After entering the World’s Best Restaurants list at number two, then climbing to first place, The Fat Duck dropped down the list to number 73 in 2015 – but can it climb back up?
RESTAURANT: The Fat Duck
LOCATION: Bray, UK
WORLD’S BEST RESTAURANTS RANK: 73 (2015)
MICHELIN STARS: Previously held three stars; currently not listed
FOOD STYLE: Molecular gastronomy
STANDOUT DISH: Bacon and egg ice cream
TASTING MENU: £255 plus 17.5 service charge
It all began when I dined at The Fat Duck back in 2005. Of course, I’d heard of the bacon and egg ice cream. The whole world had heard of the bacon and egg ice cream. Heston Blumenthal had put molecular gastronomy on the map and into the mouths – the term if not the food itself – of the common folk. He’d achieved this by adapting that most basic and beloved of dishes: the morning fry-up. The ingredients were simple; everyone could pronounce them, they weren’t in French. The design, like the chef himself, was playful not pompous. Fine dining was suddenly very different.
Diners’ curiosity was rewarded with a delicious dessert featuring shards of crisp smoky bacon on rich creamy egg yolk frozen at the table in liquid nitrogen (before every Tom, Dick and sous chef was doing it). The ‘ice cream’ was served at the end of the Fat Duck’s degustation menu, which today costs £255 plus 17.5 service charge, a finale with a breakfast theme in line with Heston’s love of the topsy-turvy.
Heston’s other most famous dish was snail porridge (this was long before his ‘meat fruit’ made its debut at Dinner). It may have garnered him column inches, but as a porridge-phobic, this bright green dish repelled me. I tried it, despite its sickly hue, but Heston’s snails failed to impress and the overall taste had a touch of haggis about it. Luckily, it was the only miss on a menu of stratospheric hits.
Alongside this breakfast-dessert of porridge and ice cream, we were given a miniature box of Fat Duck-branded cereal, containing parsnip flakes, with a side of parsnip milk. Eating these satisfyingly sweet and crunchy flakes for dinner felt like an echo of my student years when cornflakes often became evening meals.
Nostalgia is a key ingredient in Heston’s dishes and he serves it well. One of the many courses was served with an iPod hidden inside a conch shell; we were asked to close our eyes and listen to the sounds of the sea as the food was placed on the table. Instantly I was back at the beach, aged six, surprised at how emotional the memory made me. Then I opened my eyes to see a dish that looked like a little slice of coast with shellfish, a sand of toasted tapioca, seaweed and fish stock foam.
Besides nostalgia, many of Heston’s dishes have a fashionably Nordic feel. The jelly of quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast offers a taste of the forest with dry ice releasing the scent of oak moss at the table (see lead image). Love it or loathe it, liquorice is another popular Nordic ingredient, and Heston’s salmon poached in liquorice gel uses it well; the addition of vanilla mayo helps round out its bitter edge. There’s a pungent red cabbage gazpacho with Pommery Grain mustard ice cream, and a venison course with beet puree – all similar ensembles to what’s on offer at Sweden’s Restaurant Frantzen.
The hot and cold tea, which went down the throat hot on one side and cool on the other, was utterly bizarre – more magic trick than drink. And the Whisk(e)y Gums made a clever digestif, boiled down to bottle-shaped sweets and stuck to a map to show each tipple’s origin.
I often wonder if the Fat Duck’s had a redesign since I was last there. The small dining room, which seats 40, was painfully plain with murky oil on canvas artworks that did little to brighten the place up, but then anything that distracts from the food is probably a big mistake. This was the restaurant that inspired me to travel the World’s Best Restaurants list, while reminding me what it was like to be six, and for that I will always love the Fat Duck. ✪
WORLDINER ADDRESS BOOK
High St, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ, United Kingdom, +44 1628 580333, thefatduck.co.uk