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Dinner at The Fat Duck - 23 January 2007

The background, personal and peripheral stuff surrounding this story, including details of the accommodation we found, is now on a separate page. Click here to read it.

I’ve just (Christmas 2008) been given The Big Fat Duck Cook Book - a massive (5kg) and very beautiful tome containing Heston Blumenthal’s culinary autobiography, all the recipes from the restaurant in great detail and masses of related science. At some point I need to go through this page and smarten up the review of the Tasting Menu in the light of all this new knowledge.

Our Fat Duck goody bag
Our Fat Duck goody bag and its contents
Two sealed menu envelopes, the booklet about Mrs Marshall’s cornet
the menu card, two parsnip-crisp boxes, two empty sherbet fountains
the ’nostalgia foods’ questionnaire (which I forgot to leave)
and a very scary credit-card slip

We were ten minutes early arriving for our 8pm reservation at The Fat Duck. Nevertheless, we were welcomed and seated straight away in the elegant but very understated dining room (the restaurant has no bar area).The simplicity said something straight away about the food and service: to win three Michelin stars in near-record time and to be voted the best restaurant in the world, The Fat Duck really must deliver the goods, because there was none of the pretentiousness of so many top-rank estabishments.

Patricia had cunningly arranged via the restaurant’s PR agency for my copy of Blumenthal’s book (a Christmas present), In Search of Perfection, to be signed by the author if he was in the restaurant on the night (or, if not, we could leave it to be signed and posted back to us). I handed it over, and it reappeared unprompted later in the evening, in a very stylish Fat Duck carrier-bag.

We were offered water and chose a naturally slightly-sparkling one - it was Chatel Don, a French water we had never met before. It arrived with an elegant dish of green olives, complete with toothpicks.

We had already decided that we had to have the Tasting Menu, about which we’d heard a long time ago and had been reading on the web for months.

When we ordered, I asked for a copy of the menu, saying that it would be very sad not to remember every detail of the meal. A little later, not one but two large envelopes arrived at the table: they were made from a very special paper with a strange cool, slightly sticky feel and sealed with black wax with the restaurant’s logo (I checked, and the shapes of the seals were different, so each had really been done with hot wax). This small detail is typical of the superb quality of service.

The wax seal on the menu envelopes

Here is the menu as presented in the envelopes...

The Fat Duck Tasting Menu page 1

The Fat Duck Tasting Menu page 2

There is a note on the table menu, though not on the take-home version, that the tasting menu is intended for the whole table. You can see the logic: it would be very difficult for some to have this while others had a three-course table d’hôte meal.

The one thing that was not explained to us was that the menu copies came as standard and that we should have had them open during the meal.

At this point the wine-waiter arrived with a trolley bearing a huge oblong ice-bucket containing no less than four different bottles of Champagne and asked if we would like a glass. Silly question really - why spoil a fine ship for a mere ha’p’orth of tar? There were three from Taittinger (two vintage and one rosé) and one rosé from an individual producer (Paul Bara). We opted for the Bara, which was stunning. This was partly because I’m interested in small Champagne producers (see How to drink good Champagne on a tight budget) and partly because I thought it might be a little less expensive (though why I started worrying about cost at this point I do not know). I was wrong, anyway, as you can see if you look at this page on the Fat duck website - only two of the Taittingers available by the glass are more expensive!

I had my back to the rest of the dining room, but Patricia was facing outwards and spotted that we were being watched very discreetly - none of that awful waiter-pointedly-glaring-at-you-to-hurry-you-up stuff, but just checking when we would be ready for the next event - and, boy, do I mean ’event’!

The first ’course’, as listed, had been baffling me ever since my first look at the menus on the website. How do you combine NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE, OYSTER AND PASSION FRUIT JELLY, LAVENDER, POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM, RED CABBAGE GASPACHO, QUAIL JELLY, CREAM OF LANGOUSTINE and PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS all in one dish? (Sorry about the capital letters but this is pasted straight off the Fat Duck website.)

You don’t. Not even Heston Blumenthal does. This ’starter’ comes in several instalments.

(At this point I meed to warn readers that, even with the menu to refer to and the notes I took in my scrawl (which got more awful, from a pretty dreadful baseline, as my senses were overloaded and the alcohol was metabolised), it is very difficult to recall the details. By the end of the meal I had come to the conclusion that only two strategies would allow total recall: eat the meal twice, in opposite directions, or have a camcorder on a tripod to record the entire event and the accompanying conversation. Neither would be conducive to relaxed enjoyment.)

So first, the high drama of NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE. The waiter arrived with a trolley containing, among other things, a small vacuum jug, a bowl (the walls were thick so that could have been vacuum-insulated too - or maybe it was just the crust of ice) and a professional cream whipper - like a soda siphon but made specially for the purpose and for use with nitrous oxide rather than carbon dioxide cartridges. He opened the jug and poured quite a lot of liquid nitrogen (at -196°C, he explained) into the bowl, releasing clouds of white vapour. Then he quickly squirted a dollop of mousse from the whipper onto one of two spoons and moulded it into a ball. He dropped this into the seething liquid, where it jittered around as if alive, explaining to Patricia that she should pop it in her mouth as soon as he put it on her plate. After a few seconds it looked exactly like a cooked meringue. He served it, Patricia obediently popped it in - and her face was transformed. A few seconds later it was my turn, and the experience was extraordinary - the thing just exploded in my mouth, flooding it with flavour (the waiter had explained that there was vodka in it as well as the listed ingredients). Stunning - though maybe it should be ’double-nitro’ as two high-tech applications of nitrogen are involved!

He then explained that this was a ’palate cleanser’ and asked if it had worked. I assured him that it had quite taken away the taste of the Champagne, though whether this was good news or not was a matter of opinion - the wine had a long finish, and you didn’t want to waste any.

I was baffled as to why the liquid nitrogen didn’t just explode into gas as soon as it came out of the vacuum jug. After all, the temperature gradient was amazing: assuming the restaurant was at - what? - 24°C, the difference between the temperatures of the liquid nitrogen and the surrounding air would be 220°C - more than twice the difference between frozen and boliling water! Then I thought that it wouldn’t be that simple. Air is a poor conductor of heat, so as the evaporation of the nitrogen chilled the surrounding air it would take a while for the heat to penetrate, allowing the rest to stay liquid for a surprisingly long time.

On a related subject, Blumenthal recommends using dry ice for fast freezing of ice cream at the table in a domestic setting, since liquid nitrogen isn’t easy to manage at home. It took a kilo of dry ice, crushed in a tea-towel and stirred in, to produce ice cream when he demonstrated this on TV. Now dry ice is solid carbon dioxide (shock, horror) so that’s a significant carbon footprint for a dish of ice cream. I wonder how it compares with the carbon released by freezing the same ice cream conventionally. Then there’s the problem that you can’t buy less than 10kg of dry ice, and it doesn’t keep very long - just sublimes away into the air. The nitro trick is just returning to the atmosphere some harmless gas that was pinched from it in the first place, so no problem there - apart from the carbon footprint of the liquefying process, of course. But I digress...

At this point we were served a glass of sherry - Manzanilla en Rama, Barbadillo - the driest of all sherries, the waiter explained. He also explained that all the wines had been selected not just to complement but to add something to the food. And something strange happened, because it tasted a bit flat before the food, but blossomed as we ate.

Next came a plate with two tiny squares of jelly, one golden and one deep red. This doesn’t appear in the menu. We were told that these were orange and beetroot jellies and recommended to try the orange one first. Naturally we obeyed, and our taste-buds were flooded with the taste of...beetroot. The best, earthiest beetroot we’d ever tasted. And it will come as no surprise that the dark red one tasted intensely of orange. Blood orange, obviously, but the beetroot...? The waiter shrugged. Made from goldern beetroot, he explained. We’d never heard of this, but it made sense. However, it didn’t diminish the initial shock of the obvious dissonance between colour and taste - a brilliant touch.

Then back to the menu as printed: OYSTER AND PASSION FRUIT JELLY, LAVENDER. Pieces of raw oyster buried in the passion fruit jelly, with a tiny lavender-flavoured wafer. Just a delightful combination (or juxtaposition?) of flavours.

On to POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM, RED CABBAGE GASPACHO. My note highlights the mustard grains popping in the mouth ’like caviar’.

If the sequence of my notes is correct, it was now that the bread first arrived, sliced and offered regularly through the meal. I noted ’Bread & lovely salted butter. Sourdough? Very holey & excellent crust - v. hot oven? I wish.’ Anyone who has been following my recent writing about bread-making will pick up echoes of my preoccupations here! When asked, the waiter explained that it was actually pain de campagne bought in from France. I chose the white, which just got better the more I ate, and Patricia was just as taken with the brown, which was lighter. The thick, crisp, well-browned crust was a delight (plenty of Maillard - browning - reactions, and the chef would no doubt have told us). The butter came in generous truncated-cone shapes (like an upturned plant-pot). It had some crystals of salt on top and was stunningly good.

QUAIL JELLY, CREAM OF LANGOUSTINE, PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS. I have a row of question-marks for what must have been the quail jelly. Why hadn’t I opened one of the envelopes to check the menu? Because I didn’t want to spoil the lovely black wax seal (which I released back home with a very sharp filleting knife). I now realise that we should have been referring to the menus as we went along, because you need a ’user guide’ to a menu like this. I noted pea pureé, which the menu doesn’t mention, and the langoustine and foie gras, with the comment ’almost off-tastes but incredible mix - fascinating’. In truth, this was a challenging dish which some might find difficult to stomach, but you have to go for it! There was toast, too - a neatly trimmed square: ’Amazingly crunchy toast! +taste!

My next note says, in capitals, ’END OF FIRST COURSE!’. That’s a starter of five separate dishes - one as a dramatic palate cleanser and four (including the jellies, which weren’t on the menu - ) for the rest. Full of sensation and surprise.

The first main course was the famous SNAIL PORRIDGE, Joselito Ham, shaved fennel - certainly the most challenging name and, unless you are incurably squeamish and put off by words and ideas rather than tastes, one of the least challenging to eat. I hate to admit it but I didn’t make a note about the ham (a jamón de Serrano, perhaps?)., but I did write ’Porridge is GREEN but oaty - 3 snails - shaved fennel - NO CHALLENGE, DELICIOUS’. And it was. The porridge was wholesome, with rolled oats clearly visible and deliciously chewy, and the three big escargots were satisfyingly meaty. I didn’t detect whatever made the porridge green, either.

A quick google for ’snail porridge’ revealed that Blumenthal has happily revealed the recipe on BBC TV. (God - I love the World Wide Web! You can find out almost anything!) What I have found out is that the recipe is incredibly complex and that there’s a lot of parsley, as there is in the traditional butter served with snails in France. That must be the source of the green colour.

The white Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, Le Soula, G. Gauby 2004 served with this dish had an amazing intensity, and something in common with two of the ones that followed.

ROAST FOIE GRAS, Almond fluid gel, cherry, chamomile. I noted ’Foie gras & trimmings stunning. Cherry purée intense. Amaretto jelly in 1/2cm cubes - enough. White stuff? Almond?’ Another problem with not opening the envelope - that must have been the ’fluid gel’, so was the jelly chamomile and not amaretto? Then: ’Foie gras not quite as amazing as I’d hoped but very good.’ I think this is as far as I can go in criticising anything that happened on this night. I love foie gras and have made enough dodgy purchases to know that only the best is worth eating, and I believe that the best comes from ducks and geese that have been reared and force-fed as humanely as is possible. I don’t doubt that The Fat Duck buys the best (with a name like that, how could it do otherwise?), but I think the best cooked foie gras I have tasted so far was at Fischers Baslow Hall (only one Michelin star). To be fair, that was a main-course portion - it must be difficult to do such justice to this magical ingredient in a tasting portion.

The Gewurztraminer Vinoptima Reserve, Ormond, Gisbourne 2003 from New Zealand served with this dish was far more intense than the many wonderful French Gewurztraminers I have drunk since discovering this marvellous grape on my first visit to Alsace. There was something mysteriously similar to the first wine - a sharp fruitiness.

Then came the Rashiko Ginjo-Sake, Yamatogawato to go with the SARDINE ON TOAST SORBET, Ballotine of mackerel "invertebrate", sea salad. Like the sherry with the first course(s), it was a little flat when first tasted, but after the mackerel it really came to life. I noted ’Sardine on toast sorbet...’ and then drew an arrow to ’tiny toast’. The flavour was intense, intensified perhaps by the improbable presentation in a sorbet - not really a water-ice but a startling sensation. The mackerel was a mini-sushi, looking like a slice of sausage because it was wrapped in its own skin and perfectly circular, and I had ample opportunity to enjoy its strong but fresh flavour because for the first and only time Patricia could not cope with this - she is very sensitive to textures, and raw fish is a step too far for her. Presumably ’invertebrate’ is a posh name for ’off-the-bone’...? I asked about the tiny crisp black bits and was told it was Kombu, a Japanese seaweed, mixed with fried baby eels (the ’sea salad’).

SALMON POACHED WITH LIQUORICE, artichokes,"Manni" olive oil. I noted ’Liquorice gel v. mild. Fish in a box!’ because this was a neat cuboid of salmon encased in a black coating reminiscent of the wax on some Pyrenean cheeses. ’Artichoke amazing! Mayo! Juicy bits!’ This last refers to the extraordinary trick of separating out the tiny juice cells of a pink grapefruit and sprinkling them over the plate. How do you do that without bursting them? ’Salmon and liquorice good but least interesting. Or...’ This referred to the fact that both the very lightly cooked fish and the liquorice had very mild flavours, whereas the tiny artichokes, the mayonnaise and the grapefruit were more intense.

The Quinta da Leda, Douro 1999 was a big Portuguese red, also with what I’d come to think of as ’the Fat Duck character’. Fish and red wine - the world finally seems to have caught up with me.

POACHED BREAST OF ANJOU PIGEON, PANCETTA, pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre épices My notes were losing legibility rapidly: ’Pigeon in Pancetta - amazing. Crunchy bits? Nuts? Chocolate?’ They were quite sweet, so chocolate-coated pistachios. ’Tiny turnips!’ These were perfect miniature white turnips, complete with a little green stalk, but unlike the baby vegetables sold in supermarkets the flavour was ’essence of turnip’. ’Pastilla of its legs, duck, heart’ (this after consulting the waiter). ’Very very good.’ Quatre epices is defined by Wikipedia and a French blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Where it fitted in I’m not sure. Nor am I sure about the cryptic note ’French toast?’, unless this was bread flavoured with quatre épices.

Barolo, Costa Grimaldi, Poderi Luigi Einaudi 200, Piedmont 1999 was another big, intense red.

At this point we were offered a cheese course (before the sweets as the French do it, of course!). Believe it or not, after everything we’d eaten (in very small quantities) we decided to go for it! There was a good range of more challenging cheeses including some very artisanal-looking Camembert and even the always-challenging Livarot (one of our Normandy local products, and one of those with a damp orange rind that stinks but encloses a very mellow paste). We had one helping between us with five small pieces of different cheeses. There was some confusion over what sounded like ’Bleu d’Écosse’, leading to a query about it being Scottish, but it turned out to be Bleu des Cosses! We were also delighted to find a Stilton from our home-county, and to be told that it was my favourite, Colston Basset. The cheese was served with a glass of late-bottled vintage port: Quinta do Infantado 2000. It complemented the blue cheeses superbly.

Then came a real tour de force in a very small package: HOT AND COLD TEA. A little glass of clear tea which was definitely cold on one side and warm on the other. I guess defying the laws of physics is as much second-nature to Blumenthal as harnessing them in new ways, but this was very strange indeed. Pure theatre!

MRS MARSHALL’S MARGARET CORNET came with an elegant little booklet about Mrs Agnes Bertha Marshall (1855-1905), a Victorian pioneer of ice-cream. She is credited with inventing the ice-cream cone, and also patented an amazingly efficient ice-cream making machine. Why ’Margaret’? I don’t know. My notes were getting a bit sketchy, and even less legible than before, at this stage. I noted ’Wonderful ice-cream & [something] +ginger’. I do remember that the tiny cone was very fragile.

The PINE SHERBET FOUNTAIN was just like the sherbet fountains we remembered from childhood, but much smaller and with a bored-out vanilla pod in place of a straw. We brought them home with a trace of the sherbet poweder still inside - very fresh, so another palate cleanser.

MANGO AND D0UGLAS FIR PUREE, bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet, blackcurrant and green peppercorn jelly came next, and I’m ashamed to admit that my note says ’Mango etc - lost it!’. The various forms of ’Milk of Amnesia’ I’d imbibed had finally caught up with me. I’ll have to see what Patricia can remember...

CARROT AND ORANGE TUILE, BEETROOT JELLY also passed by in a bit of a haze, and my note is no help at all: ’Carrot lolly. Beetroot jelly.

The 2003 Schneiderberger Riesling Eiswein, Wienviertel from Austria that was served with the desserts was quite simply the sweetest wine I had ever tasted, but had a complex range of tastes that stopped it being cloying. The sugar content can’t have been at the expense of the alcohol content, to judge from the rapid collapse of my memory.

We knew we would get NITRO-SCRAMBLED EGG AND BACON ICE CREAM, pain perdu, tea jelly, but we hadn’t realised that this signified a seamless transition from dinner to breakfast. It was logical, though, because by now it was about midnight, and maybe even Wednesday. The unannounced precursor was a dainty little cardboard box of Parsnip Cereal (flaked and very crisp and sweet parsnip) and Parsnip Milk, which I noted as ’Ordinary?’, meaning that it tasted like ordinary milk - maybe the taste-buds were going the way of the memory cells at last.

Then the main course of this premature breakfast. The bacon was actually separate: a very thin, very flat miniature rasher (pancetta?) that may or may not have been cooked crisp in liquid nitrogen (it did appear to cook the meringue at the start of the meal, after all). My note says ’Sc. egg + bacon ice-cream + toast + stuff. Not what I expected but amazing - bacon v. thin + crisp - egg smooth - toast delicious’, which is pretty lucid considering the amnesia. The scrambled egg was whisked with liquid nitrogen at the table and was, as far as we could tell, simply a very fine egg beaten and frozen. I think it would have been more exciting if the bacon had been in the ice-cream, but hey...

My final note reads ’Tawny Port or what?’, which is a clear indication of mental breakdown given that the note before the egg and bacon dish reads ’Muscat Victoria Australia’. This is listed on our take-home menus as NV, Buller, Fine old Muscat, Rutherglen, Victoria (Australia).

We finished with tea - an infusion of beautifully fresh mint leaves for Pat and Earl Grey for me, each in an elegant little glass teapot.

The bill

The bill was published here briefly, but I decided that was a bit vulgar. Suffice to say that, on my actual birthday, Patricia, stepson Alistair and I had an excellent two-course lunch with a decent drink each at a new Italian fish restaurant near home for less than the 12.5% service charge on our Fat Duck bill.

We’d known about the cost of the Tasting Menu and the accompanying wines. We’d also known about the optional 12.5% service charge (though I don’t remember being offered the option to omit it - not that we’d have done so, given the superb quality of the service). And we’d expected to add some extras. The total still came as a surprise, but neither of us has any regrets. This is, after all, a three-star restaurant (the first we’ve ever visited) and was voted the best restaurant in the world. How do you put a price on that? Anyway, I was pretty well anaesthetised by the time it arrived and - believe it or not - I think I read somewhere that even at these prices The Fat Duck doesn’t make a profit. I can see why. With at least 11 waiting staff in the dining room (below), and Blumenthal’s statement in his book that there are more cooks in the kitchen than diners in the restaurant, the costs must be astonomical. Fortunately he has The Hind’s Head, TV, his Sunday Times job, a ready market for his books and his genius to fall back on.

You can see all the prices on the Fat duck website - they make no secret of the cost of everything. It’s interesting to compare prices with Fischers Baslow Hall in Derbyshire (one Michelin star), who do a six-course tasting menu for £60 (coffee included). There were sixteen separate items on our menu at The Fat Duck...

The verdict?

The meal was a non-stop adventure, full of surprises and delights. The service was beyond reproach (Patricia at one point counted 11 waiting staff in what is quite a small dining room, and heaven knows how many people were working in the kitchen to keep everything timed so exquisitely). Every waiter knew everything about every dish he served and could explain with clarity and even a touch of humour. Despite the various nationailities (we had French, German and Polish waiters, at least) communication was superb. The little touches I’ve mentioned like the copies of our menu and the signing of the book were slick yet discreet. I can only hope that every penny of the £57.78 service charge went straight into the kitty for the staff. From the obvious pleasure with which they did their work, I’m pretty confident it did.

Needless to say, the tables and chairs, the linen and the crockery and cutlery were of superb design and quality, though never ostentatious.

Quite simply one of the most memorable evenings - and certainly the most memorable meal - of our lives, even if the memory was somewhat impaired towards the end. Our heartfelt thanks to Heston Blumenthal for his inspired design of the dishes and the menu, to his undoubtedly huge kitchen team and his brilliant waiting staff. And special thanks to Lindy for finding us a cancellation so close to my birthday!

I hope what I’ve written here is reasonably accurate, even if my recollections are sometimes incomplete. The names of dishes and wines are in bold for easy reference: these have almost exclusively been copied and pasted from The Fat Duck’s website. However, I apologise for any errors. My notes are in italics.

Links for more information

I’ve googled around trying to pick up information that will fill some of the gaps in this account. Here are some links:

These are a few of the 223,000 references Google threw up when I searched for ’fat duck tasting menu’.

Cook like Heston (in your dreams!)

The BBC website has a number of recipes that Heston Blumenthal has demonstrated on various programmes. You can find all of them from here.

All is revealed...

And now, if you have £100 to spare (£60 from Amazon) you can own The Big Fat Duck Cook Book. I got mine for Christmas 2008, almost two years after our meal at Heston?s wonderful restaurant. At over 5kg, it?s hard physical work to read, but worth the effort. It was obvious when we ate that an enormous amount of work had gone into each dish, but reading the recipes is a revelation. For a start, there is the sheer complexity - some dishes are plated from six or more ?reserved? elements prepared in advance, plus fresh ingredients, and the prep work is almost invariably very complicated. Then there are the ingredients: so many things you?d never have heard of unless you were a chemist in a major food-manufacturing company and probably couldn?t buy in domestic quantities anyway; plus, of course, the standard ones, which must all be of the very highest quality. And, of course, the sheer technical skill and experience of the cooks: these aren?t the kind of recipes you simply follow step-by-step - many of the processes require techniques learnt over years in the kitchen. So for this considerable outlay you have detailed information on how the dishes are built, a much deeper understanding of the food you have eated - and hope you will eat again with greater insight - and a unique souvenir of one of the most memorable eating experiences you are ever likely to enjoy. Look at it this way: adding the book to your meal, you are only increasing the cost by about 20% (or 10% if you go back and eat it a second time), but you will be increasing the pleasure of the memories (and of any future meals) by vastly more than that.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.