For me, the anticipation of dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant (or even just a place with terrific buzz and a much loved menu) is sort of like waiting for Christmas morning when I was five years old. I search for the restaurant’s menu online delighting in what’s on offer, I read other reviews to get clues about what is particularly good or not, basically, I get myself frothing at the mouth with expectation. We are now back from our prolonged stay in Amman (I’m aware of the missing follow up blog from our time there and plan to post some more photos and snippets, but with the Eid holiday and family and some other extenuating circumstances, I didn’t get to focus on my blog while we were there). Lucky for us, we had a dinner reservation at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal that our friend Rachele had made, timed perfectly for our return, making the transition from sunny warm Jordan to cold dark England just a smidge easier.
The hotel bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (holding tank for dinners at the restaurant) was hopping this cold Friday night of bonfire weekend. Beautiful people and those who just think they are were draped on the bar and in the corners. Hostesses in awkward looking gunnysack style, floor length, oatmeal colored pinafores busily moved patrons around the room – perhaps the goal of their costumes was to not draw attention to themselves, but in doing so, I was even more distracted by their odd Amish-like blandness. We were promptly seated at a huge four-top – the banquette so uncomfortable that I asked for throw pillows that I spied across the room to help support my back (believe me, I never pull that kind of crap). It’s a smaller room than I thought it might be given the frenzy that chef Blumenthal’s first London restaurant was likely to spawn. Sadly, the glassed-in kitchen was only visible if I turned my attention away from my friends and it wasn’t ideally positioned to give diners a sense of the theatre going on as the dishes are created. I can say that the ratio of chefs to diners was very high, but what was going on was frustratingly just out of sight. The one nod to the whimsy that Blumenthal is known for, were a series of white transluscent jelly or cake moulds hanging on the walls as light sconces. They looked like jelly fish in an aquarium display. The rest of the room was your standard hotel restaurant chrome and dark wood.
For those of you not up on Chef Blumenthal and his bald head and signature heavy black rimmed nerdy glasses, he has been referred to by a recent promo for his latest TV programme as, “the best food magician of all time!” His almost impossible to get into restaurant the Fat Duck is about an hour from London situated in an unassuming 16th century cottage but stamped with three mighty Michelin stars. He’s a regular on various TV programmes, has written a whole library of cookbooks, and is the spokesman for posh supermarket chain Waitrose. He’s famous for using molecular gastronomy (I know, a dirty phrase for many of you) and unorthodox techniques to create delicious, wondrous food. I couldn’t wait to sample his single Michelin starred fare closer to home.
The menu at Dinner is off-putting and somewhat unpenetrable. Rice and Flesh (c.1390). Meat Fruit (c.1500). Salamugundy (c.1720). Sounds unappetizing, no? Blumenthal has gone through the history of cooking in Great Britain and recreated very traditional recipes using only ingredients from this island in a modern, fresh way. The sources for each recipe are not only dated, but also are attributed to the particular cookbook they came from and author. It’s an intriguing proposition and once you understand that you can forgive the brusque names.
To start, two of our group ordered possibly the most famous dish at this restaurant, the Meat Fruit. Essentially, it’s a chicken liver and fois gras parfait encased in a mandarin orange jelly and served alongside grilled bread. It is a stunning dish and playful as you’d expect from Chef. The resulting orange orb is fabulous to cut into and the parfait delightfully smooth and full of flavor. That said, I believe the ratio of parfait to mandarin jelly, the jelly is what really lifts the chicken liver taste with it’s acidity, wasn’t quite right. There’s a ton of parfait here, not quite enough bread, and it’s missing something – perhaps additional chunks of the mandarin jelly incorporated into the parfait or served cleverly alongside it? I don’t know, but after a few bites something more was needed to keep the stodginess of the livers from coating my tongue.
I ordered the Buttered Crab Loaf which was an airy, lightly toasted cube of buttery bread strewn with delicate crab, a cucumber gel, pickled lemons, caviar and samphire. It was absolutely delicious. My only fault would be that there wasn’t enough of it! I think it was the dish of the night. Also delicious was the Salamugundy. Individual plump little chicken oysters, with a broth of marrow bone, horseradish cream and crunchy salsify. I cringed imagining the chef who spends his days plucking these delicious chicken morsels from the all those birds. What a tedious endeavor but what a terrific result!
Roast Black Foot Collar of Pork doesn’t sound very appealing but I had to order it as I rarely can resist a ham hock. It sat on a bed of spelt and was surrounded by the tiniest baby turnips I’ve ever seen and bathed in a smoky sauce of pork stock, wholegrain mustard, and garlic. Oh, and there were a few almost transparent popcorn-like pork crackling bits scattered on top – YUM! After the meagre buttered crab starter I was surprised at the heft of this dish, but not thrilled with the texture of the pork. Also, the sauce that tasted so good in the first bite, quickly overwhelmed all of the other tastes on the plate, leaving no variety and therefore, little of interest. I didn’t finish it.
My darling husband ordered a short rib of beef slow cooked for 48 hours but served medium rare (a trick indeed). A smoked anchovy and shallot puree accompanied it with some glazed carrots. It was pretty good – but he did tell our friends that he thought I could duplicate the dish at home without much difficulty and that when paying £30+ for a dish, your kind of want something more. I agree….and yes, I could make it and with the army of chefs in that kitchen they should have been doing more.
Finally, we reached the end and I was intrigued by a cart I’d seen moving from one table to another while we’d been eating. Servers were preparing ice cream in a mixer with liquid nitrogen tableside. A neat trick with the smoke dramatically spilling from the sides of the mixer. However, the thought of ice cream on this chilly night wasn’t particularly appealing so we watched the theatre from afar and tucked into the Tipsy Cake which you have to do at the beginning of the meal because it takes so long to prepare. Baked three times until it’s completely saturated with brandy, sauternes and cream and served alongside spit roasted pineapple, amazing! My Taffety Tart was underwhelming with it’s granola like topping. It promised apples, rose, and fennel. I didn’t get the perfume of flavors I was hoping for. Rachele’s Brown Bread Ice Cream was divine with a salted butter caramel.
I couldn’t wait to get out of my uncomfortable banquette and digest all of the heavy tastes that had assaulted my palate throughout the night. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I’d hoped for or very well thought through (to my mind). I would have preferred the option of a tasting menu to try little morsels of all the goodies Chef Blumenthal is so famous for. Instead I had to choose and commit to dishes that underwhelmed me. Also, my husband kept going on about the fact that nothing was given to us in between courses. At the other great restaurants I’ve been to, the chef takes the opportunity to cleanse palates, show off, or just show a little good will to his customers by offering at least an amuse bouche. A board of cold sliced bread was put on our table at the start and as we got the bill, they came out with a shot glass of heavy, heavy chocolate pot infused with earl grey and a caraway seed biscuit. This didn’t seem the time for something so heavy – perhaps a delicate jelly or pretty cake or something whimsical and very Heston-like. It was like eating fudge with a spoon and not in a good way.
I’ll still happily go try the Fat Duck and give Chef Blumenthal another chance. I just wonder if in his London endeavor he’s not quite embracing the magic he’s known for. Or maybe this was a situation where my anticipation and expectations got the better of me. Perhaps I should temper the five year old living inside of me and not get caught up in all the hype. Still, a little more of Heston on the plate would have made this five year old in an adult’s body do her happy food chair dance.