We had heard about it. We had read articles and reviews about it. We had received e-mails praising it. We had watched television shows about it. And finally, we were going to it.
To the Fat Duck, the world's best restaurant near London.
The idea of molecular gastronomy may have polarised the food critics, but culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal's much talked about Fat Duck remains one of the leading exponent of this style of cooking in the UK. This three Michelin starred restaurant was voted the 'the best restaurant in the world' last year by an international panel of 600 chefs, food critics and restaurateurs, knocking from its perch the reigning grand dame of French cuisine, California-based The French Laundry.
The Fat Duck experience starts with trying to get a reservation. You can book up to two months in advance and they have just one sitting with a maximum of 45 covers per meal.
The reservation office is unfailingly polite and unfailingly says there is no table available for the day you want a booking, but they would be happy to put you on a wait list. Having decided to go there for a meal, I was completely uncool and gave the lady a series of optional dates and said we would arrive at any time that was convenient to them. Completely unfazed by my desperation she said they would call us if they had any cancellations.
A few anxious days passed where we kept looking at the phone willing it to ring and fighting back the instinct to call and plead for a table. But, four days later, call us they did.
Saturday, April 22 at 12.30 was to be the moment of truth.
Mind you The Restaurant has no telephone number listed on its web site. The only number is the reservation number which is a PR agency. Outsourcing applied logically.
It is impossible to describe the excitement involved in gearing up to go to Chef Bleumenthal's award-winning Fat Duck. We had to discuss and plan the route and time it would take to get there.
We had to discuss the clothes we would wear (this was, after all, the best restaurant in the world!!!!). Would we have alcohol or not? We decided not (Too expensive and frankly, no value add from the award-winning chef). Would we have the a la carte or the tasting menu? We agreed on the tasting menu.
What would we eat for dinner on Friday night? We didn't want to arrive at Fat Duck full from the last meal or hung over from the night before!!
In retrospect I find this build up odd. Both of us have, after all, read 'the best book in the world' seen 'the best movie in the world', been to a show by 'the best rock band in the world' and so on. So why did a meal at 'the best restaurant in the world' cause this anxiety, excitement and nervous anticipation? I haven't as yet found an answer that makes sense to me. Maybe someday soon I will.
Saturday morning turned out to be bright and sunny -- an omen in itself considering this is London! -- and we set off by tube ride to Paddington, a 35-minute train ride to Maidenhead and then a 10-minute taxi ride to Bray. The journey is, I believe, a part of the build up and anticipation to the Fat Duck experience. This is not a restaurant you can just walk across to (unless of course you live in Bray!). The journey is a reminder that this is a three-star Michelin restaurant which by its very definition means 'worth a special journey.' And that's just what we are doing, making a special journey.
The taxi drops us off at a non-descript, heavy wooden door over which hangs an innocuous white plaque that said: H Blumenthal is licensed to serve wine and alcohol. No name. No fancy liveried doorman. Nothing. Just a low, squat white building with a heavy wooden door. However the discreet signature Fat Duck logo of a fork, knife and spoon tells us we are in the right place.
Inside, the ceiling is low with lovely wooden beams. The restaurant is white with splashes of modern art on the walls and there is no reception area. One of the friendly staff checks our booking, takes our coats and leads us to our tables. Then, for a seemingly long time we are left to just absorb the place. Olives arrive. Then sparkling water. Then silence again. Fifteen minutes and no menu!
The sommelier wheels over a very fancy trolley of champagne and offers us a glass, which we refuse (having decided to stay off alcohol for this meal). Then, silence again.
After another few minutes, when I am sure they have forgotten us, a man appears with the menus and disappears while we study it.
By this time I want to scream. I don't want to study the menu. I have studied it online innumerable times. I know what it says. I have decided what I am eating. Take my order and bring on the miracles! But such impatience is not to be and decorum and solitude prevail.
The man does finally appear and appears pleased when we order the tasting menu. Then bread and heavenly unpasteurised butter appears. A few minutes later our friendly waiter, and guide for the evening, places a low wooden table right next to us and goes off to return bearing a silver platter in which he has a smoking silver flask, a silver bucket and a silver pump-type foam dispenser (like a shaving foam can). Liquid nitrogen at minus 193 degrees Celsius, he explains in a thick European accent indicating the smoke, which he is going to pour into a tea infusion. In this he will immerse a spoonful of lime and vodka mousse. It seems like the beginning of a magic act!
He explains how we should pick up the ball he places in front of us using our fingers very gently, as the mousse is very fragile and pop it into our mouth in one bite. As he immerses the cream into the liquid nitrogen, there is a sizzle of cold smoke and voila, out comes something resembling a meringue. I haven't a clue how this is going to work but follow his instructions and place it directly in my mouth.
As soon as I place it on my tongue, the shell shatters, releasing an ice-cold liquid that tasted first of lime and then, after I'd swallowed it, green tea. It was an extraordinary sensation, as though someone had sandblasted the inside of my mouth with Alpine air.
Clean, tangy, infinitely refreshing and gone.
Once both of us have had our mousse, our guide for the evening explains how the lime cleanses the palate, the tannin in the tea induces salivation and the alcohol in the vodka removes any residue of oil from the tongue. We have in this way been baptised and our palates are now cleansed and ready for the meal. As he speaks I can feel saliva flowing cleanly and readily into my mouth in anticipation of what is to come.
Silence and solitude again. But this time I am glad. I am amazed by the magic of the nitro-tea lime and vodka mousse. Not just remarkable for the way it seems to burst and dissolve in a tangy sharpness on the tongue, this ball of flavour had science and logic that actually made sense. Besides that are the wonder, awe and drama of its creation. Blumenthal has set the stage for the next 3.5 hours of delight, intense flavour, surprise and sheer joy.
As we break small pieces of bread and spread on the creamy butter, the next appetiser appears. On a clean white plate are two postage size squares of jelly. One deep red and the other brilliant orange.
'Orange and beetroot jelly', the European accent pronounces and leaves after asking us to begin with the orange jelly.
We (obviously) take a bit of the orange-colored jelly and the intense, distinct flavour of beetroot bursts through. Concentrated and clean. The next bite of the red-colored jelly brings all the wonders of citrusy, sharp orange. There is a genius in that kitchen who is having a lot of fun surprising naïve would-be-gourmets like us. Nothing is what you expect it to be.
This is definitely not a meal to have with a group of friends who want to chatter and 'catch up'. The only thing worth discussing is the food. And believe me, there is a lot to discuss as the courses keep coming. At a table next to us they chattered through the jelly tasting and ended up asking each other why the waiter had insisted on them starting with the orange-colored jelly. They didn't taste. They talked!
The dishes soon start appearing at regular intervals and each bite-sized piece of culinary wizardry has something in it that is designed to amuse, surprise and please the palate The tableware is clean, non-fussy and white. The cutlery is good, old fashioned silverware that is hardly seen anymore and it is changed with every course.
Further dazzling dishes include oysters with passion fruit jelly and lavender, grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho, and green pea puree layered with quail jelly and langoustine cream. But do all these wacky, out-there flavour combinations really work? Indeed they do. Blumenthal has achieved a mastery over smell and flavour that borders on the supernatural, with the different qualities of a particular dish revealing themselves sequentially, rather than simultaneously.
And this is only the first course!! We have another ten courses to go.
The courses keep coming. The famous snail porridge on a bed of fennel, with a distinctly Indian masala taste (this is not amongst my favorite dishes), a melting roast foie gras, oddly but brilliantly complemented by almond cream, cherry and chamomile and then one of my favorites -- Sardines on toast. This again is an outstanding twist on a long-standing classic. The sardines are in the form of a cold bullet shaped sorbet and the toast is a sliver of melba tucked into it the sorbet. The taste of sardines is intense, yet mellowed by the cream in the sorbet, making it a delightful dish.
The salmon that followed had been marinated in liquorice. Not the most likely of combinations but one that works brilliantly. Instead of grating pepper on your fish at the table, they grate liquorice! Blumenthal continually surprises with flavour combinations that appear to have been dreamt up in some kind of parallel universe. Then comes a game course and finally we are onto desserts.
Again, we are left to rest, look around, chat a bit and probably work up an appetite for the courses to follow.
As the minutes pass, we are given little pamphlets about Mrs Marshall, the Queen of Ice Cream which informs us that she was the person who in all likelihood invented the edible ice cream cone way back in 1888. The next course is a tribute to her. A crisp ice cream cone the size of my little finger with a coronet of sweet colored sugar crystals around the rim filled with a freshly churned creamy ice cream.
Tiny vials appear before us and we are instructed to lick but not bite!! To my delight I find fine, white, pine-flavored sweet powder that can be licked or sucked through a hollowed out vanilla pod. Palates cleansed once again, we are ready for the serious desserts to begin.
Out come carrot lollipops! Wafer thin carrot candy on a stick accompanied by a small ball of beetroot jelly. Each dish seems designed to challenge and amaze.
Just as we are beginning to tire a bit from all this extravagant palate-teasing, they bring out breakfast cereal with milk. Now I have really seen everything! Tiny, individual boxes that say Fat Duck Cereal which contain one tablespoon of parsnip cereal served with parsnip milk. The taste is surprisingly nice. Not too sweet, but distinctly parsnip.
After cereal we are served are bacon and eggs. But of course, it can never be as simple as that. The bacon and eggs are in the form of a scoop of ice cream that taste of bacon and eggs. This comes with a small French toast and a wonderful sticky caramel mousse. Beside the plate, in an eggshell shaped dish, there is jellied tea that looks just like a soft-boiled egg. If this is breakfast, I could begin each day with this!
After another 10 minutes of solitude we ask for the check, but are sweetly told we haven't yet had our tea. A few minutes later tea arrives in small, classic tea glasses which in some miraculous way have warm tea on the top layer and cool soothing tea at the bottom. So, when you drink it, the warm slightly thicker tea lightly touches your upper lip while cold sweet tea flows into your mouth. Perfect.
We entered the restaurant at 12.25 and it is 3.50 by the time we stagger out into the bright sunlight. Satisfied not stuffed. Amused and delighted. Strangely silent as we replay in our minds what Heston Blumenthal has done with our idea of food. This is not a meal we have eaten. This is chemistry, art, flavour, textures, contrasts, showmanship, surprise and most of all, fun.
Will we go back there? You bet we will. Not this trip, not this year but some day in the future. There are some things I saw on the a la carte menu that I absolutely have to try, like the crab biscuit and the cauliflower risotto with chocolate jelly. But first, our next must-do restaurant is Ferran Adria's El Bulli.
So till then...
The Fat Duck is located at Bray, Berkshire, England. It was voted the top restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2005. The 20-item tasting menu will set you back £100 (about Rs 8,500) per head).
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh