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Address: High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
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The Fat Duck is a brand synonymous with experimentation, liquid nitrogen, multi-sensory adventures and Heston Blumenthal. But while the cynics might presume his flagship restaurant to be little more than extravagant gimmicks and a pricey wine list, we found his three-starred tour de force to be a unique and exhilarating gastronomic experience.
Tiger rating: 4.5/5
Great for: business lunches, social lunches, group dining, special occasions
A bit of background
The experience at three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck begins a month before D-Day, when we receive a questionnaire asking, ‘What makes you feel like a kid in a sweet shop?’ and ‘What nostalgic memory transports you to the moment?’ This proves to be a sign of things to come, as the experience at Fat Duck is ALL about nostalgia, fond childhood memories and the transportation to a different time. Blumenthal’s concept is simple, but the execution is anything but, and while some have criticised him for taking his attention away from the food and towards gimmicks, I’d argue that all these elements – the toys, science and storytelling – are critical elements in waking our inner children.
Upon arrival, the menu (which lists some 17, 18, or 19 courses) is presented as a map. We are informed by the ‘storyteller’ (yes, that’s the official job title) that we are all travelling together on a summer holiday to the seaside. Each course represents a particular experience on the trip. We opted for the wine pairing, which ventured beyond the classic champagne, white and red to options such as orange wine and sake. For me, the wide range of alcohol was a little excessive. If I had my time again, I’d choose one nice bottle and stick to it.
The menu (or map) is made up of the following:
1. The day before we go: Are we nearly there?
2. Morning: Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time
3. Mid-morning: First one to see the sea
4. Afternoon: If you go down to the woods today
5. Evening: Are you ready for dinner
6. Bedtime: Of to the land of nod
7. And then to dream
At each of these stages, we enjoy between one and five courses – all of which are introduced by our storyteller. Intermittently, we are surprised by a nostalgic memento they’ve prepared (a result of the questionnaire we had filled out ahead of time). For example, I had mentioned that apple trees and pine cones reminded me of childhood memories; at one point a mini apple tree took centrestage, as pine-scented dry ice enveloped the table.
At breakfast time, we enjoy an eighties-style breakfast menu in the form of a ‘variety pack’ of cereal, ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’. As to be expected, nothing is what it seems. The cereal represents crunchy morsels of full English flavoured breakfast bites. The hot drinks are, in fact, half hot, half cold creations.
Our trip to the seaside is a thrill. We enjoy ice creams, chase crabs in rock pools and listen to the waves crashing on the shore. In literal terms, this translates to salmon, avocado and horseradish ‘twisters’, crab and passionfruit 99’s, crab velouté, and the famed ‘Sound of the Sea’. The latter actually involves plugging in earphones and listening to waves crashing. A favourite moment involved watching the waiter pour velouté over the crab ‘shell’ and seeing it dissolve as the storyteller explained that the naughty little crabs ran away.
The trip to the woods received mixed reviews among our party. Our first mushroom-based course wasn’t well received, however the hotly awaited mock turtle soup was every bit as delicious as we’d hoped, as was the toast sandwich.
So far, it’s been a fantastic day out, but our storyteller informs us we need to dress for our three-course dinner. We go on to enjoy the more ‘traditional’ dishes of the evening – and they are exemplary. It occurred to me that Heston might use this moment to smirk at those who accuse him of hiding behind gimmicks: there’s no doubt that he can do classic fine dining with the rest of them. The results are a perfect balance of texture, flavour and decadence.
At bedtime, the lights above our table dim and lullabies start to play. A sleepy-looking white dish arrives on a floating pillow (literally). While outstanding in its presentation, the dish was a bit milky for all our tastes.
To conclude, a dolls house-style sweet shop is trundled over to our table as the storyteller cranks the leaver, prompting various drawers to pop open and bestow us with the final quirky treats of the day.
The venue was refurbished in 2015 following a £2.7m renovation but, on first impression, the fruits of their investment are not obvious. The physical venue is, simply put, underwhelming. Perhaps the money went towards research and kitchen equipment instead?
The restaurant is easily accessed from London and is handily located near Heathrow Airport. One member of our lunch party even took a 15-minute cab to the airport directly from the restaurant. There is also an excellent selection of lodges and B&Bs nearby to which you can retreat afterwards.
Everything about the food, the menu and the experience was thrilling. Personally, I loved the attention to detail and the personalisation of the menu to our individual preferences. If I were to return, I’d make a couple of changes. Firstly, I’d go for a walk afterwards. Secondly, I’d steer away from the wine pairing. The combination of champagne, sake, white wine, red wine, orange wine and dessert wine was just a little excessive for the senses, when sitting alongside the sheer variety of the food.
PAs, if you’re planning a trip yourselves – or for your principal – it’s an unforgettable and unique experience. A tip: ask the restaurant to surprise them with a tour of the wine cellar before the food is served. It’s a treat.