Style over substance
Okay, so we’ve now been to the Fat Duck. Michelin by Bookatable (or the other way round) gives it three stars and it is an experience that is not possible to compare with anywhere else we’ve eaten. But after seventeen fairly generous courses, an equivalent number of technical and visual gimmicks, sometimes over-the-top presentation, partly compensated for by the superb wines and the very accommodating and generous approach of the front of house staff and a visit to the kitchen, where Edward Cooke was running everything with much precision, not to mention the expressions of delight issuing from surrounding tables, we found ourselves disappointingly ‘unwowed’ at the end of this four hour stint of theatricality. The journey concept is perhaps a good starting point for establishing a fine dining ‘itinerary’ but even just paying lip service to each diner’s memories is impossible given the range of age groups and backgrounds, especially with the variety of nationalities in the restaurant the evening we were there. So basically what is presented is presumably Heston Blumenthal’s imagining of what might have been experienced by as many of the diners as possible and his appliance of science in the kitchen. Our impression was that once the initial conceptual stage had been accomplished, minor adaptations could be made, but, rather like our judgement of Dinner by HB, this seemed to have resulted in almost a formulaic approach, both with the dishes and the repeated and audible spiel by the waiting staff, which produced what could be likened to a production-line effect, despite the attempt to surround it all with an almost fairy-story atmosphere, the latter not really working for us given the uniform drabness of the dining room, even though we realised that this was probably deliberate so as not to have any distractions from the presentation. The thing was that, apart from the ‘Table d’hôte menu’ served as part of one of the seven imaginings of eats at various times of the day, not much resembled “real food”, with the result that one ended up trying to identify the various elements involved in the composition of the tastes discovered in the items on the stick, on the plate, on the hovering pillow and so on at any one time and consequently being quite distracted from any of the memories we might have had of our childhood holidays. And where were the fish and chips? The myriads of elements making up the production are well documented, in the Good Food Guide inter alia, but it is still worth mentioning the memories we brought away - the tongue-tingling Campari and prosecco ice lolly, the whipped butter with the coffee-tasting jam, the variety pack containing flakes and crunchy bits giving a faint taste of a full English, the school lab experiment of simultaneously hot and cold coffee which reminded us of an instant brew, the “sound of the sea” dominated by screeching seagulls and one of the fishy components being kingfish from Japan, the brilliant crab and passion fruit “99”, the super strong crab (too strong for my wife) in the Rockpool with extra crab for me in place of cucumber, the multiplicity of tastes and textures in the “boroughgroves”, a puzzling mock mock turtle, then the dishes in the evening meal sequence with tasty cuttlefish cannelloni and scallop, coq au vin, the chicken for which was from the Loire to guarantee a full texture but with rather soggy skin, the alphonso mango dessert, the whisky bottle gums digestif which was lost on us non-whisky drinkers, the floating pillow, and finally the model Fat Duck premises with sweeties. So was it value for money? Let’s just say that if it’s theatre you want then Fat Duck can’t be beaten, but for less than the total we coughed up here we could have had three meals, one at each of three restaurants within 12 miles of Bray, each of which deserves a star, and we would have come away from each one vastly more content than we were on this evening.