The Fat Duck – fine dining, theatre and fun
For more years than we care to recall, we’ve tried to get a table at The Fat Duck. Indeed, on a previous visit to the UK, we stayed within tossing distance of the venerable establishment in Bray, but had to content ourselves with dinners at Heston Blumenthal’s local gastropubs, The Crown and the Hinds Head.
The Fat Duck is a small establishment. Tables get snapped up the moment bookings open. Even when it relocated to our home town of Melbourne a couple of years ago for a brief stint, we couldn’t get a look in.
This is essentially where it all began for Blumenthal, who put this small British village on the culinary map. For a prolonged period it was rated the number one restaurant in the world and, at the last World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony (in Melbourne), Blumenthal was honoured with a lifetime achievement award.
The head chef at the moment is Jonny Lake, a trusted Blumenthal lieutenant, presiding over the revamped 16th century cottage and ensuring it keeps its coveted three Michelin stars.
The Fat Duck runs on a ticket system. When you successfully make a booking, you’re required to pay the full £275 cost per person by credit card. This covers the food. On the day, you pay for the drinks you consume and a 12.5% service charge which is optional.
So it’s not an inexpensive gastronomic adventure, but when you see the effort and attention to detail that’s put in at The Fat Duck, you’ll understand why you should invest in this wonderful adventure.
A meal at The Fat Duck is referred to as ‘The Journey’. It all begins a month before your dining date when you’re asked to fill out a few questions about favourite childhood memories and any other reminisces you’d like to share. A couple of weeks before dining, you get a call from ‘the Storyteller’ – this is essentially the lead person from the wait staff who looks after you on the day.
Our Storyteller was Ryan, who’d also lived in Melbourne. He welcomed us on the day and promptly presented gluttonous husband with a birthday card – The Fat Duck meal kicks off the treats for a rather significant birthday. It was a classy start.
And so we settled in. We ordered a bottle of 2007 vintage Larmandier Bernier Vielle Vigne du Levant Extra Brut champagne. The Fat Duck is also very serious about wine – some of the wine pairings diners can select here are eye-wateringly expensive but we were quite content to sip our way through champagne, as is our custom when having a tasting menu – particularly one where we had no idea what we were about to eat.
On the table is a map, showing our ‘Journey’ – a lot of the imagery is in the style of Alice in Wonderland and this is no exception. The journey is in a number of stages, with details about the dishes in such small type, every table is provided with a large magnifying glass to be able to read it.
In the conversations we’d had with Ryan leading up to our meal, Greedy Girl indicated the only non-negotiable for her was beetroot. Notwithstanding the beetroot and tonka bean dessert at Gaggan just a few days earlier, she didn’t want to go there again. That wasn’t a problem, even though two dishes on the Journey contained beetroot, a substitute was found.
And as we paid attention to what other tables were having, we noted a range of dietary preferences and requirements. For the most part, each table had the same dishes but there were a few exceptions. Given we weren’t the first table to be seated, we got a preview of what was to come from other diners. It was a little bit of a downer – as the meal unfolded and the various gimmicks and props (all huge fun) were rolled out, there wasn’t any surprise value. #Firstworldproblems.
The menu is designed to take you on Heston’s memories of his favourite childhood journeys. Part one of ‘the journey’ is ‘the day before we go: are we nearly there yet?’
Things start off with the crowd-pleasing use of liquid nitrogen. We were given a choice of which ‘cocktail’ we’d like. Greedy Girl chose campari and soda while gluttonous husband opted for tequila.
The flavours were combined into a gel that was set in liquid nitrogen to provide a very cold and intense burst. The waiter used the candle to ignite the citrus oil which gave a flash of light and then offered the morsel to be eaten in one bite.
Next was ‘a change of air’. This was a puffed cracker sandwiching some horseradish cream – beetroot for gluttonous husband and carrot for Greedy Girl.
We then moved to the first dish of substance – a play on gin and tonic, called ‘Just the tonic we need’. This was jerusalem artichoke ice-cream with a smoked cumin panna cotta and a broth featuring a number of green vegetables and fruits including apple, celery and tomato. It was an amazingly pretty dish (you can see it at the top of this post) and very tasty.
Our Storyteller Ryan then brought us a small additional treat – a traditional Canadian soft loaf of bread (the chef hails from Canada) with some ‘tomato and coffee jam’ and house-churned butter from Somerset milk. Delightful.
Part two is ‘Morning: Rise and shine, it’s breakfast time’. We were given a choice of tea or coffee – Greedy Girl took the former, gluttonous husband the latter. This was a beverage designed to fool the senses, being both hot and cold at the same time – depending on which part of the glass you sipped on. Most challenging.
We were then offered the ‘variety pack’ which looks like mini boxes of cereal. We were instructed to open this and choose one each. Greedy Girl took Quispy Quackers while gluttonous husband chose Brisk Bites. Inside we found pieces of plywood we needed to construct to create a little money box (including a giant silver ‘penny’) and a sachet of grains, which went on top of truffled egg custard with hints of bacon and mushrooms down the bottom. It was a mix, as the menu explains of a variety pack and a cooked breakfast. Again fun and very satisfying.
After we’d constructed the little boxes, Ryan brought us some of the personalised elements. A new top for gluttonous husband featured his beloved Essendon football team, while Greedy Girl got West Ham United – her team in the English Premier League. That’s the thing about dining here, there’s just a steady stream of the unexpected.
Part three is ‘Mid-morning: First one to see the sea …’ Another prop reaches the table first – a big conch shell, with an iPod hidden inside and a set of headphones ready to listen to the sounds of the sea.
The first dish accompanying this is called ‘Sound of the Sea’ and it’s some beautiful tuna and mackerel with a delicate foam on top.
Then there was ‘Can I have some money for an ice-cream?’ A platter with two whimsical items is produced – on the left is a ‘rocket’ lolly made from Waldorf salad ingredients and on the right is a ‘twister’. This is also, apparently an old English lolly but this one is made with salmon, avocado and horseradish.
We both really enjoyed the twister and made a note to try to replicate it at home. The rocket lolly was just a bit too cold and we didn’t get the flavours.
Then, we had their take on the old 99p flake bar – this was made from crab, with a dollop of passionfruit at the bottom of the ‘cone’. Loads of fun and quite yummy.
Finally we had ‘when we went rockpooling’ – a dish of Cornish crab, smoked caviar and golden trout roe, with white chocolate crust and sea vegetables, topped with a mussel veloute, which effectively melted the chocolate shell.
Part four is ‘Afternoon: if you go down to the woods today …’ and another fun prop. A glass cylinder with some mossy bits and a little tree was placed on the table and the dry ice activated to make it overflow with mist.
The first dish was ‘Damping through the Boroughgroves’ – mushroom with beets (although this was withheld from Greedy girl’s dish because she’s not a fan), scented with fig leaf, meadowsweet, melilot (a type of clover), oakmoss and black truffle.
The attention to detail here is just extraordinary – the chefs have even crafted little earthworms! It’s a delight.
The Alice in Wonderland motif came through strongly with the next dish, ‘We discovered the Mock Turtle picnic’. First up the soup is created at the table by taking a pocket watch from a box and dunking it into the teapot, to watch it dissolve, leaving some beautiful flecks of gold leaf. It’s served with egg and toast sandwiches (apparently a favourite of Queen Victoria) – the toast is on the inside! The soup was delicious but the sandwiches were a tad dry.
But wait, there was still more. Part five is ‘Evening: are you ready for dinner?’ – a three course meal featuring some sublime dishes.
First up was ‘Scallops Anna’ featuring black truffle, hazelnuts and a coral foam. Such a pretty dish and quite delicious.
Then we were treated to some duck crackers with Szechuan pepper, nestling in a small bowl of aromatics, including star anise, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaf. Very nice indeed.
Next up was duck with blood pudding and turnips. The dark splodges on the plate are a mushroom sauce and there was also a crumbed duck heart. It was served with a crispy cylinder filled with confit duck. Delish.
The ‘pud’ was termed ‘BFG’ – Heston’s take on black forest gateau. A very elegant looking dessert, it was heavy on the kirsch liqueur.
Then it was time for a digestif. These were whisk(e)y gums – five varieties, four from various parts of Scotland and a Jack Daniels from the US. Greedy Girl, who doesn’t get into whisky or Scotch found them very enjoyable. Maybe there’s hope to turn her onto Scotch yet …
And when we were asked if we’d like coffee, we thought things were just about over … Hah. Sipping on a very good espresso, more props soon arrived. First was a malt meringue which was a real treat. These were presented the table on a pillow which ‘floated’ above a little gizmo. Of course Greedy Girl had to put her hand between and the pillow promptly dropped like a stone. No matter, it was soon repositioned.
This was served up with an all-white delight, various textures of coconut, white chocolate, orange blossom and earl grey. The spoon was wrapped in a soft fluffy sleeve which was scented – a bit like baby powder! Odd but it all just worked.
And then we were done – a final gizmo was wheeled to the table, looking like Heston’s sweet shop. It was split to reveal assorted drawers. The penny from our money boxes was placed inside and a few drawers opened to reveal the sweet bag that was given to us to take on our way. It contained a variety of delights, mainly chocolate based, but included a delicious white chocolate playing card. We ate these with relish a few days later on our flight from London to Tromso.
We asked for our bill and requested a taxi to head back to the train station and thence to London. Not so fast. The delightful Ryan had one final treat for us. Greedy Girl had mentioned on her questionnaire that she loves margaritas. Two salt-rimmed cocktail glasses appeared with a very tangy margarita ‘for the road’.
There’s a reason The Fat Duck has been packing in the patrons for 20 years – and not because it’s a small dining room. It’s huge fun with very accomplished food and exceptional service. Every self-respecting foodie deserves a meal there at least once in their lifetime.
The Fat Duck
High Street, Bray, Berkshire