This post will cover two days, The 250 km trip to Lyon, and then the flight to London and our visit the following day to The Fat Duck. Written as we speed under the English Channel.
We woke very early and dragged our heavy bags (heavy with bottles of wine) down the stepped lanes to the car and headed for the payage to Lyon for the airport to fly to London. The first part of the drive was around Provence on roads we had driven many times, but once we got onto the payage with its 130 kmh speed limit the 250 or so kilometres slid off the running tally on the GPS. The major toll roads in France are 4 lanes each way and are as smooth and flat as a road could be. Trucks are limited to 90 kmh so that makes it a bit less scary - trucks going past at 150 would not be nice. We stayed in the lane second from the right and let the French drivers flash past who drive at the maximum speed their car is capable of. We soon found ourselves at the pay station to get off the tollway and made it to the massive Lyon airport.
Last sunrise at Caromb.
The flight to Heathrow was only an hour and a half. Iain was asleep before the plane left the ground only to be woken for a little bag of crispy bready things provided by the flight crew - very unimpressed!
We landed in London and cleared customs with no worries, although because we are in our twenties the age where Australians like to move to London and stay we had to provide proof that we were going to be leaving the UK quickly. The Heathrow Express train to Paddington station was great, it rocketed there and then we walked the three blocks to our hotel.
The hotel was not pretty! We had to check in in another building away from the one we were actually sleeping in and the girl who checked us in could not point to the hotel on the map we had. The room was pokey with a bathroom Elysia stated would not be out of place in a prison cell. It was clean-ish (a bit of rust and grime in the shower) and very hot. We opened the window and headed off the Oxford Street and Soho to have a pint and a look around.
Oxford Street is always busy no matter what time of day it is but this was Friday afternoon. It was like we were sheep in a shearing yard, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people shuffling along the street. Once we got into the maze of Soho we could walk properly and started to enjoy ourselves a bit more. Posed for the obligatory photo at Piccadilly Circus, a red bus, a red post box, and a red phone box (although most phone boxes are sleek glass structures these days)
We were meeting an old friend of Elysia's for her birthday in Shepherds Bush at a little Thai place. The food was pretty tasty, a good selection of reasonably authentic Thai dishes and some westernised "Thai" classics. We shared a selection of duck, pork and chicken dishes between us and crossed the road to Vesbar for a glass of pinot grigio and, eventually, dashed to catch the last Underground back to Paddington.
Iain had to iron his shirt for The Fat Duck the next day and scoured the 10 square metre room for an iron and ironing board - without success. The reception across the road was able to provide an iron but no board so we tried to not melt the carpet as we ironed the shirt on the floor. The room was still hot as we rolled into bed but they had kindly provided a fan to blow the hot air around.
Breakfast the next morning was in the basement of our building. It was cornflakes, orange juice (that we think was orange cordial), white supermarket bread and the worst croissants we have ever had. But this did little to dampen our spirits as we walked, all dressed up, to the train to Slough and Windsor on our way to Bray. The ticket man when we said "We need two return adult tickets to Slough" replied "I just need to understand why you want to go to Slough" (it's bit dodgy) We explained our situation and he sold us the tickets.
It was a 12 quid cab ride to Bray. We were about 30 minutes early for our booking which gave us a chance to wander the VERY pretty village which also boasts a second three Michelin-star restaurant The Waterside Inn right on the Thames. We stood and watched swans and rowers slide over the water. Walking back to The Fat Duck we crossed the cricket ground (where Sir Michael Parkinson is the club president) and approached the heavy and very imposing wooden door of the restaurant.
Swans outside The Waterside Inn.
Nervously we pushed on the heavy door that slid open effortlessly and cautiously entered the building to be greeted by the smiling Maitre'd.
We were the second table to be seated at 12:00. The table was set with heavy white linen and a unique floral arrangement in the centre (by unique I mean the other tables had different flowers and different heavy glass vases). We asked politely if we could photograph the food and were told that it was fine.
Our centrepiece at The Fat Duck.
Menus arrived in a spongy brown leather folder embossed with The Fat Duck logo. The menu covered three pages but the folder was constructed so that, magically, as you reached the last page the first re-appeared at the back so the pages of the book could be turned and turned without ever reaching the end. We were offered Champagne and were presented with a little plate of olives.
The Fat Duck only offers one menu, a degustation. We chose a wine matching package and were left alone by the many, beautifully dressed service staff to watch the other diners enter the restaurant and await our first dishes.
Wandering in was a real mix of people, bored-looking foppish young men with very highly put-together young women; posh-looking older couples; suits looking to impress; and a large number of young chefs and waiters there for the same reason as us. I should add that it is very hard to get a booking, it took us with two phones about 500 'engaged' calls before we were lucky enough to speak to a member of The Fat Duck team. Bookings are only accepted two months before the booking date and only by phone.
A little oak table was dragged next our table and a silver tray was placed on it. The waiter described the dish and suggested that we should eat it all at once. She poured about a litre of liquid nitrogen into a collared vessel then, from a soda syphon, added an egg white foam flavoured with lime. She basted the nitrogen (at minus 190 degrees) over the top of the floating mousse, freezing it instantly. Then she dusted it with a green tea powder and sprayed a green tea essence into the air from an atomiser. The sphere of mousse had a crisp frozen shell with a beautiful soft mousse inside smelling of green tea!
"Poaching" the egg whites.
Green tea/lime sphere.
We should add at this point what we think chef Heston Blumenthal is trying to get across at The Fat Duck for those of you who don't know or are dubious about his ideas. Blumenthal is obsessed with the sensory triggers in food and aromas. He aims to trigger a memory of a positive event or experience, a beach-side holiday for example. The food is cleverly crafted using the newest and most expensive tools and techniques in modern cooking to trigger these memories in each individual diner. The food is witty, ingenious and amazingly tasty. We have all of Heston's books and understand this philosophy. We were expecting the meal to be good, but not this good! Many people we spoke to about dining at the Duck said "Oh its gimmicky and its not real food". We can assure you that it is real food -- real, tasty and beautifully-crafted food.
Wine was poured, a 2002 Riesling from the Eden Valley to go along with our next two dishes.
Dish two: a wholegrain mustard ice cream with a brilliant purple cabbage gazpacho poured expertly at the table from an elegant white decanter. A tiny brunoise of cucumber in the bottom of the bowl completed the dish.
Mustard ice cream.
The next course was a tiny scientific-looking deep bowl perched at an angle on a little square pedestal; a little wooden board with a wafer of bread spread thickly with slivers of tiny radish; and a timber box with a thick and luscious layer of moss with little clear plastic containers that are usually used to hold breath mints sitting on the moss. The waiter poured liquid nitrogen onto the moss (presumably into a layer of water underneath) causing a white flowing mist to pour out if it and over the table onto the floor. It smelled of forests, oak and moss. In the little clear containers was an oak flavoured film that disappeared on the palate leaving us with just a sense of the timber. Inside the little bowl was a four layered jelly with peas and chicken liver mousse. This was beautifully soft and we were told to mix it with the truffled toast. Earthy and woody and so, so much fun!
Chicken liver mousse.
The moss bed.
A bit dark, but it's the truffle toast.
The forest mist!
Next up was seared foie gras with a plum puree, seasame seeds and braised kombu seaweed. The foie gras melted in the mouth without the chalky feeling that you sometimes get; the seaweed, seeds and all the other ingredients on the plate were an amazing savoury and rich combination.
A bookmark-shaped card with the verse about Mock Turtle Soup from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland soup was placed in front of us and we were given a minute to read it. Then Mock Turtle Soup was brought to our table - Blumenthal has made a dish out of a fictional creature! We were each given a teacup with a golden fob-watch (the Mad Hatter's tea party) 'teabag' knotted loosely around the handle. The fob-watch dissolved into a meaty stock with flecks of gold leaf when hot water was poured over it - from a teapot, of course! We were told to pour this stock over the rest of the dish - a Mock Turtle egg! This was a set 'custard' shape with tiny mushrooms and a little cube of a layered ham terrine. So, So much fun! When you are on hold waiting make your booking you hear a reading of Alice in Wonderland instead of music. Blumenthal is evoking that childhood memory with this dish.
Partly dissolved golden watch.
The gold-flecked stock.
Complete Mock Turtle Soup.
A large brown and white conch shell with little white headphones protruding from it was placed next to each of us. We were told to "attach the headphones to our ears" and were then each presented with a shallow timber box containing a layer of sand with a sheet of glass floating over it creating a scene very like where the foaming sea meets the sand on the beach. The dish was seaweed, cured kingfish, mackerel and halibut; a seaweed foam; and a tapioca maltodextrin powder with the appearance of sand that melted away instantly in the mouth with the flavour of the sea. While eating it we could hear the crashing of waves and the cries of seagulls from the conch.
We really enjoyed this dish!
Salmon poached in a liquorice gel came next, with vanilla mayonnaise and artichokes. The salmon was soft and pink, not raw pink but translucent with a coating of a dark brown warm jelly on the outside. Trout roe and individual cells of pink grapefruit were underneath it and a rich, creamy mayonnaise (served warm) that tasted only of vanilla.
Pigeon was the last of our savoury dishes. A perfectly rare pigeon breast that had been cooked sous vide for a very long time so it was very soft; a pigeon leg; a pigeon wafer and a black pudding puree. The pureed smooth black pudding was amazing: all iron and spice; the pigeon was the best we've had anywhere. Tiny onions and turnips provided crispness, sweetness and freshness to the heavy, rich game bird.
Sweets: a mille fuille of apple and rosewater mousse with candied violets and individually caramalised fennel seeds scattered beside it; and a rochere of deep purple and sour black currant sorbet cut through the rosewater and spiced apple paste. Beautifully presented! There was also a tiny plouche of sweet dill.
Apple paste and rosewater mille feuille.
The waiter who had prepared our egg-white frozen mousse re-appeared and welcomed us to 'breakfast' with little individual portioned cereal boxes (just like the ones the cornflakes had come in at breakfast in our hotel) with The Fat Duck logo on them. We were told it was parsnip cereal and we were to pour it out of the box into the bowl where it was moistened with parsnip-infused milk. It was crisp and sweet and so much fun!
The next part of 'breakfast', the bacon and eggs (the very famous dish), was announced with a cheery "Good Morning". A geradon trolley was wheeled over, just like the ones that Steak Dianne was cooked on in the 70s. Instead of a flame it used liquid nitrogen. A 'raw egg' was removed from a Fat Duck egg carton and cracked into a gleaming copper pan. Nitrogen was poured in, and stirred, and what looked exactly like soft scrambled eggs was presented with a crisp sweetened wafer of 'bacon' and a caramelised eggy-soft piece of brioche. The "scramble" tasted of eggs and bacon, the contents of the egg replaced with an ice cream mix in the kitchen and the egg re-sealed. The plumes of white smokey steam created a real sense of theatre about the dish. It was served with a little glass of lemon tea, slightly gelled - it was half hot and half cold, the tongue struggling to grasp both sensations at the same time!
Egg and bacon ice cream made to order.
A hot cuppa and iced tea all in one glass!
Yet another card was placed in front of us giving a history of the English combination of Chocolate and heavy red wine, thought a couple of hundred years ago to be an aphrodisiac. The dish was produced on a timber slab with a conical white cup nestled firmly into it, and a wide straw. To its side was a perfect rectangle of millionaires' shortbread (caramel slice) with gold tinted grains of salt on its gleaming chocolate top. The chocolate wine was in the form of a slushy icy slurry and was just beautiful: its aphrodisiac properties lost on us after eating so much food and drinking so much wine.
The chocolate wine slush.
A dark timber framed map in an oldy-worldy style of the western part of Europe was next placed in front of us, a key indicating 5 locations on the map all famous for their local booze: Madiera in Portugal, Cognac in France etc. On each area was stuck a little brown bottle and we were told to let each dissolve in our mouths. The bottles were numbered 1-5 and we were told to eat them in order, starting with Mead and finishing with rum. Each tasted of its name and had the texture of soft wine gums.
We were presented with a vast list of teas and coffees. Iain opted for a pu her and Elysia a red tea. They were set on a little timber box, the same one as the moss had arrived on hours before, each tea made with water of differing temperatures specific to its variety. Hot water was poured over the outside of the pot and glass, flowing into the box's reservoir, then the pot was upended into a glass jug so the tea was off the leaves and did not over-extract. Finally the pot lid was removed to allow the smell of the tea to escape.
Decanting the tea.
Petite fours arrived in white and pink striped bags (complete with a "best before" sticker) just like a lolly shop. We up-ended our treats onto the table revealing a white envelope sealed with red wax; a green plastic pouch; and two clear cellophane bags.
Inside the sweet shop.
Inside the pouch entitled "coconut baccy" was shredded, partly-dessicated coconut stained brown to resemble tobacco - Blumenthl's end-of-meal cigarette. The cellophane bags contained an apple toffee in an edible 'cellophane' wrapper and a mandarine aero bar. The toffee appearing like a regular toffee in clear plastic but that melted away quickly in the mouth.
Apple toffee in edible wrapping.
The things out of the bag.
The white envelope was not sealed with wax but bright red raspbery flavoured chocolate embossed with The Fat Duck logo and contained a thick gleaming Queen of Hearts playing card. When bitten this revealed a gooey raspberry centre - such a treat and so unexpected.
The Queen of Hearts.
Bitten Queen of Hearts.
This signalled the end of our lunch. We sat content and happy while we waited for our taxi, chatting about the precise detail in the restaurant: from the authenticity of the 'best before' sticker, to the underliners that hold small dishes still on their plates. No diners are meant to see these little white cards (we're curious) but they sport The Fat Duck logo. Even the soap in the bathroons was Fat Duck!
Our cab (a 5 series BMW) arrived and we were presented with a little slip of paper on which our waiter (from Paris) had written some Paris restaurant recommendations for us. Then it was back to Windsor Castle and the train back to London.
The Fat Duck was truly great. It is very rare that you can spend 5 hours with a wide smile on your face. We were amused and entertained, we were transported to the past in our own heads. Blumenthal has, in our minds, done what he set out to do. It was a unique experience of haute cuisine, superb ingredients, superb service and a superb concept! Well done and thank you to The Fat Duck team!
We had no time to lose by the time we had got back to the hotel it was already 6:00 and we had to meet another friend from Hobart before we left early the following morning. We caught the Underground to Embankment we walked around for a couple of hours and tried some English cider and ales in a few of the very pretty English pubs. By about 9:30 we were hungry again (unbelievable, we know!) so chose a pub near Covent Garden Markets, and enjoyed an English pub meal (juicy bangers and mash) before returning to the hotel to pack ready for departure to Paris via the Channel Tunnel the next day.
Bangers and mash!