The telephone calls to confirm, the seven-minute video, the greeting at the entrance – “Are you excited?” And then the long walk down a dark corridor with a view of the kitchen and a little doorway at the end – oh yes, I forgot, the theme is Alice in Wonderland.
I am watchful.
Well, I think, maybe it’s not about the food. The Fat Duck is marketing, Heston Blumenthal is super-celebrity chef, this is all a grand entertainment. Not really about the food.
The restaurant, all purple and grey and white tablecloths on widely spaced tables, is traditional grand restaurant. Comforting textures, luxurious looking fabrics and colours, and a splendid view of the cityscape, so there’s a lot of light. We’re at a table for four, and nearby is a long table, the folds of the cloth draped like a Renaissance painting. At one end there’s a tray with cognac, Armagnac and other spirits. There’s a big ice bucket for champagne. Closest to me is a tray with bottles of whisky. Eighteen bottles, I count, including an Irish whiskey.
In turn, slender women in red, and thin men in suits move towards us as if choreographed. We’re asked the usual up-sell question: “Sparkling mineral water or still?” I’m interested in what’s going on, but still not impressed. We are given a few minutes, presumably to adjust to our surroundings and prepare for the excitement ahead. We’re asked if we would like to start with champagne or look at the wine list to make our choice.
The wine list is housed in a volume as big as an old-fashioned encyclopaedia. A senior person explains how it is all set out. Sounds like Wine List 101. But it’s a very good list: easy to read, wide range of wine styles and prices, enough Australian wines to please me. (We start with a Jim Barry 2009 Florita riesling.) So far, so good.
I have reservations about multi-course degustation meals. These are the things I don’t like: conversation being interrupted at every dish so that the chef’s brilliance can be explained. Dishes so highly worked that the flavours are tiring, not satisfying. Too much food served over too long. (There was one dinner that lasted for nearly six hours: I don’t sit in one spot for that long unless I’m flying to Singapore or beyond.) Bossy sommeliers matching food with wines that are trendy rather than good. Most of all, I don’t like the feeling that I am the audience, not the guest. Been there, done all that, and I’m wary of it.
The first dish is set before us. A small macaroon-like object on a very beautiful plate. Am I the audience? Dehydrated beetroot with horseradish cream. Eat it in a single mouthful, we are advised. Oh! This is it! Crunch, and lots of flavours in my mouth – earthy, sweet, salty, acid. I’m the guest. This is very pleasing. This is fun.
Dishes come one by one, full of tricks – a range of aperitif flavours that are turned into another macaroon-like object by liquid nitrogen. It is an entertainment, with dishes that make me laugh because they’re inventive and playful. No one told me it would be fun.
The waiters – as many of them as there are bottles of whisky – have a light touch. The women are engaging, witty. The banter is probably scripted, but they deliver it well, and they make eye contact, and they smile, and they know about the food. All the way through, hour after hour, they are faultless.
The meal is structured. A number of small dishes as appetisers, then a succession of larger dishes, and a flurry of desserts. The plates on which the food are served beautiful, each one different, each one a pleasure to look at and to touch.
Over the course of the meal, the thing I appreciate is the variety of techniques and temperatures (and approach) in cooking. Hot, cold, smooth, crunchy, recognisable, disguised, playful, adventurous.
Some I don’t like as much: the mustard ice-cream with the red cabbage gazpacho is a case in point. Impressive, because there’s a clear and lovely mustard flavour in the ice-cream, but the red cabbage flavour is disconcerting. These are usually flavours served warm, with game meat. That they can be re-configured in such a way makes me think suddenly of Samuel Johnson’s unpleasant assessment of women preachers: “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Though, to be fair, this is done very well. But I am surprised to find it done at all. Perhaps my surprise is the point of this dish, and even the whole meal.
Then there’s a dish where the re-configuration of flavours is just plain funny and clever and delicious: a trio of ‘lollies’ served on sticks. There’s a layered miniature icecream with rocket, a twist of avocado green around salmon, and a ‘gaytime’ icecream, miniaturised, with the filling a chicken liver parfait of exceptional flavour and smoothness.
The dish that follows is described in the menu (presented at the end in a wax-sealed envelope) as a homage to Alain Chapel. It’s an elaborate melange of flavours and presentation, including a box of moss that produces lots of woody smoke. Jelly of quail, marron cream, a caviar sorbet, and toast with heavy truffle flavours. This is our ‘walk in the forest’. It is all wonderful to eat, flavours playing together like a string quintet. Again, whatever else is going on, this is about the quality of the food.
Later, I wonder how it’s about Alain Chapel. I should have asked, but for me the answer comes in Chapel’s book: “Above all, the cook, if he has some awareness of his work, should do things so the diners themselves can experience their meal in a kind of sensual totality. The fragrances of the dishes, the lyric abstractions of the shapes on the place, the penetrating and inexhaustible flavours of the dishes…” Chapel was also aware of the pleasure of touch in a meal, whether it was simply picking up a slice of salami, or breaking a piece of bread.
The bread arrives after the walk in the forest. We’re told it’s made with a portion of burnt flour, and that the butter is made from the milk that comes from Schulz’s dairy in Timboon. Does the smokiness of the flour replicate the flavours of bread cooked in a wood-fired oven? Not something I like: burnt and smoky flavours always worry me during the Australian summer (I sniff for bushfires) – but the bread and butter are perfect together, and so deliciously simple they’re a commentary on the elaborateness of everything else.
We’re only half way through the meal at this point. We’ve moved on to a William Fevre 2012 premier cru Montmains Chablis – lovely brisk acidity, not too much fruit, fine structure.
Of the dishes that follow, my favourite (or one of them) is the snail porridge, served in an oval white lidded dish. Heaven knows how complicated it is to make (though the recipe is on line), but it tastes of parsley and tender snails and has a thick soupy texture that is enlivened by the shaved fennel on top. Wonderful.
Lots of play follows. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party presents soup in a glass teapot; the Sound of the Sea offers a range of seafood served in a glass-topped box containing – so we are told – sand from St Kilda beach. (What, no syringes?)
We’ve moved on a Yeringberg 2011 cabernet, decanted, of course, whose lightness of structure goes well with the salmon (poached in a licorice gel) with crushed coriander seeds on top, and the lamb – tiny fillet, and a little trio of offal on the side.
The parade of dishes that follow are less successful. Perhaps because I’ve been sitting and eating and drinking for some hours. Perhaps because dessert is rarely the highlight of a meal for me. But what follows is no longer quite so enjoyable: a glass of tea that is hot on one side and cold on the other, a plateful of ‘grapes’ representing the flavours found in a botrytised wine, and a play on an English breakfast. There is something in the flavour of one of the ‘grapes’ that I find really offensive (later it is suggested to me that it might have been the crushed fenugreek) and although I can admire the theatre of an egg being cracked and turned into saffron icecream (to resemble scrambled eggs), served on a round of French toast, at this point, I’m over it all.
I think longingly for a second of the ripe nectarines and William pears I have at home: to turn one of those into a sorbet with the liquid nitrogen gizmo! That would have freshened my palate beautifully.
What was funny now seems mannered. The jokes are wearing thin. It’s more about ‘the experience’ than the food now. It seems to me that when this whole deliciously extravagant meal is about the food, it’s great. But when the focus is on the tricks and games to produce the dishes, it is less successful.
We’re brought a card with whisky wine gums, little gels on a map of Scotland, to allow us to choose our own digestives without the effort of having to lift a glass to our lips. I pick Glenlivet. Oh dear, has there been a mistake? I’ve got a mouthful of smoky peaty flavours, like Laphroiag, which I don’t like at all.
To finish, we’re given a bag with a copy of the menu and assorted sweets (list included). Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop, that’s what the women in red say to us, smiling. I don’t share the joke, sorry. I’m not a kid, I don’t like sweet shops, and I feel – irrationally, and only for a second – that I am being infantilised.
But that can’t negate the pleasures of the afternoon – which has included the company of people I love, in whose conversation I always delight.
I’m the bear in the children’s story Bertie and the Bear, by Pamela Allen, which ends with the bear, having been pursued by a royal entourage playing musical instruments, turning around. “All this for me?” he says. And bows very low. Like the queen and the king, and the admiral and the general and the sergeant, everyone here has made the equivalent of a great noise. Everyone has done a huge amount to enable me to be pleased.
Am I glad I was there? Absolutely. Would I do it again? No. Not that meal. I’ve done it, I shall remember it. Fondly.