Fat Duck chapter one

“But I don’t want to go among mad people”, Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that”, said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here” *

Some people think we’re mad. But simple maths and nursery rhymes tell us what follows number one.

Bring on number two.

Of course after flying 25 hours to visit the best restaurant in the world, my paragon-of-process (aka The Hungry One) would need to chase it down with a quick jaunt to the runner up.

Bring on lunch at Fat Duck and a whimsical journey through nostalgia, history and hysterics.

Here’s what I knew about Fat Duck. It’s about 40 minutes outside of London. We’d read and heard about savoury ice creams, snails with porridge and a dash of pyrotechnics with your pudding. Heston Blumenthal has a touch of the mad scientist to him. There’s every chance we’ll be eating things that are pretty off the chain.

To say we were excited was a little of an understatement.

Bring on a strategic breakfast of a flat white at the antipodean saviour of coffee in London- ‘flat white‘ and brisk jaunt to Paddington station. Then it’s train tickets and the 10.57 National Express to Maidenhead. A giggle or two, and a lame David Brent impression as the train speeds past ‘Slough’, and we’re nearly there.

Then it’s a quick tickbox of an itinerary: taxi to Bray. Take cheesy touristy photos out the front of Heston’s gastro pub- The Hindshead. Secretly wish we lived in London and could come for boozy country lunches when the weather turns nippy.

We then make our way down the street to Fat Duck, and wait expectantly for the magic to begin.

What we weren’t expecting is such civility and kindness.

‘Just relax and enjoy yourself’ is the first thing that’s said to us. We look around. The ceilings are low and the white walls are interspersed with exposed beams and modern art awash with calming hues of blues, greens and yellows.

There’s no music. The floor staff are all in suits, with a mottle of European accents that you’d expect at the reception of an international finishing school.

On each table there’s a sweet little posy of flowers. Ours is the only one with kangaroo paws in it. Coming all the way from Australia, we wonder if it’s a coincidence.

They don’t take long to start mucking with your head though. The large leather bound menu is a Houdini trick of befuddlement, unfolding with two inverted entrances like an oversized piece of origami. Whichever way you go, the content is the same. The unspoken message is that it’s best to relax, and go along with it.

And so we do.

The ride starts in the ‘Lime Grove’, with Nitro poached green tea and lime mousse.

But of course. I serve this as a palette cleanser at home all the time.

You just need two friends. One to work the cauldron of liquid nitrogen.

They just have to take a scoop of lime mousse and poach it at minus 196 degree centigrade.

Then pull it out, dab it with green tea powder out of a puff and instruct your guests to eat it in one go. As they put it in their mouth you need the other friend to spritz a lime scented vapour behind your head, to complete the sensory experience.

The theatre of it all is pretty entertaining. The smoke from the liquid nitrogen billows like a dragon bath, and while you’re initially unaware of the spritzing when it’s being done on you, watching someone misting behind the heads of your friends is pretty hilarious. As for the mound of frozen mousse- it tastes something like a lime icey pole that dissolves to fragmented pieces of snow. The smell is more like a meander through a Jo Malone store and the tannins from the green tea powder and the lime obediently do exactly what our charming waitstaff tell us they will. They ‘stimulate the saliva’. While it’s not the most attractive concept- it does get you excited about what’s coming next.

It’s a perfect quenelle of pommery grain studded icecream, that gets flooded with a moat of red cabbage gazpacho.

The red cabbage flavour is so striking; sweet and slightly pickled that it stuns. ‘That’s what cabbage should taste like’ decrees The Hungry One. ‘I think I just realised I’ve always eaten crap cabbage before now’. Meanwhile the icecream helps keep the gazpacho refreshingly cold, and as the scoop starts to melt it leaves a deckled pink lake in its wake.

Enough of that soothing pink sweetness. It’s time for the pyrotechnics to start again. It starts when you put a Fat Duck branded Listerine sheet impregnated with the flavours of oak and forrest on your tongue.

At the same time, from the centre of the table a Hogwarts esque oak scented mist floods the plates and cutlery.

How else would you herald the arrival of truffle in a dish, and prepare your senses for the delicacies to follow?

Then you come to a spaceballs style shell holding a savoury trifle of quail jelly and crayfish cream; with another little quenelle, this time of of chicken liver parfait propped in the centre. It’s as smooth as a freshly shaved leg and kinkily complex. To add some much needed textural punch there’s a rectangle of truffle toast, topped with triangles of radish. Eating it is like getting lost in a very very sexy forrest.

From there it’s onwards to a slab of duck foie gras, which arrives looking like a Stegosaurus. It’s bisected by thin tuiles biscuits made of crab and topped with braised konbu.

The konbu and crab add sweetness and a murky complexity to the insane richness of the bloated liver. Playing with it on the plate are polka dots of reduced balsamic and a flourish of gooseberry puree. The foie gras is perfectly smooth, making us all wonder how many hours someone spent painstakingly tracing through every ventricle for our combined pleasure. But the gooseberry puree is the highlight; it’s like a quick jaunt on a slippery dip with Rainbow Brite- slightly sweet and insistently perky. A delight of a dish.

Just as we’re finishing the dregs of our half glass of 2004 Alsace Pinot Gris we realise that we’ve started to disappear down the rabbit hole.

Out comes an elaborate tea set, and a cup for each of us. In the cup, is a gold disc. A watch. The Mad Hatter’s watch, to be precise. In an elaborate ceremony hot liquid is poured over it, and the gold watch starts to dissolve, into a broth that strikes truffle, pickled cucumber and leaves fronds of gold leaf floating about.

This is then poured over a deconstructed bowl of mock turtle soup.

There’s a comical reproduction of an egg, with Norbit style antennae and a pressed veal tongue terrine.

It’s weird and wonderful all at the same time. We’re not even half way through, and we’re finding it difficult to stop smiling.

If this is what being mad is, I’m not sure I want to be sane.

*Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (as reminded by a sage friend)

Read chapter two here.

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