Executive Chef Alex Poltera of The Fern Hill Hotel & Snooty Fox Restaurant in the KZN Midlands spent 3 years saving to fulfill his culinary dream of visiting as many Michelin Star Restaurants as he could. 1 month, 31 restaurants and 19 Michelin Stars later he can say “Dream Realised”. Over a series of articles the young, motivated and passionate chef will share his food journey with us.
Self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal’s legendary restaurant is located in Britain’s top culinary destination: Bray-on-Thames. The Fat Duck was awarded its first Michelin in 1998, followed by a second star in 2001, and finally a third star in 2004. A year later The Fat Duck took the number one spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and was the second best restaurant in the world from 2006 to 2009. The restaurant currently takes the number 5 position in the World’s 50 list. Blumenthal and his restaurant have won numerous other awards which they proudly list on their website.
Upon arrival at The Fat Duck, the four of us were unsure as to whether we were at the correct place or not. This legend in the restaurant world, on a pedestal only the greatest chefs could aspire to, was merely an un-assuming door in a very small, very old house in the village of Bray, Berkshire. Only the emblem of the knife, fork, and spoon with duck detail gave it away.
Tentatively we pushed the door open to reveal a wonderland of old-meets-new. Perfectly starched white tablecloths, sumptuous leather chairs, beautiful protea table-top arrangements, low ceilings with original wooden beams, white walls, all set off with stunning abstract pieces of vibrant yellow and blue artworks.
We were greeted by the most professional and friendly staff I had yet to come across and were led to our table. With the cushiony mauve carpet underfoot, we were careful to duck for the low beams on the ceiling.
Once seated, there was a ceremonial arrival of a colossal, leather-bound compendium of the greatest and most tantalizing wines one could imagine. A portfolio of wines this large would have taken the best part of two days to study properly. So we summoned the sommelier, A gentleman with the ability to mind-read a customer’s wine preference. We ordered our wines, which had the flavour profile to last and pair well throughout our next fourteen courses.
The food menu was a simple piece of folded card on the table. The simplicity of the card was a perfect foil for the theatre of food-art and taste we were about to experience. Everyone took turns studying it, trying to make sense of some of the ‘odd’ narrative names. We were promptly given our first plate: a massive, beautiful blue china plate with a small deep burgundy sphere in the middle.
This was our amuse bouche – dehydrated and aerated sphere of beetroot with horseradish cream. It dissolved in the mouth leaving earthy flavours of beetroot complimented by the sweet, hot zing of horseradish. I could have happily sat in front of the TV and eaten them like chips. Absolutely delicious.
The first course was presented by a petite blonde lady in a smart black waistcoat who wheeled over a trolley to our table. On this trolley was a white vat of liquid nitrogen exuberantly over-flowing with clouds of ice-cold smoke. Alongside were three silver canisters and some perfectly ripe grapefruit, lime, and lemon.
We were told that this was our first course: ‘Nitro poached aperitifs’. We were offered the choice of either: Gin and Tonic, Vodka and Lime, or Tequila and Grapefruit. Once ordered we were entertained by a food performance: egg whites mixed with the alcohol of choice were poached in the liquid nitrogen, and then placed on a spoon where the citrus was sprayed through a flame to coat the alcoholic meringue. We placed it in our mouths carefully where, with the heat of our tongue, it vanished into thin air leaving the pungent flavour of the cocktail we had requested. This small, hard, white bubble set the scene for what was to come.
The next course arrived: a large-rimmed fine bone china bowl with a perfect quenelle of pommery grain mustard ice cream in it. A jug of red cabbage gazpacho was then emptied into the bowl, glistening with hues of deep amethyst and magenta.
Eagerly we began to taste this masterpiece; the intricacies and details of the flavours were entrancing. The intense cabbage flavour of the gazpacho was complimented and improved by the gentle but sharp flavours of the mustard ice cream.
The third course of our gastronomic theatre: jelly of quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, pea puree, oak moss and truffle toast. Placed in the centre of the table was a wooden box with green fluffy moss and four little film boxes. We were told to place the contents of the film box (a small rectangular film strip) on our tongues. It dissolved and left the flavour one could only describe as ‘the smell of a damp forest’. Water was then poured onto the moss which then began to smoke as the water hit the dry ice underneath. The smoke flowed onto the table and the strong oak moss aroma was incredible – as if we’d been transported to a magical forest.
These were served layered in a ceramic bowl. Each one of them was distinct in flavour and perfectly made. The jelly had wonderful concentrated quail flavours and a lovely light consistency.
The crayfish cream was light and creamy and the pea puree was sublime. When eaten together, they delivered a fantastic taste sensation. Alongside was a thin, crisp piece of truffle toast which had the perfect amount of black truffle on it providing a deep, earthy flavour. The dish challenged all the senses and was truly flawless with distinct unique flavours.
Next was the ‘Snail Porridge’, one of Heston’s classics and a Fat Duck institution. A delicate concoction of perfectly cooked snails, oats, parsley and garlic butter, Iberico Bellota Ham and shaved fennel. The dish had a homely feel to it and was a very relaxed composition in comparison to the previous few. It was served with the best sourdough rye bread I have ever experienced, and accompanied with rich Irish butter.
The fifth course was Roast Foie Gras, Barberry, Confit Kombu, and crab biscuit in a delicate presentation with contrasting colours and shapes. The foie gras was cooked to perfection and served with finely chopped chives on top. There was an interesting Asian fusion flavour when combined with the kombu and crab biscuit. The barberry was a tart contrast to the fattiness of the kombu and foie flavours. The crab biscuits were paper thin and packed with a delicious crisp crab flavour. An all round triumph.
Next we were given an invitation. Written on it was: “The March hare took his watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea…” On the reverse: an invite to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. A glass tea cup with a tea pot fitted on top arrived. Inside, you could see a cluster of interesting looking items. Our waiter came around the table with a box of audibly ticking gold pocket watches.
As he told the story of The Mad Hatter’s tea party he began to place the watches into our tea pots which contained hot water. The watches dissolved and became beautifully clear consommé with gold leaf. Mind-blown, we were then instructed to pour this consommé into our cup of goodies, which contained: pressed veal, pickled cucumber,
savoury pannacotta and baby mushrooms. This made up our “Mock Turtle Soup” as described on the menu. A three-tier stand with little toasted sandwiches was placed on the table completing our tea party. A lovely, warming, Theatrical course, perfectly executed with a masterful delivery of flavour combinations.
After a brief pause and some sour-dough to soak up the wine, We were given a conch shell with earphones extending from within.
Our next course, the “Sounds of the Sea”. featuring a glass platform with sea sand underneath bearing three different types of fish: Octopus, Mackerel and Yellowtail alongside pickled and fresh seaweed variants, samphire and a sea salt espuma arrived. The realistic looking sea sand was made with tapioca. Working together with the “sounds of the sea” the dish encompassed it’s flavours, textures and tastes to perfection.
The 8th course: ‘Salmon poached in a liquorice gel’ with Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe. The salmon was amazing; perfectly cooked with the mild aniseed gel covering it. The combined elements created interesting layers of flavour which targeted the different taste buds in one’s mouth. The grapefruit rubies under the fish contrasted to the sweet vanilla mayonnaise and outlined the luscious flavours of the salmon and artichoke. It was another very inspiring and striking plate of food.
Onto the “Anjou Pigeon” with Smoked onion and Malt, this dish was the last of our savoury courses. Flavoursome and rich the perfectly cooked pigeon was complimented by the malt flavour and tartness of the onion. Quite possibly the most tender piece of meat that I have ever eaten. Served alongside a small bowl of super-rich and velvety pomme puree and puffed spelt with seeds, the dish was nothing less than sublime.
We moved onto the ‘Hot & Iced Tea’ which was exactly what it says it is. One cup, two different temperatures of tea inside – fascinating and strange to drink but it had fantastic fruit notes and acted as a lovely, interesting pause to the robust flavours of the food.
The beginning of the sweets was heralded by the arrival of a bright and vibrant plate described on the menu as ‘Clove Caramelised Blackberries’ with Hojicha Tea Ice Cream. The dish was small and delicious and the presentation was fantastic: shortbread, fresh pistachios, glossy ruby blackberries, a white chocolate blanket with tartan print and some decorative flowers and meringues. The flavours were well balanced with the smoky clove complimenting the tart blackberry flavour. The Hojicha tea Ice-cream came in the form of a small sugar cone with blackberries at the bottom topped with delicious and intense ice cream.
Twelfth course: Bortrytis Cinerea. This dessert is based on the fungus found growing on noble late harvest grapes, and in particular is a deconstructed representation of the flavours of Chateau d’Yquem. Each ‘grape’ or sphere had a completely different
flavour and texture to the other resulting in every single bite of the dish being completely different.
One of the grapes was a blown sugar sphere with a delicious citrus cream emulsion filling. Another was a chewy peach flavour and some others were interesting sorbets. Accompanied by edible soil and popping candy along with Roquefort powder and d’Yquem soaked raisins, the flavours were a fantastic harmony between sweet and savoury. The skill and technique required for this was astonishing. Every mouthful, a taste sensation and I could not help but smile.
Next came a framed map with bottle shaped gums stuck onto it. This course was entitled ‘Whiskey Wine Gums’. There was a key showing the different whiskeys, these being: Glenlivet, Oban, Highland Park, Laphroaig, and Jack Daniels. Each had a very distinct and clear flavour delivering another fantastic, amusing and interactive course. The gums tasted like pure whiskey.
We were invited to see the incredibly small kitchen which as abuzz with activity and elbow-to-elbow chefs. On our return to our table, a pink and white striped paper bag was at our place. This was the final course entitled: ‘Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop’. A delicious selection of three Fat Duck sweets was in the bag: an aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly, the ‘Queen of Hearts’ (White chocolate playing card with tart filling) and an apple pie caramel with an edible wrapper. All were absolutely delicious in their own way and marked the end of the best theatre of food and taste I have ever experienced.
I can safely say that it was, without doubt an experience of a lifetime. From start to finish it exceeded all of my high expectations. It was food theatre coupled with military-precision but friendly service. The evening will forever sit at the top of my list of the best experiences of my life. Anybody with a love of food should most definitely have The Fat Duck on their bucket list.
The Fat Duck Limited, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ. Registered in England no. 03677212
Tel: +44 (0) 1628 580 333
Follow Alex and his journey on Twitter: Chef_Alex