Many people wonder whether it is still possible to enjoy world-class cuisine at fine dining establishments when they have food allergies or intolerances, in particular whether they will end up having the same experience as everyone else, or simply end up feeling short-changed.
This is especially true when you decide to book somewhere that only serves a tasting menu, and a molecular one at that – as I did last week when I had the good fortune to eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray.
The Fat Duck, Bray
As someone who is both gluten and dairy intolerant working in the restaurant industry I love dining out, but am always wary of whether restaurants can accommodate my requirements while still delivering a fantastic experience. I was particularly keen to see what the Fat Duck would come up with, and how my menu would fare against my husband’s – who was having the “standard” menu.
Let me start out by saying they did not disappoint. As you would expect from a world-class establishment, they were well-prepared and knew exactly how to best ensure I still got “The Fat Duck experience”.
It’s amazing how the little things matter when you have a dietary requirement – in particular the simple acknowledgment that they are aware of your intolerance before you begin the meal. As soon as we were seated I was asked how bad my intolerance was, for example could I have a little dairy like snails pre-cooked in butter and soy sauce with a little wheat in. Based on this discussion I was told that 12 of the 14 courses served would only require minor modifications to accommodate me. I had to choose either meat or fish as a substitute for the pigeon course, and they had made an alternative to the “BFG” dessert especially for me. Good start!
The planned menu that day was:
1. Nitro poached Aperitif
2. Red Cabbage Gazpacho with pommery grain mustard ice-cream
3. Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
4. Snail porridge Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel
5. Roast Foie Gras Barberry, Braised Konbu and Crab biscuit
6. Mock Turtle Soup (c.1850) “Mad Hatter Tea”
7. “Sound of the Sea”
8. Salmon poached in a liquorice Gel Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe
9. Anjou Pigeon blood pudding, risotto of spelt and Umbles
10. Hot and iced tea
11. Taffety tart (c.1660) caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon
12. The “BFG” Kirsch ice cream and the smell of theBlack Forest
13. Whisk(e)y wine gums
14. “Like a kid in a sweet shop”
After choosing our wines and foregoing the offer of champagne, we were presented with a beautiful amuse-bouche of beetroot with horseradish cream. From the photo you can’t spot the difference (mine is on the right), so they clearly did an amazing job in replacing the horseradish cream filling with a non-dairy option for me. Comparing notes with my husband, our textures seemed very similar - crispy and light (almost like a cheese puff), with a lovely hint of creamy horseradish flavour.
We were now ready for the start of our 14-course menu, which began with Nitro poached Aperitifs. This involved the waiter placing a plate with two bags containing different coloured powders, as well as a bottle of scent, on a wooden table next to us. The waiter then brought an ice bucket and three siphons to the table, and asked us to choose between Gin & Tonic, Vodka & Lime sour or Campari Soda. I chose the Gin & Tonic and my husband chose Vodka & Lime sour. With the selections made, the waiter poured liquid nitrogen into the ice bucket, used one of the soda siphons to pour a bite-sized portion of egg white mousse that had been flavoured with Gin or Vodka onto a spoon, and then dropped this into the liquid nitrogen to firm to a meringue like consistency. The Gin & Tonic was served after a twist of lemon was placed on top of the meringue and some of the scent from the bottle sprayed in front of me; while my husband’s Vodka & Lime was served after some of the green powder from one of the bags was shaken over his (images below). To ensure I got a proper experience they even served me a second one when the first didn’t set enough to enable me to pick it up without it cracking – which was a real bonus.
With our palates cleansed we were ready to move onto course 2, and so far I felt I was definitely getting the full experience……
The Gazpacho consisted of a pommery grain mustard ice cream quenelle placed on some finally chopped onion, with the red cabbage soup poured over in front of us. My ice cream had been made with soya instead of dairy, so if you look very closely you can spot the difference in the visibility of the mustard grain, but they look pretty much identical. The dish tasted light, creamy and delicious.
Course 3 brought more magic. We were presented with a bowl containing layers of pea purée, jelly of quail, crayfish cream and a quenelle of chicken liver parfait, alongside a truffle toast. Adjustments had been made for me by substituting the cream with a simply crayfish jelly, and a pyramid of peas instead of the parfait (image below), with the truffle toast made using gluten-free flour. The centre of the table was cleared for a wooden tray containing moss on top, together with two plastic film casings. We were asked to take the film out of the plastic case and place them on our tongues to melt - evoking the senses of a woodland forest. While we were doing this the waiter poured what looked like water, but must have been liquid nitrogen, from a cast iron kettle onto the moss, which started to smoke and bellow with the smell of a forest. At this point we were told to eat the truffle toast first to further develop the taste and smell of the dish, followed by the jelly. For me, this dish was the embodiment of the Heston experience – culinary excellence, unexpected experiences and childlike wonder.
The next course was a Heston classic, the Snail Porridge, served in bowls with little lids on them, which were opened with panache as the waiter shared with us the contents of their famous snail porridge. The dish consisted of a pea soup with what looked like bulgar wheat, together with slivers of Iberico Bellota ham; on top of which were ribbons of shaved fennel and the infamous snails. Unfortunately, as the snails are pre-cooked in butter they had to be left out of mine (on the right in the picture), which was a real shame as I love snails, but the dish was still deliciously creamy, intense and full of flavour, even without the bulgar wheat or snails.
At this point we were offered bread. My husband was given the choice between white or brown, served with a block of butter which had a lovely rich yellow colour to it. I was given a slice of gluten free brown toast, together with a deliciously fragrant bowl of olive oil for dipping.
Course 5 consisted of roast foie gras, served on a braised Japanese seaweed called konbu. The konbu must have been prepared with butter as it was missing from my plate, but apart from that you couldn’t really see the difference between the two (image below). The dish included a crab biscuit on top, which for me was a Cep gluten free option. We also had a deliciously sweet and sour barberry sauce as an accompaniment to the dish.
Before serving the next course we were given a bookmark each, which contained excerpts from Alice in Wonderland. Having read these, we were given a bowl each, containing a collection of strange shapes within. The main parcel was Ox Tongue, with the egg at the front made of Turnip and Swede juice. Mine was made using soya cream rather than dairy cream. We were also given a cup each – my husband’s containing boiling water and mine containing a brown stock. At this stage the waiter brought out a presentation box, containing what looked like a gold foil watch. We were told that the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland’s watch was broken and he thought it would be best to put it in hot water to fix, which involved my husband removing it from the box and soaking it in the cup of hot water.
At this stage the watch got even more “broken” and we were told to pour the liquid over the bowl to create our Mock Turtle Soup. In my case, as I didn’t get the “watch” given it included gluten, I simply poured my stock over my soup. The dish was tasty enough; personally I think what made it special was the theatre surrounding its presentation.
Course 7 marked the halfway point in our gastronomic feast, and to maintain the mystery surrounding the creatively named “Sounds of the Sea” we were initially presented with a seashell each, out of which a pair of earphones protruded. Unlike the previous courses, we were informed that we would only be told what the dish consisted of after we had eaten it. After the earphones were inserted, through which the sound of waves lapping against the shore and the odd ship’s foghorn could be heard, the food was presented (image below). The "sand" was crisp and salty, the fish was lovely and fresh; and the sounds of the sea really gave the whole course a feeling of the seaside. Once we had finished we were told that the sand was a mixture of tapioca and mackerel , served with tiny crunches of eel skin, individual slices of raw fish - yellowfin, salmon and mackerel, various types of seaweed and a spume of foam down the side made from essence of fish.
The 8th course consisted of Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, served with roasted artichokes hearts, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. This was almost a simple dish relative to the courses we had enjoyed so far, with the salmon still wonderfully pink in the centre perfectly balanced with the tanginess of the liquorice gel and the roe on top. The star of the course was without a doubt the vanilla mayonnaise – which was absolutely delicious.
Believe it or not, we were finally onto the main course! This was the first course which had to be completely substituted for me. My husband was served Anjou Pigeon with a blood pudding so dark it looked like melted dark chocolate (and was apparently delicious!), some small turnips and onions, as well as pigeon crackling. It was served with a risotto of spelt and umbles, which he pronounced to be the star of the course, creamy and flavourful, with the spelt giving the accompaniment a great texture and the umbles providing flavour - topped with Sugar puffs, which felt very Heston to us.
My dish consisted of roast belly pork with cabbage. I must be honest, although the meat was cooked to perfection and the cabbage was really tasty, this was probably the only course which felt slightly out of place, I think because it was something I would expect to eat at any other good restaurant, or possibly across the road at Heston’s Hinds Head pub – rather than at the Fat Duck. Having said that, I appreciated the effort and the fact they had gone out of their way to make allowances for my food intolerance.
So, two and a half hours after we started, we had reached the end of the mains courses, and were now ready to cleanse our palates before embarking on the dessert courses. This consisted of the very aptly named Hot & Iced Tea. We were told to make sure we didn’t change the angle at which it had been presented, which make perfect sense when we took a sip. The picture I’ve included can't begin to prepare you for the strangeness of a drink that is hot on one side and cold on the other, especially as even when you drink it it stays hot on one side and cold on the other. There was no glass divider separating them in the glass, the only visible difference we could spot was that the hot side looked slightly more viscous. Such a simple concept but it almost stole the show!
Palates cleansed, course 11 was brought out – the Taffety Tart. I have to mention at this stage that any dessert is a real treat for me, as I am used to having to forego this course given most restaurants are unable to cater for it – apart from the obvious bland solution of occasionally being offered a plate of fruit! So I was absolutely delighted to see they had succeeded in making me pretty much the same dessert, with a few minor modifications. The dessert consisted of a block of caramelised apple, fennel and rose cream with very crisp pastry for my husband, while on mine the pastry had been replaced with the thinnest, crispiest slivers of apple I had ever seen or tasted. It was served with a blackcurrant sorbet on the side, which was absolutely delicious.
With the lovely after-taste of the Taffety Tart still in my mouth, I was presented with yet another dessert! Although the menu said this would be “BFG” – which is what they served my husband with (on the left in the photo), they had gone to a lot of trouble to make me a completely different dessert. First, the BFG.
The cake had been made into a tower, with kirsch flavoured ice cream served alongside – apparently one of the best gateaus my husband says he’s ever had. My dessert looked like a thick dark chocolate mousse encased inside a hard chocolate cylinder (image below), however once I bit into it I realised it also had a gluten free chocolate base, which had been baked with Space Dust inside that popped in my mouth as it melted. All I can say is – what a wonderful surprise that made me grin like a Cheshire Cat!
We declined the offer of an extra course, which would have been a cheese plate (bit pointless for me really!), and move straight onto course 13 - the Whisk(e)y wine gums. These arrived mounted on the glass of a photo frame, with the locations of the origins of the various whiskies used in each individual wine gum helpfully highlighted on a map. We were told to eat them in number order, with each one become progressively stronger in flavour. I’m not a big whiskey fan, so the first one, which was also the weakest, was my favourite; but I enjoyed the way in which they had been presented and the experience of eating them nonetheless.
Course 14, “Like a kid in a sweet shop”, consisted of four different types of sweets presented in a very traditional looking sweetshop bag. Inside the bag was a card on which details of the sweets were printed: Aerated Chocolate, Coconut Baccy, Apple Pie Caramel and The Queen of Hearts. The Coconut Baccy (grated coconut infused with black cavendish tobacco, with a mild smoky coconut taste) and Aerated Chocolate (dark chocolate with an Aero-like texture, flavoured with a mandarin gel along the top) were fine for me to eat, but I had to forego the Apple Pie Caramel (a chewy, creamy sweet in an edible wrapper which tasted of apple pie) and Queen of Hearts (which looked like a playing card but when you bit into it was filled with a strawberry jam like filling surrounded by white chocolate (image below). Amazingly, even the "wax" seal on the envelope in which the Queen of Hearts was presented was edible, although the envelope wasn’t
So, 4 hours and 14 courses later we finally finished what I can only describe as the most incredible, experience-filled meal of my life. I can honestly say I have never felt as entertained, enthralled and happy to spend 4 hours in one place.
I don’t know whether I will ever eat at the Fat Duck again, primarily because I’m not sure I could ever experience the surprise element of the theatre and presentation that surrounds a meal there unless they completely change the menu. What I can say is this meal represented everything I could possibly have wished for – I felt completely included in the process, while also being treated in a very special way that accommodated my specific requirements.
The mark of any great restaurant is whether you reach the end of the meal, look back and ask yourself whether the money was worth it, and whether you would recommend it to someone else.
All I can say is: yes, go, and you won’t regret it.
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