Fat Duck (Bray, England) – Redux

It has nearly become myth – a (slightly) mad scientist, tucked away in a tiny hamlet, experimenting relentlessly, trying to create one of the world’s best restaurants. The Fat Duck left a memorable impression after a month of eating in the original 47 Michelin Stars in 24 Days trip. It held its own against experimental stalwarts such as Pierre Gagnaire (Paris), El Bulli (Roses, Spain), and Mugaritz (San Sebastian, Spain); and provided the experience most becoming of a three-star restaurant over the course of that (crazy, never to be repeated) month. My review, indicative of my experience at the time, basically read “good meal”, although I knew there were elements of the meal that had glossed over me. My meal last month left me with more questions than answers.

Fat Duck sign
It wasn’t really this dark outside

The food tasted fine, not quite living up to the memories 1; but, I walked away feeling unsure about the whole experience. There are fascinating possibilities in the food, and while some are obvious, much of the meal is slightly obtuse, its ultimate enjoyment buried underneath sophisticated techniques and ideas, that may only be known to the chef himself. One gets the feeling s/he is on the verge of discoveries, as there are clues scattered everywhere, but they never quite fully materialize.

Intuitively, I agree with Heston Blumenthal’s basic premise 2 – eating food is multi-modal and it is influenced by, but not limited to, context, sight, sound, memories, and anatomy. It is hard to argue this, despite the absolutes in so many of our reviews. Anecdotally, we know that psychological mind-game of expectations has a great influence on the final outcome of a meal. Sights, sounds, and smells act as different triggers for people; personally, a particular sound can bring me back to a very specific point in time, where others describe a similar sensation with smell (and, thus, taste.) It would be foolish to discredit these factors when reviewing the restaurant, particularly when there are so many references scattered throughout the menu.

The problem with Heston’s food is that it’s not clear how much credence we should place in his exploration of these themes. By merely mentioning them, he imbues the food and his menu with their possibilities. But does he actually attempt to explore the psychological and physical landscape he has proposed? Are his efforts substantial or is the whole affair a mere dalliance with science? What insights, if any, does one learn or experience during a Fat Duck meal?


“Sound of the Sea” – is the sound really necessary?

The Sound of the Sea was the only completely new dish on the tasting menu.3 It references similar experiential landscape as El Poblet’s The Living Forest or Abstraction of the Sea, with the “help” of an iPod. Memories, sound, and their combinatorial effects, play a role in this dish but, seemingly, nothing much is accomplished. The repetitive squawk of the seagull, looping every 20 seconds, sounded more simulacra than sea. Why not use the sound in a more constructive manner, as alluded to on the site? 4 As presented, it just comes off as (bad) theater, with nothing new learned or gained, detracting from an otherwise interesting dish.




Foie Gras, Truffle toast, and Oak moss – the stages of a dish

The “steaming” oak moss and truffle toast were additions to the Foie Gras parfait and Langoustine cream dish. There were oak film strips in the previous meal (not pictured here) but they were now supplemented by the smell of “steamy” oak moss. This dish attempted to show an understanding of similar and complementary tastes. First, you ate the oak strip to set the stage. Liquid nitrogen was poured into the oak moss, its smell permeating the table, as we were instructed to eat the foie gras parfait. The truffle toast was eaten last. It might smack of theatrics, but it does attempt to create a progression of tastes, smells, and flavors; and, through that, an understanding of the disparate elements and their role in the dish.

The full menu loosely reads as below. Not all of the pictures turned out; in those cases, I did not include them below. Most everyone has the same menu – you can find the same meal at very good food.


Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavendar – one of the stronger dishes.


Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Red Cabbage Gazpacho – hot and cold





Foie Gras, Truffle toast, and Oak moss – I summon thee


Snail porridge w/ peas and fennel – still the best dish on the menu.


Roast Foie Gras “Benzaldehyde” – interesting play on context. I’ve seen other reports where the dish is described with “almond fluid gel”; for my meal, I get “benzaldehyde”, the primary aromatic compound in almonds.



“Sound of the Sea” – memories and sound, and theater.


Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon


Hot & Iced Tea – the hot/cold could be playing with rates of change.


Dippin’ Stick! (Pine Sherbet Fountain) – memories abound to dipping sticks of our youth.


Mango & Douglas Fir Puree w/ Blackcurrent Sorbet



Parsnip Cereal – there’s a whimsy at play, not unlike The French Laundry.



Nitro-scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream w/ Pain Perdu – the pain perdu steals the show with its incredibly caramelized crust




Mignardises

Does the food taste good? Yes, for the most part, very good. If that’s the final judge of the meal, and many would argue it is, the restaurant is a resounding success, worthy of much of the acclaim it receives. It’s generally fun, imaginative, surprising, and tasty – everything most everyone says when they review the restaurant.

However, on his web site, Heston discusses other factors that influence taste – context (environment and description), rates of change in flavors, site, memory, and anatomy. It is hard to figure out how he might be applying these ideas and theories in the menu. One could argue it adds to the mystery of the meal but I would like to understand, if there is anything substantial, what his objectives might be with each course. What is the point if no one understands what is transpiring? 5 With an educated customer base, he could then take his experiments even further.

I think the restaurant could do a few things to help people get the most out of their meals. There is an extensive use of props throughout the meal; why not pass out cards that go with each dish, explaining the intent of the chef? My cynical side might not be so quick to dismiss the squawk of the iPod seagull if I could better understand what the chef was trying to achieve. While probably financially unfeasible, an “experimental” menu that more thoroughly covers the variations (experiment on, experiment off) would be a great way to better understand the concepts of the dishes.

And perhaps that is why the menu never changes – one is expected to peel back the layers with each visit, and potentially discover more. If one were to simply judge by taste and novelty, one or two meals would suffice, as the impact is lessened by the 2nd visit. If one attempts to go beyond, and try to get inside Heston’s head, for better or worse, the standard tasting menu could be repeated a few more times.

Will I return? Yes, in a few years.

- chuck

1 – Given Heston’s pre-occupation with memories, I could turn this post into something resembling a Paul Auster novel, if only I was as talented a writer as Paul Auster.

2 – Read the Philosophy section of the Fat Duck web site.

3 – The menu notoriously never changes (for what reason, no one seems to know.) It appears the dishes are tweaked but it seems like Heston has never explained why the menu remains the same. There is an ala carte menu for those that want to order (presumably) new and different dishes.

4 – In the Philosophy section of the Fat Duck site, Heston describes research where the freshness of fruit can be enhanced through sound:

“In a test carried out by an experimental psychologist at Oxford University. Crisps from the same packet, eaten with the sound of the testers own crunch being fed back to them in real time changed when the volume or pitch were altered.”

5 – There are parallels in literature and art criticism where many argue that the author’s intent is nothing but a small part in the overall meaning of a work. I won’t disagree with this sentiment but understanding an author’s intent, no matter how much we may or may not trust him/her, provides additional, and possibly crucial, insight into a work of art.

  • http://foodpolice.blogspot.com steel

    Hi Chuck,

    Great review, beautiful pictures as always. I wrote a similar review to yours about the fat duck on exactly the same menu. And I also see you make a reference to very good food who also had the same. I’m starting to think something is not quite right over there if everybody continuously eats the same dishes over and over again. And I fail to see the evolution of the dishes based on what you write and the pics, but maybe the evolution is so subtle that only the chef knows about it.
    Anyhow, looking forward to many more of your reviews.

  • paul

    Heston Blumenthal really frustraits me as a chef because he is incredibly gifted and has forgotten more about flavour combinations than most chefs will ever know, yet he changes his dishes once every blue moon and if i was in charge of the Michelin guide i would strip him of a star because of this. Because trotting out the same dishes year after year must get very monotonus for the people who work there and knocking him back too two stars will mabey give him a kick up the arse that IMO he needs, so that in future he would change his dishes more often because there is only so many times you can change the way egg and bacon dish looks

  • Yan

    Perhaps the menu remains constant to explore the effects of time’s passing on repeat visitors. If you eat the same thing on two different days, you’re not really eating the same thing. Time’s passage and infinitesimal (uncontrollable) changes in the preparations of the “same” dish subtly alter perception. Sort of the “you never step into the same water” thing.

  • chuckeats

    Steel, Paul, and Yan – I thought about writing in more detail about this aspect of Fat Duck but I don’t know enough about why the dishes rarely change. In the two year span between my meals, the dishes did seemingly undergo minor changes and revisions; but the meal’s impact was lessened due to the familiarity (which is another issue I wanted to avoid – too many issues!)

    Yan – I’m certain Fat Duck would love that response :)

    - chuck

  • http://foodpolice.blogspot.com steel

    yan – that sounds really great! i’ve read a couple of books from heston and he seems to be obsessed with the “pursuit of perfection”, ie. creating the super-exact balance of spices, exactly the right gramm percentage of fat/chuck/brisket/ribs that goes into a hamburger, to the point of laboratory analysis. translate that into his menu in bray and I guess he is constantly searching for perfection in those few dishes he comes up with. take for instance “Nitro green tea and lime mousse (2001)”, where a small blob of lime mousse gets nitroed and then doused with green tea powder. The date marks the first creation of this course. But the problem is, if the magic is in altering 10-15% of the consistency of this mousse every year, perhaps procuring a different type of lime…only he will realise the difference. if he’d apply the perfectionism to a broader array of dishes I’m sure we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  • chuckeats

    steel – that ‘pursuit of perfection’, obviously a theme in his work, is seemingly at odds with the idea that eating food is multi-modal. how can anything be perfect when there are outside factors, including physical differences between people, influencing the taste? i don’t disagree w/ your assessment; but it does introduce a contradiction in his work; and makes it that much harder to ultimately understand.

  • Yan

    It really is unfortunate that the food gets lost in the intentionality but this is inevitable since what Blumenthal speaks of (memory, experience, place, etc.) occurs on such an intimate and personal level. At best, as Chuck mentioned, Blumenthal allows these seeds to germinate in his diners’ minds by overtly referring to them. At worst, he reduces these notions to gimmicky dinner theater. The optimist in me leans toward the former and, hey, the fact that we are discussing these concepts is a sign of success.

    But I believe that true perfection can only be experienced in the moment; it’s indeed multi-modal but this can’t be evoked with iPods and smoke. Pointed to, perhaps, but that’s about it. Not to point out the obvious, but the taste of the food is the truest testament to a chef’s success.

    Love your reviews, Chuck. Can’t wait to read about all the others!

  • http://verygoodfood.dk VGF

    Great reviw, Chuck. Very happy to read it!
    (Was the repeating photos really necessary?)

    According to Mr Heston Blumenthal (I met him four months ago) it takes two years before a new dish is complete.Which I kinda understood was the reason for the rare change in the menu.

    Still, I’m very surprised to see you had the exact same thing as I in Dec 07.

  • paul

    It looks like there is about to be a blue moon because Heston Blumenthal is about to unvail a new dish SHOCK HORROR and it is called Mock Turtle Soup With Mad Hatter Tea and is apparantly inspired by Alice In Wonder Land.

    As for the dish it self it includes ans egg made of turnip custard with saffron and swede gel in EnokI mushrooms sticking out of it which resemble the toad stools in the book and by the side of this there will be a pressed terrine of Ox tounge raddish and lardo pickled turnip and truffle, and also there will be a fob watch shapped stock cube which will be covered in gold leaf which will be in a cup and you pour a liquid onto the fob watch which then desolves into some sought of consomme type tee thing.

  • Roberto

    Chuck you know I follow the blog methodically but here I can’t agree with you. I’ve not been to the Fat Duck but I’ve been in el Bulli. The super photos you post here are incredible, I think this is an experimental gastronomic trip, not a meal and because of this the traditional, good-bad scale is not applicable. Tks for the post!!!!

  • Annie

    maybe the menu does not change because it takes so long to actually manage to secure a reservation? A friend and I are desperate to take our husbands for their birthdays and have been trying to book for months, 5 days to go and so far no joy. Not sure my husband will appreciate Heston’s cookbook and a promise of “I will take you one day” quite so much!

  • http://wolvesmouth.typepad.com craig

    the only thing i am not into is the lack of changing with the seasons. how can certain items be at peak quality throughout the year, i mean yeah you could use frozen peas in fall but why not just make menus that change seasonly instead of never changing your dishes but once every 2 years.

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  • http://abemad.blogspot.com Anders

    @ Chuck,

    what a nice review of Mr. Heston and his beautiful dishes. I visited Fat Duck myself in 2008, but wasnt fortunate enough to get nearly as good pictures as you, therefor I would like your permission to use the above on my blog: http://abemad.blogspot.com?

    /A Heston Fan

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