Once upon a time, there was an old English pub gone three-star Michelin restaurant in a quaint village outside of London. Giant cutlery hanging above the front door signaled its presence. Just inside the entrance was a hologram fireplace, foreshadowing a culinary experience created from childhood memories and dreams …
This is the beginning of an extraordinary “bedtime story” at The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, U.K., by celebrated chef Heston Blumenthal. Drawing upon his favorite childhood holiday memories, he takes diners on a journey from the day before vacation to a full day by the sea and in the forest up until dream time.
“We’re doing things that other places can’t,” says Johnny Lake, executive head chef of The Fat Duck Group, including The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head restaurants in Bray. “Imagination is a huge part of it – where anything is possible – plus curiosity and playfulness.”
In fact, the whole experience is a fantasy. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland” and reliving childhood memories. A giant magnifying glass helps you read very fine print about food dishes on a fold-out menu with a map to show where you are on the imaginary island during your journey. A golden light ball above the table denotes the time of day and ambiance.
But first, there’s the optional wine selection. You are escorted to an upstairs “cellar” and as you walk past its frosted glass doors, motion detectors illuminate bottles inside. A sommelier leads you behind a fake bookcase into a room containing hundreds of exclusive wines.
Back downstairs, the first chapter of your culinary story begins the “night before vacation” with nitro poached cocktails (frozen egg white mousse infused with a citrus and alcohol poached in liquid nitrogen) that burst with different liquors inside your mouth. A “change of air” follows in the form of a beetroot and horseradish macaroon – light in weight but intense in flavor. Then “just the tonic you need” to start your vacation comes as a tonic of botanicals, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, smoked cumin custard and pickled vegetables.
Then you move to the coast, listening to the sound of the seaside via headphones connected to a conch shell as you consume “sand” (tapioca with miso oil), cured fish and sea plants. And of course, no visit to the beach is complete without popsicles – in this case, sweet and savory gourmet ones made of walnut, celery, apple and grape (Waldorf Salad) as well as tea-smoked salmon, avocado and horseradish. After the popsicles melt in your mouth, you stumble into a “rockpool” of smoked caviar, trout roe, crab and white chocolate. A hot mussel-infused sauce is splashed on top, melting the chocolate and delightfully ending your visit to the sea.
Next you head into a thick forest, which you see, smell and taste via truffle-laden “moss” and pickled beetroot bites, mushroom jelly, blackberry purée, Portobello mushroom and garlic powders and herbal mayo. A “picnic” follows with mock turtle soup created from a gold leaf “watch” (think Alice’s white rabbit) stuffed with a Madeira and sherry-enriched beef stock that dissolves in hot water. There’s a “turtle egg” in the center made of white turnip and yellow rutabaga, which is surrounded by diced ox tongue and pickled vegetables. The soup is served with a gourmet version of Queen Victoria’s toast sandwich, including bone marrow, anchovies, black truffles, cucumber and a sherry-based sauce.
A formal dinner follows – like Blumenthal used to experience with his parents – featuring a starter, main dish and dessert (choice of two for each course). It features starters like scallops with truffles, scallop roe and sea buckthorn or snail porridge; main dishes such as lamb with coffee, garlic and tomato or turbot fish with caviar and green pepper; and desserts based on seasonal fruit or botrytis sweet wine-inspired “grapes” representing all the flavors and aromas that you might find in such a wine. Dinner is capped off with a flight of whiskies in the form of gumdrops. You peel them off a map to see the region to which each whisky belongs!
All of this glorious food starts to make you sleepy. A little pillow is brought over, levitating a few inches above a cloud-like platter playing a lullaby. You look closer and find a tiny pillow made of malted meringue and milk ice cream on top of the real pillow. Eating it is love at first bite. Following are soft, white textures of coconut ice cream, frozen yogurt granules, sponge cake and frozen earl grey tea mousse – floating in pistachio purée with soothing lavender and coriander flavors on top that make you count sheep.
Then you see a miniature sweet shop machine with a replica of Blumenthal’s childhood bedroom. Tiny drawers full of various candies are activated when you place a token in the machine. Out spits a bag with a white chocolate Queen of Hearts playing card made with jam and pastry, aerated chocolate jaffa cake, apple pie caramel, beef-infused chocolate and your own childhood favorites based on an interview you had with your waiter weeks before “falling down the rabbit hole.” Are you dreaming?
After about four hours of this multisensorial, gastronomic fantasy, your stomach tells you it’s real. You sip on South American-imported, locally roasted coffee to wake up from your dreamy state. You emerge from the rabbit hole giddy, wondering why you ever had to grow up. And you realize that “once upon a time” at The Fat Duck was once upon a lifetime.
A shorter version of this story was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of ART + DESIGN magazine.