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.
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
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.
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:
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.