(picture/logo stolen from the Fat Duck website)
Much has been said about The Fat Duck - and according to some 600 food critics voting for the 2005 awards for the best restaurant in the world, it is just that. The best restaurant in the world. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to like it, though. I have been to numerous eateries that come highly commended, boasting a Michelin this and a Gault Millau that, only to come out utterly disappointed and feeling ripped off, quite frankly. And let's be honest, who's to say what the best restaurant in the world is? What were the criteria anyway? I don't think there can be such a thing as a best restaurant in the world - out of the 19/20-ranked in the Gault Millau, I actually know a fair number, and yes, they're all outstanding in the sense that their food is cooked to perfection, the service is great and the wine list longer than Methuselah's beard. But to say which one is the best? I'd be hard pressed. I just had to find out for myself if I would agree with the critics.
Not an easy undertaking, given that you can only book a table 2 months in advance, and then hopeful diners are pretty much reduced to frantic teenage girls trying to get a ticket for a Shayne Ward concert - there are only about 30 covers, so as soon as the lines open at 10 am, you'll find yourself very much at one with your re-dial button for the next hour or so. Luckily, I had someone to do the dirty work for me. Jeanne had paid her dues and all I had to do was drive and, of course, eat.
And eat we did. Not as much as we had hoped for, as Jeanne had an absolute nightmare using public transport (that'll teach her to be so stingy with her holidays only to take a half day off rather than enjoying the whole day!) - our table was for 2:45pm, the latest you can get for lunch, and that's exactly when she arrived at the agreed meeting point in Richmond. Of course, it's still a 30-minute drive from there, and only if you risk being caught speeding (which, at this point, was the least of my problems!). We did make it, in the end, and the staff were kind enough to still let us in even though we were too late for their cut-off point for last orders. They either had mercy with us or were just scared that Jeanne might keep phoning them up every 5 minutes like she had done for the last hour, telling them exactly how far we had got on the motorway, that it was her birthday and to, please, not give up on us - only that then, she would be hurling abuse at them.
But we were too late for the tasting menu. Cruelly, we had to content ourselves with the three-course lunch menu while we were drooling over the succession of taste experiences that are Heston Blumenthal's signature dishes: snail porridge, sardine-on-toast sorbet, bacon & eggs icecream, salmon poached with liquorice etc. Some may think he's mad to serve this, but he's not called "culinary alchemist" without reason, as he is happily marrying flavours in combinations unheard of before and serving them in a cleverly orchestrated parade of dishes that evoke all your senses - but that's only half the story. The true drama lies in the presentation: from the nitro-green lime mousse frozen at your table, the carrot & orange-caramel lollipops to the little cereal boxes (sporting a Fat Duck branding) containing parsnip crisps served with your bacon & egg icecream... this is a spectacle for your eyes as well as your tastebuds!
But is it any good, you will ask. The simple answer is: yes. Yes it is good. I appreciate that we didn't get to taste it all, but what we had was absolutely delightful. Be it the amuse-bouches of wholegrain mustard icecream in red cabbage gazpacho (the latter turning out to be more like a cold soup) and oyster on horseradish cream with passionfruit jelly, or the actual courses we ordered. You will some day be able to read all about Jeanne's succession of dishes, let me just tell you about mine: I had the crab biscuit, which is somehow misleading as what seems to be the protagonist of the dish is actually just a supporting act of a crisp tuile of crab topping the best roast foie gras I have eaten in my life, creamy and indulging, sitting on four thin sticks of rhubarb which were a heavenly partner for it, enough fruitiness and tartness to offset the richness of the liver. Also in a minor role the crystallized seaweed and an oyster vinaigrette.
My main was saddle of venison with pan-roast celeriac, marron glacé and a sauce poivrade and again, all eyes were on the accompaniment: a pearl barley risotto prepared with confit venison, interlaced with pieces of foie gras (to keep up your cholesterol level) and topped with a red wine espuma. I would happily have eaten a potful of that heavenly risotto alone! But this was only the first act, succeeded by a venison & frankincense tea (read: jus) served in a (Riedel) glass usually destined to hold single malt whisky.
Being spoilt for choice with dessert and incapable of choosing just one, we decided to share. The ardamom, dried apricot yoghurt and harissa ice cream almost reduced Jeanne to tears, whereas the d hocolate sorbet and cumin caramel had us giggling like a bunch of cheeky teenagers that are up to no good. It consisted of an indulging, feathery chocolate mousse enveloped in silken, glossy dark chocolate and was sitting on a bed of pastry reminding me of a cheesecake base. I took a bite, busying my tongue with the mousse first of all, and as I swallowed, I felt fireworks going off at the back of my palate... the pastry is interlaced with pop candy, those tiny morsels of je-ne-sais-quoi which upon contact with a liquid will go up in gentle explosions. I know I'm 20 years older now, but I still enjoyed talking, very discreetly, but yes, with my mouth full, so Jeanne could hear the finale furioso every spoonful was producing in my mouth!
So, does it deserve the award? Is it really the best restaurant in the world? I still cannot make my mind up. What I can say is that I absolutely loved my lunch there and I will hit that redial button until my fingers are bleeding to go again and sit through 4 hours of the tasting menu. But my visit has definitely shed some light on what the criteria for "best restaurant in the world" are these days. Louis XV pomp and perfectly cooked French cuisine does not suffice anymore - the likes of Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire are perfect, but lack a certain oompf to make it to the top. Heston Blumenthal and Ferrán Adria look beyond institutionalised gourmet dishes to offer an altogether more exciting culinary experience that seems to bring back the fun into reviewing top-notch eateries. And to be honest, I find it more challenging too - too often have I eaten a perfect dish at a gourmet temple only to re-create it back home a week later. Perfect as the dish may be, I do not struggle with slicing scallops to carpaccio-fit thinness and drizzling them with olive oil and lime juice) whereas trying to make icecream on the spot using liquid nitrogen or concocting harissa icecream to go with a chocolate fondant positively instills me with respect and I manage to keep my distance (especially after miserably failing in my attempts to make edible harissa icecream last weekend).
I loved the Fat Duck for re-mystifying gourmet cuisine as well as the relaxed atmosphere, the almost cosy surrounds completely void of any stiffness... if I have one (minor) quibble it would be the fact that the one glass of champagne I had cost £28, the cheapest bottle of wine on the list is £60 and even wines by the glass are not had for under £12 (for 175ml). And if I go again, I would not be tempted to go for the 3-course lunch for £80 again, I'd rather pay £95.75 (sic!) to experience the full tasting menu. Never mind the wine prices, I think I'd enjoy the meal even more just with water anyway...
The Fat Duck
Tel: 01628 58033
And as we go to "press", I hear that El Bulli in Catalonia has overtaken The Fat Duck, so I know where to go for Jeanne's birthday next year!