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October

19

2005
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Fat Duck, Bray, England, tasted on June 2, 2004  There are a few restaurants on the planet right now practicing a type of cooking that's both grounded in tradition, and yet best described as... well... exciting. These chefs are trying something new. And yet this is a fundamental paradox as they also recognize the value of cooking within a framework. You can think of a food framework, a tradition, as years of evolution slowly weeding out the bad flavor combinations and letting the strong ones survive. Grandparents aren't typically passing on the recipes for the food that tastes bad to their grandchildren. And even if they did, the grandchildren would likely not want them. And so a small town an hour or so outside of London houses two Michelin three star restaurants. And while one of them is quite good and grounded in French tradition (passed from father to son no less), the other is a center of gravity for experimentation, excitement, and most importantly excellent simply flavorful food. That restaurant is The Fat Duck.

Three stars from the folks at Michelin means something. And that something is usually refinement, lots of crystal, and multiple layers of luxury. And while The Fat Duck is refined, it's also understated and designed. (All the tables are round - not sure what this means.) High end, but super comforting in the English countryside, and most importantly - not stuffy! Often when I go to a high end restaurant I find myself being the youngest person there (by a long shot). That's not a problem for me, but it is kind of odd. Fat Duck had a mix of people at all ages and there was some noise in the dining room. It didn't have the hushed tones of a museum. I try not to focus too much on environment as all I pretty much care about is the food, but you come to expect a certain type of feel at a three star restaurant, and the vibe here was simply refreshing.

For a view into what it's like to work at the kitchen at Fat Duck be sure to check out Phat Duck, a well written blog by a great cook who spent a few months cooking in their kitchen.

Things started off with a small plate of beautiful mild olives. I love a good olive, but I liked that these were mild. Didn't set me off in a particular strong direction. A nice way to spark my appetite. A cute "nostalgia card" was set on the table while I waited for the next attraction. And it was quite the attraction. Specifically, Liquid Nitrogen Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. The mousse was dipped and frozen tableside. It came with a short but polite instruction from the waiter "eat it immediately and in one bite". And that I did. Wow! It tasted mostly like lime but with a gentle sweetness. It is slightly too big to put in your mouth gracefully. But I liked that as I thought it set the tone for the lack of pretension in the meal. The pitch was that this frozen concoction would clean out all the oil in my mouth and thereby render my palate completely clean and clear - a canvas on which the kitchen could paint for the next 2-3 hours. And in fact, my mouth did indeed feel super clean as promised. Each component in this little ball of frozen goodness had its role. The vodka apparently was there to remove the fat. i didn't want to eat any more olives as I wanted the "clean slate" to remain for the next dish.

The meal really started to get going with Fresh Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Horseradish Cream, Lavendar and Lindi Pepper Tuile. All the flavors in this dish combined into a warm tone yet I could still recognize each one as distinct. It was like they were competing to see which flavor note could be the quietest but still present on your tongue.

Next up the kitchen borrowed a bit from Alain Passard with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Red Cabbage Gazpacho, Brunoise of Cucumber. If you're going to borrow from Passard, this is not a bad thing to borrow. It was a gazapacho, like Passard's but purple and refined and rustic. Unlike Passard they were not trying to smooth out edges of the flavors and textures. They were letting them be what they are. The diced onions were a big part of the dish as well. Nice!

This was followed by Pea Puree, Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Foie Gras. Other than the goie gras, and knowing the Jelly was kind of gamey in a good way, I had a hard time identifying what everything was in this dish. Everything was soft and had a faint air of coffee. Typically that's nto my thing, but this was quite enjoyable. The foie gras pate from the beginning actually tasted "livery" but good. It had an honest quality about it with a slightly rough texture. The portion  size was perfect.

Next was Snail Porridge, Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel. The porridge was not gluteny (not your father's porridge). It had absorbed some of the fennel flavor and balanced beautifully with the ham. It had a sweet, smokey, warm, and round flavor.

Even though we had a touch of foie gras already I was certainly looking forward to this next dish - Roast Foie Gras, Chamomile, Almond, Cherry and Amaretto Jelly. I really loved this. It was interesting, new, and exciting. The foie gras itself was not super hot temperature-wise but it worked for this dish. the texture of the chamomile and the nuttiness combined to make almost a first impression of peanuts. Then the cherries kicked my ass. The little gelee cubes of sherry were these "bright flavor points" on my tongue. When combining each of the ingredients in this dish for a single bite, millimeters really made a significant difference. And that was kind of cool as each bite ended up being a different journey. I ended up leaving a little of the gelee cream on the plate or it would have drowned out the foie gras. This was a very exciting and enjoyable dish to eat.

The foie was followed by Sardine on Toast Sorbet, Ballotine of Mackerel "Invertebrate" Marinated Dycon and Salmon Eggs. Wow! Again, minute differences in amounts of ingredients in each of the bites I assembled made a huge difference in the flavor. But each combined salt, sour, sea, warm, cold, in an amazing way. The contrasting textures were also fantastic.

It was at this point that I realized that my seven course tasting menu (that I was eating on my own after having been awake most of the night on a flight to London from the west coast of the US was rapidly turning into a 19 course tasting menu. Twelve of the 19 were what I think the kitchen considered more incidental so they didn't count them in the big number. But I knew that I was in for the marathon. I steeled myself to go forward. (It may not be obvious, but eating like this is work - delicious work.)

The next dish arrived like a jewel.Salmon Poached with Liquorice, Asparagus, Pink Grapefruit, "Manni" Olive Oil. It was salmon wrapped in dark gelee and at first glance it looked to me like venison. The gelee was sweet. The salmon was translucent and perfect. Oily in a good way, not dry or flakey. There was apparently licorice in the gelee coating and then fresh licorice was shaved onto dish in front of me. Frankly I was pretty worried as I am hypersensitive to that flavor and I really don't like it (though I do enjoy the star anise in my Vietnamese pho). And it didn't matter. It was great, beautiful, lovely.

Next up was Sweetbread Cooked in a Salt Crust with Hay, Crusted with Pollen, Cockles a la Plancha, Parsnip Pure, and Choux Pontoux. The sweetbreads were excellent. I'm a big fan of sweetbreads when they are cooked properly and these were done right. They were like chicken, veal, and ham combined. The texture was firm not gelatinous. This dish had a perfect fried crust, studded with salt. and the sauce was a concentrated savory deliciousness. The accompanying puree had a distinctly silky flavor and texture. The foam, was substantial as it was super flavorful. The cabbage underneath was perfectly cooked. And I'm not sure how they achieved this, but the texture was crispy and soft. Cool.

The next dish was transitional to the sweet portion of the meal - White Chocolate and Caviar. This bite melts on your tongue for ten seconds combining sweet and creamy, gelatinous and salt. Nice. Next I received a little brochure with an ode to Mrs. Marshall, an unheralded pioneer in the art of ice cream from the late 19th century (according to the pamphlet). Mrs. Marshall's Margaret Cornet was a little super thin ice cream cone with yummy ice cream. The presentation was cute but not kitschy. The restaurant seems to skirt the edge but never go over. I got the impression of a chef and kitchen who are really really into food. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Up until the sweetbreads the pacing really had been perfect, but afterwards things slowed way down.

After the ice cream I got the Pine Sherbet Dib Dab. This was essentially a high end Fun Dip. And in fact it was not bad at all. It had a yummy sour flavor. But ultimately the pine undertone tasted like a cleaning solution to me. I don't think pine will ever be a taste I acquire. But then again, you never know...

Mango and Douglas Fir Puree, Bavarois of Lychee and Mango, Blackcurrant and Green Peppercorn Jelly, Blackcurrant Sorbet follwed the dib dab. There were some nice flavor combinations. The fir was subtle enough that I didn't notice the super slight burning on my tongue until after I saw what was in the dish (it's so hard to separate what your tongue tastes and what your mind thinks). There were harder gelee cubes that were almost like nuts. The colors were vivid and beautiful. There was also an Orange and Carrot Tuile, and a Bavarois of Basil, Beetroot Jelly. The beetroot jelly was concentrated yummy high quality candy.

A little "amuse dessert" came out in the form of Parsnip Cereal, and Parsnip Milk. The cereal came out in a little mini-cereal box just like you get at the super market. It was essentially trying to be Frosted Flakes made out of parsnip. And while it was cute and funny it wasn't super tasty. However, not all was lost, as the next dish served was Smoked Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, Tomato Jam, Salted Butter Caramel, Caramelised Brioche, and Tea Jelly. This reconstructed breakfast for dessert was certainly novel, but to focus on the humor would be missing the point, which was that it tasted fantastic. The bacon and egg ice cream was surprisingly good. But the buttery French toast was excellent! I don't know any other way to describe the brioche other than great eggy sweet French toast. I'm not a big tea guy, but the jelly was refreshing with sharp clean flavors. It felt like it had apple, pear, and grape with a tangy quality as well.

As the meal wound down, I was presented with a small dish of chocolates - Leather, Oak, Pine, Tobacco, Chocolates to be specific. I'm in a bit of a quandry on this one as my notes and the printed menu are in conflict. I'll jus tell you that I thought one of the chocolates I ate was mint. I suppose it could have been the pine but I doubt it as I remember the flavor so clearly even over a year later. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. Either way, at the time I thought (rightly or wrongly) that it was mint. And despite my aversion to mint combined with chocolate, the mint was surprisingly good. It tasted more herby and straight off the plant as opposed to the more commercial tasting mass produced tasting mint found in most chocolate. The others- Leather, Oak, Tobacco, etc. - were honestly foul tasting. I did try them though. I looked at this as a moment to try new things and try I did. Nobody ever said you'd like everything you tried, just that you wouldn't find any new things to love if you didn't try them.

As if to say, thank you for trying the chocolates (and after all I did end up enjoying one that I thought for sure I wouldn't) the kitchen sent out a final little yummy item - a Pralines Rose Tartlet. The tartlet was fantastic. It was sweet with a thick smooth filling and a super light shell. Great.

Whew! After a meal like this I'm kind of at a loss to sum things up in a way that really does it justice. I'll try anyway. There's lots of writing about the novelty, experiment, inventiveness, and innovation happening at The Fat Duck. Here's what I think the reality is. Yes there's novelty. Yes there are new and interesting and unexpected combinations of ingredients. But essentially you need to clear your mind of noticing all the newness and focus on the flavor. And when you do, you realize two things: 1) the flavors are simply good, clean, and deeply satisfying, and 2) in many instances the flavors are new. So in the end you're left with a bunch of truly great tasting food with simple and clean but passionate flavors, that you've never had before. It's hard to argue with a combination like that. And as such, I can't wait to go back.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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