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January 15, 2010

The Fat Duck

Filed under: Food, The List, UK 2009 — anotherheader @ 10:18 pm

Nitro-scrambled eggs being prepared tablesie at Le Corpulent Canard

After a journey by the three T’s of London’s transportation infrastructure, the Tube, the Train, and the Taxi, we arrived in Bray.  At the Maidenhead train station, we connected with G&C and continued on to The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s legendary three Michelin starred restaurant.  We arrived early for our 1:30 pm reservation at The Obese Waterfowl.

The Fat Duck's signboard

It was my third visit to The Fat Duck.  I was confident we would be in for a treat.  G&C have been to “El Pato Gordo” countless times and knew what to expect.  Becky was the one at the table with intact Corpulent Canard* virginity.

Along with El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, Blumenthal is famous for employing of food chemistry techniques or “Molecular Gastronomy” in his food preparation.  The scientific techniques result in intensely flavored food.  But, beyond the kitchen’s chemistry magic, inventive presentations are used that are designed to bring in all of the diner’s senses.  Smells, sounds, textures, and temperatures are all employed to challenge and expand the dining experience.  The science behind the dish creation has a particular appeal to our table of chemists.  But make no mistake; if we knew nothing about science, if we weren’t all nerds at heart, this would still be an excellent meal.  And, to be fair to Blumenthal, many of The Duck’s offerings have little to do with molecular gastronomy and much more to do with use of all of the senses to manipulate perception of food.  I my opinion, it is this, Blumenthal’s exploitation of the science of sensory perception in the food experience, that sets The Fat Duck apart.  But I’m getting ahead of the story of our visit….

"Lime Grove" being prepared in liquid nitrogen tableside

In Bray, The Fat Duck occupies the lower floor of a 16th century building.  Unless you spy the duck-themed cooking utensils hanging from a sign rail, the restaurant is hard to spot.  Inside, the restaurant is small with a low, dark, roughly hewn wood beamed ceiling.  Watch your head.  The wood beams are a little over six feet above the floor.  (I know this because I sacrificed a piece of my scalp and a bunch of blood measuring the height during our visit.)  The dining room seats only 40.  We arrived early for our reservation and were seated.

Ready for lunch

At the Pudgy Water Bird, only a fixed menu is offered.  So, aside from the wine selections, ordering was easy.  We placed our order, with adjustments for dietary preferences, and made our wine choices (wine pairings for Becky and myself; a bottle for Catherine and Ganesan).

Our meal started with a palate cleanser, “Lime Grove” on the menu, which consisted of a liquid nitrogen-formed ball of green tea and lime mousse.  The mousse was “poached” in a Dewar flask at the table by the wait staff, dusted with powdered green tea, and served with an insistence of immediate consumption.  Lime scent was sprayed into the air as the mousse was being served to complete the dish.  The minds behind the food at the Wallowing Quacker endeavor to make eating a multi-sensory experience.  They research and repeatedly test all of restaurants offerings.  Lime Grove was a success.  Full lime flavors come through from both the mousse and the airborne scent.  This entry dish cleared the mind and the palate for the long meal ahead.

Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery-Grain Mustard Ice Cream

The next item on the menu was one of my favorites, “Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery-Grain Mustard Ice Cream.”  For sure it is unusual to see an ice cream so early in a meal, but this offering from the kitchen definitely worked.  The intensity of flavors in the inky-dark purple-red cabbage gazpacho is astounding.  It is as if the flavor of a whole head of red cabbage, with its mild bitterness and slight sulfur smell, had been concentrated into a single spoonful of liquid.  And perhaps it had.  There might well have been some molecular gastronomy magic going on here.  Contrasting the slight tartness of the cabbage soup was the gentle sweetness of the creamy-cold mustard seed ice cream.  The biting, pungent flavors of the mustard were mellowed by the sweetness of the ice cream and the small seeds provided a textural accent for the dish.  Small pieces of a slightly bitter, crisp cucumber floated in the gazpacho giving another integral flavor and textural contrast.  There was only one problem with the dish—there was not enough!

Not to worry, though, we’d get plenty to eat.

The dry ice fog from the service of Jelly of Quail, Cream of Crayfish Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast

The inventiveness and playfulness that Heston Blumenthal is known for was on full display with the next dish–Jelly of Quail, Cream of Crayfish Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel).  Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that Alain Chapel is a French, Michelin three-starred chef credited as being one of the originators of Nouvelle Cuisine.  Service starts with a savory film served in a plastic container placed on a bed of moss.  The moss is not just about the visual element of the presentation.  As the dish is being consumed, the wait staff pours water onto the oak moss bed that is suspended over a container of dry ice.  When the solid carbon dioxide vaporizes, the strong forest-floor smells of the moss are pushed out and spread over our table creating a perfect counter point to the intensely savory flavors of the jelly, parfait, and toast.  This one dish sums up why the dining experience at the Fat Duck is special.  In some restaurants, a presentation as elaborate as this would be more of a gimmick than functional.  But, in this case, every part of the presentation, every part of the dish, had its role in the sensory experience.  Without the smell of the oak moss liberated by the sublimation of the dry ice, the dish would have been more ordinary.

Roast Foie Gras with Cherry Puree, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit

Next on the menu is Roast Foie Gras with Cherry Puree, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit.  This is a straightforward dish, devoid of obvious bells and whistles.  I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of foie gras.  It’s not a food ethics thing.  Instead I just feel that foie gras is a massively overused ingredient at high-end restaurants.  It almost seems like it is a required ingredient.  Do chefs assume that the diners be disappointed if their meal does not include foie?   At the Michelin two and three star restaurants we have visited, foie gras is the single protein that is most likely on the tasting menu.  It is more likely that you will find foie gras than lobster, beef, lamb, or pork.  Yes, it does have a unique texture and flavor.  But is it so good an ingredient that it transcends all others?  For me the answer is simply no.  A foie gras dish almost seems like a mail in, brain dead choice.  It is annoying to see foie gras take the place of another, maybe more interesting and unusual, ingredient that could have been used.

I just had to get that off my chest.  But that is enough of the diatribe on foie gras at high-end restaurants.  The dish in hand at the Fat Duck (hum, maybe with that name, they have to include foie gras on the menu) was good, very good indeed.  The foie itself was prepared in a manner that left it light and airy.  The classic fruit combinations were intense and exceptionally well executed.  In the end, I guess my foie gras rant doesn’t apply so much to this meal.  Sorry about that.

Mock Turtle Soup "Mad Hatter Tea" before the addition of the broth

Next to come out to the table was the “Mock Turtle Soup ‘Mad Hatter Tea.’”  This elaborate take on an old English standard starts with the generation of the bullion at the table.  The wait staff pours hot water onto a gold foil covered packet that expands to produce the stock.  This stock is then poured over a collection of beautifully presented ingredients.  The result is a comforting, savory soup punctuated by the intense saltiness of the piece of pork.  To me, the taste is satisfying but the primary appeal of this dish is the beautiful presentation.

Sounds of the Sea

The food service at the Overfed Waterfowl explores the interplay between all of the senses and the minds memory and recall in the eating experience.  An example of this is the “Sounds of the Sea,” the next item on the menu.  With this dish, a variety of sea items—seaweed, sashimi, salty foam, sea beans—are combined on a plate that gives the appearance that they were all just washed up on the beach.  (Becky, who wandered beaches extensively in her youth, did not find this element of the presentation to be attractive or appetizing.)  Along with the dish, the staff brought us a conch shell that contained a small MP3 player.  We were instructed to place the ear buds in our ears before were started the dish.  Perhaps it is a coincidence, but as soon as I could hear the sounds of the surf coming from the player, an intense seaside smell came through.  The staff told us that the kitchen does frequent tests to find these sensory synergies.  In this case, the result worked for me.  The dish, with what at first seems to be a merely gimmicky sound effect, expresses the essence of the sea.

Becky modeling the Sounds of the Sea ear buds

“Salmon Poached in Liquorice–White Truffle, Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil” describes the next dish on the menu.  G&C reminded me that I likely had this dish before on the prior visits.  That seems about right and I suspect that it was not my favorite on previous encounters.  This time, however, I did like the dish, though G&C still had their reservations.  On the plate, a mild black liquorice layer coats the soft fattiness of the poached salmon with the other ingredients serving as flavor accents.  It is a unique flavor combination but the soft, almost mushy texture can be off putting.  Still, though it is not my favorite, it is an interestingly good dish.

Salmon Poached in Liquorice--White Truffle, Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil

Up next was “Powdered Anjou Pigeon (c. 1720), Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles.”  At the same time, Becky had an alternative dish—“ Braised Pork Belly with savoy cabbage, lardo from Colonnato, and Pearled Spelt.”  These were our last savory courses.  I tasted both dishes and, though both were good, preferred the Pigeon.  There is no apparent kitchen magic on either of these dishes; both are savory, tasty, and succulent.

Powdered Anjou Pigeon (c. 1720), Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles

Our desserts started with “Flaming Sorbet,” though this is not named on the menu we were given at the end of the meal.  The menu foul up of this sort is the type of missed detail that could lead to a front of the house member at this echelon of restaurant to fall on their sword.  This is a new dessert for The Obese Waterfowl and, probably more than any other dish, shows the mastery of both food science and aesthetic appeal.  The apple “sorbet” contains gellan, a water-soluble polysaccharide that sets when heated.  This sorbet is placed on a bed of caramelized apples in an iron pot.  A mixture of Scotch Whiskies is poured over the top of the “sorbet” and set a fire.  The flame heats the apples and, at the same time, sets the sorbet.  The iron pot is curiously ringed by a link of short wood stems and held on a red leather platter.  With a splash of warm water that vaporizes a reservoir of dry ice held below, the dish is ready at the table.  In a manner similar to the earlier dish, “Jelly of Quail, Cream of Crayfish Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel),” sublimation of the dry ice brings the leather and wood odors out to the diner’s noses.  The combination evokes Blumenthal’s intent to bring the smell of his uncle’s drawing room, with leather chairs, a wood fire, and glasses of Scotch Whisky, to the dining table.  I’ve worked with dry ice many times but was unaware that it could be used to push smells out of a surface such as leather or moss.

As near as I can figure, the Corpulent Canard’s dry ice service trick is a result of the volume expansion that occurs when the cold solid vaporizes on contact with the water.  The solid to gas transition results in a massive volume increase around 550-fold.  (A solid cup of dry ice produces about 34 gallons of carbon dioxide gas.)  Aroma molecules that volatilize off a surface such as the moss bed or leather are at much higher concentrations near a surface.  These odors would be caught up by the mass action of the expanding gas and pushed towards the diner’s noses.  At the table, the result is impressive.  You’d have to put your nose very near to the “odor” emitting surface to get the same intensity of smell.

The dry ice fog rolling off of the "Flaming Sorbet"

I couldn’t find any discussion of this phenomenon on the Internet.  Curious about the origin of this service technique, I contacted The Fat Duck for background information.  My information request was forwarded to Stefan Cosser in the Duck’s development kitchen.  From his reply, it appears that The Fat Duck’s kitchen came across this effect on its own:

“We use dry ice for the jelly of quail and flaming sorbet to ‘carry’ the aromas. I think this is as you said because of the evaporative expansion of the dry ice when warm water is poured over it. I’m not sure if this is well known but we have used it for some time now to “release” aromas.

I would be interested to hear if you do come across this some where else!”

Taffety Tart (c1660)--Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon

“Taffety Tart (c1660)–Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon” is the description on the menu for the next dessert.  There is no obvious kitchen science on this one.  Or at least the magic is not on display at the tableside.  The dish is just a classic combination of sweet and tart with strong aromatics from the fennel and rose and textural contrast between the crisp wafer and the creamy “ice cream like substances.”  (One never trusts ones identification of the origin of the cold service items at “Die Fette Ente.”)  Perhaps this was not my favorite dish from the visit, but it still is a good, refreshing course.

Some say that one dessert is sufficient.  Those people do not design the tasting menu at the Overfed Water Bird.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that “those people” are not even allowed into the Duck’s building.  They may not even be allowed in the village of Bray.  And hence, our next menu item, “The Not-So-Full English Breakfast—Parsnip Cereal, Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, Hot & Iced Tea,” appeared at our table.  This was my third time to try this dish over the years.  The English Breakfast has clearly evolved and this was the best version that I have tried.

Scrambling eggs in liquid nitrogen at the tableside

I believe that dessert makes a perfectly good breakfast, so why can’t breakfast make a perfectly good dessert?

The English Breakfast is perhaps the most famous of all of the Fat Duck’s offerings.  It starts with parsnip flakes and what I believe is parsnip milk.  I guess that it is not a surprise that this offering really tastes like parsnips.  Following the “Parsnip Cereal” is the “Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream,” a dish that is nearly always mentioned in write-ups about The Fat Duck.  The wait staff brings special “eggs” to the table.  Chicken eggs have had their contents drained with a syringe and refilled with a particularly eggy ice cream mixture.  These refilled eggs are individually cracked at the tableside and tossed in liquid nitrogen held in a Dewar flask.  Rapidly freezing the ice cream mixture in liquid nitrogen results in small ice crystals.  This creates a particularly smooth and rapidly melting egg ice cream with the appearance of scrambled eggs.  The “scrambled eggs” are served on a perfect little piece of French Toast with a sliver of dehydrated maple and salt cured pancetta.

Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream from the English Breakfast

In the mouth, this dish is all about the contrasts.  The salt of the pancetta contrasts the sweet of the egg ice cream and the maple syrup of the pancetta cure.  Ultra smooth and spongy meets ultra crunchy when the ice cream and French Toast stand against the crisp pancetta.  The chill of the egg custard ice cream rolls over the warmth of the toast.  But none of this is without intense flavor.  The “ice cream” tastes of eggs.  You could even be convinced that it is eggs, maybe just sweetened a little.  And the pancetta sliver is salty pork at its best.  Is it breakfast?  Is it dessert?  Maybe the only difference is the time of day and the size of the portions.

(It all sounds complicated to prepare.  But, as you can see in the link, nearly any minimally trained home cook with a week or so of spare time can repeat this dish:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/3346329/Heston-Blumenthals-Big-Fat-Duck-cookbook-is-put-to-the-test.html)

All that remained for our meal was the “Whisk(e)y Wine Gums,” bottle-shaped gummy bears strongly flavored with whiskies from around world.  After we paid our prodigious bill (the weak dollar definitely doesn’t help here) and collected our “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop” treats, we were back in the taxi moving through the dark on our way back to London.

Our “lunch” had ended at nearly 6 pm, 4 and a half hours after it began.  The upside of the gastronomic display was that there was not much need for a dinner when your lunch finishes at 6 pm.

So, how was it overall?  This was my third visit, and it was definitely the best.  Though the menu has changed minimally, the food and the service have been refined over the years.  Though Blumenthal has stepped away from the day-to-day operation of the restaurant, the style remains and the food continues to evolve.  Indeed, the flavors seemed stronger and more intense.  The combinations are better balanced and dishes work better.

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums

The Fat Duck is ranked number two on the San Pelligrino list of the best restaurants in the world, behind El Bulli.  For me, the elite restaurant experiences have been Mugaritz, The French Laundry (two visits), El Bulli, and The Fat Duck (three visits).  The French Laundry is the most traditional of this bunch—everything is just prepared to perfection.  Mugaritiz is the most inventive taste experience of the four restaurants with unique and intriguing flavor combinations.  El Bulli is over the top in technical creativity and presentation.  The whole El Bulli experience, start to finish, is incomparable.  The Fat Duck might sit just a tick below El Bulli in terms of technical virtuosity, but the food tastes better at the Corpulent Canard.

At The Fat Duck, the flavors, though familiar, are intense.  The combinations work perfectly.  And the seemingly gimmicky service tricks really do work to enhance the food experience.  It would be hard to argue that The Fat Duck is not the best restaurant in the western world.  I’d eat at Mugaritz, The French Laundry, El Bulli, or The Fat Duck at every opportunity.  But if I had to choose one, it would be The Fat

Napkins for clean up at the end of the meal

Duck.  But I do need more data and many more trials to determine exactly which restaurant in the western world is the best.  It’s a tough job, really tough.  This is a hard choice and important choice, but I’m up for the challenge.   I’m willing to sacrifice my self for the cause.  There’s one thing, though.  I’ll I need a deep pocket sponsor to fund my pilgrimage so I can do this properly.  Are there any volunteers?



* See what happens when you search “Corpulent Canard” on Google.

Pictures:

http://picasaweb.google.com/AnotherHeader/TheFatDuck#

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6 Comments »

  1. […] The Fat Duck […]

    Pingback by London: St. Paul’s Cathedral « Another Header — January 15, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

  2. I particularly like the pics of the scrambling of the eggs. There is a weird “stepping” effect to the blur that’s a bit distracting though. Is that in the originals?

    Comment by Scott — January 15, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    • You get what you pay for….

      Yes, it is in the original. The exposure took about 1/6th of a second. If I’m looking at the same thing as you in the picture, I see 8 or 9 steps which would be consistent with the 50 Hz electrical power and fluorescent lights in the restaurant.

      Comment by anotherheader — January 15, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

  3. […] The Fat Duck*** […]

    Pingback by The Best Restaurant in the World? « Another Header — February 25, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

  4. Hi, we are french (so, sorry for my english) and we are very interested in Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream from the English Breakfast. We would like using the photograph in our blog (with the credits, of course) Is it possible ? Thanks in advance for your answer. Our blog : http://gazette.meilleurduchef.com/

    Regards

    Sonia

    Comment by Sonia — May 21, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    • Yes, go ahead.

      Comment by anotherheader — May 24, 2014 @ 7:51 pm


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