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[Bray, U.K.] The Fat Duck (2008)

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Here's an excerpt from my blogpost about a recent meal at The Fat Duck. You can read the entire review (and see the pictures) at the ulterior epicure (http://ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com/...).

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...Of all of the m.g. restaurants I’ve visited, The Fat Duck has been the most successful at hitting the sweet spot where the brain is connected to the stomach. Through subtle clues and queues, it did a better job of eliciting a dialogue between the food and me than its peers. There’s a process of discovery at the table and afterward. One’s curiosity is not beyond scratching.

Given my relatively low expectations, the food at The Fat Duck impressed me. Most of it was interesting and quite tasty. Where gimmickry and theatrics were employed, they had a demonstrable purpose and directly contributed to creating the food. Sure, parts of it did seem like the circus, but in those moments, The Fat Duck made me feel more like a kid wanting to be a kid rather than an adult being humored.

I found the dichotomy in Blumenthal’s tasting menu most compelling. Dishes generally fell along two paradigms. On one side, there were the classics - nostalgic forays into tradition cast in a new light: “Snail Porridge,” “Roast Pigeon of Anjou with Black Pudding,” and “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornets.” For me, these were the more gustatorily gratifying dishes. Was it because these were more familiar? Or, was it because there were just tastier?

On the other side were the experimental dishes that, for me, were driven by multisensory experiences: the “Nitro Green Tea and Lime Mousse,” “Oak Moss,” and “Sounds of the Sea.” For me, these caused more intellectual stimulation than palate pleasure (though this isn’t true for the “Nitr0 Greet Tea and Lime Mousse”). Again - is this because these dishes were less familiar to me? Or, were they just less tasty?

Some, like the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” and “Hot and Iced Tea” straddled the divide, combining tradition with a multisensory experience. When it came to taste alone, I loved the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” but wasn’t particularly wild about the “Hot and Iced Tea.” But, I found the “Hot and Iced Tea” much more fascinating than the “Nitro-Scrambled Eggs” because I was unfamiliar with the technique. So too, the discovery of Benzaldehyde in a collection of ingredients was exciting.

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule here - it’s like the nature versus nurture debate.

Did The Fat Duck convert me to being a proponent of molecular gastronomy? Certainly not. But it did stir my gray matter. And, as stated at the beginning of this novel, the fact that I walked away with a new perspective on food was a reward worth the wait.

The 16th century stone building the restaurant resides in is a forgotten pub. What I assume to be the original wooden beams are exposed on the inside, giving the interior a lovely off-kilter look. The effect reminded me of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles.” Unframed canvas panels vibrantly aglow with yellows and shades of periwinkle lined the space, fitting perfectly into the peculiar shapes framed by the wooden beams.

Though quite lovely, I did not find the restaurant particularly warm or cozy. And this was surprising given its smallness and character.

Perhaps it was the staff?

As stated above, the service dampened the occasion and experience. In fact, at times, it was downright nippy. The reception was frosty, the middle sagged, and we oft felt like the forgotten table. Maybe this is a style the British prefer? After all, they seemed quite well-received by the annual Front of the House Awards.

I noticed that the front of the house was extremely international. When I asked one of our servers, he confirmed this and rattled off no less than ten (European) countries represented, including Germany, Poland, Spain, and France. But I suppose this is the diversity that Michelin 3-star restaurants attract.

Would I go back to The Fat Duck? I suppose. Though the menu seems a bit stale, there are enough a la carte items to warrant a return. But I’m not going to be the one getting up a 4 a.m. to dial for reservations next time.

I’d rather devote my energy to gaining that elusive ticket to the fountainhead, el bulli.

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  1. I am assuming you are an American , like me - maybe it's the way you've spelled cozy and humored. I'm a bit surprised that you found it unusual that the front of house was 'extremely international.'

    It seems to me that almost every restaurant, even here where I live in the suburbs, has a staff out of central casting. In fact, I am having difficulty trying to remember the last time I was brought my food from a person born in this country. It has nothing to do with a Michelin starred restaurant attracting such staff.

    I don't think you're correct in assuming the British prefer frosty service. I'm surprised to hear you found that at The Fat Duck. Maybe they thought you were a tourist, never to return again?

    2 Replies
    1. re: zuriga1

      1. Yes, I am an American.

      2. I think that largely depends on where you live. If you, like me, live in Kansas City, Missouri, you're probably not used to seeing a lot of foreigners at all, let alone in restaurants. Still, notwithstanding the location, I've rarely seen such a diverse FOH staff - almost every person at The Fat Duck in service was from a different country. French and British servers I'm used to seeing, of course.

      3. My comment about the Brits preferring frosty service was made tongue-in-cheek.

      4. Should good service depend on whether the client is likely to return? Why should that matter? By giving bad service, you're almost ensuring that the customer will never return. Of course, given the popularity of The Fat Duck, they probably won't have any problem filling their seats for the foreseeable future.

      1. re: ulterior epicure

        The diverse staffs in the UK have resulted from so many countries being in the EU. It surprised me when I moved here five years ago, and I wonder now how the economy will affect those who want to move to the UK.

        My remark about service to tourists was rather tongue-in-cheek, too. Service should always be spot on, regardless of where one eats.

        We've eaten several times at Blumenthal's pub next to The Fat Duck. I give him lots of credit for the culinary work he's produced.

    2. I agree that the staff could be more personable. I have been to the Fat Duck four times, and really that was three times too many. It has become a "theme park" for tourists and those that believe the hype around the Restaurant magazine list and gimmicky dishes. Thus it attracts posers who go for the name rather than the food, and the staff's attitude has changed accordingly. After all, few people go back to the Fat Duck.... Why, you may ask?

      The menu has not changed (significantly) in five years. Now, I know of no other top restaurant in the world that never changes its menu and has NO seasonal adjustments. Why Heston is still considered to be creative is beyond me (and keeps his 3 stars) when he is clearly not trying to attract regular customers.

      18 Replies
      1. re: jrrugby

        You bring up an interesting point. When Heston did his TV programme a few years ago, they made it out that this kitchen was all about science and inventing new dishes. It sounds as if they got lazy, were making enough money and why bother staying creative - especially if diners don't return.

        I do like his pub next door but even that let us down on our last visit.

        1. re: zuriga1

          Yes, even The Hinds Head ignores seasonal ingredients - and I had a very disappointing meal there last summer.

          However there are some great restaurants in the UK - try the Vineyard in Newbury - its worth going to, although the wines are rather over priced.

          1. re: jrrugby

            The Vineyard looks lovely.....and pricey! It's not that far from where we live so I'll keep it on my list. I've just had surgery and deserve a good treat!!

            1. re: zuriga1

              Yes, its a place for a special occasion - also worth trying if you haven't already is The Kingham Plough in Gloucester and The Nut Tree in Murcot - near Oxford. Both gastro pubs with a bit of an edge.

              1. re: jrrugby

                I'll save the names... thanks. We tend to roam around in the good weather. My husband grew up near Oxford so we like to go back that way a bit.

                To return the favour, I'm not sure where you're located, but one of the best restaurants in Surrey is The French Table in Surbiton. I now have to book about 2 months in advance!

                1. re: zuriga1

                  Thanks for the tip - next time I'm around Surbiton I'll look it up. I'm Oxfordshire based BTW but work in London - best of both worlds!

                2. re: jrrugby

                  I know he Nut Tree just got a Michelin star and The Kingham Plough got a bib, but Kingham is 60 miles (90 mins) from Bray and Murcott is 40 miles (an hour). You might as well pop into London.

                  1. re: PhilD

                    It's cheaper to drive to Kingham or Murcott than for us to take the train to London. :-) Plus, the scenery is nice and a welcome change.

                    1. re: zuriga1

                      ....but it would be frustrating for someone who couldn't get into The Hinds Head and thought they would pop around the corner to The Plough.

                      1. re: PhilD

                        That's a good point.

                        1. re: zuriga1

                          random question: how long is service at the fat duck if you were doing the tasting menu vs a la carte? im trying to help my sister book a table when she's here on vacation with her husband. she wants to eat there on saturday night when dinner service starts (7pm) but she also wants a night out in london when they get back. i personally think these timelines are really tight. plus, they land saturday morning.

                          1. re: felizglfr

                            even if they push it through, its still fifteen minutes to the station and 55 back into London

                            1. re: felizglfr

                              You really don't want to rush a £122+ meal ... nor do you want to be there at 7 when it is relativly empty - it starts getting buzzy (well, for the Fat Duck that is) around 8.30/9 pm

                              I would say 2.5/3 hrs for the a la carte; 4 hrs for the tasting..

                              1. re: jrrugby

                                Agreed - our tasting ran just a touch over 4 hours, though the staff was a bit absent at parts. I'm sure you could make it out under 4 without much rush if you told them you had a deadline.

                                1. re: ulterior epicure

                                  Thanks for the info. I'll be relaying this over to my sis. She really wants to eat there though but I fear she'll be sleeping by the time her first course gets to the table! I suggested Ramsey's HRH. for her as well as Marcus Waring. She's staying over by Sloane Square so I thought those were better options. Thoughts?

                                  1. re: felizglfr

                                    I was very unexcited by both RHR and Wareing.

                                    www.foodsnobblog.wordpress,com

                                    1. re: food.snob

                                      That's depressing to hear. I guess my search continues.

                          2. re: PhilD

                            Apologies, didn't mean to alude that the Kingham Plough is anywhere near Bray - I was referring actually to Newbury!