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Apr 19, 2014 07:26 PM

One tourist's impressions of Ledbury, Fat Duck, Hedone, Dinner by HB

We dined at four highly regarded London area restaurants earlier this week, visiting from the US mainly because we scored Fat Duck reservations back in February. We loved Ledbury, liked Hedone and Fat Duck (though not as much as anticipated) and had a rather disappointing meal at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

Here are some quick impressions of the meals and restaurants. I’m aware of the danger of reading too much into a single meal but FWIW here goes. I'll put the 'reviews' on separate pages to make commenting easier (I think).

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  1. Ledbury - We had the 7 course tasting menu priced at 110£, more like 12 courses if you add up the amuse-bouches and other extras.

    We loved the bold tastes with well-balanced flavors and textures. Good produce w/ white asparagus and artichokes, two good fresh mushroom dishes. Bacon/onion brioche was addictive, the best bread of the trip. Three protein courses -- grilled mackerel, sea bass, and Muntjac deer cooked three ways -- were all nicely done, more consistently excellent than at the other three restaurants.

    Very good wine pairings for 70 £, youngish wines but well-chosen to match the food. Friendly, polished service.

    We had a pleasant chat in the kitchen with Chef Graham afterwards, which was unexpected. A waiter had mentioned that Grant Achatz was dining at Ledbury in a few days and we mentioned we had been to Alinea four times, so I think this is why we got the offer.

    Chef pulled himself off the line for several minutes to talk about other restaurants and to discuss London dining. Passionate, articulate guy and I'm glad we got a chance to meet him.

    This was our best meal of the trip by far. A well-conceived menu skillfully executed at every step. Of the 15 Michelin starred USA restaurants we’ve visited the most similar in style is probably Manresa (Los Gatos), with the emphasis on seasonal ingredients and non-gimmicky style of cooking in a casually elegant setting. Per Se and French Laundry also have somewhat similar cuisines, though a bit more ‘formal French’ than Ledbury. I would rate our Ledbury meal slightly above the five meals we've had at those fine restaurants and among the best meals we’ve had anywhere.

    I'm a bit surprised Ledbury lacks the third Michelin star based on this single meal as we would rank it above most of the Michelin 3 stars we’ve dined at in France, Spain, England and the USA. I’m not at all surprised to see it ranked #9 on the "Elite Traveler Magazine Top 100" (2014) and # 13 on the Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine list of the world's best restaurants (2013).

    We are already planning another visit to London in the fall and a meal at Ledbury is a must.

    1. Fat Duck - very enjoyable meal and dining experience. Wildly creative dishes with excellent service. Perhaps the food was overshadowed by the circus on a couple of plates. Every foodie who appreciates MG and whimsy should try it at least once.

      We really liked dishes like ROAST FOIE GRAS and BOTRYTIS CINEREA but my wife and I disagreed amongst ourselves on the merits of classics like RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO (With Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream) and SNAIL PORRIDGE. Maybe we're not hip enough.

      Wildly expensive (195 £ per tasting menu plus another 60 £ for travel), and the 'bargain' wine pairing (7 pours) was 139 £ for mostly young, cheap wines, though they did pair well with the food. This pairing cost almost as much as the combined Ledbury & Hedone pairings of 14 mostly better wines. Enhanced wine pairings were available for, IIRC, 240 £ and 460 £ (Ouch !!).

      The duck dish was not cooked as well as we are used to seeing (perhaps too long in the sous vide and not enough of a sear at the end?), and the mackerel in "SOUND OF THE SEA" was not as flavorful as Ledbury's mackerel (actually we wouldn’t have known we were having mackerel, abalone and sea bass had the waiter not told us so after we ate them), so we have no second thoughts about ranking the Ledbury meal higher (at a bit more than half the price, with easier restaurant access and less hassle getting a reservation).

      Honestly I thought we’d like Fat Duck more than we did since our favorite restaurants include those with a molecular flair like Alinea and Azurmendi. Here the molecular gimmicks overshadowed the ingredients rather than enhancing them, I felt.

      1. Hedone - We had 7 course tasting menus with the enhanced wine pairings (75 £ + 79 £). Highlights included an exceptional lamb dish (‘my best lamb dish ever’, said my wife), very sweet, fresh scallops lightly cooked (you could skip this and knock off 10 £), a really fresh oyster, an excellent single spear of asparagus and a top-notch dessert.

        A squab dish I had in place of the lamb was a bit disappointing compared to the exceptional squab we've had at top restaurants in Spain, but in general this was a very enjoyable meal. These were the best wines we had this trip and well-chosen to match the dishes.

        We will likely return to Hedone on future visits to London, but although we enjoyed the meal I felt it didn’t quite live up to our high expectations based on Andy Hayler’s reviews (he has been there 50 times and rates it equal to Ledbury). One Michelin star feels about right.

        1 Reply
        1. re: willyum

          It's interesting to read your review as we ate at Hedone last night. Because of light traffic due to the holiday weekend, we arrived early for our reservation but were graciously allowed to start our meal.And how wonderful to park right outside Hedone's door!

          I have not yet eaten at the Ledbury so I can't compare, but I can't imagine a bread that tastes better than that of Hedone's. I've had bread in France many times, and this was superior to anything I've eaten before... of course it's a big world!

          I'm sorry we didn't skip the scallop. I do not like the taste of coral and had I known the foam was that, I'd have passed it by, plus I didn't think the scallop was cooked to perfection.

          The desserts are amazingly clever as are the canapes. I loved the lamb and the sourdough custard flan.

          The service is impeccable, and I so do appreciate that.

        2. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – we had two excellent dishes (Meat Fruit, Tipsy Cake), two good dishes (Turbot, Poached Rhubarb), and sadly two disappointing dishes (Rice & Flesh, a risotto with mediocre texture that was over-salted, and Hereford Ribeye, an OK cut of beef over-cooked to medium instead of medium rare).

          The mains lacked the complex combinations of flavors and multiple ingredients that were a highlight of the Ledbury dishes (the turbot came on a bed of seaweed, for example, and the steak with fries).

          I think we'll skip this one next trip. I can see the potential for excellence if there were more dishes like Tipsy Cake and Meat Fruit, but there are so many cooks, so many dishes and so many covers it's difficult to be consistently excellent. I read they employ 45 cooks, and even with just 3 courses there are 560 possible meal combinations. The dining hall seats more guests than Hedone, Ledbury and Fat Duck combined and they churn through several services daily seven days a week. This is often the sign of a Michelin one star because they can’t maintain the fine-dining consistency you expect at a two or three star restaurant.

          I’m surprised Michelin rates this a 2* restaurant and astonished that the Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine voters judged this the best restaurant in England and # 7 in the world in 2013. We’ve dined at 19 Michelin starred restaurants the past 18 months and this meal would rate at or near the bottom.

          3 Replies
          1. re: willyum

            "astonished that the Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine voters judged this the best restaurant in England and # 7 in the world in 2013."

            I think that the nature of the San Pellegrino voting system is always going to result in places like this hitting the top end of the list, at least in the first couple of years of their existance. You see dramatic appearances, followed by dramatic declines, in the listings, that will have absolutely nothing to do with a decline in standards.

            By the by, the San Pellegrino list "Dinner" as best in the whole of the UK, not just the English bit of the country.

            1. re: willyum

              I suspect it depends a lot on what your expectations with respect to fine dining are. I ate at Dinner and found it to be really quite superb. I'd put it as one of the best in the UK and well deserving of a 2-star Michelin rating.

              BUT, I'm more interested in really-high quality raw materials cooked well in simple, classic styles that don't overdo experimentalism than I am in creative cookery or the originality of the chef. And I'm indifferent to the effects of either atmosphere or service. For example if one were to use the Michelin system I think the Peter Luger steak house should *easily* get a 3-star rating; the steak here is clearly one of the finest in the world.

              Based on how you ordered at the restaurants and your comments on the experience, by contrast, I'm speculating that you probably value originality and conception of the dishes (and particularly complex, layered flavours) as much as their quality of preparation and also that atmosphere, service, and possibly the opportunity to interact with the chefs/owners have some impact on your overall impression. It can't be denied that Dinner has a much more impersonal, "corporate" feel to it in both atmosphere and service. They emphasise simpler flavour combinations I think quite deliberately - it's positioned at people perhaps like me for whom that's more of interest.

              1. re: willyum

                I have to say it was the other way round for me. Been to both Ledbury and Dinner and I thought Ledbury was overrated.

                But I went to Ledbury for the office Christmas dinner so maybe they were too busy during the period.

                I found Dinner was good, not the best but is a good restaurant to bring visitors because of the concept and menu.

                Having tried many of the best restaurants in London, strangely the one I like the best is actually The Square. So I think it really depends on finding a restaurant that suits your palate.

                Have not been to Hedone despite it being in our neighbourhood. Have to try harder to go there.

              2. Willyum - I would say these are very fair assessments and align with my views (although not been to Dinner).

                I like the Ledbury and Brett is a great guy (not certain we Australians are that comfortable calling people by the title Chef) and very talented. I rated Hedone slightly higher than the Ledbury but would probably put this down to the dishes on the day - and if I had a choice of going back to either of them it would take a toss of the coin to decide. Interesting call on the Ledbury bread - many now say Hedone's is the best in town and is used by other places.

                We had a magical meal at the Fat Duck but feel no need to return, it strikes me as a place to do at least once.

                I actually wonder if Heston has gone down a bit of a cul-de-sac with the Fat Duck and Dinner. His TV shows are getting more and more fantastical and his restaurants match this with the historical and whimsical things. Dinner doesn't appeal to me as it does seem aimed at the mass market. I wonder if The Fat Duck closure for a 6 month renovation will see Heston come back with a renewed and refreshed Duck....lets hope so.

                Very useful observations on the wine pairings and bills. we are very circumspect about going with pairings these days. One of the decision criteria is how much the pairing seems to gouge the diner. The better ones are always very modestly priced and generous, the worst are wildly expensive and usually measured out with infinite precision.

                I suspect Andy is now firmly a friend of the house so gets very individual treatment - it would be interesting to eat with him. He also lives around the corner so very much a local boy.

                5 Replies
                1. re: PhilD

                  I think dinner at the Ledbury was our best meal of 2012 and I'm sure we'll be back on some future visit to the capital. We went to the Fat Duck in 2010 for my 60th - fantastic meal; so glad we went; no real need to return - it's one of those places where you just know their iconic dishes are going to remain on the menu for years.

                  By the by, I think using the title of "Chef" , other than by restaurant employees, is very much an American thing. Certainly not used in the UK nor, as far as I'm aware, in other European countries. When I first heard it used by Americans I thought "how odd", it's the same usage as Doctor, Reverend or Colonel. Now I just accept that's how many of them do it there (it's a subject which crops up periodically on the "Not about Food" board and generates as much discussion amongst Americans as do tipping questions.

                  1. re: Harters

                    I thought it was the English way after all you have Postman Pat and Bob the Builder ;-)

                    Although it may be nice if we adopted Dylan Thomas' approach and added a persons profession to their names.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      Some interesting follow-up regarding Mugaritz was split over to the Spain board at:

                  2. re: PhilD

                    just a couple of observations:

                    "His TV shows are getting more and more fantastical "

                    really?! his latest is an hour's loving look at the river cafe.

                    "Dinner doesn't appeal to me as it does seem aimed at the mass market"

                    that explains a lot.

                    1. re: howler

                      Haven't seen his Heston's Italian Revolutionaries which is a celebration of British Italian food that featured the River Cafe. Although I understood it was a one off.

                      As I think you know I was referring to his recent series of programs: In Search of Perfection; Heston's Feasts; Heston's Great British Food; and, the most extreme the recent Heston's Fantastical Food. Hopefully the one off marks a change in direction.

                      Thank you for your enigmatic comment on my food preferences. To clarify, I like good food in all its guises and at all its price points. What I don't like is food that is clearly designed to appeal to the mass market, a market segment which is usually less discerning than me.

                      Alex's comment intrigues me - maybe I should try it - Heston may have a great restaurant that successfully appeals to the mass TV audience (I did like what he achieved with the Little Chef just off the M3) although there are quite a few other critical reviews out there.