The Fat Duck
Bray, SL6 2AQ
Tel. 01628 580 333
Food type: British, Molecular Gastronomy
Website: the Fat Duck
Warning: Extremely long post ahead…
For my fiancee’s birthday, I had booked a table for lunch at the Fat Duck. She has been clamouring to go to Heston’s flagship restaurant for a very long time. I have visited the Fat Duck previously and given the nature of the restaurant, where the menu changes little, there was very little incentive to revisit. However, back in 2015, the Fat Duck closed for a 6 months for renovation. The whole team relocated to Melbourne during this time but when the time was up, they returned home to a new dining room, new kitchen and most importantly a brand new menu. Ok, perhaps not all the menu is new – there are still a few old standbys – but by and large there were enough new dishes to perk my interest to return.
Gone are the days where you would hammer the redial button hoping to snag a table exactly 2 months before the date you wish to dine. That was a exercise in frustration given that you are most likely to be met with the engaged ring tone for an hour, before a chirpy tone on the end tells you that all the tables have gone. Now, everything is done online. Sucks to be you if you do not have access to the internet. But I do think this is an elegant solution to booking since you are able to see table availability on a day to day, minute by minute basis. The only catch with the new booking system? You have to pay up front. Team Heston has introduced a ticketing system – probably the first restaurant in England to do so. At £255pp upfront (yes the prices have gone up significantly since the restaurant has been refurbished), you better be darn sure you are going to be able to show up on the day. The tickets are non-transferable and non-refundable*. If you are struck down by Ebola on the day you are meant to dine, you cannot get your best buddy to go in your place. I understand why the restaurant has introduced such stringent rules since one of the major problems when the Fat Duck relocated to Melbourne was the ticketing system which was abused by touts. The tickets often made their way to eBay where they would be sold for double, sometimes triple their face value. I appreciate that the restaurant wants to protect themselves against no-shows and profiteering, but making the tickets non-refundable 1 month from the booking date is probably a tad harsh.
The build up to the meal actually begins a week before the actual visit. At the time of booking the restaurant will send you a small questionnaire to complete listing some of your favourite childhood memories, trips and food. Or if you are as disorganised as I am, someone from the restaurant will give you a ring a week before your visit to complete the questionnaire on the phone. Some of the information would be used to tailor a more personal experience during your meal.
The exterior of the restaurant still remains the same. There is no big, neon signboard with the words “FAT DUCK”. Instead hanging just above the high street sign is their trademark cutlery with webbed duck feet. You enter through a singular brown door into a small room where you are greeted by the hostess. After confirming our reservations, we were both given maps which would detail our culinary journey for the day. With our maps in hand, a second door swings open and we are led in to the newly refurbished dining room. At first glance, you would think that very little has been done to update the dining room. Indeed, with the restaurant being a listed building they are limited with the amount of work that can be done. The walls are painted a plain white with the old ‘art deco’ wall painting making way. However on closer inspection, one of the new features is the ‘mood lighting’ which has been installed for each table. The mood lighting is actually key with their new dining concept and I will elaborate about it more throughout the rest of the write-up.
Upon being seated, we were offered an aperitif. There is a whole list dedicated to that but we went for the boring option of a glass of champagne – in our case, a 2005 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” which we had drank plenty of during our last trip to Asia back in November. I asked to keep hold of the list, assuming that it was also the wine list, only to be told that we would be taken up to the cellar where we could choose our wine. Like a kid in a sweetshop, I was giddy with excitement being led to their cellar. Their list includes some hard to find bottles. Although the mark-ups are very high with the lower end wines, it was nice to see the prices moderating out with the more prestigious bottles. For what its worth, we drank a 2011 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett and a 2007 Armand Rousseau ‘Clos de la Roche’. It was also nice to see that the restaurant also has some very nice glassware (Riedel Sommelier Range) if you open a nice bottle of wine. As a side note, while walking to the cellar, you may come across the famous ‘Melbourne Clock’ which counted down the 6 months when the Fat Duck were in Australia.
The new dining concept revolves around a trip. You start off the night before at home in anticipation of your day out the following day. Upon waking up the next day, you have some breakfast before heading to the beach and for a stroll in the woods. After a long day out, you then head to a restaurant for dinner before retiring home to sleep. The aforementioned mood lighting is a key element here to set the scene with the intensity and colour of the lighting changing depending the time of day.
Our meal began with an old standby of the Fat Duck – “A Change of Air” (aerated beetroot macaroon). The macaroon was essentially a meringue and had an unbelievable texture which simply disintegrated when popped into the mouth. The flavour of the beetroot was intense with a pleasing note from the horseradish complementing the earthiness of the beetroot. I rarely comment on crockery but the blue plate that the beetroot meringue is served on is perhaps one of the most beautiful plates I have come across.
The next dish is a brand new dish. Titled “Just the Tonic” this featured a smoked cumin royale and jerusalem artichoke ice cream. The dish was finished at the table with a pouring of a vibrant, green ‘botanical tonic’ which was made from the juice of various herbs. This sounded like a wacky combination of ingredients but one which tasted amazing when eaten in combination. The savoury notes of the cumin royale and earthiness of the jerusalem artichoke ice cream were balanced by the herbaceous, peppery notes from the green consommé. This was a sensational dish for want of a better description.
We then were given “A Welcome Drink“, another Fat Duck classic better known previously as their Nitro Poached Aperitif. We were given a choice of 4 drinks – Paloma, Campari Soda, Pina Colada or Vodka Lime Sour. After making our choice, our waitress would prepare the meringue table side by dipping the mixture in liquid nitrogen. A little fruit zest is then aerosolized onto the meringue before it is served, with the advice to eat it as soon as it is served. Compared to my previous visit, I felt the meringue was slightly under-poached and was missing the famous cloud of cold ‘smoke’ coming out of our nostrils.
At this point, the lighting moved from a dim purple hue to a brighter intensity, signifying the change from night to morning. Naturally, a cup of tea is a prerequisite in the morning. “Excuse Me, There Seems To Be A Rabbit In My Tea” was a hot and cold veloute of rabbit. The hot/ cold drink has been a technique that has been employed at the Fat Duck, more recently in the form of a hot & cold sweet tea so it was interesting to see the idea extrapolated to a savoury tea. The rabbit veloute had an intense flavour and packed full of umami goodness from the addition of the mustard. It is interesting to note that you can actually see a colour difference between the hot and cold tea.
After our morning cup of tea, breakfast was served. “Why Do I Have To Choose Between a Variety Pack and a Full English?” is another new dish featuring truffled egg mousse, jellied tomato consommé, bacon and toasted bread cream and cereals which you add to the bowl tableside. A 6-pack of custom made mini-cereal boxes were brought to the table and we were advised to pick our favourite. In each cereal box was a puzzle game. The first person to complete the puzzle (a coin box) would receive a prize – a coin which would very useful later on in the meal. To complete the play on breakfast, we were given a souvenir newspaper featuring our holiday memory. Gimmicks aside, I loved the actual dish. I have come across many ‘deconstructed’ full English breakfast dishes and have been disappointed by most of them as somewhere, somehow all the flavour had been diluted away. Yet Heston’s take was really like eating a Full English. All the components were there – scrambled egg, bacon, beans and toast and once again the flavour of each evident. This had to be one of the wows of the day.
We now move onto mid-morning and our trip to the seaside. What better way than to begin our trip to the sea with another Fat Duck classic – “Sound of the Sea”. This dish is one of the dishes which is iconic of the Fat Duck with its trademark sea conch with a iPod mini hiding inside playing the sounds of waves and seagulls. While the dish has remained on the menu for what seems like eternity, the actual content of the dish constantly changes. On this visit, the fish served were kingfish, octopus and ‘invertebrate’ mackerel (so named because it comes from a previous Heston dish where the mackerel was deboned and then stuck together using a protein glue to give the illusion that the fish was invertebrate). The fish were placed on a bed of sand made from tapioca flavoured with miso and dressed with a selection of sea vegetables. The dish at a whole was an umami-bomb and delicious. Personally, I do not think the iPod gimmick adds anything to the dish but I guess it is a good talking point for the guests.
Once our plates were cleared, the sea conch was left on the table, continuing the theme of the trip to the seaside. We were served a couple of savoury ice creams. The first two – a Waldorf salad “Rocket” and Salmon, avocado and horseradish “Twister” have previously been featured on the menu of the Fat Duck and remained unchanged. I am not convinced with the Waldorf ‘Rocket’ which predominant flavour was that of the celery ice and not much else. The salmon ‘twister’ was fine but hardly exciting – a thin strip of smoked salmon was covered with an intertwining spiral of avocado and horseradish cream. The last ice cream was a homage to the crab risotto served here many moons ago. That dish featured a crab bisque ice cream which polarised opinions back in the day. The ice cream makes a return, this time in a little cone, paired with passion fruit. The sweet and sour passion fruit worked really well with the intense crab bisque ice cream. A clear winner amongst the three ices.
The final dish at the sea, was based on rockpooling. In a custom made granite black bowl was a little crab made from white chocolate. A hot mussel stock was poured over the crab shell which melted away to review its hidden treasures of smoked caviar, picked cornish crab meat and golden trout roe. The white chocolate element was well balanced and I suspect some animal fat of sorts (perhaps chicken fat) was added to the chocolate to give it a savoury note. Once the hot mussel stock was poured over the chocolate shell, it created a unique broth which was salty, sweet and umami. Although the caviar was advertised as being smoked, I could barely detect any smokey notes which is fine by me since I find most restaurants over-smoke their dishes resulting in an acrid tasting mess. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, and probably the second best dish of the day.
Moving from the beach to a stroll in the forest, the new dish “Damping Through the Boroughgroves” expands on the idea of the oak moss element used in the previous quail jelly dish. A container containing a miniature forest is placed in the middle of the table before water is poured to work the dry ice magic and emit scents of the forest. The scented mist floods onto the plate which is made to look like a truffle patch in the woods that we have chanced upon. We were divided with this dish. On one hand, my fiancee found the flavours on the dish overpowering with the strong earthy flavours from the mushroom and truffle too intense for her liking. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the heady flavours of mushrooms and truffle and I thought the slight acidity coming from the blackberries was absolutely key in making the dish complete.
We then continued with our journey through the woods and chanced upon the Mock Turtle Picnic. Another Fat Duck classic, although one of the more recent additions. We were first given a little bookmark featuring the story of the mock turtle. A cup containing the garnishes (a faux egg made from turnip, cubes of beef and vegetables) and a tea pot containing hot water is placed before us before our waitress presents to us our golden fob watches. The attention to detail is amazing as the case carrying the fob watches also contains a ticking clock sound! The golden fob watch is in essence a stock cube covered in gold leave, which once immersed into the hot water turns into the most delicious bouillon imaginable. On the side, we were served a toast sandwich. Dating back to Victorian times, the toast sandwich is what it sounds like – a sandwich with a slice of toast in the middle. Of course, Heston perks things up with the addition of various other things including truffles. I actually thought that the toast sandwich tasted a lot better this time around. Perhaps I should start making toast sandwich at home too!
By now the lighting had dimmed down once again and we were ready to have our dinner after a busy day of travelling. Our waitress presents our ‘Table d’Hote Menu‘ and explaining what we would be having. Very 80’s indeed. After having a peak at the menu, bread and butter was served. A solitary sourdough bread is on offer with a slightly salted butter. The bread is finally made in house after many years of subcontracting** it out due to space constraints in the kitchen. As a side note, I have noticed as of late, many restaurants choose to serve bread much later on in the meal as opposed to at the start of the meal. I wonder if this is because some guests would gorge themselves on bread and are unable to finish their meal or whether it is a coy way for the restaurant to save on some costs… At least here, themathically, it makes sense that the bread is served later on.
Our starter was a retro Fat Duck classic – “Lasagna of Langoustines” (c.1999) with pigs trotters and black truffle was an absolute joy to eat. The langoustines plump and perfectly timed with a meaty, rich sauce perfumed with truffles. Heston and his team may not be Italian, but they can certainly make pasta as good as any nonna. It is interesting the way the sauce and gelatinous pigs trotters interact with the pasta because it made the texture of the pasta a lot more silkier.
Next up was our main course – the old fashioned “Venison Poivrade” (c.1999) has been given a complete facelift. First, we had a couple of venison crackers*** which were presented in a bowl of different types of peppers which we were told would represent the flavour profile of the dish. The main plate then arrived with a moist slab of venison accompanied by red cabbage. What I found really clever were the use of vegetables such as radishes which naturally have a peppery note to them to play on the pepper theme. Also there was a high amount of acidity on the plate with the pickled vegetables and red cabbage which prevented the dish from being too rich. On the side was a lightly dressed salad tossed with some venison offal.
In true British style, we were served a plate of cheese and grapes after our main course. The only catch was that this was no ordinary plate of cheese and grapes. “Botrytis Cinerea” was first conceived for a wine dinner for Chateau Y’quem where the chefs were asked to create a dish to best match the flavour profile of the wine. The name itself of course refers to the noble rot which is essential in making this wine. More recently, the dish was featured as the final dish/ pressure test in the grand finale of Masterchef Australia. This is really an interesting dish to eat because if you were to eat it blindfolded, it does taste like eating a slice of stilton with a glass of sauternes. The dish is not overly sweet and there are plenty of savoury elements to balance the sweetness on the plate. I’m not wrong in saying that this dish has become a modern classic for the Fat Duck.
This was followed by an after dinner digestif in the form of “Whisk(e)y Gums”. The dish remains relatively the same from when I last visited except for the Jack Daniels wine gum replaced by one developed during the temporary relocation to Australia (Lark Distillery). The taste of the individual whiskeys were pronounced and if you are an avid whiskey drinker, you could easily tell them apart. Admittedly I am not a big fan of the wine gums for that very reason as I am not into my whiskey, although I appreciate the work that has gone into creating them as they had a soft, luscious texture.
The final dessert “Counting Sheep” is inspired by… baby powder. I kid you not. The lighting had been completely dimmed down to indicate it was time for bed. First, we were presented with spoons, with a fluffy, soft handle which had been dusted with Johnsons baby powder. A floating pillow is then brought to the table. Sitting on top were two ‘milk and cookies’ meringues. This was then followed by the a ‘white’ dessert of tonka bean pannacotta, orange blossom and crystalized white chocolate. The pannacotta (hidden within a vanilla sponge) had amazing texture and the combination of different flavours including an unannounced coconut sorbet played well with each another. Another fantastic new dish.
Our waitress would proceed to push the miniature doll house which had been sitting in the corner to our table. The doll house is modeled after the Fat Duck building. She asked for the coin which had been given to us earlier during our meal. Once the house had been opened, the coin was inserted and some mechanical wizardry followed resulting in the petit fours being dispensed to us. The sweets were placed in a little pink bag which scented to smell like a sweetshop. The “OxChoc” was a new addition to the other petit fours (Queen of Hearts jam tart, apple pie caramel and aerated mandarin chocolate). We also received an additional tailor made treat based on our pre-dinning questionnaire. I think it is also worth mentioning that the restaurant has an impressive tea list, including a vintage Pu-Erh. I was very impressed that great care was taken to brew the tea properly, especially when rare tea leaves are used.
I find it very tricky to judge my meal at the Fat Duck as a returning diner. What makes Heston’s food so great is that not only does it taste fantastic, but it connects with the diner at a personal level, whether it is channeling the inner child in you or drawing from your happiest memories. After all, most people would have visited the seaside but each person will have different memories of that trip. It was pretty evident with the new breakfast inspired dish when they presented me with a copy of a ‘newspaper’ reminding us of our trips to Hong Kong. I automatically pictured myself sat in Cafe Causette at the Mandarin Oriental tucking into my breakfast. Obviously as a returning diner, some of the magic which made my first visit here unforgettable were lost this time around. I still remember how the little details like the ticking of the clock when the fob watches were presented just blew my mind away. Yet, these little details were less impressive on this visit because I knew what to expect.
The new dishes which we tried were all very impressive. The aforementioned breakfast dish alongside the rockpooling and forest dish were my favourite dishes during this visit. In most cases, it felt like these new dishes were ideas from older concepts which have finally been fully realized. The forest dish, as mentioned previously, draws on the ideas from the old quail jelly dish and feels like a more complete dish. The use of the mood lighting to set the scene for different times of the day may be a touch gimmicky but works for me. What was disappointing however was that because of this new feature, the restaurant were unable to accommodate a request for the classic ‘Bacon & Egg Ice Cream’ dish.
At £255 per person even before drinks or service, the Fat Duck is one of the most expensive restaurants in England, with only 2* Araki in London surpassing that. This is a significant hike from what I paid on my previous visit (£180). To a certain degree, the price hike is justified with the use of more luxurious ingredients. There were more dishes which utilized black truffles and caviar. The new dishes themselves were also more elaborate which would mean more chefs required to prep them. At the same time, £255 is more expensive than some of the 3* restaurants in Paris (where dining is hardly cheap). This brings me back full circle to my initial point – the food at the Fat Duck is made even more special by the magic and theatre around each dish. Because of the nature of the menu where the dishes revolve slowly, and completely new dishes are introduced very infrequently a returning diner is bound to encounter many unchanged dishes from their previous visit, even if that visit was 2 years ago. Of course this will not be a problem for many diners from whom the Fat Duck is a once in a lifetime experience. For that person, the first visit to the Fat Duck is magical, mind-blowing and life changing. If you have never visited the Fat Duck, even at £255, this is an experience that is worth saving up for.
* I find the booking ‘Terms and Conditions’ rather draconian. You can cancel up to 28 days before your booking. If you do, the restaurant will try to resell your tickets online. If they are able to do so, you will get your money refunded. If they aren’t able to resell your tickets, then you are out of luck. If you wish to cancel with less than 28 days before your booking the restaurant will not refund you the money, even if they resell your table! In fact, once you have made a booking you are not allowed to change your dining date even if there are spaces available on your alternative dining date. I appreciate that no-shows will always be a problem for restaurants and the rules are there to protect their business but their policy does not take into consideration that life happens.
** Unlike many restaurants in the past where the bread would simply be bought in, the Fat Duck would contract out the bread making to an independent baker (e.g. Boulangerie de Paris) who would bake their bread using a specific recipe which had been developed by their kitchen. This probably explains why the bread tastes a lot better than the regular bought-in bread encountered in other restaurants.
*** The venison cracker idea is not new – the technique has been featured previously in one of his pigeon dishes as a pigeon cracker. I once spent a day working in the kitchen of the Square, a supposed ‘birthday gift’ from my fiancee. One of the pastry chefs working there had recently worked at the Fat Duck and was keen on replicating the pigeon cracker to serve as a canape. I was tasked with making said pigeon cracker (the process is pretty similar to making prawn crackers) which started with passing the finely pureed pigeon meat through a tamis. You know, because it is fine dining so you don’t want any sinew in your crackers do you? While passing meat through a tamis looks easy on TV (I blame you Masterchef Professionals) in reality it is pretty laborious. By the end of it, my hands were cramping up. It is safe to say that after completing that task, I have never looked at the humble cracker in the same way again.