Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park,
London SW1X 7LA
Tel. 020 7201 3833
Food type: British
Nearest tube: Knightsbridge
Website: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
I can’t believe it has taken me this long to visit Dinner. Part of the problem is that obtaining a reservation (on short notice) is tricky, in no part due to the restaurant being listed on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The other reason is that it is easier for me to get to Bray (also known as Heston land) where I have the choice of dining at the Crown, the Hind’s Head or the Fat Duck. If I wanted the whole Heston experience, the Fat Duck was the only option while if I wanted something casual I could just as easily go to the Hind’s Head. Dinner sits somewhere in between casual and fine dining. After all it was opened with the concept of what it would be like if Heston would open a Bistro. You have formal, fine-dining service but at the same time you are still able to order a ‘simple’ plate of steak and chips. However, after many years of ‘not bothering’, we decided to pop in one Sunday afternoon for a lazy lunch.
The restaurant is located at the rear of the Mandarin Oriental – a smart choice given its view of Hyde Park. This space was previously occupied by Foliage although the room looks a lot more spacious than what I remember. The kitchen is visible in full view from the dining room as is the rotisserie, with whole pineapples roasting away. The tables are bare with no table-cloth in sight. The menu here is inspired by historical British dishes dating as far back as 1390, when the first cookbook was written in English (The Forme of Cury). Heston has drawn inspiration from many of these old recipes and updated them for the modern palate, although on many occasions, the associations with the original dish is very loose at best. On the back of the menu, there is a list of the cookbook the original recipe first appeared in. You can read a lot more about many of the dishes featured here in the ‘Historic Heston’ book. Despite the name of the restaurant, it is Heston’s right hand man Ashley Palmer-Watts who does the day-to-day cooking.
I began my meal with a dish called Frumenty. Dating back to medieval times, the dish involves boiled, cracked wheat and was more commonly served as a sweet dish*, although savoury versions with meat also exists. The original dish looks more like a bowl of porridge you eat in the morning. Heston’s version is a very loose iteration of the dish with spelt and smoked sea broth as the main components of the dish. Alongside are two generous chunks of grilled octopus which had been slow-cooked to achieve a soft, melt in the mouth texture. I absolutely loved the umami packed broth, the smoke element well controlled, with lovely bursts of acidity coming from the pickled dulse.
My fiancée tried the rice & flesh – which Heston has adopted as his version of a risotto a la Milanese. Interestingly, the original dish does not call for any meat, with the ‘flesh’ element referring to the meat stock used in cooking the rice. Heston also employs the use of acidulated butter, an element he learnt from Guiltier Marchesi during his ‘In Search of Perfection’ series to create a risotto which is a lot lighter.** The risotto had a lovely texture, with the individual grains of rice keeping its integrity and having a little bite to it. The use of saffron was well judged, with just enough added to give the dish a lovely perfume but avoiding the awful metallic taste that can afflict many dishes when used with reckless abandon. Heston has added a few pieces of calf’s tail, slow cooked until falling off the bone, before being rewarmed in a red wine sauce to give the dish another dimension. This has to be one of the best risotto in England.
It would be foolish to come to Dinner and not indulge in a portion of their signature dish Meat Fruit. I won’t bother you with the details because I am sure you have read about this dish enough. A chicken and foie gras parfait is encased with a jelly to resemble a mandarin orange. Despite all the culinary wizardry that has been used to replicate a mandarin, the dish was more impressive to eat. The parfait had a texture which can only be described as ‘like eating a cloud’. It was smooth, velvety, light, airy and yet had intense flavour of the liver. The jelly encasing the parfait also served a purpose – flavoured with mandarin, it had the necessary acidity and sweetness to balance the richness of the parfait. This dish definitely lives up to its status as the signature dish of the restaurant.
For mains, I tried the spiced pigeon with artichokes. Two pigeon breasts were cooked with various spices (allspice, star anise and coriander seeds) in a water bath before being finished on a plancha. The result was pigeon which was beautifully pink with a lovely seared exterior. The artichokes were also cooked in a similar manner, sous vide with a little vegetable stock before being caramelised. What tied the dish together was a lovely pigeon sauce finished with a little ale giving it a complex flavour profile which was meaty, hoppy, sweet, bitter and umami.
My fiancee chose the more boring option of steak & triple cooked chips which came with some mushroom ketchup. This is an old Heston standby – steak with bone marrow is also featured at the Crown and the Hind’s Head. Yet for some reason, the execution here seems so much more precise. After all it is steak and chips. You have had it before, time and time again. The steak was (predictably) cooked in a water bath before being finished on the plancha. But what really impressed me was the degree of caramelisation that was achieved while keeping the meat pink. Even with the best intentions of sous vide cooking, placing it on the hob for a substantial amount of time to achieve a lovely caramelised crust would inevitably affect the core temperature of the meat. I suspect the meat had been slightly underdone in the water bath to allow it to spend more time on the plancha. The triple cooked chips, a technique which Heston popularised and is now often replicated all over, was as perfect as chips will ever be. Also, if you have not tried the mushroom ketchup, you have not lived.
At this point, we had consumed a substantial amount of food. However we could not resist the lure of those pineapples spit-roasting away. In all honesty, we had already placed an order for the tipsy cake at the start of our meal. In a small cast iron pot was a small brioche, soaked in Sauternes (hence the tipsy moniker) and caramelised with a lovely sugar crust. I mean, how good can baked brioche be anyways? The answer to that is un-f*cking-believable. The brioche had the texture of a cloud yet having absorbed a substantial amount of the sweet sauternes nectar. On the side was a little wedge of roast pineapple which is as good as roast pineapple will ever be.
We also tried the brown bread ice cream, a mix of savoury and sweet. I applaud any chef who has the confidence of serving ice cream as a dessert – it is often now relegated to the role of accompaniment. The ice cream had a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel with a complex symphony of yeasty, malty and molassesy flavours. The clever addition of little pieces of juicy, refreshing pear was much-needed to balance and counterpoint to the savoury ice cream. For me, the genius in the dish lies in the subtle addition of lemon zest with gave a much needed freshness.
As an additional treat, we indulged in some nitro-ice cream, churned table side. Our server informs us there are only four of the special ice-cream churning machines – two residing here in London, while the other two in Melbourne (at the Crown where Heston’s outpost resides). There was also a selection of condiments to accompany ice cream. Hint, choose the freeze-dried raspberries. It is all for a bit of fun and theatre but at £8 a pop, probably overpriced for what it is. A final treat of earl grey infused chocolate ganache with a caraway shortbread was fine but by this point we were past the point of full.
We really enjoyed our meal at Dinner. The cooking and execution is flawless and the food delicious. The perfect execution of the dishes is unsurprising given that the menu here is at best described as ‘slowly revolving’. Of course, this comes at a price as an experience here is not cheap – this is the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge after all. If you come here with the preconception that this is the 7th best restaurant in the world, as suggested by the World’s 50 Best list (a list which is a complete joke anyway compiled as much by popularity vote and hype as much as cooking merit) then you will be grossly disappointed. Taken for what it was set out to be in the first place – a posh bistro – you will have an excellent time.
* Back in Medieval times, it was common for sweet dishes and desserts to be served alongside savoury dishes. The use of sugar in many historical dishes, often in excessive amounts, was as much a show of one’s status symbol (sugar was a prized commodity and in today’s money would cost roughly £50 for a pound) as it was that the tastebuds of people during that time were dulled due to the use of lead pipes for water transportation.
** The acidulated butter removes the need for the addition of onions and wine early on in the cooking of the risotto. The acidity from the butter added at the end of the cooking process (during the mantecatura) reduces the amount of Parmesan (which in itself has some amount of acidity) used, giving the dish a lighter texture.