The follow up restaurant is never fun. It’s the difficult second album. The time to make good on the unexpected success of your debut effort, and start navigating the treacherous waters of sophomore slumps and shitty sequels. As you try to build on the glory of your early triumphs you can only two ways – up or down. You end up with a Terminator 2 or a Jaws 2, a ‘Morning Glory’ or a ‘Second Coming’ (although, incidentally I’m part of the .01% of the population that prefers the latter to Stone Roses’ debut).
Heston Blumental’s first restaurant used to be the Best Restaurant In The Universe, until El Bulli and then Noma swiped his crown. The Fat Duck is still currently on the podium though, swinging the bronze. So to say expectations are high is to say Muburak is a little short on mates right now. Lesser chefs would be sitting back on the accolade and taking that title to their grave with gradually diminishing pride, rather than trying to live up to the legend.
Countless inches have been spent bigging up this new opening, and you probably already know about the jelly mould light fittings, the huge glass aperture that puts Heston’s – and co-chef Ashley Palmer-Watts’ – team on display, and the gigantic cogs that form part of a pulley system, modeled on a royal court, that turns pineapples on a spit roast. What you don’t get a sense of until you arrive, as we did on the second night, is the general friendly ambience of the place, the frisson of excitement that such a talked-about venture conjures, the little, less dramatic touches that they’ve put in place – the smart grey uniforms, the elegant decanters, the peach flowers.
Indeed if Heston is most known for his boffin buffoonery, his anal adjustments of temperature and pressure, his demented pursuit of scientific and gastronomic harmony, and grand gestures like the pineapple spit roast, it’s easy to overlook his love for simple things done well. Last time I saw him on TV he was turning a sea cucumber inside out and ingesting its rancid black blubber with childish glee. Last night, he served us steak and chips.
So roll up, roll up, for a surprisingly unsurprising Heston feast. There will be some history along the way.
We began with champagne, from a lengthy list in the waiter’s head (a friendly, funny, and passionate man from the Fat Duck). I think it dated back to sometime circa 2007, year of the credit crunch. We wanted cocktails but we were advised they came from the Mandarin Oriental’s bar, and would set our palettes off on the wrong foot. We thought it best to abdicate. After a long, long time looking through the menu, asking why there was only one vegetarian option and being told they can do most things meat-free, lactose-free, alcohol-free, whatever, we were off. As was the Turkey Pudding. Heston was on though, working the tables and schmoozing with the lucky few.
Rice and flesh (1390) was a favourite of Richard II. Well if it’s good enough for six hundred year old royalty, it’s good enough for us. It was a thick puddle of saffron risotto by any other name, harbouring five gnarled chunks of calf tail in red wine, a seriously sloppy joy that ought to be served in a hollowed out piece of wood on trestle tables, preferably by busty wenches. Skip to 1500, and Meat Fruit was a dinky, glistening mandarin tacky to the touch that collapsed with a gasp upon puncture to ooze liver parfait. Softer and wetter than any number of X-rated metaphors it was milky, silky and generally agreed to be the best starter. Accompanying bread glistened with olive oil. 1661, and when England should have been rethinking her health and safety strategy in London tinderbox town, she was instead lapping up savoury porridge, a bright green and somewhat snotlike gloop in Heston’s interpretation, dotted with cod cheeks, pickled beetroot, garlic and fennel. It was sublime.
Most dishes were derived from recipe books listed in our menu’s appendix, and came with a thorough description. Even the bread and butter got a shout out. “Brown bread, with pasteurised, unsalted butter”. Thanks for that. The final starter took us to 1820: roast scallops with cucumber ketchup and borage. They tasted of high tides and sea air and the famous ketchup was texturally impeccable.
For mains, something Samuel Johnson may have found of lip-smacking joy – spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes (1780, although the man who defined ‘oats’ as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, he may have preferred the porridge). Halfway between spanked botty and sunburnt pink, the pigeon was rosier than the forehead of a Costa del Street Crime urchin, sheathed in unctuous fat and covered in firm artichoke fronds and a punchy ale sauce. I suspect it’s been through a few moderations since its eighteenth century incarnation. Johnson in fact had a word for Heston’s tomfoolery: Kickshaw – a dish so changed by the cookery that it can scarcely be known.
The 1830s, decade of the (second) French Revolution, Oliver Twist, and the establishment of the Church Of Christ (Latter Day Saints) brought us roast turbot with cockle ketchup, which was slippery and smooth and tangled in chicory, and sirloin of black Angus (somewhat salty and a tad too chewy while still pink throughout, perhaps the least impressive dish of the night) with mushroom ketchup, red wine juice and the best triple cooked chips I’ve ever had (including Hawksmoor). A few decades on and Victorian speciality black foot pork chop with pointy cabbage and Robert sauce (1860) was a blackened chunk of perfection. We had a few sides (you needed them), of which the carrots were the best – the chefs have performed some kind of alchemy on these ordinary Chantenays, unlocking a flavour I never knew existed inside them, and also drenched them in fennel butter.
These hard acts to follow were perhaps trumped by the desserts though. Tipsy cake (1810) was warm and fluffy in its cast iron pot and while the spit roast pineapple didn’t really need to be hooked up to a giant contraption taste-wise, its crisp, charred tufts did look stunning. Brown bread ice cream meanwhile, inspired by Maria Eliza Rundell’s 1827 classic A New System Of Domestic Cookery (we all have that that on our kitchen shelves, right?), was a savoury, yeasty dollop perched atop a bed of sweet salted caramel crunch and criminally decadent. It went on. Chocolate bar (1730), a dark slab of orange-infused cocoa smeared on a pebbly crisp base, made us want to take the nearest Tardis to Samuel Richardson’s time and gorge ourselves to death on the stuff while 1630 brought baked lemon suet pudding, a sturdy pastry box entombing rich lemon curd-like caramel. All four went round the table in increasingly frantic circles, like a game of pass the parcel between demented children. Cheeses felt like an afterthought. They were OK, but unnecessary, and our waiter was much more keen to educate us in the numerous teas on offer, boiled at 100 degrees celcius precisely and accompanied by copious tasting notes. And just for the sheer hell of it, we were brought a small teacup of Earl Grey mixed with white chocolate and a cardamon biscuit.
We asked to see the chef, to offer our compliments. The waiter said he’d see what he could do. Heston never materialised, but then maybe that’s down to the huge windows between kitchen and diners – they work both ways, and we were somewhat lubricated with Rioja. Maybe he was tinkering with the clock mechanism. Maybe he was already at home, catching up on Rastamouse. Either way, we were out. It was gone midnight.
Come expecting the Fat Duck experience, and you’ll be disappointed. Come expecting edible wallpaper, and you’ll be disappointed. Come to be expertly fed by passionate people and educated about our dining heritage, and you’ll never want din dins at home again.
Price per head: £120 but we went hell for leather, on three bottles of fine wine, champagne, and speciality teas, and were there for an unrushed 4 1/2 hours.
Soundtrack: No clue
Clientele: Some very lucky foodies, and some important hotel guests (they’re blatantly holding some tables free for Mandarin Oriental customers – many spots were empty for hours.)
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