My 7 Links

I was asked by esteemed fellow blogger @gourmetraveller to participate in a project called ‘My 7 Links’, which is organized by Tripbase. I haven’t really done a ‘meme’ post before, but thought this particular one would be a nice way to review my last two years of food and wine, re-focusing attention on some highs, some lows, and the unexpected. So, without further adieu, my seven links.

Most Popular Post:
The Fat Duck – A Blumen’ Great Day in Bray  

JELLY OF QUAIL, CREAM OF CRAWFISH: Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss & Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel) … at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK

I guess it comes as no surprise that my most popular post is a review of one of the UK’s high temples of gastronomy: Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, which was also awarded ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by the Restaurant Magazine / San Pellegrino ’50 Best’ awards in 2005, and has been in the top five since 2004. Given that a large portion of my readership still hails from the UK and that Heston Blumenthal has become a very popular figure on TV and in the country’s print media, it makes sense. Happily, it was also one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of eating since I started this blog. I also like the chef’s approach towards food and his concept of ‘the meal’, and think he’s one of the more consistent and genuine characters in the higher echelons of chefdom. I therefore have no qualms about the success of this post. 

Most Controversial Post:
Le Gavroche – Unfortunately A Very Mixed Bag

The Signature Cheese Soufflé ... at Le Gavroche, London (photo: goodtoknow.co.uk)

It is unfortunate that my most controversial post came from a restaurant that I so much wanted to like. You see, Michel Roux, Jr. was a new hero of mine at the time, and I desperately wanted to love his food and his restaurant, which I saw as an extension of him. Unfortunately, we did not have a pleasant experience at all – it was certainly not befitting of its dual Michelin-starred status. This was one of my first posts, back in the days when I didn’t take photos, so sorry for the lack of visuals, but this was probably the angriest review I have written (which just goes to show I’m a big softy). The anger wasn’t due to the fact that Mrs. LF annoyingly had a big crush on him (and still does), but rather the bordering-on-rude service we experienced. It put me off ever returning this traditional yet quirky subterranean dining room. The signature cheese soufflé and innovative wine pairings were the only things that mitigated what was generally a very disappointing experience.

Post Whose Success Surprised Me:
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma 

Samuel Miller Plating our First Course … at The Loft Project in East London

I really didn’t expect my post about a supper club in the East End of London to get the attention it did. But I guess The Loft Project is a pretty unique concept, as they do get some of the most interesting young culinary talents from around the world to cook for a few nights for 12 or so lucky guests. It’s not cheap, but for what you end up getting (sometimes 8+ courses with a wine paring included), it can often end up being phenomenal value. Anyway, the meal that Yorkshire man Samuel Miller – who is second only to Rene Redzepi himself in noma’s kitchen – stands out as one of the best dining experiences I’ve had anywhere. It was a wonderful evening in every sense, and for all my senses. The technical reason why I think it got so many views is because there was a television show on one night about noma, and Sam featured prominently in it, so I got a lot of people coming to the post after googling his name alongside the word ‘noma’. As of now, it is my 7th most popular post.

Post That Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved:
Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce … at Morgan M. in North London

Maybe it was the signature cheesy title, but I was surprised that my review of Morgan M. – which is one of only two reviews listed on Urbanspoon in nearly two years – did not garner more attention. Although the service was a little uneven, the food was certainly beautiful to look at and tasted very good to boot. I had really wanted to highlight this little gem of a place, which takes advantage of cheaper rent in North London but produces traditional French food with ample flair that competes with many of the more popular (and much more expensive) French restaurants in central London. The natural light during our lunch also allowed for some great pictures, making this one of the prettier posts I have done, IMHO. I was pleased to learn the other day that chef Meunier is, after many years, opening a second restaurant near London’s Smithfield Market.

Note: there was another post, which was somewhat controversial and also barely got any views, to which I would also like to direct your attention. It is an interview with the editor of Tong wine magazine, a publication that brings much-needed diversity to the global conversations taking place about wine. Read it here: Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine.

Most Beautiful Post:
The Sportsman – Captivating, Compelling, Complete

Cauliflower Tart … at The Sportsman on the Kent Coast

The food at The Sportsman, a one-Michelin star restaurant that could easily be mistaken for an unremarkable pub on an unremarkable stretch of England’s Kent coastline, is in many ways deceiving. It is presented simply and humbly, and you might not give it too much thought. However, the fact that a good deal of what you are eating comes from within a few mile radius of the restaurant, and that there is considerable technical skill and bounds of flavour packed into each bite, can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it. One of the two brothers who own the pub is the (mostly self-taught) head chef and the other oversees the front of house. The interior has been honestly restored and locals still do come in for a pint at the bar, even if the bulk of the reservations now come from patrons living further afield. The tasting menu, which is available during the week, is well worth a visit, but requires special booking ahead of time. Although the dishes are certainly not as artistic as many other restaurants I have reviewed, I felt that overall, the images from this post were the most beautiful when taken together as a whole. The light was fantastic on the day, and for the most part, these images received almost no retouching. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at it. 

Post I’m Most Proud of:
noma – Northern Light 

break on through to the other side ... noma in Copenhagen

Not only was I proud of myself for simply finding a way to eat at what has now been ranked as the ‘best restaurant in the world’ for two years running, I was also pleased with the review I wrote. It was very long (hey, what else is new?), but it managed to synthesize my numerous thoughts and emotions about the restaurant and our meal. The food itself is also breathtaking to look at, and while my photos don’t really do it justice, this also made it a visually appealing post to me. Hopefully you feel the same. 

Most Helpful Post:
Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Rum Baba ... at Lanka in London

I don’t know how truly helpful my posts are to readers – after all, I mostly just eat and don’t cook – though I did feel like I was providing a good service to the residents within walking distance of London’s Primrose Hill when I consumed copious calories over a number of visits to a cute little pâtisserie and café run by Japanese chef Masayuki Hara. These multiple visits confirmed that the pastries were generally very technically well made, plus some of them benefited from an injection of Japanese flavor (i.e. green tea features prominently in a few of the treats). They have also gradually expanded the range of food, which is simple but very tasty, and have a good selection of high-quality teas and coffee (they use Monmouth beans, or at least did on my last visit). If you are in the neighborhood, I’ve found it is normally worth the extra calories that a visit entails. The hot chocolate is also good.

I would now like to direct your attention to five great food-related blogs that I follow regularly, all of whom have agreed to do their on ‘My 7 Links’ post in due course. Look out for their reflections on their old chestnuts. The are listed alphabetically…like, duh.

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l’Arpège – Alain Passard’s Perfect Pitch

l’Arpège
84, rue de Varenne
75007 Paris
France
Website
Map
Reservations: +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06

Dinner tasting menu at €360/person; à la carte dishes quite randomly priced, but all fairly expensive

We had a tremendous meal at Alain Passard’s l’Arpège. There were a number of pleasant surprises and a few truly exceptional dishes which will live on in my memory for years to come. His food is simply but beautifully presented, and there is a clever, playful and unique streak running through all of the dishes. Aside the tiniest of niggles, the food was excellent throughout. Service was warm, professional and efficient through four-fifths of the meal, but unfortunately ground to a halt towards the end as the restaurant filled to capacity, something they did try to rectify near the conclusion of the meal. It was the most expensive meal I’ve paid for on a per-person basis, but after careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that it was worth it to have experienced Chef Passard’s creations, if only once.

When in Paris, consult a snob

When my wife and I decided to spend three days in Paris before heading up to Normandy to spend the winter holiday period with her family, I quickly began ravenously drooling at the prospect of hitting-up some of Paris’s top restaurants. But I knew I would have to reign myself in given that Mrs. LF was pregnant and was having very serious aversions to most ‘heavy’ foods (the truth is she basically fancied bread and butter and not much else at this stage in her pregnancy). However, she did concede the point that we had to book meals ‘somewhere’ for the three dinners we would be having, so I proposed a compromise of eating at one really nice restaurant for dinner (but one which had ‘light cooking’); one nice (but not overly pricey) restaurant, also with ‘light cooking’; and going to Le 404 for some couscous one night (we have heard rave reviews from friends, and for those who are not aware, Le 404 is owned by the same guy behind Momo and sketch in London).

So, as neither my wife nor I have much actual knowledge of Parisian restaurants – although I do have a ton of theoretical knowledge, as I try to keep abreast of what’s happening in the top restaurants and general trends in French cooking – I knew I would need help if I wanted to ensure that the few meals we did have would be memorable ones. And who else was I to turn to but the master of finer fare, Food Snob himself? After a rather lengthy and exceedingly helpful email correspondence, he helped me whittle down the choices and we booked one dinner at l’Arpège (which is, from what I can tell, his current favorite restaurant in Paris if not the entire world) and one dinner at Le Chateaubriand, plus the couscous evening we already had planned. We had a few places in mind for ‘serious’ but not-too-expensive lunches with ‘light cooking’ if we so fancied, also courtesy of Food Snob (they were Frenchie and Yam’Tcha).

In the end, due to the Eurostar debacle, we were lucky to have just one-and-a-half days in Paris, and had to cancel Le Chateaubriand and Le 404. But as you already know, we did make it to Chez Passard (aka l’Arpège), and also had a pleasant lunch at Chez Janou on the outskirts of Le Marais on the other day (see my mini-review here in a French food porn photo post).

If you want more background information on Chef Alain Passard, whose only restaurant is l’Arpège, I suggest you consult Food Snob’s excellent and detailed review. There is also a very nice review from Ulterior Epicure, and both have beautiful photography to drool over. But, as far as I was concerned at this stage, there were three main points of interest:

  1. According to Food Snob, Passard was a master of meat (‘maître rôtisseur’), having spent 30 years establishing himself at his craft. Then, in January 2001, he declared to the world that he would focus his cooking efforts on vegetables, which created a shockwave throughout the French food community.
  2. As Food snob explains, “In 2002, he bought the Château du Gros Chesnay, in Fillé-sur-Sarthe, about two-hundred kilometres from Paris, near Le Mans, sharing the property with the previous owner, Madame Baccarach, who minds the house whilst the chef visits the two hectare garden each weekend, employing three gardeners to tend to it fulltime. Using only natural fertilisers, non-mechanical tools (like horse-drawn ploughs), a rotating small-plot system and pesticides made exclusively of vegetable extracts, this organic potager is a ‘showpiece of permaculture’; there is even a purpose-built lake on the grounds and four bee-hives to help maintain a balanced ecosystem (and provide l’Arpège with its very own honey)…The garden contains one-hundred-and-fifty different breeds of plant and supplies eight to ten tons of produce per year – nearly all that the restaurant requires. The crops can be picked at seven in the morning, in time for the ten o’clock TGV to Paris; no refrigeration is necessary and transport times are short – therefore the légumes lose very little of their freshness and flavour – and thus, that morning’s bounty is able to become that afternoon’s lunch. What l’Arpège does not consume is sold on a small counter at la Grande Épicerie du Bon Marché and any kitchen waste is returned to the garden for use as compost.
  3. As far as I am aware, l’Arpège is Chef Passard’s only restaurant and he is therefore normally there in the kitchen and dining room overseeing things.

The master at work in his jardin

So the real question was, would l’Arpège and Chef Passard live up to the very high expectations I had built up in my head?

Bent on finding out, on a rainy evening in late December, we ventured from the comfort of our hotel near Opéra to the metro in search of the 7th, which is apparently not a very typical arrondissement for seeking out the gastronomic pleasures that Paris has to offer. We found the restaurant just fine, as it is less than a five-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Varenne).

Portland, Oregon or Paris, France?

The experience leading up to the meal had been a good one. We had been able to book without a problem, and they even had the consideration to call us on the day to ensure that we were still coming as they saw that we had a +44 (the UK) country code in our phone number and they had heard about the problems with Eurostar. The positive service continued as we entered the restaurant. Our table had been booked at the extremely early time of 7.30pm (if you’re going by Parisian standards) and, as such, we were the first to arrive at the restaurant that evening. We were seated at a very nice table in the corner directly opposite the entryway, which afforded us a nice view of the entire upstairs (which is the main) dining room. I noticed later, during a visit to the bathrooms, that there was further seating downstairs in a cosy little rectangular room. The maîtresse d’hôte, whom I will assume was Hélène Cousin based on Food Snob’s and others’ descriptions of her, gave us a warm and inviting reception, and engaged in a very pleasant conversation with us as we sat down at our table and got acquainted with her and the restaurant.

The view from our pleasant corner

As I had seen from others’ reviews, the décor was indeed fairly spartan, with rich yellow-orange wood panelling throughout that really reminded me of how lots of restaurants are (or were) decorated in my native Pacific Northwest in the US – lots of warm wood panelling. Even the little spherical glass artwork that faced us (see picture above) reminded me of art from Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. It was a very calming dining space if a tad dull, and the only real theme running throughout it was the overt use of wood and a specific shade of red, which was employed in the chairs’ upholstery, featured as the main color in the decorate plates when we arrived, and lined the edges of many of the serving plates during the meal. I found it to be simple, modern, concise, consistent and effective.

The simple & individual decorative plates, made of resin

As we were perusing the menu, some white radishes from Chef Passard’s garden were brought out for us to munch on. They were very nice with the accompanying gray salt and served their intended purpose of getting our mouths salivating.

Fresh radishes courtesy of Chef Passard’s très, très ‘bio’ garden

I was also salivating at the offer of a glass of champagne. The restaurant’s ‘champagne of the day’ (why doesn’t every restaurant have this concept?!) was Laurent-Perrier’s top cuvée, which is called Grand Siècle. Given my rather newfound love of champagne I was eager to see what this famous name had to offer.

My exceedingly lovely glass of Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle champagne, their top cuvée

When the champagne did arrive, it was presented in its very own glass (with the brand and cuvée clearly labelled), and it didn’t disappoint. It had lovely, tiny soft bubbles which served to create a luscious mousse. The champagne was citrusy without being overly harsh and had a lot of length. It was an excellent liquid beginning to the meal.

The magically appearing vegetable tartelettes

After a lengthy and informative consultation about the menu, we had finally decided on our dishes. We opted not to go for the tasting menu, as (a) I don’t think my wife would have been up for it given her aforementioned disposition and (b) my menu, the one which had the prices on it (how gentlemanly), had the digits three, six and zero all in a row, preceded by the Euro sign in the upper-right corner of the tasting menu page. After asking whether this was the price for one or two people (I did, seriously), and being told that it was the price for one person, I thought we might do better going à la carte. But price aside, I thought I would actually prefer picking two specific dishes from what was certainly an intriguing little menu. My only real concern was whether we would still get the fabled Passard egg. I reticently asked if we would, and was assured that “Yes, of course! Everybody who dines at l’Aprege gets Alain’s egg!” So, with a tiny bit of egg already on my face, I was now satisfied and ready for the games to commence.

The vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing...

And commence they did. Just after placing our orders, Chef Passard’s vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing in pairs, in a steady yet slightly random fashion. First off, a plate of 2 pairs, then another plate of 2 pairs, then a single tart for each of us. They were all made with vegetables from the aforementioned garden, and nearly all of them dazzled. The first plate contained one with red cabbage purée and one with a mélange of diced-up vegetables, both of which were excellent.

...one after another, in a leisurely succession, the tartelette onslaught continued

A second wave or tartelettes featured one with an avocado mousse, and another with a fine jelly cube nestled atop another vegetable mousse. They were all delectable and very more-ish.

Then, the moment of the fabled egg arrived

The procession of tartelettes was temporarily interrupted by the egg that I had been asking about. I have to say that I adored the simple splendour of the presentation. There was a succession of two red-rimmed white plates, on top of which rested a silver cup that coddled the plain brown shell of a soft-boiled egg which had been severed about three-quarters of the way up.

So what did it taste like? Well, unlike others, I didn’t find it a complete revelation, but I did think it was excellent, and also liked it within the context of the pacing of the meal thus far, which had been subtly growing like a wave still deep at sea making its way slowly but steadily to the shore.

There were four main components to the dish: the brilliantly yellow yolk, which remained unbroken until prodded by my spoon; some sherry vinegar; a touch of cream; and some real Canadian maple syrup. When the yolk of the egg was broken and all of the components oozed together in concert, it create a very pleasurable flavor sensation, with the slight astringency of the vinegar being balanced by the creaminess of the yolk and the cream itself, and the sweetness of the maple syrup taking pole position as the strongest taste in the mouth. I have a sweet tooth and like eggs, so it was right up my alley. 8/10.

French country bread & St Malo buerre de baratte (butter)

The bread and butter had also arrived by this point, and the crusty, chewy French country loaf was really excellent. The butter, a beurre de baratte (baratte simply means ‘churned’, and in this method the milk is usually soured with bacterial starter cultures) which hailed from St Malo in Brittany, was very good, although not as nice as the butter we had at The Fat Duck. 9/10.

Ah yes, more tarts, some more unusual & ambitious than others

Before the main courses arrived, another little flurry of tarts was presented to us, and they were actually just placed on the side of our silver egg cups (see above). This particular one didn’t work as well to either of our palates. It was made up of carrots, red cabbage and cocoa and I didn’t really like combination of flavors. But as Meatloaf might say, ‘two [portions of tarts] out of three ain’t bad’. 9/10 for the tartelettes overall based on their ingenuity, honesty, creativity, freshness, surprising nature (in terms of quantity), and one mark off from being perfect due to the not too pleasant carrot/cabbage/cocoa combination.

Clever constructions, plural portions

I wasn’t quite sure what my starter was going to look or taste like, given the somewhat mysterious description of the dish, plus the fact that my French ain’t that great. All I knew was that celeriac was going to feature quite heavily. What arrived was certainly interesting on many levels.

Starter 1a: Ronde de céleri rave 'Monarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (tagliatelles)

As far as I was aware, this single plate of what looked like a traditional pasta tagliatelle with some generous shavings of black truffles, was to be my starter. It smelled amazing, but I was slightly disappointed at first, as it appeared quite simple and was a fairly meagre looking portion. However, the clever surprise was that the pasta was not pasta at all; it was made out of the celeriac! It had been carved to look exactly like pasta, and the texture was also remarkably pasta-like, although obviously crisper and less soft than actual pasta. The flavors all fused together effortlessly. The little cream sauce had a remarkable depth of flavor, and paired with the lovely aroma and subtle taste of the black truffle and the crunch of the celeriac, it was a very enjoyable starter. It also put a smile on my face as I liked the playfulness of the faux pasta.

Starter 1b: Ronde de céleri rave 'Moncarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (celerisotto)

After I had finished, our waiter came back and asked if I had liked it, to which I replied with a firm ‘oui’. She then asked if I was ready for the second part of my starter, to which I enthusiastically provided her with another ‘oui! Indeed, the fact that there actually two parts to my first course had somehow gotten lost in translation (I am sure it was my fault). The second portion of the course was another case of visual trickery. It appeared to be a risotto of sorts, but instead of the ‘rice’ actually being rice, it was again celeriac – this time chopped up into tiny little cubes. It was soaking in a strikingly bright green sauce, and was again topped with shavings of black truffle. It was equally as good as the first half of the starter; it was subtle, creamy and truffle-y, with a good fresh bite being provided from the still rather crisp celeriac cubes. I was now satisfied with my starter and was eager to see what Chef Passard had up his sleeve for the next course. I score this dish a 9/10 based on the flawless execution and clever playfulness – the taste was nearly perfect, but didn’t quite reach perfection for me in the sense that I think I will remember the play on pasta more than the actual flavors in the dish.

Starter 2: Fines ravioles potagères, oignon sturon et poireau de Carentan (1st & 2nd portions)

Mrs. LF had the following to say of her starter: “At first, just like my husband, I didn’t realise that I would be getting a second portion, so I initially thought that the portion size was a bit mean too, considering I knew I would have to share it with my ever-greedy husband! The ravioles were floating in a clean vegetable consommé which had a distinct but subtle celery flavour. The pasta itself was very thin and transparent, which allowed the colour of the vegetables inside to pierce through, and I felt it added a purity and demure quality to the dish. I recall liking all of the ravioles except for the red-colored one, which had a strong flavour and the bitter taste of horseradish. The yellow one was my favorite, with its soft onion flavour. 8/10.”

The wholesome(ness) of the parts

Following our fresh and lovely starters, we were afforded a small and welcome break in the proceedings. After a while, a waiter emerged from the kitchen clutching a large silver tray with two smaller sliver dishes placed on top. One contained my main course of duck and the other contained Mrs. LF’s main course of sole. Both the animal and the fish were presented whole in a bit of culinary theater (which reminded me of our experience at French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library back in London), before they were taken back to the kitchen to be prepared and plated up for us to eat.

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (1st portion)

I was very excited about my duck course, which was not on the menu and had been explained to me by our waiter. What emerged on my plate was yet another simply presented but exquisitely beautiful arrangement of food. The duck, which had been cooked in hibiscus, was presented on top of a deep reddish-orange sauce, and was surrounded by dark purple cabbage, bright orange carrots and a narrow quenelle of a bright yellow mash of some sort. The bold colors contrasted nicely with the shiny white of the large and round serving plate. It smelled out of this world, and with the aroma wafting about I quickly tried to take some pictures to capture the moment before devouring this petit canard.

Well, I can say without exception that this was the best duck dish I remember eating. Everything about it just worked perfectly. The skin of the breast was crispy, and beneath the skin the meat itself was soft, succulent and cooked between pink and red, just to my liking. But that sauce…oh my god…that sauce…it was the most sophisticated sweet and sour concoction I have ever tasted, with the undertone of hibiscus ever-present yet not overpowering. It was as if it was created solely to be the perfect coating for dead ducks when they go to heaven (i.e. my stomach). The yellow mash was another revelation, as it tasted distinctly of orange peel and possibly a touch of lemon, and was absolutely delicious when eaten together with a bit of duck and the sauce. The accompanying vegetables were also divine. The carrot, glazed in the sauce, and the purple cabbage, were equally as good on their own as they were when I cut small bits of them to eat together with the duck. I cannot emphasize how good this dish was, and it was probably the single most memorable dish of 2009 for me – and that’s saying something given the calibre of dining we partook in during the year. But wait, that’s not all…

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (2nd portion)

After finishing what I presumed to be my entire main course, the waiter asked me if I was ready for my second helping of the main course. In addition to grinning widely, I think I may have given out a small yet audible laugh, such was my delight. I was beginning to think the only word I needed in l’Arpège was ‘oui’. The second portion arrived similarly presented, though on a smaller plate, which this time carried the trademark red rim and also dipped slightly in the middle. This time, there was a leg and a thigh, which meant that the skin was even a tad crisper (a bonus) but it was a little more work extracting the meat from the bones than in the previous iteration. That said, the flavors were exactly the same, and I can confidently say I would have happily eaten a third portion had it been offered. I have no hesitation in giving this wonderful dish a full 10/10.

Main Course 2: Pêche côtière grilée sur écailles, pointe de Bretagne (1st & 2nd portions)

Of her main course, Mrs. LF commented: “As I wanted something simple, I opted for the sole. The fish was cooked to perfection, and had been kept delicate and as soft as down, as it should be. The sauce was light and ever so slightly creamy but not heavy, as it had been tempered with vegetable stock. It also had a hint of white wine in it, and was a beautiful and subtle sauce to accompany the fish. But what really stood out for me was the small potatoes, which had a nutty, smoky flavour. I could not get over it, and once again was reluctant to concede a taste of it to the constantly hovering Mr. LF. 9/10.”

After the main courses had been cleared, service, which to this point had been friendly, professional and highly efficient, began to slow down considerably. In fact, we felt slightly abandoned as we waited to see the dessert menu and/or hear about the cheeses on offer. Eventually, we caught a waiter’s attention – something the customer should never have to do in a 3 Michelin star establishment, in my view – and the dessert menus were then promptly presented and explained to us. Mrs. LF noted that “…this was because the waitress who was in charge of our table at the beginning of the meal was switched to a different station after a while, and that the new waiter who was assigned to us for some reason didn’t take any notice of our table although he was interacting non-stop with one of his tables of four and his one table of one. Since the earlier waitress had moved stations, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t take over our table as we were clearly in his section.” As you can see, Mrs. LF doesn’t miss a trick :).

When we finally did get the waiter’s attention, we were asked if we would like a cheese course before dessert. I was intrigued to hear more about the cheese because there was a huge block of what looked like Comte in the middle of the dining room, and I wondered if this was the only cheese on offer. Indeed, it was, and I was informed that it could be served with shaved black truffles on top, which would accentuate the whole experience. So, without thinking, I said the only French word which I seemed capable of uttering that evening: ‘oui’! Immediately after the waiter had left our table, Mrs. LF shot me a crazy-eyed glance, and asked me what the hell had I just done – wasn’t I aware of how much those truffles might cost?! I had clearly gotten caught up in the excitement and hadn’t given it a second thought.

Comte and black truffles – what can be bad about that?!

The cheese arrived and was once again beautifully presented, and boy was there a lot of it! At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stomach all this cheese, but luckily the Comte was excellent and I had no problem polishing it all off in the end. The Comte was very salty and sharp and the extremely thinly sliced truffles therefore helped a lot to balance out the flavors. It was a wonderful cheese course and I scoffed it all down in record time considering the richness and decadence of the whole thing. They also came to apologize for bringing us the cheese course so late, which was a well-received gesture. 10/10.

Desserts to die for

Next up were desserts, and I certainly had found room for them upon reading their descriptions on the menu. After having seen tantalizing photos from Food Snob on twitter of Passard’s apple tart, one of us just had to order it, so I gave the honor to Mrs. LF as she is keen on “…good, properly made French apple tarts.” I opted for another rather traditional French dessert of millefeuille.

Unfortunately, our original sommelier seemed to have suffered a similar fate to that of our first waitress (having also been reassigned to the other side of the dining room mid-service), and they seemed to forget about our wine needs in the shuffle. Hence, there was no offer of a dessert wine, and we couldn’t get the new sommelier’s attention in time before the desserts arrived. And as readers of this blog will know, I do like my sweet wines. Boo-hoo :(.

Dessert 1: Tart aux pommes Boquet de Roses©, creation Hiver 2008

Mrs. LF didn’t have too much to say about her dessert, but I think this because she may have been at a loss for words (for once): “Amazing, the best apple tart I ever had. The apples, which I presume were French Boscop apples, were pealed and had been crafted into a beautiful bouquet of rose buds. These rested on a perfect pâte brisée, which is the name of the French pastry used for their tart. And that’s it! No fuss, a perfect pâte brisée with perfect apple flavor, nothing else. No compote, no custard, and no other silly or unnecessary add-ons: a tarte aux pommes in its simplest and best form. Well, actually, come to think of it, they did sprinkle the tart with a tiny bit of salty caramel sauce, which to my mind wasn’t necessary, although it did taste very good. 10/10.”

Dessert 2: Millefeuille 'caprice d'enfant' goûter croustillant

My dessert was also heavenly. The nearly weightless thin and crisp layers of pastry were injected with a fine cream of vanilla which had the faintest hint of whisky. I can count the number of truly excellent millefeuille I’ve had in my life on one hand – they are so often made with too heavy a hand, especially by pastry chefs in the UK – and this one was probably the best one I’ve had. It was crisp, crumbly and balanced perfectly with the luscious yet still light cream that seemed to be randomly placed throughout the brittle layers. No question that this was a perfect example of its kind. 10/10.

Petit fours, including some unusually flavored macarons

The only downside to the desserts was that we weren’t offered second portions of them! That said, we were offered petit fours as a consolation.

They were presented on a sliver tray, and consisted of two individual roses from the apple tart (which were again excellent), a wonderful nougat with beetroot (the combination surprisingly worked really well), some moist carrot cake which didn’t leave me that inspired, and three types of macarons. The macarons all revolved around vegetable or herb flavors – as far as I recall, one contained aromatic herbs, one was basil-based, and one was of red cabbage – and I didn’t particularly love any of them. 6/10, but only because of the nougat and the apple tart roses.

End of the line, folks

After the petit fours, le bill was artfully presented on a silver tray, folded halfway to conceal what was to be the only painful part of the meal (with the possible exception of a few of the macarons). To be honest, at the time I wasn’t actually that bothered to pay it as it had been a very relaxed, entertaining and enjoyable meal.

On the way out, my wife literally bumped into Chef Passard as we were waiting for our coats to be fetched. He had been making appearances in the dining room throughout the evening, and seemed like the consummate host. He seemed to do a floating dance through the slightly awkwardly laid-out dining room, donning a constant and pleasant smile. A few times, he looked over at our table from across the room and visibly winked at us, presumably because we were smiling and/or laughing, and the gesture seemed to indicate that he was happy we were enjoying ourselves.

In any case, Mrs. LF struck up a conversation with him in French and told him that we had essentially travelled from London to eat at his restaurant, to which he responded by saying, “That is the ultimate compliment that a chef can receive.” After a very pleasant discussion (I didn’t understand much, but Mrs. LF said he was very humble and nice), he asked us if we had our car waiting outside. Mrs. LF informed him that, in fact, we were travelling via metro, which he thought was a good idea. So a practical chap as well :).

The price of perfection

As should be obvious by this point, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at l’Arpège and, aside from a few very minor wobbles, the food was exceedingly excellent throughout. Some courses were truly inventive and good-humoured (to wit, my starter of celeriac mock pastas), others were more traditional (Mrs. LF’s main course of sole), and some were just outright beautiful (the duck and the apple tart composed of individual ‘roses’)…and all were all delicious. As I stated before, the duck cooked in hibiscus was without a doubt one of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten in my adult life.

Service had been excellent up until the point of cheese and desserts, when we did feel quite abandoned. They did apologize for this however and attempted to rectify the mistake toward the very end of the meal. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice that we were not charged for the cheese course in the end, which was good news as I had sort of been dreading how much this might cost given the copious sprinkling of truffles on top of the Comte. I took this as a kind a gesture from the front-of-house team, and not as a mistake, and if this was the case, I think it was the correct and polite thing to do.

But I guess the heart of the matter with l’Arpège, and restaurants of the same ilk, is the total cost of the meal. Our bill ended up being 520 Euros, and that was with only one glass of champagne and two glasses of wine (as Mrs. LF was not drinking), and was sans the cheese course, whatever that may have cost. So, was the meal worth that much money?

If you take it at face value by adding up the cost of the ingredients, the operating costs of the restaurant (staff, rent, etc.), plus take into consideration a rational profit margin, I am not sure what the answer would actually be, but would posit that it would be a ‘no’. This may be mitigated by the fact that their vegetables apparently travel from Chef Passsard’s garden via TGV each day to reach the Paris-based restaurant, and the fact that there were a few luxurious ingredients in our meal (namely a healthy dose of black truffles and a whole high-quality duck and sole). That said, a lot of the ingredients were vegetables and couldn’t have cost all that much, even including the TGV season ticket.

The other obvious way to approach the matter is to compare l’Arpège to the cost of other 3-star restaurants in Paris, but given the fact that I have not been to any of those recently, I simply have no clue how the prices compare (please do let me know if you can put this in context for me). It was quite shocking to see starters at over 70 Euros and mains over 100 Euros, but maybe this is the case at other temples of Parisian gastronomy (?).

The most obvious recent and relevant comparison I can find within my own dining experience is The Fat Duck, simply because it is another Michelin 3-star restaurant and was the runner-up for my most expensive meal of 2009 on a per-person basis. Our Fat Duck lunch was £415 and included a full wine pairing for me (again, Mrs. LF was not drinking), a bottle of water and ludicrously expensive teas. L’Arpège ended up being £477, so even more expensive, especially considering we went à la carte (remember the tasting menu was 360 Euros/person), whereas at the Fat Duck there are 13-15 courses depending on how you slice it, and we only had three glasses of wine at l’Arpège.

In terms of the overall dining experience, The Fat Duck wins hands-down due to the pure theatrics and unwavering perfection and inventiveness that ran through both the conception and execution of the dishes. By contrast, l’Arpège is more of a traditional restaurant, although the meal was also replete with pleasant surprises (regenerating vegetable tartetlettes, faux pasta, the mysterious egg, double portions of most dishes, etc.). I guess at this level of cooking, you are paying for the unique personality of the chef behind the restaurant and it is all very expensive when considering 3-starred restaurants. I really appreciated the fact that Chef Passard was there on-hand during our meal (and from what I understand he is there nearly every day), which is certainly not the case with Heston at The Fat Duck or with so many other multiple-starred celebrity chefs, i.e. Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, etc. So, in a way, I guess that our bill was just what it costs to get the authentic Passard experience and, on this occasion, I was glad to have had it. The meal has certainly lived on in my memory and I expect it to keep doing so for some time to come. In this sense, I guess you could say that I thought it was worth it.

About halfway through our meal, a group of four French investment bankers took the table just next to us. They briskly informed the waiter that they were short on time and would like to eat quickly; could the chef prepare an express menu of sorts for them? They talked business the entire time and seemed to give less than a second thought to the food that was being served to them. I thought this clearly illustrated the depressing fact that always stares me (and most other diners) in the face: it is so often the case that the truly rich, or those with enormous expense accounts, get to eat in the most amazing restaurants and barely seem to appreciate the rare commodities that they ingest as a distraction to their conversation, whereas those who truly appreciate good food are so often not able to even enter the doors of such restaurants due to the cost-prohibitive nature of the meal. I am lucky enough to be able to afford to splurge on expensive restaurants once a month (during a good period), but it does slightly turn my stomach that so much of this amazing food literally goes to waste in the mouths and stomachs of people who care more about the fact that they can dine at these restaurants (indeed, it seems to be the ultimate boast for them) than what they are actually eating. This is not to say that there aren’t investment bankers/loaded people who do truly appreciate good food, but in my experience, they are in the minority.

In a word, was l’Arpège worth it? Yes. It was a unique dining experience in which I felt very privileged to have partaken. But, just like other restaurants of a similar calibre, I would only go back once in a great, great while, both because that’s all I can really afford and also because I think they might begin losing their unique pleasure if they were experienced too often.

Hats off to Chef Passard, it was a meal to remember.

P.S. – in case you don’t get the title, l’Arpège is French for the Italian musical term arpeggio, which is a broken chord where the notes are played or sung in sequence, one after the other, rather than ringing out simultaneously. Hence the musical play on words.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (only due to the severe lapse in attention toward the end of the meal)

Food: 9/10

Wine: I had two glasses of wine, but in atypical fashion have completely forgot what they were (that’s probably not a good thing). I only looked at the wines by the glass and half-bottle sections as my companion was not drinking, and they were both perfectly fine and (as you’d expect) heavily French focused. The mark-ups were not horrible compared to other 3-star restaurants and there was a good variety of solid producers to chose from.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at l’Arpège only once (sadly), and it was for dinner.*

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught – The Anglo-French Combination Loses Something in Translation

The Connaught
Carlos Place
London W1K 2AL
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Dinner: Signature menu (7-course tasting) at £85/person, 3-course menu at £75/person; Lunch menus at £35 (inclusive of water & coffee) and £42 (inclusive of 2 glasses of wine + water & coffee)

A grand yet modern dining room in a historic London hotel & a famous French female chef producing very good food somehow fail to produce a lasting impression

The woman who snatched the reins from Angela & Gordon

I will spare you the full introduction to chef Hélène Darroze as she is probably already pretty well known to most readers of this blog. How about some quick bullet points instead (I have been working too much lately)? Hopefully, like a good amuse bouche, they will be easily digestible:

  • Darroze comes from the Southwest of France (Les Landes) where her family has been in the hospitality and culinary fields for four generations, with her father holding a Michelin star at their Relais & Château hotel and restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan
  • She earned her BA in business and wanted to go into the hospitality business too, so got a job on the administrative side of Alain Ducasse’s organization and, after being there for a while and observing everything, decided she too wanted to be a chef, eventually rising to become his ‘right-hand woman’ (no small feat), cooking alongside the master chef at his Monaco-based Le Louis XV
  • She then went back to her family’s business and, due to a difference of cooking styles (it’s ‘complicated’), her father ‘volunteered’ to resign;
  • She retained the family’s Michelin star, won tons of awards for her culinary promise and prowess, then opened up her own restaurant on the left bank in Paris, which received 2 Michelin stars within two years of opening
  • In the spring of 2008, she was eventually convinced to take over the restaurant at London’s historically important Connaught hotel when Angela Hartnett and Gordon Ramsay Holdings essentially got booted out, gaining a Michelin star there within a year of opening. She took a big brigade from Paris to set up the operation and commutes every other week to London so is in the London kitchen approximately half the time

Given all the above, I had been very interested to try her food, especially given her reputation as being one of the best ambassadors for the food of her region and one of the brighter lights in the French culinary scene.

The triplet mystery

So, on a cold and rainy November evening, the dynamic duo arrived at the imposing façade of the oh-so English Connaught Hotel.

Anglo exterior, French guts

The restaurant lies to your right after entering the hotel, and is reached via a narrow corridor of dark wood panelling. The hotel was recently completely refurbished for the small price of £70 million and is quite classically beautiful inside.

Light at the end of the corridor?

Surprisingly, once inside the rather grand dining room, things become a bit lighter, with comfy upholstered chairs of white and mustard-yellow swirls, cushioned bench seating of muted gray with a vertical diamond pattern, some art deco details and golden chandeliers. This all somehow resolves itself very neatly within the still clubby carcass (i.e. dark wood panelling) of the room.

A quick perusal of the menu revealed the usual tasting menu and a 3-course option. We opted for the simpler of the two and began pondering the options there within. As I was ruminating, I was struck by the descriptions of her dishes. Nearly all of them were described in threes, and I was reminded of our recent meal at Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library, where he is also fond of focusing on one primary ingredient for a dish and preparing in three different ways. As I was wondering whether this phenomenon of triplets was a peculiarly French affectation, some nibbles interrupted my train of thought.

Sorry, hold on, this is the…starter?

Amuse Bouche 1: Leek & potato velouté with barley foam; Parma ham; breadsticks

Now I thought this was slightly odd. We were in a very posh French dining room and Parma ham was being laid out on a sheet of black slate, with breadsticks poking up out of a basket on the side. It all seemed very Italian to me, although I guess the kitchen had salvaged its haute cuisine/French-ness by serving a tall glass of velouté as part of the trio. The Parma ham was good, but also particularly salty (6/10). The breadsticks were, well, breadsticks and don’t stand out in my memory (5/10). The leek and potato concoction was probably the nicest of the three, with a lovely smooth consistency and a subtle heat (the spicy kind) to it (7/10). A rather odd start, but a start nonetheless.

Amuse Bouche 2: Foie gras crème brûlée; green apple sorbet; peanut cappuccino

The next amuse was apparently a signature dish of Darroze. I thought it worked quite well, with the richness of the foie gras cream being well accented by the sweetness of the peanut foam and cut through by the very noticeable streak of green apple. It was all very pleasant, but the foie gras flavor did remain quite muted beneath it all and this little glass of joy certainly wasn’t an earth-shattering gastronomic moment for me. 7/10.

Bread & Butter

In the meantime, we had been served a nice selection of bread, which was of high quality. Butter was sliced from what is probably the largest slab of butter I’ve ever seen – a ginormous block of the creamy, yellow stuff was on display in the center of the dining room – and was also very good. 8/10.

Starter 1: Le Foie Gras des Landes (Duck Foie Gras from Les Landes) – One slice cooked ‘au torchon’; one slice confit with mild spices; chutney of Solliès figs

After a rather dainty start to the meal, it was a real shocker when my main course starter arrived. A huge white plate containing two MASSIVE slices of foie gras was placed before me (the above photo does not accurately convey the size of the slabs of overfed duck innards). There were two version on offer, one cooked au torchon – seasoned with port, wrapped in a kitchen towel  or torchon, and cooked sous-vide (under vacuum) – and the other mixed with a very nice streak of ‘mild spices’. I preferred the latter, while Mrs. LF was partial to the former. The slice with spice reminded me a lot of Christmas flavors (gingerbread, mulled wine, etc.) and I thought it went exceptionally well with the figs and the wonderfully concentrated chutney lurking beneath the three beautifully presented slices of fruit. The foie gras was served with large slices of country bread, which was good although I thought it was too thick for foie gras.

Left: Detail of the figs in the foie gras starter / Right: The accompanying bread for the foie gras

Overall, it was an excellent course, but it really should have been served as a main course (which wasn’t really an option given that this is a faux pas in France) or they should have served much thinner slices as I was pretty much full at this point in the meal, making it hard to salivate with anticipation over the rest of the dishes to come – not a good thing for a fine dining experience. While I can understand the desire to convey ‘value for money’ (after all, the 3-course menu is the not insignificant sum of £75/person), I thought the balance was really off on this course. 8/10 for the cooking, though.

Starter 2: Les Carottes (Carrots) – Yellow, orange, purple…caramelised in their jus with forest honey; cumin crumble; cappuccino with cumin foam

Mrs. LF had the following to say about her starter: “A wide selection of carrot varieties (of many different colors) was presented beautifully on the plate. Each was distinct in terms of both flavour and texture, while retaining the familiar underlying carrot taste. The jus with forest honey enhanced the sweetness of the carrots nicely. While intriguing to begin with, I soon tired of the dish and lost interest. The portion looked small, however in reality there was plenty, as the taste of it all was quite rich and fulsome.”

First time for everything – a carrot cappuccino with cumin foam (part of Starter 2)

On the other hand, the accompanying cappuccino, served in a tall glass, had the texture of velvet and was delightful,” Mrs. LF concluded. 6/10 overall for the dish.

Main Course 1: Le Homard Bleu (Blue Lobster) – Cooked in its shell; carrot & confit citrus mousseline; wild sorrel

My main course was very enjoyable. The lobster was sweet although a tad on the chewy side and, as is often the case, the claw had an exquisitely fine flavor. The accompaniments to the dish worked seamlessly, with the citrus mousseline providing a bit of sweet freshness (and an underlying acidity) and the brown onion reduction lending some richness and a hint of sharpness. The wild sorrel (greens) on top were actually not pointless, and had a sharp tanginess, which I thought helped to tie the dish together. Very accomplished cooking and not overly complicated. 8/10.

Main Course 2: Le Poulet Jaune des Landes (Corn-Fed Chicken) – Breast stuffed under the skin with wild mushrooms, cooked in a cocotte; Escaoutoun from Les Landes with brebis Basque cheese & cèpes; roasting jus with rosemary & walnuts

“The stuffed chicken breast was tender and cooked perfectly. The roasting jus was nice, but together with the chicken, it didn’t overwhelm me and I wasn’t in a hurry to reach for another bite,” said Mrs. LF of her main course. “The Escaoutoun, which I never had before, is speciality of Les Landes, and is a polenta-like dish blended with ewe’s-milk cheese and cèpes. The ewe’s milk cheese didn’t stand out as I thought it might do, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but overall my palate wasn’t overly excited about this novelty.” 7/10.

Dessert 1: 100% Chocolat – Venezuelan Carupano dark chocolate cream; bitter chocolate sorbet; hot chocolate sauce

Well, how was this dessert going to be bad? I mean, I love dark chocolate and that was all there was, again in three different formats. It worked delectably well and although I was stuffed at this point, thanks to eating all of my foie gras, it didn’t take long for me to dust off this very beautifully presented and technically well executed dessert. 8/10.

The sommelier has recommended a nice Pedro Ximénez to have alongside the chocolate and, indeed, it was a very nice combination. The sherry was very rich and sweet with an almost syrupy consistency, and the two played well off of each other.

Dessert 2: La Chataigne (Chestnut) – Biscuit, chantilly, wafer; Yuzu curd; Yuzu sorbet

Mrs. LF on her dessert: “I chose this as my final course because I love the flavor of chestnuts in a dessert. I guess it is a very French thing to enjoy. During Christmas time we have marron glace, which is a French candied chestnut. We also have barquette au marron, a sort of a tart in the shape of a boat that most traditional pâtisseries carry. So I went for this desert in order to satisfy my longing for a good French chestnut dessert.  But, after biting into the filled wafer, I realised that it was filled with the chantilly and that the chestnut element was in the brown little cubes that were scattered around the plate. Whilst those were delicious, I didn’t get the satisfaction of a true chestnut dessert. Apart from those little squares, the waffle was pretty bland, and the sorbet – while refreshing – didn’t overwhelm me either.” 7/10.

Something disjointed this way comes

Service throughout had certainly been attentive in some respects, but was far from slick and faultless. For instance, our table happened to be located next to one of the areas where the waiters added the final touches to the plates before bringing them to the table, and a few times I could clearly hear two of the waiters bickering between themselves. Also, while professional and attentive for the most part, it seemed a bit disjointed as we would get abandoned for a while and then swooned over a bit later. It wasn’t by any means horrible, but it did seem like they were very stressed, highly strung and not particularly well organized. I guess service doesn’t directly affect the stars in Michelin’s rating system (the level of ‘luxury’ is rated separately with a crossed fork and spoon symbol), but I was surprised that it wasn’t smoother.

Winding (up) down (stairs)…

But anyways, our meal had drawn to a pleasant close, or so we thought. Of course, this was fine dining, and this meant petit fours. But before they were rolled out (literally), some beautiful Hermès plates were set down in front of us. I can’t recall if there was a specific point for this, as I don’t remember eating anything off of them, but they were nice to look at anyway.

Decorative Plates by Hermès (yes, we really did lift them up and check the logo underneath)

After recently being served a group of petit fours that was called ‘Like a kid in a sweet shop’ at The Fat Duck, this time it looked like the candy store was being rolled out and delivered directly to our table. A lovely old-fashioned trolley containing various sweets in glass jars was parked at our table, and of course I could not refuse any of them, even though I felt 10 pounds heavier than when we first entered the restaurant. I thought this was a great touch and made the experience a lot more fun than the usual pre-sorted plateful of sweet morsels.

Petit Four trolley – literally like an adult in a candy shop

They were all pretty good, especially the marshmallows and chocolate truffles. The truffles were so good that Mrs. LF seems to have snatched hers before I was able to take a picture of them together on the second, slightly smaller Hermès plate (see below).

Easy does it...

As we were getting ready to explode, I asked our waitress if Ms. Darroze happened to be there this evening (I often try this line). I was surprised when the answer was ‘yes’, and even more pleasantly surprised when she asked us if we would like to meet her.

One star, plus two

Of course, we answered ‘yes’, and were shown downstairs to her office (she really has one down there directly across from the kitchen). Mrs. LF was able to converse with her in French, which was great, and she seemed to be a very straight-forward, earnest and down-to-earth woman.

The Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for donkey’s years

Upon leaving, we noticed the small army of Armagnac that was placed upon a table in the corridor near the entrance of the restaurant. We were informed that the Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for ages, although it is done in very small batches so is not really available anywhere else besides their own establishments. I caught a glance of one (see below) that dated from 1942. It was a pretty impressive display.

And there is a quite a collection on-hand, this one from 1942

Fading away…

All things considered, our meal at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught was pleasant and a few of the dishes were excellent. However, the meal seems to have faded into the background of my brain’s culinary compartment. This is likely because nothing stood out as being truly exceptional for either of us – the food, the service, nor the ambience. I suppose a restaurant of a certain calibre and with a certain intent should be judged in the context of similar establishments, and in this case, I don’t think it holds up as well as many other 1-starred restaurants (not to mention the non-starred ones) at which I’ve dined in the last year. Maybe a visit to her restaurant in Paris would give me a greater appreciation for her particular style of food and cooking ethos, but from this meal it didn’t ever become clearly defined or fully realized – it was ‘very good’ (as the score below reflects), but not remarkable.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/11

Wine: a nice European-centric selection of wines (particularly strong in France, as you’d expect), with a few of bottles at lower price-points outside of the celebrity French regions and houses & a decent selection by the glass and half-bottle

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught once, and it was for dinner.*

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

The Fat Duck – A Blumen’ Great Day in Bray

The Fat Duck
High Street
Bray
Berkshire
SL6 2AQ
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)1628 580 333

Tasting menu at £130/person, wine pairing at £90/person

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck is a unique dining experience in Britain, and probably in the world. It is creative, innovative, at times challenging, truly delicious & its clever and playful whimsy will bring a smile to your face. The theatrical nature of the meal is fantastic & is entwined with the whole dining experience. The staff are extremely professional and while a formal air is projected, the experience is relaxed and interactive. If you can somehow stomach the prices, it is well worth going for a special occasion.

The Big Fat Phone Bill

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I felt flustered & confused in trying to book my table... and as much as I like Lewis Carroll’s story, I did find it annoying to listen to on hold after about 20 minutes...

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I felt flustered & confused in trying to book my table...and as much as I like Lewis Carroll’s story, I did find it annoying to listen to on hold after about 20 minutes...

Good day and welcome to my Big Fat Duck Post!

I have been in two minds whether to even mention this, but in the interest of readers who have not yet been to The Fat Duck and are seriously considering going, I will spend a few paragraphs on the matter of securing a reservation at this temple of new British gastronomy.

If you work during the day, good luck to you.

Normally when you call the restaurant, you get an engaged tone. If you set your phone to automatic redial, you may just get through one lucky time within an hour, but usually you won’t. But that is only step one. If you are fortunate enough to get through the engaged tones, you will then hear one of two things.

The first option is a pre-recorded message telling you that the restaurant is now booked for the next two calendar months, and they don’t take reservations past that time frame. If you get this message, you can hold on and wait to speak to someone to be put on the waiting list in case of any cancellations. This will normally mean enduring anywhere from 20+ minutes of Alice in Wonderland being read to you (that is the restaurant’s hold ‘music’) – a rather nice idea and clearly the chef has a strong attachment to this great story (see ‘Mad Hatter Tea’ course further below), but it does get a bit old and irksome after many, many minutes of waiting. I got through once a number of months ago and spoke to a South African lady who told me that there was pretty much no point putting my name on the waiting list for a Friday or Saturday (of course, the only two nights I could really go), but I did so anyway and never heard back.

The second option is that you just go straight through to Alice, which means you may be in with a chance if you can just take off the rest of the morning or afternoon to wait. Oh, and one more thing, the reservations line is closed during lunch hours, so you will need to make sure it is a slow day at work and that you clear the morning or afternoon in your diary. I did this, and on my XXXth attempt, I finally got through to a living person after about 20 minutes. And low and behold, they had ‘the last’ table for two available at lunchtime on the Saturday about two months from when I was calling. I don’t think I let her finish before blurting out, “I’ll take it!”

It’s funny, I was extremely worked up about the whole off-putting experience of booking a table, but all of this built-up tension suddenly melted away when I found out I had reached what is possibly the second holiest grail of restaurant reservations in Europe (after El Bulli in Spain, of course).

The Famous Not-So-Fat Chef

Heston Blumenthal: a man on a mission

Heston Blumenthal: a man on a mission

I will not beleaguer you with the full biography and ethos of Heston Blumenthal, the chef behind this 3 Michelin star restaurant, which was again the only restaurant in Britain to achieve a full 10/10 in the Good Food Guide this year.

As many of you will be aware, he is one of the chief protagonists in what the media likes to term the ‘molecular gastronomy’ movement. This means that he is intimately interested in the physical and chemical transformations that different foods undergo in the cooking process and that he uses many modern-day – some would say scientific – techniques to create his whimsical dishes. For example, liquid nitrogen was employed in three of the courses during our meal. He is also by most accounts more or less self-taught, having run the restaurant for many years prior to gaining his fabled reputation both amongst his peers and the dining public.

About a year ago, he signed a contract with Channel 4, one of the main television channels in the UK, and has since then become a more familiar name and face amongst the British public through his two television series to-date: Big Chef Takes on Little Chef and Heston’s Feasts. I watched and enjoyed both series, and my key takeaways about Heston were as follows. He seems like a nice, ordinary, down-to-earth guy who is insanely passionate about food. He is intrinsically interested in challenging convention and creating holistic dining experiences where diners can truly enjoy and appreciate the whole act of the meal – not just the food, but the thoughts behind it, the atmosphere and space in which it is eaten, how it is served, and how the six senses experience the entirety of the event. Besides this, he is truly fascinated by the history of food, and loves to research the eating habits of our ancestors to understand how he can bring back some of the key elements of gastronomy from the past and reinvent them for the modern day, creating something both historic and completely new. Nothing embodies this more than the four feasts (Victorian, Tudor, Medieval & Roman) he cooked in the mini-series Heston’s Feasts, a program which I truly took pleasure in and from which I drew much inspiration.

But enough about Herr Heston, I will let you google away for further information on this genuinely intriguing character.

The Serendipitous Blue Road Sign

All signs point to Heston

All signs point to Heston

After months of redialing and Alice in Wonderland hold reading, we were finally on our way to Bray. Our table was booked for 12.30pm and we set out in search of our first 3-star meal in England. Unfortunately, I quickly realized we didn’t have nearly enough gas (petrol) for the return journey, so we would need to stop off on the motorway to fill up. We could only chuckle giddily when we saw that our selected service station was none other than the Heston Services located about halfway between central London and the idyllic waterside village of Bray, where The Fat Duck awaited. Serendipitous to say the least.

Finally there – the anticipation builds

Finally there – the anticipation builds

We arrived in Bray about half an hour early. Being the true geek I am, I had looked online to see what the building looked like, and even though I had the image of the restaurant’s facade ingrained within my head, we drove straight past it, then turned around once we had blinked and passed through Bray, and nearly passed it again. It seemed there was no parking at the restaurant, and that the parking lot near the village filed was full, but we eventually found the free village car park, which had a few spots left. Phew. No Big Fat Parking Meter, thank god.

The Hinds Head, Heston's Pub (left) & Beautiful Bray (right)

The Hinds Head, Heston's Pub (left) & Beautiful Bray (right)

I wonder if they can get reservations with less trouble (left) & the dividing line between the red bricks of Bray and the gray bricks of The Fat Duck (right)

I wonder if they can get reservations with less trouble at the house across the street (left) & the dividing line between the red bricks of Bray and the gray bricks of The Fat Duck (right)

As we didn’t want to be excessively early for our meal, we walked around the little village for about fifteen minutes before heading in. Bray is an amazingly beautiful, quaint and picturesque English village, with some magnificently preserved historic buildings and lovingly restored homes. We were very impressed and eventually meandered toward the one building we could no longer avoid.

Only subtle signs that you have truly arrived

Only subtle signs that you have truly arrived

The restaurant is housed within a small two-story building which looks like it could have either been a private residence or a small inn during olden times. The painted gray monochrome brick exterior is cool and understated, and the only real signs of what lurks beyond the doorway are the subtle metal weather pane-ish sign displaying The Fat Duck’s logo, with its clever integration of duck features (webbed feet and feathers) into three pieces of cutlery, a little gold Traditions & Qualité plaque near on the right side of the door, and a similar Relais & Château plaque on the left. We finally entered.

The Long Fat Meal

Inside, we found the shell of the old building splendidly restored (for instance, there were dark wooden beams along the ceiling) and at once noticed how low the ceiling was. In fact, once seated Mrs. LF pointed out that one of the taller waiters had to duck each time he passed the lowest of the beams, which was situated on the way from the pass to the main part of the dining room. While the room itself is quite small and square shaped (we estimated 50-60 covers), it is sort of broken up, with about one third of the dining space running along, and near, the long wall you see upon entering, and the other two thirds of the space set on the other side of an odd little fireplace which juts from the doorway into the room a little bit.

The decor is minimal and quite white with the exception of the brightly colored, wide rectangular abstract paintings of blues and yellows which accentuate the walls. The tables are fairly well spaced out given the size of the room and those set for two are arranged so that both people sit with their back to the wall looking outward into the room at 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Mrs. LF also noticed another rather nice feature when she looked out through the window. From outside, you cannot see into the restaurant, but once seated inside, you can see through the beige-brown fabric window shades, which is a good thing given how many people must walk by just to get a peek of what these strange people who spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on lunch or dinner are being served.

All of the staff were dressed immaculately. However, the rather formal dress code belied the underlying character of the place and its people, which we found to be quite friendly and interactive, and in my mind that is nearly always a good thing.

Rather nice green olives...but even nicer butter

Rather nice green olives...but even nicer butter

After being seated, we were presented with some very nice green olives, and then left to ponder the menu.

A few months ago, The Fat Duck got rid of its à la carte menu, so now the only option is the tasting menu. It is about 13 courses all-in-all, so there’s not much to do besides look through, ponder what is in store and figure out whether you want a bottle (or bottles) of wine or one of the two pre-set wine pairings on offer. One of the wine pairings is £90/person and the other is nearly double that, and includes some older vintages. Strangely enough, the wines in the less expensive pairing option were slightly more interesting to me, so I decided to go for that, especially since three of the wines were the same on both menus anyway.

Before moving on, it must be said that both of the butters, one of which was unpasteurized, were of extremely high quality, as was the bread which is baked offsite according to specific recipes tailored for the restaurant.

(Note: you can click on any of photos below to get a full resolution image, with the exception of the last three paired images).

Lime Grove 1 Lime Grove 2

Course 1: LIME GROVE / Nitro Poached Green Tea & Lime Mousse

So, the first course was on, and the opening act of this theatrical meal was about to begin. Enter our specialist nitro-trained waitress, who was to prepare what I would describe as a ‘true’ amuse bouche. Out of the hazy white frozen smoke emerged a little white puff of green limey goodness, on top of which she quickly shook a powdered green tea concoction. From what looked like a little bottle of perfume (Fat Duck branded, of course, just like everything else that was to be served to us), she sprayed some essence of lime in the air and told us we must eat it immediately (I am guessing it may have started to dissolve and lose shape if left alone to oxidize for too long). It was probably the best opening to the meal we could have had. The sharp, refreshing citrus hit of lime immediately started to make us salivate, opened our appetite and got us very ready for the ensuing feast in which we were about to partake. 10/10.

Red Cabbage Gazpacho 1 Red Cabbage Gazpacho 2

Course 2: RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO / Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream

The next course was simple and beautiful. The gazpacho was sharp, crisp and totally refreshing, with the little vegetable micro cubes providing a bit of texture and flavor variation. But my favorite part of the dish by a long way was the mustard ice cream, which was ice cold against the only slightly chilled soup, sweet and slightly spicy, with a creamy texture that was punctuated by the occasional grain of what I presumed to be mustard. In fact, that ice cream is one of my fondest recollections from the whole meal. Another winner: simple, to the point and, for me, the perfect second course. 10/10.

Oak Moss 1 Oak Moss 2

The mysterious oak moss course…

Oak Moss 3 Oak Moss 4

Course 3: JELLY OF QUAIL, CREAM OF CRAWFISH / Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss & Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel)

After the spartan simplicity (by Blumenthal standards) of red cabbage gazpacho and mustard ice cream, intermission was over and the show was about to begin again. As we took our seats, our nitro-specialist returned. She explained that we were meant to take out the little dissolvable strip within the Fat Duck branded plastic containers (see first in series of pictures above), which contained wafer thin, semi-translucent strips similar to those breath fresheners that became popular about 5 years ago. We placed the strips on our tongues and a focused flavor of tree bark and moss (sour, woody, rich, round) enveloped our mouths. Truffles of course grow under oak trees, and as there was an intricate and beautifully presented truffle toast as one half of the course, I guess there is where the connection between the truffle and the oak moss comes (?).

Anyway, next, the waitress poured from her black metal teapot a good dose of what I presumed to be oak moss scented liquid nitro smoke. I personally didn’t get the whiff of oak moss, but it certainly made the experience more visually interesting.

Lest we forget the food, it was both different (parfait) and divine (truffle toast). The parfait had four distinct layers of liquid, moving from chicken liver to a jelly of quail (which really had the texture of Jell-O), to oak moss (which didn’t come through as much), to crayfish cream. It was rich, complex, challenging and very delicious. It was very well complemented by the thin, crisp toast topped with moist and chopped black truffles with stunningly presented semi-circular radishes and their green leaves. 9/10.

Foie Gras 1 Foie Gras 2

Course 4: ROAST FOIE GRAS / Gooseberry, Braised Konbu & Crab Biscuit

The next course brought a return to something more familiar, at least within a fine dining context. The foie gras was the perfect texture for me, being quite firm yet with a bit of give and its depth of flavor was wonderfully augmented by the thin slice of Konbu that I made sure to include with each bite. Konbu is a type of edible kelp typically found in Eastern Asia and is well known for containing copious amounts of umami. This pairing may have been too rich for some on its own, but it was greatly enhanced by the pink sauce of gooseberries which added a welcome note of acidity and tart fruitiness to the dish. The two crispy crab biscuits which were inserted between the slices of foie gras and stood vertically as goal posts were also excellent, having a deep sweet and sour flavor that again integrated well with the other components on the plate. The topping of what I believe were sesame seeds and chives was mild and seemed to mingle naturally with the other flavors. So maybe not as simple as it looked after all – pure Heston, pure deliciousness! 10/10.

Mad Hatter Tea 1 Mad Hatter Tea 2

The Mad Hatter Tea begins its crazy alchemy

Mad Hatter Tea 3 Mock Turtle Soup

Course 5: MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850) / “Mad Hatter Tea”

Luckily, madness was to literally prevail again in the next course, which was the last of the entrées.  This dish, or shall I say event, was actually a bit more familiar to me as I had seen Heston ‘invent’ this dish on the Victorian episode of his Feasts television series. The whole idea, and execution of it, was absolutely brilliant.

You are presented with a tea cup that has a golden watch for a teabag. Hot water is added and the edible gold leaf begins to disintegrate (but not completely), revealing a dark brown stock which has probably been frozen at various temperatures many times in order to attain the right texture for the purposes of this dish. Eventually, as you keep stirring the ‘tea’, you end up with a golden colored consommé. This is then poured over what has to be one of the most striking little arrangements I have ever seen (I mean, just look at the mock turtle egg with the little mushrooms sprouting up), in a shallow soup bowl. Once poured, it produced a truly exceptional looking soup and if Michel Roux Jr. had been there in all of his Masterchef: The Professionals glory (more to come on his uncle later on), I am sure he would have uttered his trademark phrase – it really was “as pretty as a picture”.

Luckily, the taste more than stood up to the looks. The broth was rich in flavor, yet it was a very light and succulent soup. The thing that stood out the most for us was the little cube of head cheese. It was composed of immaculate, thin slices of different colors and textures and tasted out of this world. We would have loved it if there had been another cube in the soup (more on that later too)! What a spectacular dish. 10/10.

Madeira, Verdelho, H&H (Portugal)

Madeira, Verdelho, H&H (Portugal)

The wines so far had been very good. The 2006 Trimbach Gewurztraminer had a nice pairing with the foie gras, being sweet and with a good kick of Alsacian acidity, although I had actually preferred the 2007 Riesling Kabinett, Joh. Jos. Prüm (Mosel, Germany), which had been served with the preceding oak moss course. Our English sommelier was very professional and gave a concise and interesting description of each wine served throughout the meal, answering a few barrages of questions here and there without breaking a sweat.

For the Mock Turtle Soup, the accompanying wine was a Madeira, which was a beautiful deep and golden color (see photo above) and an excellent though not altogether obvious partner. Its lush density and syrupy sweetness, which was tempered by a refreshing streak of acidity and hint of spice, somehow worked really well with the richness of the head cheese and the meats within the broth.

Fireplace Dining Area 1 Dining Area 2

Taking a break before heading the rest of the way down the rabbit hole

Before heading onto the main courses, we were afforded a little break, and above you can see a little taster of what the room looks like – from the fireplace you see to your left upon entering, to some of the views from our wall into the main dining area.

P9050159 Sound of the Sea 1

Okay, the moment has arrived, the seashell iPods are out

Sound of the Sea 3 Sound of the Sea 3

Course 6: “SOUND OF THE SEA”

Next up was one of the most famous and classic dishes of The Fat Duck. We knew to expect the iPods inside the shells, but we certainly didn’t know how this unique concoction would taste. Although the iPod gimmick is a bit silly in the sense that the 20 seconds of looping wave sounds didn’t add that much (if anything) to the seaside experience of the dish, it was very successful in one way as all of the outside noise was drowned out and, instead of looking around or talking to each other, we were both firmly focused on the food in front of us, which got our 100% attention. So in this way, it worked.

And I am really glad that the plate had my full attention, because it was probably my favorite of the savory courses. The overall taste of the dish sort of eludes concise descriptions, so I will hesitate digging my own grave in trying to do so. I will only say that the three sashimi elements in the dish – halibut, yellow tail and mackerel – were exquisite, as were the two pink, ovular pieces of seaweed and the sand itself, which was a crunchy construction of smoked eel and something else which escapes our memory. Everything on the plate was edible. I very happily consumed it all, and was left wanting more. The overall sense I was left with was that of an extremely fresh, unctuous, slightly sweet and satisfyingly complex melange of flavors. 10/10.

The wine served with this course was in fact a sake – Ginjo Sake Dewazakura, Yamagata (Japan) to be specific – a drink of which I know nearly nothing. It was a generous helping, and I thought it complemented the flavors of the sea very well. It had a very floral nose and was actually quite a mild drink given the level of alcohol. Another inventive and successful combination.

P9050165 Poached Salmon 2

Course 7: SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE / Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonaise, Golden Trout Roe & Manni Olive Oil

The next course sounded and tasted a bit more sane. The salmon had been slow cooked and was just slightly more than rare. The little cube of fish was encased within a thin skin of black liquorice. The fish had a wonderful texture and delicate taste, but the real star of this dish for me was the vanilla mayonnaise. It was sweet and luscious and although it could have been accused of dominating the dish, I just loved it. The vanilla was brought into check by the salty trout roe, the lovingly cooked artichokes (check out the placement of the little peppercorns on top of them), and the tang of the little pink grapefruit pearls that were sandwiched between the rows of vanilla mayonnaise dollops. After reading about how painstaking a job it had been to prepare these little pink grapefruit pearls, I think I appreciated them even more than I would have had I not known. For me, the liquorice flavor, which on the menu is listed in capital letters as the second most important flavor to the salmon just wasn’t present enough – I also strangely don’t remember tasting the olive oil – but besides this, I thought the dish worked well together, despite its unusual flavor combinations, which I found myself enjoying immensely. 9/10.

Anjou Pigeon 1 Anjou Pigeon 2

Course 8: POWEDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720) / Blood Pudding & Confit of Umbles

This was another more traditional dish that had been well executed. The pigeon itself, from Anjou in the lower part of France’s Loire region, was perfectly cooked, tender and slightly gamey (as you’d expect).The little pieces of confit’d umbles (which is an Old English term for offal) was an equally rich accompaniment which I thought worked well. The deep purple black pudding had a thick consistency and a very strong flavor, which for me was nearly too much given the richness of the other ingredients. Luckily the wafer of crackling and the onions served to just about break up this maniacal ménage a trois. I was glad we were moving onto sweets next as I don’t think I could have handled another savory course. 9/10.

Taffety Tart 2 Taffety Tart 1

Course 9: TAFFETY TART (c.1660) / Carmelized Apple, Fennel, Rose & Candied Lemon

This was without exception one of the best and most enjoyable desserts I have had in recent memory. It also has to be one of the, if not the, most beautiful dessert I’ve been served in a very, very long time. The thin layers of caramelized apples were magical against the little balls of cream, the crunchy, wafer-thin pastry and posh granola topping. It was fresh, sweet, dense and somehow light at the same time. The other half of the dessert, of which the rose sorbet took centre stage, was a lovely companion to the tart. The candied fruits were as delectable as they were gorgeous, and I would have happily dusted off another plate of the same dessert if I had been given the chance. 10/10.

Parsnip Cereal 1 Parsinip Cereal 2 Parsnip Cereal 3

Course 10a: THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST / Parsnip Cereal

“Good morning ladies and gentleman, time to wake up, breakfast is now being served,” rifled off the head waiter. He explained that first before moving to our breakfast’s main course we would first be having a bit of cereal. He told us that the milk was very special as the cows in The Fat Duck’s back garden only feed on parsnips, so the milk may taste slightly different than what we were used to. He gave us each a little pitcher of this special milk and we hastily unwrapped our Fat Duck cereal boxes and found some parsnip flakes within. It may not look like much from the photos, but the cereal was heavenly. It was sweet and parsnippy and Mrs. LF commented that she wished she could have this for breakfast every morning. I whole-heartedly seconded the motion. 10/10.

Bacon & Eggs 1 Bacon & Eggs 2 Bacon & Eggs 3

Cooking without gas

Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream 1 Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream 2

Course 10b: THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST / Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream

Let’s see now…how many courses had we eaten without any pomp, circumstance or nitro? It must have been too many, because the Royal Blumenthal Company was back at our table, with some major stage props to boot.

Our new, male nitro specialist had wheeled out a wooden cart on top of which resided a shiny copper tabletop cooking set. However, we were informed that, in fact, our breakfast would be cooked without any heat whatsoever. The waiter then produced a pair of ‘eggs’ from the Fat Duck egg carton, each with their own little red Fat Duck seals branded onto the shells. He proceeded to crack the ‘eggs’ and let the mysterious pale yellow liquid inside drain into the copper pan. To this he added some nitro gas from a silver thermos and began to stir the ‘eggs’ with his wooden spoon. Another waiter was standing next to him with our French toast and streaky bacon already plated. The nitro specialist carefully extracted the scrambled ‘eggs’ from the pan and placed them on top of the toast, and voila, breakfast was served.

This course of the breakfast/dessert was triumphant. I could not believe how some of my favorite flavor combinations – French toast, maple syrup and bacon – worked so well as a dessert. It was harmonious and sweet in a dessert way (not in an American breakfast way), with the caramelized brioche and sweet-saltiness of the faux bacon melding perfectly with the cold creaminess of the ‘eggs’. Once again, pure genius and totally delicious. 10/10.

Hot & Iced Tea

A very ordinary looking tea...but we know all too well it won't be

Course 10c: THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST / Hot & Iced Tea

We also had a little glass of tea to go with our breakfast/dessert/I don’t know what course it is anymore. In classic Heston style, half of the liquid was warm, while the other half was nearly ice cold. It was actually a very nice tea and its tannic sharpness was provided a good counterpoint to the sweetness of the French toast and ‘eggs’.

Heston loves his history...and I love his food

Heston loves his history...and I love his food

The pretty pair

The pretty pair

Course 11: CHOCOLATE WINE “SLUSH” (c.1660) / Millionaire Shortbread

I wasn’t expecting much from the chocolate wine slush, and sort of expected to be let down after the previous three desserts. I should have known better. If you care to read the above card, which we were given prior to the slush being served, you will see that this “slush” was originally drunk in England in the 1660’s, and it was a bit of a revelation for me. The strong red wine, sugar and chocolate blended together to make a cool, sweet and refreshing drink (sort of like a granite in texture) which was much more palatable than you’d expect. The port-like flavor was perfectly in tune with the chocolate notes and I loved it. But I must mention the other star of this dish, the shortbread. This could have been the best biscuit I’ve ever eaten. There was a thin layer of dark chocolate on the top and bottom, and then an equally thick layer of biscuit and caramel inside. Crispy, caramely and chocolaty, it was the perfect match for the slush. 10/10.

So clever, so good

So clever, so good

My first prisoner

My first prisoner

Course 12: WINE GUMS/ Historic Trade Routes of Britain

As we were winding down the meal, some innovative touches still lurked in the last few courses. All I know about wine gums are the colourful ones I’ve seen sold in supermarket and sweet shops across the UK. I guess I kind of figured we’d be having some flash version of these bright candies at The Fat Duck. But I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed with what we did get.

We were both presented with a dark-brown framed picture of some of the historical trade routes of Britain. And stuck to the glass-covered map were five different wine gums in the shape of bottles, each with a slightly different hue and containing a gummy candy made up of alcoholic beverages from the country to which they were stuck. You literally peeled them off of the picture frame and the entire sweet was edible. They all tasted distinctly of the alcohol they were meant to represent, and as well as being pleasantly sweet they had a little alcoholic kick which made them a very grown-up candies. My favorite was the Mead one, which is an alcohol made from honey. Very innovative and very good. 10/10.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Japanese Tea Ceremony

We were offered tea or coffee before our last course, which I presumed to be some type of petit fours, was to be served. Mrs. LF went for a rose petal tea, while I opted for a mild oolong. Both were presented on Japanese style wooden trays with slits carved out on the top layer, so that any spillage could drain to the bottom. The waitress poured hot water over our glasses in the fashion of a proper Japanese tea ceremony and then poured the fully infused tea into the second empty glass pots. It was a nice touch, and both teas were very pleasant.

As a side note, there is a huge range of teas on the tea list, most of which are quite pricey. I didn’t opt for coffee both because I didn’t feel like it and because I understand that The Fat Duck now uses Nespresso, which while fine (I personally don’t love it), is not exactly what you expect from a 3-star restaurant that is so selective in sourcing its other ingredients, right?

Childhood nostalgia evoking memories of candy canes and big bags of sweets

Childhood nostalgia, evoking memories of candy canes & a big bags of sweets

Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop 1

The Full Contents (left) & COCONUT BACCY / Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco (right)

AERATED CHOCOLATE / Mandarin Jelly (left) & APPLE PIE CARAMEL / with an Edible Wraper (right)

AERATED CHOCOLATE / Mandarin Jelly (left) & APPLE PIE CARAMEL / with an Edible Wrapper (right)

QUEEN OF HEARTS / White Chocolate with Fruit Compote

QUEEN OF HEARTS / White Chocolate with Fruit Compote

Course 13: “LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”

For the last part of our meal, we were each given a paper bag of sweets (Fat Duck branded, of course) with the traditional pink and white vertical stripes evoking candy canes and childhood memories of bags full of sweets. I think you are meant to take them away with you, but I literally was as excited as a kid in a sweet shop and ate mine all on the spot.

I started with the Coconut Baccy, which truly looked like loose tobacco. The macerated coconut was quite sweet and had the tiniest hint of tobacco underneath the strong coconut flavor. You just had to smile when you opened the packet because it really looked and felt like a pouch of loose tobacco. Not my favorite in terms of taste, but definitely fun and playful.

I then dealt with the two smaller, bite-sized morsels. The aerated chocolate, ostensibly a play on Nestlé’s Aero bars (?), was okay, but definitely the weakest of the bunch. I don’t even remember the mandarin jelly. The Apple Pie Caramel was a different matter, though. The entire sweet was edible, including what looked like a transparent plastic wrapper. It was all toffee, caramel and apple, and was fantastic.

Last up was the best of the bunch. Once you opened the little white envelope, which was fastened with a proper, circular red wax seal, a miniature playing card was revealed. It was the Queen of Hearts, etched in painstaking detail, and on the back of the card was a typical and intricate red geometrical pattern. I looked at the playing card very carefully and was duly astounded at the attention to detail. The outside casing of the card was white chocolate, and they had somehow inserted an insanely thin layer of berry compote into the middle of the card, which ran nearly the full length of the rectangle. It was scrumptious and was the perfect finale to the meal – and proof that while Heston didn’t have an ace up his sleeve, he had done one better. 10/10 based on the sheer creativity brought to the sweets and the smiles they continued to bring to our faces.

The Lingering Fat Memory

We sat down at our table at 12.30pm or a few minutes earlier. We left The Fat Duck at close to 5.30pm. Not once did we feel bored, did our stomachs feel heavy, or did we feel like getting up (except to go to the loos, which by the way are individual and very nice – Fat Duck branded hand soap and lotion there too). It was one of the most pleasurable meals I can remember having at a restaurant.

The service was professional yet laid back, friendly and interactive. The setting was at the same time modern and historic, just like Heston’s food, which was packed full of amazing ingredients, well constructed and sometimes challenging flavor combinations, culinary alchemy and healthy doses of merriment and whimsy.

The wines on offer were quite extraordinary, and I didn’t mention before, but the wine list is in reality a beautiful gigantic book with a brown leather cover. The wines in my pairing were nearly all delicious, and where they were not so on their own, you could see the logic behind why they were chosen to match their particular dish.

Near the beginning of the meal, one of the waiters had presented us with two rather large envelopes, which were sealed with a circular black wax logo. The beautiful paper had an unusual and sticky texture and felt very special. We assumed that they contained our menu for the afternoon, and were told they also contained our chosen wine pairing. This was a very nice and thoughtful touch.

After leaving the restaurant, we definitely needed a long stroll through the village and surrounding areas. We wandered toward the water and eventually ended up at the other 3 Michelin star restaurant in this tiny village (strange how two of the three 3-starred restaurants are in this place, with the other being Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea). The Waterside Inn was very quiet, and we looked out along the river and back into the formal and old fashioned looking dining room. As we were heading back to the car, we spotted a rather dapper looking elderly gentleman heading toward the hotel. He was wearing bright spring colors and looked like he could have just stepped off the streets of Paris. It was none other than Michel Roux Sr. himself, probably going to check on the kitchen before dinner service. He said “Good evening” and Mrs. LF replied with a pleasant “Bonsoir” to subtly acknowledge we knew who he was. We thought there couldn’t have been a better ending to our afternoon Bray.

After getting back home, we thought back again on our meal, and tried to identify any faults (I know, what are we like?!). At first, we wished that the portion sizes of some of the dishes we liked best had been a bit bigger – for instance, why couldn’t there have been two cubes of head cheese in the Mock Turtle Soup, or why couldn’t the Sound of the Sea have been just a tiny bit bigger? But in the end we realized that had any individual course been more substantial than it was, we probably would have become full and felt heavy too early on in the meal. The portion sizes had really been perfect.

The only other thing (besides the booking process!) that I could find fault with was that after you had been sitting there for a while, you began to hear the waiters giving the same explanations and anecdotes (which they did professionally and without fault, with a good measure of humor thrown in) about the courses you had just had, or were about to consume. This got a tad repetitive, but in all honesty I don’t know what else they could have done as the set tasting menu is the same for everyone, so this is bound to happen.

The fact that there is only one menu in itself could be another potential criticism, and over time the menu hasn’t evolved tremendously according to many journalists and food bloggers. I guess for me, it just means that I wouldn’t go back to The Fat Duck very soon, either at such a time that I really fancy some of those dishes again or at such a time as the menu changes significantly…which would mean I must return.

But with these very minor shortcomings aside, I would be very surprised if this was not one of the very few, if not the, best dining experiences to be had in Britain this decade.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 10/10

Wine List: 9/10 (amazing breadth and depth, though the mark-up seemed quite high)

Wine Selected: 9/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Fat Duck once for lunch, although by the time we left it was nearly dinner time.*

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