By Fiona Sims
Nostalgia is key to the new menu at the Fat Duck. In fact, Heston Blumenthal doesn’t call it a menu - it’s a map. “It’s a story of a day’s holiday. Right now I’m using memories of my own childhood holidays in Cornwall, but diners can unpack their own memories over the course of the dinner,” explained Blumenthal, a little earlier.
And before you ask, only four dishes from the old menu remain – Sound of the Sea, Mock Turtle Soup, Botrytis Cinerea and the Whisky Gums. Everything else is totally new. For the lucky few who have already eaten at the Duck (and I include myself in that number – six times over the last 18 years), then you will know that this is a very big deal.
One of the most irritating questions Blumenthal has had to field over the years is ‘when is the menu changing?’ The name might be the same, but the dishes often went through ten different versions on the menu.
His first signature dish was Crab Biscuit, Roast Foie Gras and Oyster Vinaigrette, in 1998, which stayed on the menu for several years, a testing ground for all manner of techniques and ingredients and snippets of food science Blumenthal had picked up.
“The dishes that build the Duck are the ones that have evolved like a journey, they are a narrative. And when a dish can’t be evolved any more then we take it off the menu,” he explains. And Blumenthal, plus head chef Jonny Lake, and his team, have been having a rather big clear out.
“When the Fat Duck moved to Australia, I realised I wouldn’t get another chance to try and give myself some headspace, to look back at the last few years and look at the essence of the Duck,” explains Blumenthal.
“The new dishes were almost the easy bit,” adds Lake. “The hardest part has been getting front of house to get their heads around the whole concept. It’s not the classical way of serving food, it’s a lot more engaged with guests at the table, and it takes a lot to train the staff.
Staff certainly seem to have got the hang of it now, more than three months since re-opening. As we step into the tiny darkened lobby, where a moving hologram keeps you entertained while you wait to be escorted to your table, we are handed our map and entertained.
The place is already buzzing, as we are shown to our table – liquid nitrogen will do that to a room (I’ll explain, later). A magnifying glass sits on the table to better read the detail of the dishes, in a type so small its barely legible to the human eye, along with it a glass of Champagne, Egly Ouriet NV – we opted for the 10-strong wine pairing selection, devised by head sommelier Isa Bal, at £155 per person.
The first part of our ‘itinerary’ is ‘The day before we go: Are we nearly there yet?’ Three dishes arrive in quick succession. ‘A change of air’ – an aerated beetroot macaroon which disappears on the tongue in a puff of earthy, punchy flavours, followed by ‘Gazpacho of botanicals’ (above), a brilliant, intriguing combination of smoked cumin royale, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. This was expertly paired with a classic Martini, made with Tanqueray gin, Noilly Prat Original Dry and lemon.
Next comes a familiar sight, the dragon-breath inducing ‘Nitro-poached cocktails’, prepared at the table from a special trolley, but there’s a choice of four new flavours, Paloma, Campari Soda, Pina Colada, Vodka & Tonic – most, including me, go for the Pina Colada.
Another glass of bubbly arrives at the table – from Franciacorta, Miolo Brut, from Tenuta Villa Crespia. We’re on to the next part of the ‘itinerary’ - ‘Morning: Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time’. The first dish is ‘Excuse me, there seems to be a rabbit in my tea’ - an intense, supremely clever hot and cold veloute (yes, at the same time in the mouth) of rabbit with tarragon and mustard.
This is followed by ‘Why do I have to choose between a variety pack and a full English?’ – umami-rich layers of truffle egg mousse, jellied tomato consommé, bacon, toasted bread cream, and cereals, which we scatter over the dish ourselves.
This marks the first of the personalising element of the menu that Blumenthal had been talking about earlier. We each choose a box of cereal from the variety pack. I’m steered towards the ‘Queen Flakes’, which opens to reveal a jigsaw puzzle, which we’re instructed to build at the table. It’s a moneybox (a ‘coin’ for it arrives later, to be ‘exchanged’ at the sweet shop) and on one side is an image of Daniel Craig, much to my delight. The reservations team had elicited this info, my weakness for the Bond actor, from our website.
Later in the meal I also receive a ‘postcard’ with a picture of my favourite beach (below), information that had also been extracted from my website. Judging by the reaction on other tables emotions are similarly running high, which is just what Blumenthal wants.
“What do I want people to feel when they leave the Duck? Curiosity, discovery, adventure, playfulness - ultimately leading to happiness. How do I do that? Through nostalgic triggers,” he says.
Blumenthal’s now legendary ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish starts the next section, ‘Mid morning: First one to see the sea’, and this new incarnation comes with cured yellowtail and mackerel, plus steamed octopus, sitting on its trademark tapioca ‘sand’, munched to a headphone soundtrack of crashing waves, and washed down with a Junmai Daiginjo sake (and that postcard).
A couple of savoury ices follow - Waldorf salad ‘Rocket’ with walnut, celery and grape, and ‘Twister’, salmon and jasmine tea pearls, avocado mousse with lemon and horseradish cream, before getting to one of my favourite dishes - ‘Cornish Crab’, which brings back a familiar Fat Duck pairing of caviar and white chocolate, delivered in a ‘rockpool’ shaped dish (below) – smoked caviar and golden trout roe, veloute of white chocolate and sea vegetables, the crab melting before our eyes as the hot veloute is poured over the top.
We’re half way through now and it’s the ‘Afternoon’ of our journey, titled ‘If you go down to the woods today..’, and starts with a dish mysteriously called ‘Damping through the Boroughgroves’ (below), a spectacular forest floor ensemble of mushrooms, beet and blackberry, scented with fig leaf, meadowsweet, meliot, oakmoss and black truffle.
This is followed by another familiar sight, ‘Mock Turtle Picnic’ complete with melting fob watch - mock turtle soup and egg, and a toast sandwich.
We’re moving into the evening part of our ‘journey’ now and the lights over our table change down a gear (something Blumenthal wants to play with more in future).
This is the table d’hôte bit of the menu – a three course dinner in miniature, circa 1975, or rather the essence of one, starting with Blumenthal’s take on prawn cocktail – poached and hot langoustine, shitake mushroom, kombu, and birch syrup cocktail sauce and little gem. This is followed by another 70s restaurant favourite, ‘Duck a L’Orange’, water-bathed, with blood pudding, green coffee and chicory.
Then comes the cheese and grapes course (with a bit of dessert thrown in) in the ‘Botrytis Cinerea’ – saffron, fenugreek, citrus, Roquefort, chocolate and pear, with the Whisky Gums to finish, which include a new addition, a whisky from Tasmania.
The lighting dims once more and we’re now suffused in a cosy, orange, night-light glow, prompting yawns all round – just what we’re supposed to be doing, says our server. A ‘cloud’ arrives with a pillow on top - this is ‘Counting Sheep, marking ‘Bedtime – Off to the land of nod’, our penultimate course, an all-white assembly of double milk ice and meringue, coconut icecream, steamed sponge, milk pannacotta - complete with a shake of 'talcolm powder'.
Blumenthal has long claimed he feels like a kid in a sweet shop – and here it is, our final course, called ‘Like a kid in a sweetshop’. The petits fours trolley is an automaton with a traditional sweet shop frontage and a doll’s house concealed within, complete with a faithful replication of Blumenthal’s boyhood bedroom, and a chimney puffing smoke rings (you have to be there). The cost? £150,000.
The choice of petit fours that you choose will be personalised in future - how, exactly Blumenthal isn’t saying but this is where advice about autosuggestion techniques comes in, from none other than celebrity magicians Derren Brown and Chris Cox.
There are plenty of wines that I haven’t had room to include – but highlights include Languedoc-Roussillon producer Le Soula’s La Maceration du Soula, and a delicious Loire white, from Francois Chidaine, Les Argiles, plus a seductive glass of ‘Posset’, a blend of Irish Cream, Benedictine and milk.
And so concludes a thrilling meal. Blumenthal was right – it was a voyage of discovery, that had us honking with laughter at some points, which is not what you expect at a three Michelin starred restaurant. Better than the old duck? Hell, yes.
A meal at the Fat Duck costs £255 per person, plus £155 for the wine pairing selection. Fiona Sims was a guest of The Fat Duck.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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