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
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
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.
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.
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.
size was perfect.
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,
"Manni" Olive Oil.
It was salmon wrapped in dark gelee and at first glance it looked to me like venison.
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 Purée, 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
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
Dip. And in fact it was not bad at all. It had a yummy sour flavor.
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,
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
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,
Butter Caramel, Caramelised Brioche, and
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
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
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.