Monday, April 22, 2013

Whimsical Delights at The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck
I had always wanted to go to The Fat Duck, even before I started my food blog. I had tried convincing the humans on our last trip to Europe to visit, but they couldn’t bring themselves to spend that much on a meal at the time. Least to say, they regretted not going last time, so on this trip, they made sure they got a reservation.

The restaurant is in the small town of Bray, meaning if you’re coming from London that you have to take a train from Paddington Station to Maidenhead, then either walk or take a taxi to Bray. When we pulled up in front of The Fat Duck, we saw a small, white, unremarkable building with nothing to indicate that it was The Fat Duck, except the easily recognizable logo for the restaurant, the fork, knife and spoon.

Once inside, the space was quite small, not only in terms of room to move around, but they have very low ceilings with the occasional wood beam which got in the way if you’re tall like my male human.

We were whisked to our table and immediately presented with an aerated beetroot that was dehydrated with horseradish cream. They directed us to eat it immediately, apparently as the texture changes once it’s exposed to humidity. The texture was reminiscent of Styrofoam, but it dissolved instantaneously in my mouth, leaving my taste buds thinking they had eaten a spoonful of creamy borscht.

A menu was then presented so we could see what is in store, a plethora of dishes awaited and I begun to wonder how I would possibly remember them all so I could write up my blog post later. Suddenly, as if they were reading my mind, they brought us menus in envelopes as a souvenir so I didn't have to attempt to rack my brain for the information at a later date.

The whole meal was a show in of itself, and the entire staff were trained to be master storytellers. The only unfortunate thing about the meal was that all the serving staff were French and we struggled to take in all the details they gave us over and above what was provided in the written menu. We knew they told us a lot about the components of each dish, as well as the preparation, but some had accents so incredibly thick that had we not had menus to refer to, we would’ve been completely clueless as to what course we were one.

As the champagne lover that I am, I opted to try something that I’d likely never get a chance to try by the glass ever again, a vintage 2003 Dom Perignon. Unlike any other champagne I’d had to date, it was incredibly smooth and not at all yeasty tasting. Turned out I was a big fan of vintage champagne, which back in Edmonton is difficult to find, horribly expensive if you do, and only available by the bottle.

Oak Moss
The show began with a nitro-poached aperitif with a choice of three flavors – vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic, and Campari soda. Essentially each flavor was an aerated concoction in a whip cream canister, dispersed into a spoon, dropped to be poached quickly in liquid nitrogen to freeze dry it, then dusted with either freeze dried raspberry or green tea powder, with a citrus grove spray misted above you in order to enhance the citrus flavors within the aperitif. I was instructed to pop the whole thing in my mouth and the first sensation I felt was that it was very cold – like when you try to eat too large of a spoonful of ice cream and your mouth sort of freezes and you try not resist the urge to spit it out and swallow the mouthful instead. I opted for the Campari soda and once bit into, the crunchy texture gaves away and dissolved. The prosecco was immediately detectable with a hint of raspberry. Ultimately it was very refreshing, cleansing the palette for the next course. Since all their standard flavors contained alcohol, they made a special flavor for the male human without alcohol.  

Next we were presented with a red cabbage gazpacho with pommery grain mustard ice cream. The gazpacho was somewhat acidic, but was balanced beautifully with the mildly sweet and creamy mustard ice cream. Crunchy pieces of cabbage ensured the dish had texture as opposed to being a singularly noted smooth concoction. 

Mad Hatter's Tea Party
The jelly of quail and crayfish cream was presented first with a small container of oak moss. Upon the moss sat small plastic containers, each containing a small film we were instructed to place on our tongue and allow to dissolve, which had a slightly oaky and truffle flavor to it. The server poured a liquid over the moss, causing fog to slowly creep out and roll over the table, and released a mossy smell into the air. The chicken liver parfait was slightly salty a top of the truffle and crunchy bread. The crayfish itself had a slightly gelatinous texture it, but complemented the chicken liver and truffle well. The snail porridge with Iberico Belotta Ham and shaved fennel was surprisingly tasty with tender snails and topped up with crunchy fennel.    

Sound of the Sea
Next the bread and salted and unpasteurized butter from Linkinshire was served. Luckily for moo they ensured my tail didn’t wind up in the butter as I was sitting on the table and dishes were presented and cleared away. Service was incredibly seamless, as there appeared to be no designated server. Servers flitted from table to table, clearing dishes as required, and presenting courses to tables as soon as they were ready. When more than one server was required to present a course, they arrived in unison, perfectly choreographed in order to ensure no servers were awkwardly trying to get around one another.  

The roast foie gras with barberry, braised kombu and crab biscuit was a moolicious combination of tastes and textures. They spritzed citrus above us, complimenting the slightly sweet and acidic barberry compote. The crab biscuit was flavorful, the thin slices of kombu were unobtrusive, the foie gras was roasted to perfect as it melted in my mouth and was very mild tasting, despite the richness that the barberry helped to cut through.

The server then got another chance to both spin a tail as well as entertain us with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party consisting of a mock turtle soup, pocket watch, and toast sandwich. Presented in an elegant wood box, what appeared to be a gold pocket watch was carefully placed in a glass teapot. They then instructed us to swirl our teapots, and the pocket watch dissolved, releasing small pieces of ham, onion, and celery over the quail egg within the pot. A small, delicate mushroom appeared to be growing from the egg, making one wonder how they managed such a presentation. The broth itself was incredibly light, yet flavorful. The toast sandwich was also playful, with the toasted part of the sandwich on the inside instead of the outside. Consisting of cucumber, cream cheese, mustard and truffle, I marveled at how well these flavors worked together instead of the mustard and truffle over powering and over whelming the other flavors like one might expect. 
Roast foie gras with barberry,
braised 
kombu and crab biscuit

The “Sound of the Sea” was another whimsical dish. Prior to receiving the food, we were presented with a large conch shell and told to listen to the sounds of the sea. Within the shell was hidden a small iPod Nano with earphones sticking out. The dish itself looked like a beach with sand, sea foam and topped with a variety of sea life including Irish abalone, halibut and mackerel. The light, airy foam was made of seaweed and vegetable stock, while the crunchy and amazingly tasty sand was made of tapioca starch and miso oil.

Just when I started to feel like I couldn’t possibly eat anymore, the main courses begin to arrive, starting with salmon poached in liquorice gel with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. I have to admit that I’m not even remotely a fan of liquorice, yet accompanying the tender and juicy salmon, it was very mild, allowing the flavor of the salmon to shine through. The mayonnaise is a great companion to the salmon, while the trout roe pops in your mouth while eaten, and the small bits of artichoke are unobtrusive.

Salmon poached in liquorice
gel with artichokes, vanilla
mayonnaise and golden trout roe
The duck with bay, blood pudding and umbles was cooked medium rare, resulted in a mildly rare, very tender, and moist duck. The potatoes were smooth and rich like cream, the umbles soft, and a crispy roll filled with duck had an extremely crispy shell, but gave way to a soft, sweet filling.

Although we’d read on the menu hot and iced tea, we were still pleasantly surprised at the composition of the dish. Presented in a singular glass, it felt hot to the touch when you picked up the glass and brought it to your lips, yet when drinking it, the liquid felt cold. When we toured the kitchen area later, we could see that prior to serving, liquid was placed in the glass, and a solid, thick gelatin sheet is placed inside, which has melted when served, likely utilized to create either the cold layer of the iced tea.

The clove caramlised blackberries and hojicha tea ice cream cornet had a mild taste to it, crispy, a paper thin cornet, and was very refreshing and light after we had eaten so many courses. The blackberries were tart and contrasted by the sweetness of the white chocolate Scottish blanket. The olive oil biscuit added a nice savory element, pulling the whole dessert together. 

The BFG, otherwise known as the Black Forest Gateux was a creamy mousse filled cake with cherries inside, and the ice cream had a strong kirsch taste to it, enhanced by a spritz of ‘the smell of the Black Forest”, made of kirsch, a smell that stuck with Heston Blumenthal and he wanted to emulate for his diners, as it is produced in the area. 

Duck with bay, blood pudding and umbles
Unfortunately the male human couldn’t have the BFG because it had alcohol in it, but like every other course, the kitchen had found a way to accommodate him and made him his own special dessert of a nitro cooked scrambled egg, bacon and French toast. They wheeled out a cart with a pot, and began to tell a story. They showed us a carton of eggs, stamped with The Fat Duck logo on it and said they kept chickens in the back of the property. Oddly enough, they had opted to feed these particular chickens bacon sandwiches, and found that when they collected the eggs, they tended to taste like bacon as a result. He cracked the egg into the pot and began to stir, without ever lighting the heating element. Miraculously enough, just a few moments later, he scooped scrambled eggs out of the pot, and placed it on top of bacon and French toast. The French toast, otherwise known as pain perdu, was made of caramlised brioche, had a sweet maple taste to it, and a crunch. The bacon was thin, crispy, and had an icy texture to it, and the scrambled egg ice cream did indeed taste like bacon. 

The whiskey wine gums included an around the world tour of whisky, starting with very mild whisky, getting stronger as you went. The male human wound up with a cheese plate instead since again, he couldn’t have this dessert due to the alcohol. 

They ended an incredible meal with “Like A Kid in a Sweet Shop”, a paper bag full of house made candies. Their mandarin orange chocolate smelled strongly of orange, but the chocolate turned out to be light and airy, topped with mandarin orange gelee on top. The apple pie caramel was chewy like a caramel and had a faint apple taste to it. Even the wrapper was edible, which I have to say felt kind of weird to do, but it dissolved in my mouth straight away. The coconut baccy was packaged and made to look like chewing tobacco but had the taste and texture of coconut. Lastly the Queen of Hearts was an edible playing card, wrapped in a paper envelope, and enclosed with an edible chocolate seal. The playing card was printed on both sides and was white chocolate with a layer of strawberry sandwiched inside.   

French toast, bacon and scrambled eggs
Besides their ability to tell stories and provide seamless, unobtrusive service, the staff also has a sense of humor, casually taking me with them as they cleared dessert from the table. Not that I would mind being moonapped so I could continue to enjoy more incredible food at The Fat Duck, but my journey in Europe had just begun and when I told them I wanted to continue my travels, they agreed to bring me back to my humans. 

We also managed to get a tour of the kitchen, which was incredibly small! The kitchen was sectioned off, with a hot kitchen closer to the dining area, and a cold/amuse bouche kitchen closer to the back of the restaurant. Their prep kitchen is located off the premises elsewhere in Bray  The kitchen at The Fat Duck amazingly enough employs 13 chefs, with another 10 chefs working in their prep kitchen down the road. They also have a development kitchen above the prep kitchen, employing 6 chefs. The development chefs work long and hard perfecting recipes and it can often take months for a new dish to move from the development kitchen to the menu at The Fat Duck. Even minor tweaks or seasonal changes to the menu can take a long time before it is ready to be served to diners. Chefs in the kitchen are trained for 1 month at their assigned station before they are allowed to work their station on their own. Despite the small space, The Fat Duck has a front of house staff of 14 people, including the sommeliers. 

We were fortunate enough to meet Jonny Lake, originally from Toronto, ON, and he even agreed to pose for a picture with Moo. The assistant manager of The Fat Duck was kind enough to call a cab for us, and walk us to it, providing me with his business card so I could contact him if I had any questions for my blog post – which I did and he thankfully provided the answers since there was far too much to write down or remember!

Me with Chef Jonny Lake
Overall yes, it is a pricey meal indeed at 195 British Pounds per person, not including drinks or wine pairings. Our total bill was almost $800 Canadian, the most expensive of meal of our entire European adventure by far. However, it was an extremely memorable meal and I have no regrets dropping the cow coins I did on it. Most definitely go if you are ever in London and have the time and money. To get a reservation, you'll have to call or try to book online, reservations open up 90 days in advance to the day. Reservations go fast so make sure you plan ahead for the date and time you'd like. Another option is if your credit card offers a concierge service, let them know well in advance the date and time you'd like to visit and it'll save you from having to wake up in the middle of the night to call. Make sure you plan for a lengthy visit as our meal lasted 4 hours, and allow for enough time for the train ride there and back from London.

For another perspective of The Fat Duck, read about @ACanadianFoodie's visit.

Many more photos on PhotoBucket!

The Fat Duck
High St Bray
MaidenHead, UK  SL6 2AQ
011 44 1628 580 333

The Fat Duck on Urbanspoon

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