Could it possibly justify the hype? God knows, but the world has been on tenterhooks for long enough about the shape and size and, above all, the food of the latest restaurant excursion of Heston Blumenthal, not so much the wunderkind of British restaurateuring as its Grand Old Man. It’s true that he has a couple of pub ventures within lurching distance of The Fat Duck, but Dinner by Heston Blumenthal represents the first serious development away from home territory. It is about as far removed from that beacon restaurant as it is possible to be. Yet in its way, it’s just as remarkable as the Fat Duck, and in some senses more so.
Dinner occupies a large chunk of the ground floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Hyde Park. There’s a good deal of wood about, and it’s all dark brown, the colour of dark chocolate, and that includes the floor, wall panelling, tables, chairs and what appear to be vast wagon wheels hanging from the ceiling that carry lights looking like stubby candles. So far, so oddly and familiarly hotel-like. Drama is provided in one direction by huge windows looking out on to Hyde Park, an agreeably bosky panorama through which horse guards occasionally trot. In the other you look into the kitchen where the 20 or so chefs dance around in a steamy choreography, led by Ashley Palmer-Watts, Blumenthal’s long time culinary co-conspirator.
And what food would that be? Well, if you take the menu at first impressions, you would think it a tour around this country’s culinary past. Each dish is dated approximate to its origins. So there’s Meat Fruit (c1500), Savoury Porridge (c1660), Spiced Pigeon (c1780), Cod in Cider (c1940) and Taffety Tart (1830). But these are not slavish, painstaking recreations of past glories. Indeed, I suspect the originals could be visually, and quite possibly gastronomically, unacceptable to modern tastes. Using contemporary techniques and technology, each of the originals has been reimagined and re-engineered for the 21st century. The result is nothing short of astonishing.
Over two sittings, I’ve tasted virtually all 25 dishes on the menu with which the restaurant opened. It says a great deal for the careful preparation by Palmer-Watts and his team, that even under those intense circumstances there were so many startling dishes, and some outstanding ones, lurking behind the almost disconcertingly terse menu labels.
Take Meat Fruit, the very first dish that Thoroughgood, my comrade-in-forks, and I tucked into. What you’re served looks to all intents and purposes to be a supermarket-perfect tangerine, complete with brilliant green stalk and leaves, resting on a wooden board with a few shards of grilled bread to keep it company. You break the tangerine skin – actually, mandarin jelly of great refinement – easily with your knife, and beneath it is the perfect chicken liver mousse, subtle, supple, rich in the way that millionaires used to be rich, with elegant and understated good taste. Or try Broth of Lamb (c1730), in which a consommé of extraordinary, perfumed intensity is artfully modified when you break the yolk of a slow-cooked chicken egg sitting in the middle, and by crisp nuggets of lamb’s sweetbreads and by lightly acidulated celery, radish and turnip dotted about. There’s even a very gently smoky drift from some source.
Anyone familiar with the Fat Duck approach to taste and flavour will recognise some of the tropes that run through this menu – sharp contrasts used to define flavours; tiny sources of acidity to balance the intensity of sauces or broths. To these have been added other elements that would once have been staple fare of British cooking, but which we have since lost: sweet-and-sour combinations, for instance in various “ketchups” and in the sauce with girolles and cockscombs that goes with Turkey Pudding (c1730); and bitterness, as in the astoundingly delicious Spiced Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes (c1780), Roast Turbot with Cockle Ketchup and Leaf Chicory (c1839) and Roast Scallops with Cucumber Ketchup and Borage (c1820).
To make these elements balance and/or work in harmony with each other, to make gastronomic sense of them, takes cooking of high intelligence and huge sophistication. There are very few dishes that you wouldn’t be delighted and astonished to find on any menu. Indeed, from time to time I had to remind myself that these were British dishes. Yes, British. Dinner reclaims and reinvents our own cooking heritage.
In some ways, Dinner is even more radical that the Fat Duck. At the Fat Duck, the formidable skills and command of cooking technologies are used to create original dishes. At times you are gobsmacked by the sheer virtuosity of what you’re eating (or smelling, sensing or experiencing). At Dinner, the skills and technologies are simply put at the service of the food, reinvigorating the tired and ordinary orthodoxies of traditional British cooking. There’s the shock of the vaguely familiar made new and fresh. It’s if what had previously been soft-focus and just a bit blurred has suddenly been brought into sharp focus and given vitality. Even the vegetarian main course, Braised Celery with Parmesan, Pickled Walnuts, Apple and Onion (c1730) is richly satisfying and original in a way that few veggie options ever are.
I wasn’t sure that I could manage pudding after the preceding eight dishes. However, a plate of Poached Rhubarb with Rosehips and Rhubarb Sorbet (c1590) calmed the inner turmoil with cool, brilliant clarity. Then I was ready for the Sussex Pond Pudding (c1620), not Jane Grigson’s famous version, but smaller and sexier. The enveloping pastry had been made with lard and baked, which gave it a crisp, almost biscuity texture. The pond part was as seductively oozy and suffused with lemon and sweet as it should be, and there was Jersey cream, too. Could a chap ask for more? Well, he did, he asked for Tipsy Cake with spit-roast pineapple (c1810), which was a wonder, yeasty, fluffy, lightly chewy, hot buns with roasted pineapple to cut their sweetness, a once and future classic.
Don’t get me wrong. Dinner wasn’t without it’s flaws. The balance of elements in some dishes wasn’t quite right. The flavour of the beef in the Sirloin of Black Angus with Mushroom Ketchup, Red Wine Juice and Triple-cooked chips (DATE???) needed to be more punchy if it was to have a chance of standing up to the weight of the saucing. And the Turkey Pudding put me in mind of Dr Johnson’s remark about dogs walking on their hind legs – the wonder is not that they do it well, but that they do it at all. The lighting needs adjustment, too. The room is pleasant enough by day, and has rather more drama at night, but it would never be a destination dining room were it not for the food. And I’m not sure what they can do about the floor, which scuffs very easily, and shows those scuffs, because it is so dark.
And then there’s the question of price. There’s no getting away from it: Dinner is not cheap. The cheapest first course is £12.50 and the most expensive £16; main courses range from £20 for the braised celery to £75 for a wing rib for two; puddings, which run from £8 to £10, look bargains by comparison. So it’s impossible to get away for under £42 a head at the very least. Given the level of surprise, delight and originality in virtually every mouthful, it seems a price eminently worth paying.