This week it just felt wrong to write about anything other than the most amazing dining experience I’ve ever had. I’m talking about The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, Berkshire. It’s something that has been on mine and my husband’s bucket list for a while and finally in November my husband managed to get us and 4 friends booked in.
At the time 4 months seemed like an age away but last week the wait was finally over. We had booked into a nearby hotel, The Oakley Court, which is a historic country house dating back to 1859 and overlooking the Thames. The hotel has been extended and you can stay in either the newer parts of the hotel or you can book a room in the original booking. My husband booked us a room in the original building (because I’m a total geek when it comes to old buildings, churches, castles etc) and it did not disappoint. The room was huge with lots of original features such as the beautiful bay windows that looked out onto the carefully landscaped and well maintained gardens as well looking out onto the Thames. The decor was quite old fashioned but in keeping with the style of the hotel and tastefully done. It was a great start to our day/night away.
So moving on to the main event……..The Fat Duck was just a 5 minute taxi ride away. The restaurant opens at 7 but we arrived slightly early (we were clearly eager!) and after a couple of obligatory photos outside we headed into the pub next door, The Hinds Head, which is also owned by Heston. In contrast the pub is just a typical village style pub, quite small but well kept and I’m assured the food is pretty good too and the waiting list for bookings is not quite as long! Anyway, the Diet Coke was nice (I was saving myself as didn’t want to peak too early – I’m a bit of a lightweight).
Going into The Fat Duck itself, it’s all very secretive. The building itself is fairly non-descript and other than a sign hanging outside you would never know that a magical experience is lurking inside. When you enter there is a small mirrored hall with a mirrored door at the end and they ensure the main door is closed behind you before you are let into the restaurant, I’m assuming so no passers by can have a nosy. This is echoed by the fact the blinds are drawn at the windows. I can’t say I was wowed by the interior of the restaurant, I’m not sure what I was expecting but what I found was a ‘pleasant’ setting, nicely decorated but nothing to blow you away. However, looking back this is no doubt fully intentional so all of your attention goes on the food itself.
The meal consisted of 16 courses and the theme is a nostalgic journey through Heston’s memory of a holiday from his childhood, filled with curiosity, discovery and adventure. You are presented with a map outlining the journey you are about to take and there is also a full description of each course in teeny tiny writing which you are given the option to look at through a magnifying glass that is left on each table. We chose not to spoil the surprise but instead had more fun pulling faces at each other through the magnifying glass…….as you do at the age of 34 in a three Michelin star restaurant.
The restaurant has literally thought of everything as the lighting above your table changes according to where you are in the journey and the seats you sit on reflect leather bucket seats like the kind Heston remembers travelling in on the car journeys of his childhood. Now I don’t want to go into great detail about the food itself as I really feel it would spoil the experience for any of you planning to go but needless to say each course was unique, amazing on your taste buds and a complete puzzle for your brain. As you would expect from Heston Blumenthal there are courses which look like one thing but taste like something completely different, such as the Waldorf salad rocket lolly and the pina colada eggs, which totally confuse the senses and send your brain into overdrive trying to work out how it’s done. Then there are courses such as ‘Damping through the boroughgroves’ where they bring additional ‘tricks’ to the table to accompany your food so you get a total feeling of being in the woods from not only taste but smell too. This assault on your senses continued through the whole meal and at one point when we were offered some soda bread we were all waiting for the surprise element and were left even more confused to find it really was just soda bread.
We opted for their carefully selected wine list they recommend to accompany the meal and the waitress presented us with approximately 7-9 different accompaniments (it’s hard to be that specific after about number 4) over the course of the evening, explaining a little bit about each wine, such as the age, region and why the wine had been chosen to accompany certain courses. You can choose to have this wine list per person but we had one per couple and it was definitely enough (but like I said, I’m a lightweight and we had already had a few afternoon drinks at the hotel so I didn’t fancy disgracing myself before at least course 12!). The cellar is actually located upstairs (near the toilets) and is behind very clever frosted glass that clears as you approach it (something called PIR my husband informs me) so you can see inside.
The journey comes to an end with bedtime and food that is meant to make you think of winding down for sleep. I have to say that one of my favourite things from this part of the meal was a fluffy fork that smelt just like baby talcum powder. And the grand finale………a miniature sweetshop that they bring to your table. The sweetshop opens up with the turn of a wheel on the side and inside reveals a top floor consisting of two rooms, a child’s bedroom and the inside of an old fashioned sweet shop. The level of detail inside the two tiny rooms is amazing and it is rumoured to have cost £150,000 to make. The rest of the inside structure is made up of lots of small boxes each containing sweets which are transferred to traditional style sweetie bags and presented to each diner at the end of the meal.
Now I have referred several times to ‘the meal’ but I don’t think that term really does it justice here at all. It is, in my opinion, a once in a lifetime dining experience. It is a very expensive dining experience but I think one that is well worth it. The level of thought and expertise that has gone into not just each and every course but the experience as a whole, the impeccable service from the waiters and waitresses who ensure every course is served to each person on your table simultaneously, the knowledge they share about each course (should you want to know some of the secrets about how each course is made) and every tiny detail in between I believe warrants the price tag. Now I have said it is a once in a lifetime experience and I’m sure some people, maybe some wealthier people perhaps, might disagree but I think for most of us you may only experience this once and I think you can be more than happy with that. To go a second time you may find some of the surprise elements and the wonder of it all isn’t quite the same. But then again, when Heston Blumenthal is involved I’d never count your chickens……or your fat ducks!