The Fat Duck is one of just four restaurants in Britain with three Michelin stars, which it has held since 2004. Heston Blumenthal has carved out a global reputation as one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy, applying science and modern kitchen techniques to his dishes. The menu now serves only a tasting menu. Heston has a building opposite the restaurant in which there is a prep kitchen, as well as an "experimental" kitchen, with various devices more usually seen in a lab e.g. a centrifuge and a distillation unit. There are 46 chefs working here, a very high ratio ratio for a 42 cover restaurant.
The dining room of the Fat Duck could never be accused of being luxurious, but it has a certain cosy charm. The low ceiling has wood beams on display, and a few bright abstract oil paintings to brighten up its plain white walls. The carpet is grey and chairs are very simple with mustard-coloured leather upholstery, yet are very comfortable. Lighting is from directed ceiling spots and works fine, despite the lack of natural light. There is a display of orchids as you enter and a large brick fireplace in which stands an modern sculpture. Each table has white linen tablecloths and napkins, and a single protea in a glass vase, as well as a bowl of pleasant green olives. Crockery is plain white and there is no music to distract from the food except in one particular course on the tasting menu, where an iPod is provided in a conch shell playing seaside sounds in order to set the scene for a seafood dish.
The wine list is literally a weighty affair, with 53 thick pages in a heavy binder. The list changes periodically and generally shows an astute choice of producers, though there are some gaps, and mark-ups are aggressive and at time verge on absurd. As one would expect, France is handled in depth, though the classic regions fare better than a rather superficial coverage of the south west, which has just a handful of wines such as Chateau Simone 2001 at £65 (retail price around £20). The fine regional red from Mas de Daumas Gassac 1994 is a lovely wine, but £177 for a wine that retails at £24 is a pretty obscene mark-up (nearly ten times retail price once you add service). It makes the superb Burgundy Etienne Sauzet 1996 at £895 for a wine that costs £250 in a shop seem a bargain. Spain has high-end coverage with five vintages of Vega Sicilia Unico e.g. 1991 at £450 for a wine that costs around £130 retail. Italy also shows attention to the high-end rather than bargains, with Antinori Solaia 2001 at £230 for a wine that retails at £118. There is just one Chilean red, and yet there are two wines from Slovenia. California includes Kistler Vine Hill 2003 at £220 (retail price £72). There are six whites and nine red wines by the glass, the cheapest being £11 but most being significantly more than this. Wine pairing comes in different forms, starting at £90 and moving in price to £165, £195 or £285 for fancier wines. Below are notes from my most recent meal.
The tasting menu is now (May 2010) £150. Today I tried this new menu; it has many elements from the old one, so I will comment mainly on the new dishes. The bread supplier has changed to Boulangerie de Paris, and the single choice of brown slices has a good crust and texture (17/20). At the beginning some olives are placed on the table, which are fine but are not the best olives that I have eaten.
The meal began with the “lime grove” palate cleanser of green tea and lime mousse poached in liquid nitrogen, then dusted with lime powder as the opening dish. Next was the red cabbage gazpacho with Pommery grain mustard ice cream. This was followed by my old favourite, the jelly of quail and cream of langoustine with pea puree with chicken liver parfait, the oak moss taste and truffle toast. Next was roast foie gras with gooseberry, braised konbu (Japanese seaweed) and crab biscuit. This dish worked really well, the crab biscuit giving a nice texture contrast to the foie gras, the konbu balancing the richness of the foie gras (19/20).
Mock turtle soup is a new dish, and shows Heston at his most theatrical and imaginative. A watch fob of beef stock which has been concentrated and freeze dried is wrapped in edible gold leaf and shaped in a mould to look like a watch. This is placed in a tea cup, and diners are invited to pour the “tea”, in fact beef stock, over the watch fob, which melts the gold leaf and allows the concentrated flavour of the beef stock to emerge. Separately, a plate is brought which has ox tongue (in place of the turtle; mock turtle soup used to use a calve’s head) and a mock turtle egg made from swede and turnip. There are additionally some cubes of turnip, cucumber and black truffle, enochi mushrooms and baby parsley leaves. The “tea” is then poured over these elements to give the finished results. I liked this dish very much. The theatre of it was fun, and engages the customer, the Alice in Wonderland references are clever, and most importantly the end result tasted good, the stock having great flavour (20/20).
This was followed by the Sounds of the Sea dish, then salmon poached in liquorice with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise, golden trout roe and Manni olive oil, which I felt was never one of the better dishes here, but this is a lot to do with my personal taste rather than any technical issue. Next was a new dish that was being previewed, English lamb slow cooked with pomme puree and mustard, with on the side a "hot pot" made from the neck and shoulder of the lamb with its sweetbread, with cucumber juice, dill and onion confit. The lamb was beautifully cooked and the sauce of the cooking juices had lovely flavour; for me such a rich dish could perhaps have done with a little more balancing acidity, but it was most enjoyable (19/20).
We then had the “Christmas” dish as an extra course, which I have written about previously and I think is a real triumph of a dish. Following this was Taffaty tart (a recipe dating back to 1660) made with caramelised apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon; the flavours worked well together and this was prettily presented (18/20). This was followed by the well-established “breakfast” of parsnip cereal and milk, then scrambled egg “cooked” in liquid nitrogen, served with a thin strip of bacon. Finally chocolate “wine slush” (another ancient recipe) with “millionaire shortbread” was for me pleasant but not in the league of the earlier dishes (17/20). We finished with some wine gums of various flavours served on a framed map showing the historic trade routes of Britain. The last element were some sweets such as a much improved Aero chocolate. As ever, Eric Doerr was an excellent host, and the service was very good indeed.
Overall, it is good to see the menu evolving, and new dishes such as the Mock Turtle soup show real creativity, and the kind of effort on the plate that a staff of 46 chefs brings to a restaurant.
Below are notes from a meal in March 2008.
Maitre d’ Eric Doerr (who left in late 2009) is very impressive, carefully listening to customers and responding to their wishes in a low key way without any need for superficial charm. The service today was spot on, with even minor details such as the topping up of bread faultless. The Italian sommelier knows his list well and had sensible suggestions for pairing the wines, which at times must be a real challenge here.
Bread is not made here but bought in from the Bread Factory in London. Just white and brown slices are offered (as well as a walnut bread for the cheese) and although I am surprised they do not make their own bread they have at least chosen very well with their supplier: the bread had light, airy texture and an excellent crust (18/20). Today they were kind enough to let me deviate somewhat from the tasting menu and try a few dishes that were new to me here. As I have written at length about certain dishes before I won’t repeat myself, but concentrate on the (to me) new dishes and things that have changed.
Overall this was the best meal I have eaten at the Fat Duck, and indeed over my last three meals here the cooking has steadily improved, with dishes that may appear the same on the menu being carefully refined, while the pigeon in particular today being a superb addition to the menu. I wanted to have multiple meals here before adjusting the mark, but I have now increased the web-site mark here to 19/20 to reflect what I believe is a sustained increase in standard, more consistency in technical execution and a greater maturity of cooking being demonstrated in what was always an immensely inventive restaurant. To me Heston has pulled clearly ahead of other UK Michelin-starred chefs.
Notes below are from a meal in May 2007.
We began with the egg white with green tea, lime juice and vodka poached at the table in liquid nitrogen; you end up with something with roughly the consistency of a macaroon, and it is quite refreshing. Next we had an oyster in its shell in passion fruit jelly with lavender and supposedly horseradish cream, which I am not convinced works that well as the passion fruit taste overwhelms the oyster. A cold red cabbage soup was next, poured around a mustard ice cream; this worked very well, the flavours clear.
The best amuse-bouche was a jelly of quail was topped a with wonderfully silky parfait of foie gras, some langoustine mousse and pea puree adding a further dimension of taste. Here the ingredients worked beautifully together and the technique was flawless, the quail jelly having lovely texture and having enough quail flavour to offset the richness of the foie gras (20/20). This is not an original dish; it was invented many years ago at Alain Chapel in France but the execution here was pretty much faultless. This was better than butternut squash velouté with truffle garnished with chives that in itself was very good but was a little cold by the time they had finished pouring liquid nitrogen on a piece of turf ("from Highbury") placed in the middle of the table which was intended to add a smell of moss reminiscent of truffle but added exactly nothing to the dish in my view (18/20).
A risotto of cauliflower showed one of the few technical flaws, with rice that was simply too hard and had not been cooked as long as it should have been to absorb the stock. Dusting the dish with cocoa and a layer of chocolate jelly could not distract from what was just poor execution, which was compounded by an overly dry carpaccio of cauliflower as garnish. This dish was really only 15/20, a surprising lapse from a restaurant that generally shows very high class technique.
Much better were three slices of good quality scallops, roasted lightly and still sweet and moist, served on top of very good scallop tartare and garnished with white chocolate and caviar, as well as a few pea shoots. This is a dish that has been on the menu for a long time and deservedly so, the treatment with chocolate and caviar again not original but effective (19/20).
We then had the "Ipod dish" - the Sounds of the Sea, where you are presented with Ipods served in conch shells which play sounds of the sea (gulls etc). Then you are presented with a dish that tries to echo the beach. There are clams, cockles, abalone, razor clams and seaweed, deep fried baby eels and even "sand" made with tapioca which has been made with a chemical used to stop pastry going soft, which then has fat introduced to it, ending up with something that tastes a bit like popcorn. Personally I am unconvinced by this dish. The sounds did nothing for me but it is an interesting idea, I just didn't think that sand and seaweed make great tastes. As for the sound idea, I can't see it working so well with a lamb dish e.g. would people get in the mood with the "baa" sound of spring lambs just before they are slaughtered? I am going to call this omission the silence of the lambs.
My loin of pork was roasted beautifully with a crispy top and has excellent taste, the macaroni it was served with having excellent texture and being enriched with a reduction of the pork juices, (including the trotter). The couple of mushrooms served with this seemed rather an afterthought, though green cabbage was very good. Given all the richness involved I was surprised not to see something to offer balancing acidity, but there was no arguing with the fine technique here (19/20). Sole Veronique featured very well timed sole, served with champagne jelly containing grapes and radish slivers, and a little parsley foam, garnished with a tasty trellis of fried onion and accompanied by a little stack of genuinely top class chips (18/20).
The cheese board is supplied by Premiere Cheese, and it is clear that the cheeses are selected carefully, without trying to pile too many cheese on at the expense of condition. I sampled Brie, a blue cheese from Corsica, Epoisses in very good condition (not too ripe) and St Maure that had no hint of chalkiness (19/20). The only false note was a poor, under-ripe Comte.
Chocolate delice was a very well made slab of chocolate, served with excellent dark chocolate sorbet and cumin caramel. The base of the chocolate had a layer of popping candy to add a little sparkle on the tongue (19/20). Tarte tatin of apple was classical and superb, the pastry having delightful texture and the apples cooked through perfectly and nicely caramelised. I found the vanilla ice cream a fraction on the watery side but apparently this is deliberate (why I am not sure). The tart itself was hard to fault (20/20).
Coffee itself has good, strong flavour, but the tea menu is worth noting. I had a jasmine tea which was sold at no less that £12.50 for a pot of tea, which seems excessive even for a tea that retails at £176 a kilo. Other teas were less but still mostly over £8 a cup, with Assam at £6.50 a cup. Petit fours were a chocolate in the style of an old Aero bar but coated with a layer of high quality chocolate, while two violet tarts were well made. There was also an apple and caramel mousse with an edible transparent wrapping made from caramel. An innovation which worked fairly well were little jellies made from five different brands of malt whisky (Glenlivet, Highland Park, Oban, Laphroaig and Jack Daniels) in which the particular whisky tastes came through clearly. 18/20 overall for the petit fours.
Here are notes on the tasting menu in June 2005.
The tasting menu began with a "breath freshener" of an egg white infused with green tea and vodka and lime, which is briefly dipped into a container of liquid nitrogen. This causes the egg yolk to form a very delicate meringue coating, which needs to be eaten within seconds before it cracks; this actually works quite well, with the meringue being extremely delicate. An oyster was served next in its shell with a passion fruit jelly, lavender and horseradish. This sounds a pretty bizarre combination but worked better than I expected, the passion fruit in particular offsetting the strong taste of the oyster. Next nibble was a grain mustard ice cream, which had excellent texture and indeed tasted properly of grain mustard, served in with a juice of red cabbage, which I am not sure added greatly to the experience. Next was a "homage to Alain Chapel" and for me the best dish of the whole meal: a jelly of quail was topped a with wonderfully silky parfait of foie gras, some langoustine cream adding a further dimension. Here the ingredients worked beautifully together and the technique was flawless, the quail jelly having lovely texture and having enough quail flavour to offset the richness of the foie gras (20/20). Dishes like this make me wish Heston would cook more classical combinations.
Next was snail porridge, which while the three snails tasted fine, and the ham and shaved fennel gave some extra interest, was not in the same league as the previous course. Next was roast foie gras in an almond fluid gel, with cherry and chamomile. This was nicely made, but I’m not sure what the cherry, for example, really added here. Sardine on toast sorbet was preceded by a little film of oak, the idea being to sensitise your tongue to the oak prior to the rest of the dish. Well, the sardine element worked well, served with mackerel that was reconstituted without bones, served with marinated daikon, and I felt this combination was a good one. Salmon poached with liquorice was slow cooked and was lukewarm, which I do find disconcerting – I’m happy with salmon raw or cooked, but I just don’t think it tastes at its best lukewarm. This was served with the last of the summer green asparagus, pink grapefruit and olive oil. The final savoury dish was a poached breast of Anjou pigeon, the pigeon itself in nice condition having been well hung, wrapped in pancetta and served also with a pastille of its leg, with pistachio, cocoa and spices. The execution here was very good, the pigeon tender and moist thanks to the pancetta; again, were these nuts and spices really the best possible way of presenting it though?
A white chocolate disc with caviar seemed to me just a bad idea; both ingredients on their own would be better than served together in this way. Better was an ice cream cornet (using a very old recipe from 19th century cook Mrs Marshall). A pine sherbet fountain is part of the "nostalgia cuisine" that Heston is fond of. This is more than can be said of mango and Douglas fir puree, with a bavarois of lychee and mango and a blackcurrant sorbet. The sorbet was technically excellent, the bavarois very good, but the fir was one tree too many for me. Carrot and orange tuile was delicate and had good flavour, while a beetroot jelly was in fact stunning, with perfect texture. Here is an innovation that I thoroughly enjoyed. Smoked bacon and egg ice cream does indeed taste of what it is supposed to, and tea jelly and pain perdu are a clever accompaniment to this.
There is now a more classical section of the menu, which involved a very fine langoustine ravioli (18/20) though also a rather dry Sole Veronique, which had been through the same reconstitution process as the mackerel, but here did not work so well. This aside, the menu showed a high degree of technical execution, and some genuinely clever ideas like the beetroot jelly. I am glad that these classical dishes are available, as it shows what the kitchen can do in a way comparable with other places, as well as not involving any trees whatsoever in the food, which would be a relief to some. Service was flawless, with a newish maitre d’ previously at Le Manoir and a sommelier who worked at the Capital Hotel in the past. I should also say that bread, both white and brown slices, had excellent taste and texture. I do feel that Heston’s cooking has got better each time I have visited here. A greater emphasis on seasonal ingredients would be welcome amongst all the experimentation, and would help show off all the dishes to their very best.
Here is the version from my notes in 2003, which is perhaps interesting to compare to see how the cooking has moved on. The service has certainly tightened up considerably now.
We went for the tasting menu, which had several additional surprise elements. The first amuse-bouche was a lime and green tea "sour" which we were advised to "eat quickly before it separates": this was dominated by the lime flavour but had reasonable texture (15/20). This was followed by a grain mustard sorbet with red cabbage "gazpacho" – which was nothing more than red cabbage juice. The mustard sorbet had good texture served on a bed of tiny diced cucumber; the sorbet resonated with mustard flavour: this worked very well, but the red cabbage juice did nothing (16/20). Next was a gelee of three layers: langoustine, quail and pea – this had smooth texture and excellent concentration of flavour, the elements of the dish working well with the others (17/20).
My wife had maybe the best dish of the day, a simple glass of warm Puy lentils with finely diced carrot and apple in a balsamic vinaigrette on a bed of pea puree, which worked very well indeed (18/20). Bread appeared only now, a choice of slices of either home-made sourdough or brown bread, crusty and with good flavour, though lacking in salt to my taste. The first official part of the meal was a diver-caught scallop, roasted and served with a single wild mushroom (announced as a morel though it was clearly no such thing), a single black grape, a solitary white sultana and cauliflower puree. The scallop was gently cooked and was of very high quality, the cauliflower puree had considerable intensity (17/20). I then had foie gras on a salad leaf with two crab biscuits (16/20). My wife had cauliflower risotto topped with a thin round of chocolate gelee and cauliflower carpaccio topped with cauliflower crisps, the dish being dusted with cocoa at the table (17/20).
Our main course was sea bass with wild mushrooms, sweet peppers, baby onions topped with finely chopped chives and a vanilla and rosemary veloute (which did not really taste of rosemary). This was the only real problem I had with the whole meal, the primary issue being that the sea bass was significantly overcooked. Vanilla with fish seems a trendy thing at present - I encountered this a couple of times recently in German 3 star places, and my view is that it is a less than ideal combination. Notwithstanding my personal preference, the problem here was that the vanilla was too intense, smothering the other flavours in the dish. Hence I give this dish just 14/20, given its technical errors.
Desserts also had some surprise elements. A pomme puree topped with lime gelee was brought on a spoon by the waiter and fed to you directly: the puree was OK but this seems like a pretentious "El Bulli" like way to serve. Next was parsnip cereal with parsnip infused milk – sort of a breakfast idea that I actually felt worked OK. A more debatable offering was white chocolate discs served with caviar – sorry but there is no way that chocolate and so much salt are a viable combination in my view. Mango and Douglas fir mousse with blackberry sorbet (with a beetroot crisp) and a beetroot gelee was a disappointment, the mango flavour being obscured so much as to render the dish strangely tasteless (14/20).
Next was a plate of basil and fennel bavarois in a sweet pastry tart, with cubes of beetroot jelly coated in sugar. A lollipop of sweet red pepper also appeared, served on a cocktail stick. Much better was the main dessert. Here a chocolate sorbet had excellent flavour and texture, placed on a little biscuit. A dark chocolate mousse was served on top of hazelnut fondant made with "cracking candy" – which has a fizzing effect in the mouth. Here I felt the flavours were fine and the execution good (18/20). Coffee was £3.95 and was only fair (15/20). Petit-fours were chewing tobacco chocolate and a bacon tuile – I have to say that I won’t be rushing to make either of these ideas in my kitchen. The service was variable throughout: I had the option of wines to match the tasting menu, and yet the waiter on two occasions failed to bring the wines in time – on one occasion it was literally as I finished the dish; they also did a "needle in the haystack" routine at finding our umbrella when we left. Certainly very innovative cooking, much of which works well, but I was concerned by the overcooked sea-bass, which was a basic technical error. The price is hardly a bargain either. The wine list was excellent, with a wide selection of wines by the glass and some excellent producers, though the mark-ups are as steep as in London.
So, over the years the cooking has progressed considerably and this certainly has now become a landmark restaurant.
Further reviews: 24th Nov 2015