Willy Wonka of dining works his magic
There were gasps and chuckles when Hilary A White got a taste of the theatrics that have made Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck famous
Liquid nitrogen bubbling next to me at -196 degrees Celsius wasn't quite what I envisaged when I accepted an invitation from friends to eat at The Fat Duck, but it's close.
After all, anyone with even a passing interest in food culture is aware of "molecular gastronomist" Heston Blumenthal and the Willy Wonka approach he has brought to the kitchen since the mid-Nineties. You don't just expect the unexpected in The Fat Duck -- you swallow it too.
Blumenthal is now a celebrity chef whose career is illuminated by megawatts of public interest and professional kudos. Besides the three-star Michelin Guide rating, The Fat Duck came number one in the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2005. After he closed it for two weeks in 2009 following a food scare, it returned to the top three this year next to Noma in Copenhagen and Catalonia's near-mythical El Bulli.
The sleepy village of Bray in Berkshire, accessed from Maidenhead railway station, is the unassuming location for the quiet, grey street-front house. It's easy to walk past it, and that's probably the idea. You're probably not getting in without reserving long in advance, so there's no real need for them to seduce passers-by.
Inside, the ceilings are low, and the colours muted. Immaculate waiters glide to the 20 or so tables dotted around the modestly sized dining room. Our group is led to a table that's been set with the "less is more" ideology. There's little to distract you.
It would be disingenuous to say The Fat Duck experience is strictly just about the food. Blumenthal -- absent today, it turns out -- has never disguised his fascination with the role played by emotional responses when we eat. A healthy dash of shazam and a sprinkle of theatrics accompany most of the 14 courses on our tasting menu. The liquid nitrogen, used to poach our palette-cleansing lime and vodka mousse is an example. It is dusted with green tea powder and presented to us to eat in one go. It is a spectacular way to commence, a gently chilling, zesty mouthful that, as our waiter explains, "stimulates the saliva and refreshes the palette".
The jelly of quail, and crayfish cream sees more hocus-pocus. A wooden box of oak moss is placed at the centre of the table, on which sit small plastic boxes containing what look like breath strips. They are, in fact, oak moss strips, to be eaten before the jelly and cream. As we do, the waiter pours liquid over the box, causing it to erupt with scented dry-ice smoke that engulfs the entire table.
Blumenthal's famous bacon and egg ice cream is absent today, but we get another signature dish in snail porridge with jabugo ham and shaved fennel. The snails are set in among the creamy buttery porridge while the fennel finishes things aromatically.
We're four courses in and comments, gasps and chuckles are now starting to fly around the table. Everyone is engrossed. The food before us is the only issue for discussion among old friends who have not seen each other for a long while. The red cabbage gazpacho reminds one of us of the juice at the bottom of a coleslaw tub. Another remarks that the caramelised seaweed base of the roast foie gras sticks cleverly in the teeth, providing sweetness with each mouthful.
We all agree that some of it works better than other parts. Sound of the sea, a glass plate of fish, seaweed and seafood foam over a box of sand, comes served with a conch with headphones sticking out of it. This plays a soundtrack of waves hitting surf and cackling seagulls as you eat. It is supremely delicious -- a celebration of the oceans and served with a mild sake -- if a little beguiling.
The OTT zenith is reached with mock turtle soup, which has our waiter asking if we've ever been to a mad hatter's tea party. Before there's time to answer, he's reciting some hokum from Alice In Wonderland about pocket watches and mock turtles. We all get a watch-shaped confection which we're instructed to dip into our cup of hot water and stir. The watch and gold foil dissolve, becoming a stock which we then pour over our pork cheek. It's a bit much.
A different wine has been served with each course, and the glasses are starting to queue up by the time the hot and iced tea signals the move to the dessert end of the menu. All have been carefully explained to us by a knowledgeable sommelier who perhaps doesn't appreciate the old "alcohol plus information overload" complications that must face all diners at this stage of proceedings.
Alas, the giggling came to an abrupt end when the bill was presented to us. Without going into exact figures, the total for six of us was roughly what you'd pay for a couple of weeks away in the sun. With your other half.
Not that any of our lot really expected to dine in the Fat Duck again. It's a one-off experience, as taxing on the wallet as it is on your understanding of your taste buds and the adventures they can have.