The Fat Duck was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005 and, since then, has made the number two spot its permanent home, behind El Bulli.
I've heard many wonderful stories about the food at the "Duck", and have always wondered whether they would do a version of their menu that was suitable for a vegetarian. Well, I can happily tell you that they do, and it is an experience that, whether you enjoy it or not, you are unlikely to forget.
We arrived early enough to have a quick drink in the Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal's pub/restaurant, which is a few doors away from the Fat Duck restaurant. As our allotted time drew close, we wandered down to the restaurant and were shown to our table.
We then ordered a champagne to start the meal.
We had decided to do the tasting menu and I informed the maitre'd that I didn't eat meat or fish, to which she replied that wouldn't be a problem. The sommelier arrived shortly after and we told him that we would have the choice of wines matched to the dishes.
I'm going to concentrate on the vegetarian dishes that arrived, although I may mention in passing the dish on the main menu if I think it would be of interest.
Next, a plate arrived containing one square of red jelly and one square of orange jelly. This, we were told was Orange and Beetroot Jelly. "Try the orange one first," we were told. So we did. The orange jelly tasted of beetroot. The red tasted of orange. Very clever and a good amusing start to the meal.
Then we were back to the set menu with Mustard Ice Cream and Red Cabbage Gazpacho. Again, the combination of the flavours was superb. Tried separately however both did nothing for me. Once again, I am reminded that it is the combination of flavours that make up the overall experience and for me refusing a dish because I don't like one of the ingredients is something that I now try never to do.
And so it was time again for another piece of theatre. Two shells were brought to the table each with a pair of earphones coming from them. This was Sound of the Sea. Through the earphones we could hear the sounds of seagulls and the noise of waves crashing to shore. The dish that accompanied the aural experience was a culinary impression of the seaside with edible “sand” made, apparently, of tapioca, along with seaweed, various seafood (in my case it was mushroom slithers and bamboo shoots) and foam. The presentation was superb but most surprising was the reaction I had while I was eating it.
Initially the dish was quite interesting, but then I bit into a piece of what I think was some kind of seaweed. Suddenly my mouth was full of the flavour of the sea and I was transported back to the Leigh Cockle sheds where I used to go with my parents and grandparents when I was a young boy about 35 years or more ago. It was amazing, and a lump came to my throat as the memories came flooding back. I have never had a reaction like that to any food before – it was quite unexpected. Of all the wines that we had accompanying each dish, the Sake that we had with this one was the best match of the meal.
My next dish was Cauliflower Risotto, Carpaccio of Cauliflower and Cocoa Powder. This was the second time in a couple of weeks that I had had cauliflower with cocoa powder as Paul Gayler made a similar dish when I saw him at Café Spice Namaste. Needless to say, the risotto was lovely – the rice had a perfect al-dente texture and it had the perfect “gloopy” consistency that I love.
My next course was Vegetables with black truffle, celeriac foam and lemon and thyme veloute. The vegetables included baby turnips, chargrilled fennel, spring onions and mushrooms among others and they were wonderfully crispy and fresh. The foam and veloute complimented them perfectly. I love dishes like this that show how tasty fresh vegetables can be when cooked well.
Imagine a cup of tea where half of the tea in the cup is hot and the other half is cold. Now, imagine that when you drink it half you mouth is hot and the other half cold. Got that? Now, go to the Fat Duck and try the Hot and Iced Tea where your imagination is turned into reality. Amazing!
Next, it was time for a history lesson and a trip back to our childhood. We were handed a small parchment booklet telling the life story of Mrs Agnes B. Marshall. According to the booklet, Mrs Marshall was one of the greatest Victorian cooks and was the first person in England to write about the edible ice cream cone. We were then presented with a tiny ice cream cornet which was then followed by a miniature sherbet fountain.
It was now time for desserts and first up was Mango and Douglas Fir Puree and Blackcurrant Sorbet. It was beautifully presented and had a fabulous combination of flavours.
The other dish that is a Fat Duck staple is Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. My wife had this, preceded by Parsnip Cereal and Parsnip Milk which was delivered in a small "Fat Duck Cereals" box! She said at the time that it was nice, however now, due to the amount of wine we had, she cannot remember it!
I missed out on “Breakfast” and instead I had Blackforest Gateaux. This was the dish that Heston did on his TV show In Search of Perfection. Needless to say it was pretty much perfect. It looked good and tasted wonderful. The whole thing was really light and the chocolate layer in the centre was marvellously crunchy.
And so with the delivery of some coffee and petit fours which included Carrot and Orange Lolly and Apple Pie Caramel in an edible wrapper our Fat Duck experience came to an end. It was pretty much unlike any other meal I've ever had. Sure, it's gimmicky, but that I think, is the point. It's about seeing what you can do with food, turning conventions on their heads but most of all about presented beautifully tasting food.
The service was friendly and timely and was never "snooty", which is a criticism I've seen in other reviews. In fact, there doesn't appear to be a dress code at the Fat Duck as there were people in the restaurant in jeans.
If you're vegetarian, there doesn't seem to be any compromise on quality or taste, and I was never made to feel that I was having a second class menu; it was just a fabulous afternoon.