Restaurant review: The Fat Duck, Bray
The Fat Duck is one of few restaurants which are recognised worldwide; one the world's best. I recently had the fortune to try it for myself. Here's what happened!
- One cold night in December...
- How do I go there?
- First impressions
- The grub
- The grub (summarised)
- The damage
- The verdict (need you ask)
One cold night in December...
Whenever one of us has a birthday my two housemates and myself make a beeline to a fantastic restaurant in London. For my birthday in 2009, I booked us into Marcus Waring at the Berkeley Hotel.
The whole experience was fantastic but it was a hollow victory; I booked it on the rebound, having failed to get a booking at the Fat Duck. For my 26th in December 2010, I vowed not to be beaten.
The Fat Duck is located in the affluent village of Bray, Berkshire. It is one of only four 3 Michelin Starred restaurants in the UK, alongside the Waterside Inn (also in Bray, coincidentally), Gordon Ramsay’s at Royal Hospital Road and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester Hotel, the latter two both being based in London. In my mind, what makes the Fat Duck special is Heston Blumenthal’s pursuit of “molecular gastronomy”, essentially studying the physical make up of food to extract the most flavour and texture possible, and uncovering new ingredient combinations along the way. The restaurant attracts a lot of hype, but it was voted the world’s best in 2005 and has never been lower than number three since.
How do I go there?
Getting a reservation was a nightmare. The Fat Duck accepts reservations no further than two calendar months in advance (i.e. I wanted a reservation for 8th December, so I started trying on 8th October). The restaurant now offers an online booking application but this frees up tables a week after they are available to be reserved over the phone. With tables going literally seconds after the hotlines open at 10am each day, with an estimated 30,000 booking enquiries every day, this makes attempting to book online a little redundant. After speed-dialling, re-dialling, empty dial tones and every other variation on the word “dial” you can think of, I finally got a dinner reservation a week after my actual birthday. It really is a case of getting on the phone at 10am sharp (even a few minutes before) and redialling until you are connected. The reservation process is efficient and a bit brash, as a woman who sounded like Hyacinth Bucket ordered me to hand over a credit card number to guarantee the reservation. Woe betide you if you cancel too late (what is defined as “late” varies depending on your party size), as Hyacinth stated that a fee of £150 per person will be charged. Anyway, table booked, me and my housemates counted down the two months day after day!
Despite it being in a little village, getting to the Fat Duck is relatively easy. It is a five minutes taxi ride from Maidenhead station (a main line). For us, this was a 45 minute trip door to door from Central London. There is no bar in the restaurant so we headed across the street to Heston’s pub, The Hind’s Head. Drinks here are cheap and I can safely say that it makes the best G&T I have ever had. The pub seems to be a destination for all Fat Duck patrons; there was a real buzz of excitement in the room and after talking to a few fellow drinkers it soon emerged that half the pub were heading to the Fat Duck. After a quarter hour or so we made a surprisingly apprehensive walk across the road to the unassuming cottage that houses the restaurant.
Heading through the front door, then a second door, leaves you standing in the middle of the restaurant, which I felt was a very unusual setup for such a “posh” restaurant. All the tables are largely bare save for a simple water glass, a folded napkin and a red flower. No candles, no decorations, nothing else. The decor is plain, the room has white walls, low oak beams and a beige carpet which matches the leather chairs. So far there is nothing to suggest a single Michelin star. Shock horror, we even have to open our own napkins!
We started with champagne off the trolley (it does feel that you are forced upon making this choice), however we opted for three glasses of a 1999 William Deutz rose at £26.00 each. You are given the menu (a 14 courses tasting menu is the best – and only – choice) to review and then the wine menu. I find that as I am pig ignorant about wine, the best thing to do in places with sommeliers is to give them a budget for the meal and get them to sort you out. We put together a £300 wine budget and sent the sniggering bloke on his way.
Bottled water is relatively cheap for such a high end restaurant (we got through four bottles at £3.50 each). Our friendly sommelier explained his choices before we got on with the food. He gave us a wonderfully dry white called 'Chassagne Montrachet' which took us up to the main courses and then a deep Merlot-y (!) red called 'Mouchão 2003' – a rare red apparently – which we were drinking up to the desserts, at which point we moved on to a dark, chocolately dessert wine called 'Passito di Pantelleria'. The pairings were sublime and we came in just under budget. In hindsight, I will say that wine is not that important at the Fat Duck; the food is so varied, water is really the best way to go. Also, I wouldn’t recommend being smashed and eating fois gras, it’s not a good look.
FYI: I would recommend skipping this part if you are planning to go; it contains, um, “spoilers”
So far the experience at the Fat Duck had been almost underwhelming. It is clear to see that the restaurant is a good one; the waiters and sommeliers are relaxed and having a laugh with us (“I’m sorry sir there are no toilets here, didn’t they tell you when you made the reservation?”), the atmosphere is very informal as it is clear that the other diners are first-and-only-timers much like us) and the details such as ironed tablecloth, and quiet efficiency of work and order hint at the quality that is to come. The waiter takes our food menu and replaces it with an envelope sealed with black wax and stamped with the Fat Duck logo. Although it most probably contains a copy of the menu I still haven’t opened mine.
The first course is the nitro-poached aperitif; we are offered a choice of Vodka and Lime sour, G&T or Campari Soda. A gel of our chosen aperitif is dropped into nitrous oxide and “cooked” for a few seconds by the headwaiter. She drops it onto a plate and tells you to eat it in one go. As we do so, she sprays a scent of the aperitif above you. As I eat my G&T first, my roomies fall about laughing as two dragon-like smoke trails are blown out of my nostrils. It happens to all of us and it makes the first course which is a palate-cleanser, both ridiculously refreshing and bloody hilarious.
The second course is a red cabbage gazpacho and mustard ice cream. It is almost spicy and yet the coolness of the soup and ice cream is unforgettable. As soon as we figure out what the fudge is going on in our mouths we run out and are whisked onto course three.
We are given one of those wafer thin paper mints and told to eat it immediately. The taste is pungent and earthy, like truffle. A quail jelly, chicken liver parfait and a truffle wafer is brought out. Then the waiter plonks a wooden board full of moss in the centre of the table and tells us to prepare for our starter in the forest. As soon as he pours more nitro onto the moss, the air is filled with the unmistakable scent of wood, dew and grass and we are told to eat. This starter is very rich, and takes hold of all the senses. After the two first courses, it is nice to get some meat!
Blumenthal’s signature snail porridge (pictured) is next. I was very wary of trying this but it is to die for. Succulently rich and creamy thanks to Iberican cured ham, it is really moreish and even though I distinctly felt the bumpy flesh of the snail in my mouth, I craved more (although maybe it was the thrill of the first hot course clouding my senses).
The arrival of a knife which more closely resembles a scalpel precedes the arrival of dish number five, and the penultimate starter: roast fois gras. Served with Konbu seaweed and crab, it is substantial, rich and tender and blows all other fois gras I have tried into the water.
Number six was one I was waiting for as it was on telly in 2009. Enter the Mock Turtle Soup with Mad Hatter tea. We are presented with a card explaining the story of turtle soup, as well as the back story behind Alice in Wonderland. The nitro-loving headwaiter returns with three bowls of calf meat and a marrow jelly with mushrooms, onions and carrots. She sets down a teacup with hot water for each of us and tells us about how the Mad Hatter dipped his pocketwatch in his tea and asked us to do the same. She gave us a gold covered watch and asked us to stir it into the water. It transformed into a mushroom stock with gold leaf, which was then poured onto the calf meat. Our very own Mock Turtle Soup! We were overwhelmed; the whole experience was bonkers and the end result was delicious. By now, half the fun was looking around the small restaurant and seeing the other diners’ faces as they progressed on the same journey.
The bonkers theme continued into the first fish course; Sound of the Sea. We are each given a conch shell with earphones sticking out of it (pictured). The actual food is eventually brought out; a cold dish of fish, crushed eel ‘sand’, seaweed and fish-flavoured foam served on a glass plate, expertly crafted to resemble a beach. We ate it, an listened to crashing waves and crowing seagulls as we did. This “sound course”, as Blumenthal calls it, was designed on the back of the self-taught chef listening to the sounds of different crisps crunching in his mouth. This was actually the first dish I didn’t fully enjoy, as I found the fish to be very chewy and too salty for my liking. The overall effect and experience actually added to the meal as it bizarrely felt as if I was eating at the beach.
Course number eight was the stinker of the evening for me: salmon poached in liquorice. The salmon was served cold and came with trout roe; a not too distant relative of caviar, which I utterly despise. The flavours were all over the place and I couldn’t connect with it at all. Still, in the words of Alan Partridge, “May as well eat it”.
Main course time with course number nine! The scalpel returned, this time with venison and risotto. This was my star of the evening, an uber-tender saddle of game (pictured) and a risotto of spelt and umbles so soft and delightful I could have gone to bed in a bathful of it. A palate-cleanser followed which was hot and iced tea; a single shot of tea-flavoured liquid which was smoking hot yet iced cold in your mouth all at once. We all looked at each other with looks of utter horror and confusion, and then burst out laughing all at once. On the table next to us, a couple were doing the same thing.
The first dessert was a 17th Century recipe called Taffety Tart; a rose, fennel and caramel millefeuille-style dish. Not my favourite as I found it to be more bitter than sweet, but if anyone can explain to me how the sorbet never melted a single bit then I would like to hear it. The waiter refused to tell me...
Number 12 was the “BFG”, Heston’s own Black Forest Gateau, a towering chunk of sweetness which was accompanied by yet more unmeltable ice cream and a waiter spraying a cologne of BFG scent over our table. Cue more smiles and bemusement! Afterwards, we had an optional cheese course, carved and explained very well. However, the Duck doesn’t really do accompaniments like fruit and quince and so I found this to be a bit lacking and dry.
The last two courses came at once and accompanied coffee (or in my housemate’s case, a pot of rare Chinese yellow tea which cost £16). The whiskey wine gums (pictured) were presented stuck to a picture frame depicting a map of Scotland, and were arranged according to the distillery they came from. They were less like wine gums, and more like slightly solid shots of scotch. I was actually drunker for eating them. The last course was a homage to childhood: “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop” (menu card pictured). We were each given a pick ‘n’ mix bag with a selection of treats inside, including toffee with edible wrapper, coconut “tobacco” and an edible Queen of Hearts card in an envelope with edible wax seal. Mine also had a birthday card signed by Mr. Blumenthal himself.
We were sat down at 7.30pm. By the time we asked for the bill, it was 12.30am.
The grub (summarised)
In short, the food was remarkable. Sure, there were courses that I liked more than others but I challenge anyone to eat all 14 and love them all. Heston plays with you, and part of the fun is seeing what comes next. All the courses are small, but we left feeling gluttonously full. The flavours are wonderful and whereas some combos are quite abstract, everything works in its own way. I can, for instance, understand why some people would die for the salmon.
The service and atmosphere was second only to the food. The Fat Duck is small; when full it holds only 35 diners (to 45 chefs) but the room is lively and full of like-minded foodies being entertained, laughing, taking pictures (you are encouraged to do so by the waiters) and as for the floor staff, they made us feel so relaxed and valued it was like a total breath of fresh air compared to other Michelin starred restaurants I have visited.
The Fat Duck is not cheap and it certainly is something for a special occasion: our itemised bill included the wine, water, cheese, coffee, bubbly, 12.5% service charge and three tasting menus at £160 each. All in, for three people, it came to a shade under £1000. Was it worth it? Yes.
The verdict (need you ask)
The Fat Duck is incredible and is a totally deserving best restaurant in the world. The food is the real star and I think things like decor and pizzazz are tossed aside to focus the diner on the theatre, wonder, flavours and flawlessness of the 14 courses. The service contrasted to my expectations; it was relaxed and even funny, however some people will not appreciate being told how to eat before every course. There is only ever one sitting so you are not rushed. I recruit for a five star hotel and look for attention to detail; the Fat Duck oozes with detail; I am left handed and eat with my knife and fork the other way round; after the first course they noticed, and from then on, laid cutlery the other way round. Speechless!
Would I go again? Here is the thing; probably not. The Fat Duck is so special, so expensive and so different (less of a restaurant than a cooking lesson) that I personally feel that once is enough.
Would I recommend it? Yes. Next question. Just get near a phone and get in line with the other 30,000 hopefuls.
The full Fat Duck menu can be found here: