I’ve been in love with food for a long time. I think about it constantly. If I’ve got 2 minutes free you can usually find me researching the next restaurant I want to add to my never ending wish list. Well, for as long as this has been going on, nestled top of the list has been a small restaurant in the village of Bray that has a reputation for producing magical dishes that will both delight and astound you. I’d been dreaming about this restaurant for a long time and decided that by the day of my 26th birthday I’d waited long enough, and this would be a nice little birthday present to myself. Unfortunately, it is one thing to decide you’re going to go to the Fat Duck, it is quite another to get a reservation there. It requires perseverance, about an hour and half by the phone and a relentless desire to bloody well get through. So 84 redials and a long wait later I was finally greeted by the sweetest sound; a ringing phone. Another 10 minutes on hold and I even got to talk to a real human being who luckily told me that there was indeed a table free on the day I wanted and would 12:30 be alright?
Job done: we were going to the Fat Duck, now I just needed to figure out how to pay for it, well I had a couple of months to start saving….
3 months took an age to pass, but finally the day arrived, a chilly December morning and we jumped on a train to Maidenhead and a taxi to Bray and, yes, finally it was time for lunch at the Fat Duck.
You immediately feel at home at the Fat Duck; it’s small, intimate, warm and has some of the loveliest front of house in the country. Shown to your table, you are soon presented with a plate of olives, a menu (although there is only the tasting menu to choose) and an enormous tome which we were told was the wine list. You are then left for what seems like quite a long time to peruse both, decide on some wine and a glass of champagne and wait for the fireworks to start. This wait is slightly longer than you might like, we were told that the aperitif was about to arrive about 45 minutes after we sat down which is quite a bit but once things kick off service couldn’t be quicker or more attentive.
So after this fairly pointless pre-amble which most of you haven’t bothered to read anyway shall we move on to what we ate?
Well, things kick off in classic Fat Duck style with the famous Nitro Poached Aperitif. A trolley is brought over to your table and you are asked which of the aperitif’s you would like out of Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, or Campari Soda. I chose Gin and Tonic and watched as a the maitre’d slowly squeezed a smooth egg white on to a spoon and carefully placed it into a steaming bowl of liquid nitrogen, no big deal apparently although you wouldn’t want to get your hand anywhere near it. After around 30 seconds, the egg was removed and a twist of lemon and squirt of gin are added and you are invited to place the entire thing in your mouth. Nothing prepares you for the sensation of the frozen egg white bursting into nothing in your mouth followed by the clearest, purest gin and tonic you’ve ever tasted. It’s a great start to the meal, a bit of theatre and a lovely palate cleanser.
The first course proper is another bit of Heston magic; Red cabbage gazpacho with mustard ice cream. To be honest, I don’t even like mustard that much but in this dish it just made so much sense that you couldn’t help but love it. It’s refreshing, it’s fun and it really gets your taste buds going.
Next up was probably one of my favourite dishes of the entire meal. The food is laid out in front of you along with a rather large patch of grass right in the middle of the table, you are invited to put a small piece of brown film on your tongue that tastes of moss and wood and then a mystical liquid is poured on to the grass and the whole table is engulfed in a forest mist, you are then invited to enjoy your food. Soft quail mousse, green pea puree, chicken liver parfait, truffle toast and a little bit of crayfish cream, this was a sense assault and one I thoroughly enjoyed, so many lovely flavours and more theatre, we were definitely settling into lunch.
Third course was perhaps one of the first dishes to make Heston famous, It is invariably the first one people say when you mention him and I was looking forward to seeing what snail porridge really tastes like. In actual fact this dish is a lot straighter than some of the other things on the menu, but it is still absolutely delicious. Bright green parsley infused oats hiding four succulent snails with shavings of iberico ham and fennel it was just what was needed on a cold winters day, heart-warmingly good.
One of the few obvious Michelin type things that Heston serves up is the roasted foie gras which comes with a fruity rhubarb jam; it was soft and creamy on the inside with a crispy finish. Nothing overly complex here, but still perfection itself.
And now we moved on to a dish that many would have already seen on TV; the Mock Turtle Soup. This course is packed with theatre, the waitress told us the story of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the history of turtle soup, and you’re even given a little bookmark to remember the story. Then a bowl with a little egg, mushroom and the meaty turtle (really ox tongue) is placed in front of you and you are presented with a golden pocket watch which you dissolve into the bowl of concentrated stock. It disappears in front of your eyes and voila, you’ve got mock turtle soup! While I love the theatre of all of this, I wasn’t quite so sure about the dish itself, I found the soup quite stocky and meat a little tough. I’m not saying it was bad but certainly more fun than something with any real substance.
The next dish was just as fun; with “Sounds of the Sea” you happily listen to seagulls squawking and waves crashing on the beach, as you work your way through 3 lovely pieces of sashimi with sand (in fact tapioca) and shellfish foam. I enjoyed this a lot, the whole dish was so evocative of the sea and the beach that I couldn’t help but love it although I did find the tapioca slightly over powering.
Liquorice poached salmon was a return to slightly more familiar territory and was an amazing array of different flavours; bitter grapefruit, smooth sweet vanilla mayonnaise, lovely pink salmon and asparagus, this was a master class in pulling together different flavours and creating something truly unique, easily one of my faves.
At this point we were at the last of the savoury dishes, and we had a lovely bit of venison to finish things off. Cooked sous-vide, ridiculously tender and bursting with flavour it was served with some nutty, moreish umble and spelt risotto, and it left me with a warm fuzzy feeling.
A little glass of hot and cold tea, which gives the sensation that one half of it is hot the other cold, is a nice little palate cleanser with the Heston touch, it messes with your senses and leaves you smiling.
First of the desserts is the Tafferty Tart, a ludicrously good looking dish that tastes wonderful, notes of rose and fennel mixed with apple and lemon with a lovely crunchy finish; in short it was heavenly.
And then we had reached the final “proper” dessert, we were reaching the end of our trip with Heston and I didn’t want it to end. But end it would and placed in front of us was the Fat Duck’s take on the Black Forest Gateau; thick, delicious chocolate and fruity cherry accompanied by a dollop of Kirsch ice cream this was a lovely rich and homely way to finish off the food.
But there were still a few little bits and bobs to go as we wound down from what must rank as one of the most surprising and enjoyable meals I’ve had. First we were treated to the “Whisky Wine Gums”, multi-flavoured sweets that tasted of all different types of whiskey; they even threw in a Jack Daniels, yummy.
As you prepare to leave you are presented with a little gift bag filled with sweets that you’d only find at the Fat Duck; edible playing cards, apple caramel (with edible wrapper) and caramel tobacco.
And that was that, as I got in to the cab I reflected on what we’d just experienced: this was a meal I’d been thinking about for a long, long, time and I’d been looking forward to it for 3 months, how did it do? Well, as you can probably tell, it lived up to even my incredibly high expectations, even though I’d slavishly researched every course it still managed to delight and surprise me and it took me about half a year to save for I can honestly tell you it was worth every penny of that hard earned cash. You don’t go back to the Fat Duck though, you nurture this truly unique experience, hope it stays in your mind forever and then look for somewhere else to get excited about, and there’s a lot left on that list….