Monday, September 11, 2006

The World's best restaurant

From the moment I walked in I knew we were somewhere different. Wooden tables, well made, spaced considerately apart and partnered with simple sturdy chairs; set simply with thick cream napkins and solid cutlery with a thick water tumbler and a large spotless wine glass per setting; a short but complete menu that made perfect sense in its classic English setting. And this was just in the pub next door. Okay, so the pub was called the Hind’s Head and owned by Heston Alien-Blumenthal, but it set the scene perfectly for the afternoon that was about to unfold.

Blumenthal’s main gaff, The Fat Duck, is so unassuming in its small village location that I walked past it without noticing. Then I noticed some plumage, which turned out to come from a small brass plate next to a well-maintained door. During the same moment I also looked upward towards something that was catching my field of view and noticed the familiar webbed logo swinging back and fore from its metal boom. A Ferrari passed unmistaken behind me.

Bray, the village just off the M4 before you get to London, has the highest number of Michelin stars per resident of any other place in Britain, boasting as it does two of the UK’s three three-starred restaurants within three minutes walk of one another: The Duck and the Waterside, perched on the well-tended banks of the Thames. But the latter hasn’t had quite the same accolade as world’s best and world’s second best restaurant in the last two years to boot.

I knew about the snail porridge and bacon&egg ice cream before I walked through the door, but I hadn’t quite counted on just how much fun I was going to have for the next four hours. The show kicked off with a physics experiment, as you might expect from the dean of molecular gastronomy: a ball of egg white infused with tea, lime and vodka, cooked before your very eyes at -186 degrees in a flask of liquid nitrogen, which disappeared in a puff of nothingness when you popped it into your mouth.

“The tea cleanses the pallet,” stated the waiter with a cute French accent. “The lime wakes it up,” he went on, “and the vodka takes the fat out of your mouth.” He was right: Heston’s “nitro-green tea and lime mousse (2001)” had reset my senses in an instant.

Next, it was my brain.

A waiter placed a small plate on which sat two perfect squares of jelly: an orange one and a purple one.

“This is an orange and a beetroot jelly,” he said. “May I suggest that you eat the orange one first.” So I did, and within a second I looked up across the table to be met with the same slightly contorted expression that I must have been sporting, my mouth filled with the strongest, sweetest taste of beetroot I had ever tasted yet which my brain was telling me was orange. He had switched the flavours, and all we could do was chuckle at ourselves for having been caught out. It put me in the perfect mood; I had become receptive to the power of the unexpected.

There were still three amuse bouches to go before the main elements of the tasting menu arrived, the first a fresh oyster with passion fruit jelly and lavender which was like a slice of the North Atlantic that had been reduced, jellified and made to taste as if every molecule of sodium chloride within it was undergoing a reaction with my rapidly secreting saliva; the second a teaspoon sized quenelle of wholegrain mustard ice cream sited in the centre of a small dimple in a large white plate that was filled with a freshly poured pool of red cabbage gazpacho with 9 or 10 perfectly cut millimetre-cubed shallots; and the third an inclined plastic dome filled with chilled layers of a bright green pea puree, a meaty quail jelly and a smooth & thick langoustine cream topped with a tiny quenelle of fois gras parfait. I cut though the layers with my solid silver and subtly webbed teaspoon and felt the soft luxurious combo melt on my tongue. Its four or five little spoonfuls were all you needed, my God. The temperature of the dish also went against what you might expect from such flavours, drawing your attention to exactly how bizarre yet brilliant what you were eating was.

First up on the main sequence was Heston’s famous snail porridge, which for some reason I had convinced myself was really only going to be a nice risotto. It really wasn’t. It came as a bright green mound, parsely-based and flecked clearly with whitish grey oats. On top of this sat three small juicy snails, some dark red shredded Joselito ham and lots of shaved fennel. Taken together the flavours mixed well, and the volume of matter on my plate was just enough to afford me a full sample of the tastes and textures on offer by the time it had run out. I mopped up the thick green residue with the exceptional crusty brown bread that was being offered freely, spread thickly with the richest creamiest saltiest home-churned butter I have ever tasted.

Next was a dish with a nod if odd to tradition, comprising three pieces of roast fois gras with almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile. The gel was extraordinary in texture and taste, utterly smooth and silky yet filling your mouth with a million freshly chewed almonds. As were the three tiny perfect orange-yellow cubes of almond jelly, which dissolved much slower than the fatty liver when taken together in your mouth and served to draw your attention to the genius of the combo. The cherry, impressed innocently in the almond gel, was the tastiest I have ever eaten.

The next course was the closest to the edge. Savoury ice creams do have their limits I reckon, and sardine on toast flavour is about it. As ever, the dish arrived in perfect form, an oval disc of mackerel ‘invertebrate’ sitting next to the sorbet which was anchored with some strips of marinated daikon and had protruding from it a thin wafer of toast. The toast helped. Together it all worked, but too much sorbet in a mouthful and it started to come apart at the fins.

Anyway, all that took place in the background as I tried to figure out exactly how they managed to serve me a cross-section of raw mackerel containing no bones. The waiter was enjoying my frustration and felt confident enough to offer me the meal if I could guess how it was done. But you are never going to think inside the box of a freak like Heston. So it turns out that the bastard fillets the fish whole, as one would normally do, and then glues the fucking things back together again using “food glue” before wrapping it in cling film and leaving it to set for a couple of hours. If we had gone for the wine option too this would have been served with a warm Rashiku Ginjo-Sake, Yamatogawa. Nice.

And so to the salmon. We were already feeling incredibly good, the food not filling us up nor leaving us wanting more, just making you feel content, the classy surroundings and friendly, knowledgeable staff a huge factor. It was at this point when I realised the experience was transcending the concept of food familiar to me, as I found I couldn’t decide whether or not I cared whether or not the salmon was wild or poached. Everything else was of such high quality that I would find it hard to believe he would have used anything less, yet the way in which the square had been cooked left me with fewer ways of telling. It appeared in a liquorice parcel topped with three coriander seeds, next to two asparagus spears, some pink grapefruit and a smearing of vanilla mayonnaise. It looked and tasted both raw and cooked at the same time, which is hardly surprising given that it had been dipped in molten liquorice jelly three times, sealed in a vacuum bag and then poached for 35 minutes at a temperature of 30 degrees. That’s basically the same as leaving it in the window at home on a hot day, and for the first time in your life makes you wonder if health and safety isn’t such a bad thing after all. I liked it; the Wife less so.

The last of the mains seemed to serve to reassure, or perhaps to show how effortless it is for HB to roll off a classic should he want to. What arrived was a flawless dish of poached pigeon breast wrapped in pancetta and very rare, a small triangular parcel of its confied and shredded leg and a foamy greenish pistachio sauce with cocoa and quatre epices. The precision was breathtaking, the seasoning and temperature exact, and the flavours proving a warming, comforting break from the previous course. It was the only dish where I missed the possibility of wine, which would have been a 1999 Barolo Costa Grimaldi. And then, after feeling in safe hands, the waitress placed a simple card in front of both of us titled “Mrs Agnes B Marshall 1855-1905: The Queen of ice cream”. Okay, so we were back in Bray.

Agnes turns out to have been a lovely lady who was arguably the first to have invented the edible ice cream cone. A great wee tale about the woman printed on luxurious semi-laminated paper, which we finished just in time for a platter containing two perfect little cornets -- made to the original recipe, of course, and tasting, of course, like the best ice cream you had ever eaten.

Then somewhere around here there was a little break for a pot of sherbet to be eaten off the tip of a dried and rather brittle vanilla pod, before the main desert arrived. Again, a perfect score for the pleasure of eating a mango and Douglas fir puree, the bavarois of lychee and mango topped with some lime zest and two pine nuts hitting every note right and the ultra-smooth blackcurrant sorbet with the intensity of undiluted Ribena. Fucking hell this guy is good.

And then it was time for breakfast. It sounds ridiculous now to say that this made sense at half past three in the afternoon after you have just eaten the best food in your life. But you need to bear in mind that just two minutes previously I had watched a table of three inhaling the contents of plastic squeezy bottles filled variously with cinnamon and vanilla before each mouthful of their a la carte desert. They looked like a shower of cunts to be honest. So when the miniature box of Fat Duck Cereals arrived I was in the mood for some fucking parsnip flakes with parsnip milk, okay? But even this was merely the warm up for the grand finale: the famed bacon and egg ice cream.

So the liquid nitrogen was wheeled out again along with a flambee unit and half a dozen eggs. After being asked how you would like your eggs done, he takes one out and cracks it against the side of the overflowing pan and mixes the creamy mixture around the sub-zero copper surfaces until finally spooning it in half and placing it on your plate: smoked bacon and egg ice cream, served with a golden cuboid of French toast held in place by a strong tomato confit and a quenelle of dark brown caramel butter, ludicrously sweet and topped with two intensely flavoured dried mushrooms. We chewed the remarkable concoction down with an eggcup of chilled tea jelly; it was something quite special - a full English, deconstructed, twisted and taken to its maximum, brilliantly paired with a glass of Buck’s fizz, no less, for those who aren’t alcoholic.

The breakfast not only served as a clever gag, it also fitted perfectly into the pace of the afternoon. Having been sat there for three hours during which I felt like I’d never been anywhere else ever, I was in need of early warning that it was getting close to check-out time. And despite having never drunk tea in my entire life, I wiped my eggy chin with the strongest desire in the world for a nice big cup of the stuff.

And so it came, in a thick plastic glass that enabled Heston to pull off one last trick: a tea jelly straight from the fridge over which was poured piping hot water to make every single mouthful, from start to finish, give you that feeling you get when you go to sip a cup of tea or coffee only to find that it is stone cold. For a millisecond, that is, after which you suddenly find yourself worrying that you might burn your lips on this the most comforting of brews in recent memory.

And then, served along side the tastiest coffee I’ve ever had on this island, I was presented with a fitting end to proceedings: a drink. I knew it was going to be potent because otherwise it wouldn’t have been called a whisky wine gum, but hesitated for all of one second before reaching out and popping the golden sugared dome into my mouth. It tasted of very little at first, but then I bit into it and unleashed a depth of peat that threw me instantly back to a fierce early-morning argument with my best mate about the benefits of mobile phones, or to some other maddened moment fuelled by a dark Island malt. This was most clearly a Laphroaig, and a good dram of it and not much else bar the gelatine sheets by the taste of it. My brain lit up like a fucking Christmas tree, my senses temporarily numbed by the deeply familiar, base excitement at the prospect of getting drunk. It was instant, my neurons triggering all over the place in opposite directions: comfort versus danger, success versus failure; old versus new, trapped versus free. Even Heston couldn’t have bargained for all that.

He is a fucker. It was flawless from start to finish. I was placed in an elevated state of consciousness that lasted all night and blocked my ability to sense hunger. All food we ate after this rattling of the senses just seemed like “matter”. Everything tastes the same now.