As the first London venture of Heston Blumenthal, Dinner caused not so much a stir as a whirlwind in the press. Ashley Palmer-Watts has long been Heston’s right-hand man at the Fat Duck, and here in what used to be the premises of Foliage he gets to spread his wings. The room itself is a big improvement on Foliage, as in particular the level of the room has been raised to provide a decent view over Hyde Park. The dining room seats 110 at full capacity, and has an open kitchen. A centre-piece of the room is a rotisserie being turned by an elaborate clockwork mechanism, a flight of fancy but one that seems to reflect Heston Blumenthal’s considerable imagination and evident fascination with gadgets.
The dishes draw on the rich but often neglected culinary heritage that Britain possesses, with the menu carefully noting the origin of each dish, many prior to the 18th century. There is a set lunch menu at £28, while on the a la carte the starters ranged from £12.50 to £16, main courses from £20 to £36, sides dishes were priced at £4 and desserts were £8.50 to £10.
The wine list was extensive, with plenty of coverage of France at all levels, and some good growers from elsewhere. There is very little of any real quality below £50 on the list (though there was a decent Shiraz at £29, which we drank). La Madone Vielle Vignes 2009 was £45 for a wine that you can buy in a shop for around £14, and similarly Muscat Reserve 2009 from Trimbach was £45 as against a retail price of about £15. Condrieu les Chaillets 2006 was relatively kindly marked up at £95 for a wine that will set you back £44 to buy, while the lovely Didier Daguenau Silex 2006 was £195 compared to a shop price of around £87. At the higher end of the list, Lynch Bages 1989 was £575 for a wine that retails at about £250, and Chateau Latour 1982 was listed at £3,750 compared to a retail price of £1,870. Overall this is not the priciest wine list in London by any means, but does not compare favourably to that of, say, the Square in terms of mark-ups. Bread is from the Bread Factory, and the sourdough slices in particular were very good as bought-in bread goes (5/10), but it would be nice to see the kitchen making its own bread.
The “meat fruit” is based on a long tradition (seemingly dating back as early as the 13th century) at banquets of surprising diners with a feint as to the apparent food content. Here an “orange”, complete with decorative ruscus leaf appears; in fact it is a layer of mandarin jelly encasing a chicken liver parfait. What I liked about this dish was not so much the wit of the dish as the sheer quality of the parfait, which had lovely smooth texture, rich chicken liver flavour and enough acidity from the mandarin to cut through the richness (8/10). This was served with grilled mini-baguette.
Lamb broth was poured over a slow-cooked hens egg with radish, turnip, celery and sweetbreads coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried (panko breadcrumbs are made from crustless bread and have a crisper texture than regular breadcrumbs). The sweetbreads were excellent and the broth had real depth of flavour, as well as being precisely seasoned (7/10).
Roast scallops were served with cucumber ketchup and borage. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison as I had fabulous scallops the day before this at Ledoyen in Paris, but I found this the least interesting dish, the scallops pleasant and cooked properly, but not of the highest quality, though the cucumber ketchup was an interesting touch (5/10). The kitchen goes to some trouble with its food suppliers, using three separate fish suppliers in order to keep a consistent standard, but it must be tough to get sufficient quantity of high grade seafood day in and day out given the size of this restaurant.
Salamugundy is an 18th century dish which has been interpreted very successfully at The Sportsman as a salad dish. The version here is served as a warm salad and involves chicken oysters, horseradish and onion cream, salsify and roasted bone marrow. I liked the chicken oysters but the salad leaves left something to be desired (the Sportsman grow their ingredients in their garden, which clearly is not practical here), while I would have liked a little more kick from the horseradish (5/10).
Perhaps my favourite dish was “rice and flesh”, a saffron risotto made with red wine, calf tail and garnished with red amaranth. The risotto was technically superb, cooked initially with a vegetable stock and then finished with a chicken bouillon (a vegetarian version is available that simply uses the vegetable stock for the second stage). Purists may prefer the rice to be cooked all in one go, but the logistics of this are tough in such a large kitchen, and the result here was a lovely risotto that plenty of top Italian restaurants would be proud of (8/10).
“Powdered duck” (which involves curing with salt) was served with smoked fennel and potato puree, and although the meat had good flavour and was carefully cooked, it was hard to get really excited about this dish (6/10). Spiced pigeon with artichokes was better, the pigeon having excellent flavour (7/10). The meat is supplied from Knightsbridge butcher Jack O’Shea, which has long supplied the Fat Duck with its meat.
Wing rib of beef was served on a wooden board, with mushroom ketchup and a rich red wine jus. The beef had lovely flavour and the fat was cooked through properly, allowing the depth of flavour of the meat to come through (8/10). On the side were some chips. Triple-cooking seems to me to be the best way to make chips; Heston did not invent the technique but has popularised it, and here the execution was superb. I liked that the chips were a little smaller than at the Fat Duck, with a perfectly crisp outside and properly cooked inside, with exactly the right amount of salt (9/10 is probably a mean score, as it hard to see what could be improved here).
Given the amount of food consumed so far cheese would have been pushing things, but for the record it is supplied from Neals Yard. Brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel yeast syrup is a dish that is not going to appeal to everyone. It is intriguing as you really do get a savoury taste of bread rather than the sweet taste that your palate expects from ice cream. It was technically well made but as a personal taste I prefer my desserts sweet (6/10). I doubt that most diners will have a neutral view on this dish, a sort of Marmite of desserts.
Chocolate bar with passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream had velvety chocolate, but I would have preferred more passion fruit taste to have come through, and more acidity to offset the richness of the chocolate; the ice cream had lovely texture and some ginger taste, about right for me (though my dining companion felt the ginger was a little too strong). This is certainly a rich dessert (6/10).
For me by far the best dessert was the “tipsy cake”, made using spit-roast pineapple and brioche soaked in sweet wine served in a cake tin. Both elements of the dish were genuinely gorgeous, the brioche soft and infused with gorgeous sweetness, the pineapple’s roasting process reducing its sharpness to provide a lovely balance to the dish: a delight (9/10). A ganache of white chocolate with Earl Grey tea served in a tea cup with a caraway biscuit was very rich, a bit too much so for me (5/10). Coffee was good, though at £4.50 I don’t think a second coffee should incur a second full charge.
Although there are still things that can (and doubtless will) be ironed out, it is hard not to like Dinner. Firstly, it would have been so easy for Heston to just knock out a Hinds Head-like bistro and wait for the money to roll in. I love that he and Ashley have aimed higher and chosen to celebrate the much-ignored history of British cooking. Moving beyond the concept, the sheer logistics of delivering pretty ambitious food on such a large scale (seven days a week, lunch and dinner) is impressive, requiring 45 chefs. Yet despite the considerable challenge this scale represents, I could not detect any significant technical fault throughout the meal. It was interesting that one dish had been taken off the menu because Ashley felt that the process was insufficiently consistent, and it is this sort of obsession with detail that shines through here. A lesser chef might be tempted to think “hey, the place is booked for months ahead, who will notice?”, but not here.
This is a very different kind of restaurant to the artisan cooking that is possible on a much smaller scale, and it is by no means as ingredients-driven as somewhere like The Sportsman, which I mention in this review because for me that represents some of the very best of British cooking at present, yet in an utterly different way to Dinner. With Dinner I admire the sheer technical skill on show, the playfulness and inventiveness of the dishes and the ambition being shown.
I think Dinner, while not flawless, is a terrific restaurant: I will definitely be coming back. I think that a 7/10 average score feels about right at present, but the best dishes are certainly higher than this, and I look forward to seeing the menu developing over time.