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Jan 29, 2007 07:05 AM

Fat Duck - anyone been?

Hi, I am thinking about splashing out for my husband's birthday and trying to get a table at the Fat Duck in Bray. The reason being that he has loved Heston's TV series and really likes the whole science/cookery thing. It really would be quite a big deal as we'd have to travel down from North East England and probably make an (expensive) weekend of it. We both like our food but have never really gone for the fashionable eatery scene. In fact I don't think we've ever eaten at a 1 Michelin star restaurant, let alone a 3 star...Do you think it would be worth it? Is it really that good?
I would appreciate any feedback, thanks.

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  1. I have not been for a few years but the other Hermano went in summer and enjoyed


    1. Yes. It's an absolutely magical experience. It's great on a simple food/restaurant service level but goes way beyond that. If you've never been to a starred restaurant before, don't walk away thinking they'll all be like this. It will be a treat that you'll remember for the rest of your life. Do be aware though that there is a risk in this that you just won't like the experience or the food . . . I do think that's highly highly unlikely though. I went the year before it got its third star and I can remember the tastes and experiences vividly . . . and the meal's still providing plenty of stories. I would tell you about some of the dishes but it would be better for you if they surprise you. Go.

      1. It's the worst fine dining experience I've had in a group that includes The French Laundry, El Bulli, Per Se, Pierre Gagnaire, Jean-Georges, Gordon Ramsey at the London, WD-50, etc. Interesting food, but it just did NOT taste good. And the service wasn't that great. I'd spend my money somewhere else, if I were you.

        1. I wouldn't say the FD was in any sense bad, just massively disappointing. Heston is a nice guy, and I think people tend to believe his hype because of this. As a bit of a cynic (and a real scientist by day) I just couldn't accept the validity of all the half-cocked theorem being chucked around, and so was unable to suspend disbelief.

          Interesting, but nowhere near as good as some people claim.

          20 Replies
          1. re: Milo

            Could you give examples of some his untrue claims? He doesn't claim to formulate new theories himself . . . he just listens to what scientists say.

            1. re: Howard V

              I'm not quite sure that's true, Howard. On his recent TV series, the recipes were things Heston developed by experimenting and formulating on his own as shown in the test kitchen. I can't imagine anyone would take the time to cook a chicken the way he did.

              1. re: Howard V

                I'm not saying things are 'untrue', but rather that many of the ideas are ill-reasoned. For example Heston claims that many of his methods are superior, but he fails to state by what criteria. I think we can infer that the criteria he uses are his own subjective preferences, which is what every chef does anyway. No matter how much science is involved, it is unscientific to claim that this in itself improves something unless some criteria is commonly agreed upon.

                The fact that very many people walk out of the Fat Duck not agreeing that they have just eaten the best meal of their lives demonstrates, at least, that Heston is not able to manipulate the physiology of taste to the extent some people claim.

                My own take is that the FD is good, but not that good, others may think differently, which is fine by me.

                1. re: Milo

                  I was just equating your 'not accepting validity' with thinking that his ideas were untrue. I completely accept that you can't arrive at an objectively 'better' conclusion using scientific method. On the other hand, if you decide that 'juiciness' is important in something, you could decide on criteria for deciding it and then use experimental technique and also background knowledge about the way some cooking process works to achieve that. This is the case with sous-vide cooking of meat and his demonstration of why traditional 'sealing the meat' methods are doing something different than they claim to. Of course, you're still free to say that you prefer the taste of the meat cooked in the trad. way.

                  1. re: Howard V

                    The more technology that exists to help the cook achieve his or her vision then the more potential exists for better food.

                    However, making technology an end in itself is not a substitute for vision.

                    Beyond the techie theatre, then I don't see that HB has made any significant contribution to cooking, apart from raising public awareness of the likes of Harold Magee, and Herve This. I don't believe that HB has much in the way of vision. Most of his use of technology seems to me to be gratuitous, although more generous clients such as yourself call it theatre.

                    1. re: Milo

                      Are you saying there's nothing theatrical about using liquid nitrogen tableside?

                      I agree that he took his inspiration from Mcgee and This, but I don't think this was ever about originality . . . in fact further up this thread I said that Blumenthal 'just listens to what the scientists say'. Of course, you can't visit Harold McGee's restaurant anyway.

                      Having just had lunch at the Fat Duck on Thursday, i can say that as well as being interesting, the food is delicious as well.

                      I don't get where all the hate comes from.

                      1. re: Howard V

                        What 'hate'?

                        I think HB is showman rather than a great chef. I think HB uses uses science as a rationale for adolescent silliness. I think HB's client base is predominately ignorant about cooking. I think he does his job well, but as I say, his job is that of an entertainer.

                        I don't hate anyone, but I'm certainly not going to praise HB just to keep on your good side, so please, in future, keep your psychoanalysis to yourself, okay?.

                        1. re: Milo

                          OK . . . scrub the word 'hate'. And I'd never stoop to psychoanalysis as that's more pseudo-scientific than anything Blumenthal does ;-)

                          Where's your evidence for the supposed ignorance of his client base and what's the relevance? If it's about people being easily impressed . . . well, there are good reports from critics, food professionals and groups of food enthusiasts who go to the Fat Duck too.

                          1. re: Howard V

                            HB pitches his menu to thirty-somethings just starting to have the cash to spend on eating out. He's popular with them because he shares the same values as they do; a fetish for technology, informality and no sense of history.

                            HB likes to present his food as 'challenging', and diners feel sophisticated about appreciating something challenging, but in reality it's quite the opposite; it's extremely easy and safe. Easy, because everything is done for the diner, the tasting menu, the wine choices, the menu rubric and the wait-staff who tell you how to eat the stuff. Safe, because the 'scientific' approach provides an iron clad guarantee against insecurity --

                            "Snail porridge, isn't that just pretentious twaddle?"
                            "No, it's scientifically proven: (goes on to repeat some HB non sequitur)"

                            The day I hear a chef that I respect praising the Fat Duck, I 'might' consider reevaluating my position, but in the meantime the opinions of all the food groupies, bloggers, and recently solvent IT professionals in the world count for very little or nothing.

                            1. re: Milo

                              You probably aren't listening out for many chefs then . . . I do believe he's quite highly respected among his peers. OK, forget us amateurs, what about all the critics who like him?

                              As for the guidance on some dishes, some require this - if one dish presents a perceptual disorientation demonstration, this might be dependent on the order you eat things. One dish I had in 2003 involved caviar on top of a white chocolate button, if we hadn't been instructed to let the white button dissolve on our tongues we would have missed the point of the dish (and a fantastic sensory experience).

                              I don't have a particular fetish for technology in food, my favourite restaurant at the moment is Magdalen, which is a quite trad. affair. The modernist chefs have their place though and they are doing us a service in pushing boundaries.

                              As for pitching to thirty-somethings, I suspect the diners at lunch there last week were a bit more varied.

                              So our opinions 'count for very little or nothing'. Because we're not chefs? I'm sure everyone on this messageboard will be very glad to hear you hold them in such esteem.

                              I had the snail porridge last week and porridge is just a description of its consistency - thicker than a sauce, with bits in it. the dish itself is actually quite conventional in its taste, but very nice to eat.

                              I don't think anyone's claiming you can 'prove' snail porridge, whatever that might mean. Why do you think snail porridge is 'scientific twaddle'?

                              1. re: Howard V

                                I'm not challenging the genuineness of your, or anyone else's, enjoyment of the Fat Duck. I've enjoyed it myself. The problem is with the degree of importance that it's given.

                                It's post-modern in the most hackneyed sense, it's what Andy Warhol would have cooked, but forty years too late to be innovative.

                                Now I'm not really worried if I'm in a minority, since I'm not insecure about my food knowledge. I've eaten around a lot both pre and post HB, and for this reason I see him as part of a continuum rather than as a new dawn for gastronomy. In fact, I see HB as the first chef to create dishes for their marketable potential rather than than their eatable potential.

                                Why do you think that new dishes like 'seaside', and, formerly, 'snail porridge', 'egg & bacon ice cream' etc. get instantly written up in the international press? The fact that this doesn't happen with any other chef suggests that these dishes have been conceived as PR not as food, and indeed, HB's PR sends out a press release and the papers have their story.

                                This isn't cooking, and I don't see how it can be good for cooking. It's self-promotion, and whilst I respect the fact some people enjoy buying in to the HB's celebrity by splashing out on a meal at the FD, I reserve the right to raise the question of HB's gastronomic integrity. I may be wrong of course, but I'm yet to be convinced otherwise.

                                1. re: Milo

                                  Well I think HB's much less of a self-publicist than, for instance, Ramsay. He stayed off telly for years and the restaurant's only recently become profitable. There's depth to HB too if you read, for instance, 'Family Food'. His other outlet, the Hind's Head, is basically serving pub food, but also gets full bookings and good reviews - nothing there's created for PR reasons is it?

                                  So . . . who was cooking this stuff forty years ago? Perhaps I'm missing a bit of history here?

                                  Andy Warhol isn't post-modern is he? The term appeared later than his productive period. You have pointed to an important non-technological facet of Blumenthal's cuisine though - the search for an expression of nostalgia.

                                  I think the dishes probably do generate press interest, but that doesn't necessarily mean the dishes are unworthy or not tasty in themselves does it? Are you suggesting that if snail porridge appeared as 'snails in sauce' or something that'd make it ok? I've had very similar dishes to that in many restaurants in France . . . it only sounds whacky to English ears.

                                  Do you have a similar problem with other similarly technological chefs? e.g. Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire? At least HB isn't appearing on the side of packs of crisps yet, like one of those.

                                  Also, it's hard to see how HB could adequately demonstrate his 'gastronomic credibility' to you? By reverting the Fat Duck to a coq au vin shop?

                                  1. re: Howard V

                                    Alright Howard, in a nutshell, I am of the opinion that the FD is disproportionately about marketing, and I think that this marketing makes it very difficult to step back and understand why a significant number of people, including food professionals and critics, are not impressed by the food. I like to think, though, that I am at least having a stab at this, perhaps clumsily. I realize that you are a fan, but question is not why you like it, but why many other people don't like it. As I mentioned up-thread, either the science has improved HB's manipulation of the physiology of taste and this is reflected in a near universal positive consensus, which is not the case. Or the 'science' is part of creating positive anticipation/experience in suggestible individuals, which is marketing.

                                    I do not want to conflate HB's undeniable success with his place in the gastronomic canon.

                                    1. re: Howard V

                                      No sense of history?????.Many of the dishes are rooted in dishes which go back more than 100 years. Don't ignore what's on the menu-Best end of Lamb, Sole Veronique, Ballotine of Foie Gras,Tarte Tatin.Even the versions of savoury ice-creams could be said to be based on early Italian recipes.Crab Biscuit with Foie Gras, how many decades since this sort of combination was served on the Atlantic coast of France. Attack Heston for a variety of reasons but lacking a sense of history is missing the point.

                                      1. re: nimzo

                                        Regarding a sense of history, I know all about Mrs Marshall etc. It's not this I'm getting at. Rather, when you start bandying around the term 'perfection', you imply imperfection in everything that's gone before. It's like saying that now we have synthesizers music is better than ever.

                                        1. re: Milo

                                          Have you read what he's got to say on this subject and why he used the word in his latest book?

                                          1. re: Howard V

                                            I certainly have, and it makes me wonder if he didn't mean 'perfection' why he still chose to use the term.

                                            1. re: Milo

                                              Have you read it? Really? In pages 8-12 of 'In Search of Perfection' he acknowledges that perfection is subjective, he says that for most people perfection is found in humble dishes rather than rather than 'fancy restaurant food' and that his *search* for perfection is to do with seeking the best artisanal products and experimenting to make dishes better. What on earth is wrong with any of that?

                                              We've all had the 'imagine your perfect meal' and 'imagine your perfect version of a particular meal' conversations haven't we? It was just a book and series based on those . . .

                                              1. re: Howard V

                                                "Redefining Perfection
                                                Blumenthal knows that messing with the word perfection is tricky, and he doesn’t take a universalist’s view with his recipes—they are perfect only insofar as he has customized them to his own ideals. In fact, he suggests that his concept of perfection is rather more akin to a very refined version of novelty..."

                                                This extract is from these boards. If when HB uses the term 'perfection', what he means is novelty refined according to subjective criteria, then it raises the question, why use the term 'perfection' if by his own admission there's really nothing perfect about it at all?

                                                Anyway, I'm going to give this dialogue a rest now, I feel I'm getting about as far as if I had slagged off Robbie Williams on a Robbie Williams fan board.

                                                1. re: Milo

                                                  Well, yet again, you haven't responded to my last post, i.e. what's wrong with his aims or methods. But that's not altogether surprising . . . throughout this entire dialogue you shifted to a new criticism whenever I questioned your last one, from allegations of inappropriate and incorrect use of science and technology, to questioning the use of theatricality in cuisine. You then moved to an ad hominem attack on the validity of my opinions and then got a bee in your bonnet about marketing. Given the temporary and flimsy nature of your arguments and their essentially adolescent nature ("Why?") perhaps you would be happier over at the Robbie board. Actually I do think that discussions can change viewpoints . . . I wouldn't bother otherwise and I wasn't so much interested in defending HB as finding the source of your dislike . . still not sure really.

              2. I have been there several times and love the restaurant. Was it the best meal of my life, no. Is it a place I would go back to regularly, no. Its a fun, different take on dinner where food is not taken too seriously.

                When I was there there was a couple that left after 5 minutes of reading the menu as they couldnt find anything they liked. Thats OK, its not for everyone. If its a romantic meal you are after go next door to The Waterside Inn or take a room at La Manoir Aux Quatre Saison. If you are a CH that wants something other than a "traditional" dining experience, then The Fat Duck is a good place to go. Or you could really splash out and go to El Bulli.........