-one red, one orange-that seemed minimalist against the large white plate. We looked to our waiter for guidance. “Monsieur, madame. These are Orange and Beetroot Jellies. May I suggest you begin with the orange…” The orange colored one tastes of beetroot and the deep beet red purple jelly of orange. Surprise!
As Blumenthal says in his beautiful cookbook, “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook”, “This is meant to be fun.
The food at the Fat duck must taste delicious-that’s the guiding principle-but I don’t see why a dish can’t also engage the emotions, provoking curiosity, amusement or even a childlike sense of wonder.
So with the jellies there is the bathos of size: the excitement of the menu with its mouthwatering ingredients, the waiter’s grey-suited gravitas, the delicate, handcrafted tableware-all devoted to the peerless presentation of…two miniscule morsels of food. And there’s the color swap, with its playful sabotage of expectations. It’s a marvelous moment-the realisation that things are not what they seem.” And later, on the inspiration for the jellies, “this poorly policed border between fruit and veg seemed to have potential.” And of course, the jellies tapped into memory, as well: “Nostalgia, for example, has a huge influence on how we approach a dish. It’s possible that the jellies’ charm draws on memories of childhood…made all the more potent in the unlikely context of a three-star restaurant.” (p.140)
Also employed are the pairing of scientific terminology with classic food names: roast foie gras ‘benzaldehyde’, nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse, ballotine of mackerel invertebrate, onion and thyme fluid gel, the above mentioned nitro-scrambled egg, and ice-filtered lamb jelly. The fusion of modern science and classic menu items was nicely juxtaposed, much like the IM Pei’s massive glass pyramid set in the heart of the classical beauty of the Louvre’s courtyard in Paris. A much talked about dish, “The Sound of the Sea”, is served with an Ipod nano in a conch shell. You are instructed to put on the headphones and listen to, yes, the sound of the ocean crashing on the shore and seagulls cawing in the distance. Does the sound affect the flavors of the fresh oyster, razor clam and seaweed on the glass platter? I think it does. It’s certainly a fun experiment and sets your focus squarely on the dish in front of you.
These dishes were matched perfectly with an Austrian riesling from Nikolaihof, the profoundly focused 2004 Steiner Hund Reserve for 75 pounds. For red I selected a 2002 Pommard “Premier Cru” Burgundy from Comte Armand which was delicious for 140 pounds. The list is a heavy 53 page tome, and full of the big names from France and Italy. Bargains are hard to find, but that wasn’t really the point here at the Duck. I tend to resist wine pairings for long tasting menus, although I’m sure the Duck’s was inventive. They were on to using sakes which was a good sign. The food was so original, however, that I didn’t think we needed to be distracted by a sommelier prancing around like Martin Short’s “Ed Grimley” character from SCTV, I must say.